Gibbs’ reflective cycle was developed by Dr. Graham Gibbs in 1988 – a research leader in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. Gibbs’ reflective cycle is a framework giving structure to the process of learning from experience through six stages: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusions, and action plan.
- Understanding Gibbs’ reflective cycle
- The six stages of Gibbs’ reflective cycle
- Gibbs’ reflective cycle example
- Key takeaways:
- Other Change Management Frameworks
Understanding Gibbs’ reflective cycle
In his work entitled Learning by Doing, A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods, Gibbs noted that it was “not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated and it is generalisations that allow new situations to be tackled effectively.”
Fundamentally, Gibbs’ reflective cycle supports experiential learning through a structured debriefing process. The nature of the framework as a cycle means it can be used for continuous improvement of repeated experiences, enabling the practitioner to learn and plan based on things that went well and others that did not. With that in mind, the cycle can also be used to reflect on singular, standalone experiences unlikely to be repeated.
The six stages of Gibbs’ reflective cycle
Each of the six stages of Gibbs’ model encourages the individual to reflect on their experiences through questions.
Following is a look at each stage and some of the questions that may result.
1 – Description
In the first stage, the individual has an opportunity to describe the situation in detail. It’s important to remain objective – feelings, thoughts, emotions, and inferences can be described later.
Some helpful questions include:
- What happened?
- Who was present?
- When and where did it happen?
- What were the actions of the people involved?
- What was the outcome?
2 – Feelings
Now is the time to explore feelings or thoughts associated with the event:
- What were you feeling before, during, and after the event?
- What do you believe other people were thinking or feeling?
- What do you think about the situation now that some time has passed?
3 – Evaluation
Evaluation means determining the positive and negative aspects of the event – regardless of whether you consider the event to be one or the other. Again, objectivity is key.
Some pointers include:
- What was good and bad about the experience?
- What did you contribute to the situation?
- Did your actions have a positive or negative impact? Repeat the question to consider the contributions of others.
4 – Analysis
During the analysis stage, you have a chance to understand what happened using theory and context. This step should comprise the bulk of your reflection and should take into account any insights gleaned from the previous steps.
- Why did things go well or go badly?
- How does your experience compare to academic literature, if applicable?
- Could you have responded differently?
- Are there theories or models that can help you understand what happened?
- Are there factors likely to have contributed to a better outcome?
5 – Conclusions
In the fifth stage, conclude what happened by summarising key findings and reflecting on changes that could improve future outcomes.
This step should be a natural and intuitive response to the previous steps. It may incorporate questions such as:
- What did the situation teach you? You can be rather general or more specific.
- How might the situation have been more positive for all concerned?
- What skills or competencies are required to handle the situation more effectively?
6 – Action plan
To get you in the right of mind, consider these questions:
- What would you do differently when faced with a similar situation? How would your new skills or knowledge be applied?
- How can you make sure you act differently when faced with a similar situation in the future?
- How and when will you develop the required skills?
Gibbs’ reflective cycle example
Imagine that you have recently been promoted to a regional management position for a supermarket chain. As part of your new role, you are required to oversee multiple store managers ensure sales in your region meet stated targets.
1 – Description
Now, imagine it is your first day on the job and you drive out to visit your first store. You have difficulty imposing yourself on the manager of the store, despite the fact he is a subordinate. The matter is exacerbated by the presence of a senior manager, your direct superior, who is spending the day with you to ensure a seamless transition and is watching your every move. Customers also look on as the discussion, which concerns a promotional display at the front of the store, becomes heated. The disagreement causes the store manager to walk away while you are expressing your point of view.
This is the description stage of Gibbs’ reflective cycle. Now, let’s take a look at the others.
2 – Feelings
As with most people who start in a new position, you were likely nervous, anxious, or uncertain about what would happen on your first day. You may also have been insecure about your authority and fearful that it may be challenged by a subordinate who was used to the previous, more lenient regional manager.
During the event, you felt a mixture of shame and embarrassment as the altercation was playing out in front of customers. You were also worried that your direct supervisor would start to second-guess his decision to promote you.
After the event, most of these emotions have dulled somewhat and you start to realize that the actions of the store manager do not necessarily reflect your ability to lead others.
3 – Evaluations
The good part of this experience was that you at least attempted to assert your authority about the promotional display. While it was received poorly by the store manager, he must understand that this will be the nature of our relationship moving forward. Furthermore, it must be remembered that many employees resistant to change react with negative emotions.
The bad part of this experience was the fact that the whole experience had to play out in public. Our customers are our number one priority and it would have been preferable for the discussion to be held in private. My failed attempt to move to the discussion elsewhere may have contributed to the situation.
4 – Analysis
On analysis, the situation occurred because a store manager who was accustomed to the status quo reacted badly to a change in management approach. The presence of the senior manager in the store may have also worsened the fear and distrust that often accompanies change. Multiple change management frameworks confirm this to be a common occurrence.
Nevertheless, maybe you could have responded differently by disarming the store manager in some way. You could have smiled more or let him take you on a tour of the store and left the heavy-handed managerial directives for another day.
5 – Conclusions
The situation taught you that building relationships with subordinates is as important as it is with friends, family, superiors, and colleagues. Some subordinates – particularly those with some degree of seniority themselves – will be reluctant to obey your commands point-blank.
The situation could have been handled better by easing into the transition. Perhaps you could have visited the store beforehand and held an informal lunch with the store manager so that the both of you could get to know each other.
6 – Action plan
Given that you have 16 stores under your supervision, you realize the importance of developing an action plan to avoid a potential repeat of the situation. As part of this plan, you undertake extra company training on management techniques and learn power phrases that can be used to disarm verbal aggression.
You also learn how to better read someone’s body language and build rapport with your store managers. This is seen as a more beneficial alternative than talking about business objectives right away and potentially alienating them forever.
If a situation does arise in the future, you know that these techniques and training will help you neutralize demonstrative behavior and avoid tensions escalating.
- Gibbs’ reflective cycle is a framework giving structure to the process of learning from experience. The framework was developed by Dr. Graham Gibbs in 1988.
- The cyclical nature of Gibbs’ reflective cycle is best suited to fostering continuous improvement of repeated experiences. However, it can also be used to reflect on standalone experiences.
- Gibbs’ reflective cycle is based on six stages: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan. Each stage encourages self-reflection through the posing of multiple questions.
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