Distance Learners' Conceptions of Reflection in Higher Education

Alden, Bethany (2013). Distance Learners' Conceptions of Reflection in Higher Education. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000f07e


Frameworks for reflective learning have developed over the past 40 years as researchers and practitioners have sought to enhance the learning journey. Some of these models include reflection as a necessary stage in the process of transforming experience into knowledge. Other models intimate that reflective activity happens at higher stages of competency. Some adult learners may have encountered reflective activities and theories in their workplaces as part of personal development planning or on previous educational courses in meeting a particular learning outcome. But, how do tertiary distance learners, who often have varied employment and educational backgrounds, relate to the notion of reflection?

This thesis employed a phenomenographic approach to identify the ways in which distance learners at the UK’s Open University conceptualise reflection. The first phase of this research collected data through the use of an open-ended questionnaire to explore the different ways in which distance learners conceptualise reflection. A second phase involved three longitudinal case studies of level 1 undergraduate students. This study investigated the extent to which distance learners’ conceptions of reflection change during their university experience. A final study explored distance learners’ conceptions of reflection on a postgraduate professional development module. This third study attempted to determine whether distance learners with more experience of higher education hold different conceptions of reflection than distance learners with less university experience.

Findings from this thesis offer a set of seven qualitatively different conceptions of reflection held by tertiary distance learners. Owing to certain individual and institutional factors, distance learners’ conceptions of reflection often change during their higher education experience. While literature suggests that distance learners with more experience of higher education may hold more sophisticated conceptions of reflection, their ability to articulate these conceptions may be restricted because of tacit knowledge.

Conclusions from this thesis have pedagogical implications for distance learning providers in terms of how reflective learning components are embedded in the curriculum. Distance educators will benefit from a growing understanding of students’ conceptions of reflection in considering how facilitative strategies can promote learning and epistemological development through reflection. Finally, the findings of this study will contribute to the existing body of knowledge related to reflection and development in higher education.

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