Instructional Science

, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 171–188 | Cite as

A comparison of students’ reflective thinking across different years in a problem-based learning environment

  • Lisa-Angelique Yuen Lie LimEmail author


Problem-based learning (PBL) is a constructivist approach to learning which is believed to promote reflective thinking in students. This study investigated how students in one particular institution developed in their reflective thinking habits—Habitual Action, Understanding, Reflection, and Critical Reflection—as they went through the daily practice of PBL. A 16-item questionnaire measuring the four levels of reflective thinking habits was administered to four cohorts of students: an incoming cohort, first-years, second-years, and third-years. First-year students rated themselves higher on Reflection and Critical Reflection, while third-years reported the highest levels of Habitual Action. Discriminatory and scatterplot analysis on the third year cohort revealed that while a proportion of students (47%) reported higher levels of Habitual Action with lower levels of Reflection, there was a small subgroup who also reported higher levels of both Habitual Action and Reflection. Overall, the results showed that PBL does promote the development of reflective thinking, particularly for first-year students, but that this development is not sustained consistently after that. This pointed to other possible factors that could hinder students’ development of reflective thinking in PBL.


Reflection Critical reflection Transformative learning Problem-based learning Higher education Reflection questionnaire 



The author wishes to thank Kevin S. Carlson, Glen O’Grady, and Jerome Rotgans, as well as the three anonymous reviewers, for their helpful suggestions and comments in preparing this article for submission.


  1. Boud, D., & Walker, D. (1998). Promoting reflection in professional courses: The challenge of context. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 191–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Fisher, K. (2003). Demystifying critical reflection: Defining criteria for assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 22(3), 313–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Fogarty, R. (1994). The mindful school: How to teach for metacognitive reflection. Palatine, IL: Skylight Publishing.Google Scholar
  4. Harrison, M., Short, C., & Roberts, C. (2003). Reflecting on reflective learning: The case of geography, earth and environmental sciences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 27(2), 133.Google Scholar
  5. Hatton, N., & Smith, D. (1995). Reflection in teacher education: Towards definition and implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(1), 33–49.Google Scholar
  6. Kember, D. (1999). Determining the level of reflective thinking from students’ written journals using a coding scheme based on the work of Mezirow. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(1), 18–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Kember, D., Jones, A., Loke, J., McKay, K., Sinclair, H., Tse, C., et al. (2000). Development of a questionnaire to measure the level of reflective thinking. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 25(4), 381–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Kitchener, K. S., & King, P. M. (1990). The reflective judgment model: Transforming assumptions about knowing. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Ed.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning (pp. 159–176). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  9. Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Engle-wood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  10. Leung, D. Y. P., & Kember, D. (2003). The relationship between approaches to learning and reflection upon practice. Educational Psychology, 23(1), 61–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 74, 5–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Norman, G. R., & Schmidt, H. G. (1992). The psychological basis of problem-based learning: A review of the evidence. Academic Medicine, 67(9), 557–565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. O’Grady, G., & Alwis, W. A. M. (2002). One day, one problem: PBL at the Republic Polytechnic. Paper presented at the 4th Asia Pacific Conference in PBL, Thailand, December 2002.Google Scholar
  14. Peltier, J. W., Hay, A., & Drago, W. (2005). The reflective learning continuum: Reflecting on reflection. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(3), 250–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Phan, H. P. (2008). Predicting change in epistemological beliefs, reflective thinking, and learning styles: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 75–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842–866.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Rogers, R. R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26(1), 37–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31–38.Google Scholar
  19. Song, H. D., Grabowski, B. L., Koszalka, T. A., & Harkness, W. L. (2006). Patterns of instructional-design factors prompting reflective thinking in middle-school and college level problem-based learning environments. Instructional Science, 34(1), 63–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Steiger, J. H. (1980). Tests for comparing elements of a correlation matrix. Psychological Bulletin, 87, 245–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Stein, D. (2000). Teaching critical reflection. Eric Clearinghouse on adult, career, and vocational education, myths and realities (No. 7). ERIC document number ED445256.Google Scholar
  22. Thorpe, K. (2004). Reflective learning journals: From concept to practice. Reflective Practice, 5(3), 327–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Williams, B. (2001). Developing critical reflection for professional practice through problem-based learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 34(1), 27–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Yeo, R. K. (2005). Problem-based learning in tertiary education: Teaching old dogs new tricks? Education and Training, 47(7), 506–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Educational DevelopmentRepublic PolytechnicSingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations