The easiest way to start thinking about the Gibbs Reflective Cycle is remembering what happened to us as kids.
“Face the wall and think about what you did wrong!”
Undoubtedly, most of us have been scolded and sent to ‘face the wall’ by our parents since young.
But when facing the wall … what are we actually thinking about? Do people actually have a fixed way to think about things when they’re reflecting on their mistakes?
Strangely, the answer is yes, and the Gibbs Reflective Cycle is one of the best ways to do that.
The Gibbs Reflective Cycle
The Gibbs Reflective Cycle is rather well-known. Many of us have encountered some form of reflective practice in our personal and professional development. Besides Kolb’s Reflective Model, the Gibbs Reflective Cycle model is one that has received widespread attention in corporate and academic literature.
In fact, reflective practice is so important, it’s been incorporated in most fields, with many benefits that include reduction in errors, service improvement, and even career development.
However, while reflective practice is one of the many required skills by employers today, we noticed that many students are stuck when asked about the Gibbs Reflective Cycle. We see similar situations among nurses and other individuals who are continuing professional development.
We’re here to help.
This ultimate guide aims to answer the most commonly asked, and helpful questions about how to make sense of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle in several easy-to-understand steps.
- Why Reflective Practice?
- What is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle?
- Benefits of Using the Gibbs Reflective Cycle
- 1. Description
- 2. Feelings
- 3. Evaluation
- 4. Analysis
- 5. Conclusion
- 6. Action Plan
- Other Tips
- Ending Off
Why Reflective Practice?
Before we start, we’ll need to make something clear.
This is not a coaching session about how to think about things that occurred in our life, nor is it trying to get us to turn everything into a positive experience even when it’s not.
Instead, think about the Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a tool to help us when examining experiences. The whole point of reflection is to ensure our learning from past events, acknowledge our emotions, and use this knowledge to make better decisions for the future.
What is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle?
The Gibbs Reflective Cycle, created by Graham Gibbs in 1988, is a framework for self-reflection. It’s made to help us process events that happened, initiate learning to look at these events differently, and ultimately extract meaning and draw conclusions which turns these events, good or bad, into a more positive situation for learning.
In other words, it helps us see things differently, and as positive learning experiences for the future.
Here’s what the cycle looks like:
In short, Gibbs broke the reflective process down into six very simple steps: Description, Feelings, Evaluation, Analysis, Conclusion and the Action Plan. Each of these must be done in sequence to maximise learning for future events.
As long as you remember these six stages in order, writing your reflection will make a whole lot more sense.
Benefits of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle
As the title states, the Gibbs Reflective Model is a cycle – there is no end, and neither is there any true starting point.
This cycle, where the different stages lead to the next stage without end, allows room for a lot of reflection and continuous self-improvement. After all, self-identification of our own mistakes can prove to be one of the best teaching methods for our professional practice.
In addition, it makes your reflection easy to read, and it’s definitely in your best interests to make it readable for your instructor. After all, you can’t score what you don’t understand!
Now that we have the basics out of the way, we’ll go in-depth into each of Graham Gibbs’ six stages, including samples and examples to help you craft your own. If you’re not sure about academic writing in the first place, you can check out our easy 4-step guide to academic writing here.
What’s needed in this stage is a factual description of the event that led to you doing this reflection.
In other words, what happened?
When writing the description, it is often temping to include your emotions and personal grievances, especially if something bad occurred.
However, it’s in your best interest to not do that – you’ll have plenty of time to think of those negative feelings later. For now, simply provide further information – as much detail as possible – about what occurred and the circumstances surrounding the event.
Take a look at this description of an event that happened from a nurse’s perspective within the Intensive Care Ward:
During one of my night shifts, a baby was brought to the ICU. I immediately called my senior nurse (SN), who then called a doctor who rushed to work. He performed CPR on the baby, and soon the baby was alright and breathing again. She was then sent for treatment and she was okay.
Now, what’s wrong with this description?
The main issue is that there is not much description in the first place. It’s precisely what we avoid here when writing about the cycle at Inkmypapers as well.
Compare that with a description like this:
During a shift in an Intensive Care Ward, a six-month old female baby was urgently admitted into the ICU. Initial diagnosis was that she had an acute respiratory infection, breathing was not present, and she was unresponsive on the Glasgow Coma Scale. Her lips also indicated slight circumoral cyanosis. Upon seeing this, I quickly contacted my team members, and my senior nurse (SN) informed the doctor-in-charge. He quickly arrived and performed CPR on the baby, which eventually was a successful resuscitation. This was done while the rest of the team assisted with CPR and monitored the baby’s vital signs. In the end, the baby was successfully resuscitated and eventually discharged after her infection was treated over the course of the next few days.
Both descriptions describe the same situation, but which sounds better?
You would agree that the second sounds like it was written by someone who was really on the job.
Describe what occurred in a little but more detail. It helps other people understand the situation you’ve experienced, and it makes your reflection a tad more meaningful compared to any other person’s.
The Conclusion: Describe what happened in detail. Between two entries talking about the same thing, the more details, the higher the score.
Now that you’ve explained what transpired, it’s time to dive deeper.
It’s time to talk about how you feel about everything.
Now, this isn’t a pass to start ranting about a bad colleague, or go on a feels trip for something or someone you miss dearly. What you need to state here is your thought process – how did you make sense of the situation at that time?
There are several common ways of describing emotion: sadness, anger, happiness … we know the drill. Instead of using these, consider going a little deeper and writing about more specific emotions.
You could possibly describe a business meeting as ‘nerve-wracking’, or the delivery of a baby in the hospital ward as ‘panic-inducing’, or talk about a colleague being ‘irritating’.
The golden rule is: the more specific the feelings used, the better. We often ask our customers to compare how they felt with other situations, like winning the lottery or losing a loved one. That’ll help you in describing.
Now that you got the main idea, let’s examine some samples written by other people to see how we should describe our emotions in this section.
Jumping back to the earlier example on health care, compare this paragraph:
It was quite hectic when the baby was rushed in. I did not really know what to do, so I felt confused. Then, my senior nurse shout at us when the baby came in – it must have been because she was really angry. It was quite upsetting in the end that I did not really know what to do.
The main thing to ask yourself is: does this help me in doing any meaningful analysis?
If the answer is no, then perhaps you’d need to be a little bit more in-depth about what you felt during this stage.
Seeing the patient lose consciousness and receive CPR was honestly really frustrating and panic-inducing for me. Thank goodness the SN and the doctor were both there to assist, if not I would not be able to react on time and the patient would not have survived. This feeling of inability and panic soon turned to awe when I saw how the doctor fluently delegated tasks and somehow everyone knew what to do. The thing here is trust – which I believe most of us felt towards other people in the team. Communication was important and I was relieved that nothing happened to the baby thanks to our teamwork.
Reflect upon your feelings so you’re aware of how you will react in similar situations. To do this properly, be a little more detailed.
The Conclusion: Don’t be too brief. The more feelings, and the more specific those are, the better.
Now that you’ve gotten past the factual recollection, it’s time to put our thinking caps on when writing this section of the reflective cycle.
The general gist of this section of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle is to think about what worked, and what did not.
Again, this isn’t a chance to bash yourself up for your feelings, or to gripe about the general situation.
Objectively look at what went right, what went wrong, and how you contributed to the situation in both good and bad ways.
To do this properly, remember that you’ll need to make sure that you’re impartial to your own experiences. Be honest with yourself, it’s one of the best teaching and learning methods for self-improvement.
Now, let’s look at some examples:
Consider this evaluation of a brief encounter in the hospital:
I feel that what I did was wrong as I was an inexperienced nurse with not much experience under the nursing and midwifery council. However, it’s also the senior nurse’s fault as she was in charge and she did not give any concrete instructions. Moreover, the other nurses just stood by and did not do anything to help the situation. I felt pretty embarrassed and this contributed to failure.
What do you spot that’s wrong about this evaluation?
The paragraph above seems to hint at some form of grudge the writer has against the senior nurse and other nurses nearby. In addition, don’t mention any personal feelings. What you should be doing is, in fact, evaluating those emotions and their implications.
Revising the above, we have this:
Upon evaluating my emotions during the earlier conflict, I feel that my inexperience contributed to the failure in achieving our objectives. I think I lack exposure to guidelines under the nursing and midwifery council. This incident also underscores the need for team leaders to provide concrete instructions and adapt to changes, while delegating tasks for other members of the team.
Note how the above paragraph answers helpful questions about what went right, what went wrong and the reasons behind some of the failures.
Though not a complete paragraph, this sample underscores the need for an impartial recounting of both successes and failures.
The Conclusion: Focus on what was good, what was bad and the reasons behind them. Be impartial.
For this stage of the reflective cycle, this is where you start to delve deeper in to the reasons behind the event, what you felt, and how you can make things better.
This will then help you make better decisions, and perhaps act differently in future.
To answer this properly, you will also need to search support articles for concepts, approaches and similar experiences to further inform your judgments.
When receiving orders regarding this topic, we often suggest that our customers will need peer-reviewed journals as evidence. Be sure that the evidence is current and within five years old. Use evidence to back up anything you suggest, especially in the context of nursing practice.
You’ll also need to be persuasive to convince your reader about your solutions.
If you find yourself out of ideas of how to improve the situation, start by thinking and writing in short bursts of time. Slowly, as you make reflection a habit, it’ll be a lot easier to document and tackle your experiences.
Let’s look again at another nursing scenario:
Given this experience, several points can be further analysed to improve current processes. Firstly, given that the nurse in charge of patient X has altered the patient’s care management plan without the proper guidance of a doctor or with the patient’s consent, there are several ways to address this negligent behaviour. Craig et al. (2016) outlines several theories of behavioural management that can potentially inform future training and awareness of potential negligence incidents. Technology can also be used – such as automating reporting, hand- and takeover procedures to further reduce the chances of negligence and unawareness (Safro et al., 2016).
Was this analysis good? Did it hit all of the requirements?
In fact, it was one of the most succinct ones we could find from our database, we’re sure Graham Gibbs would be proud.
What’s the lesson here? Always refer to solid evidence – mostly from peer-reviewed journals – when writing your own Analysis stage. Remember, the focus here is on what can be done and the reasons behind successes and failures, so don’t get too carried away.
The Conclusion: Analyse the reasons behind what worked, and what did not, and always, always, back up your words with evidence.
Although this step is labelled the ‘conclusion’, we’re not there yet.
This stage summarises all the knowledge we have gathered, and Graham Gibbs’ Reflective Model’s cyclic nature lends itself to this not as a ‘conclusion’ for all events, but a consolidation on which to build an action plan on.
For this stage, focus on how this experience has changed you, how could everything have been made better for all involved, and the main lessons you’ve learnt from this episode.
The length of your conclusion varies depending on the incident you’re writing about.
Now that you know what to write for the conclusion stage, here’s a sample conclusion that checks all the boxes of what a good conclusion should sound like:
I learnt that in any group work, we must first work with a plan, and there must always be a leader who is centrally in charge of making the decisions. This should be the senior nurse, or in fact any nurse who is in the know of the situation. During downtimes, we must also strengthen existing protocols for negligence, and perhaps challenge existing work practices when they do not seem appropriate. I have also learnt the importance of not undermining my own confidence when facing a difficult situation like this.
Can you spot the salient points made by this conclusion?
It listed all the lessons learnt clearly, it stated some potential solutions, and also personal experience learnt.
In other words, it summarises the preceding five stages.
The Conclusion: Conclude and summarise the first few stages in a succinct manner.
The Final Step: Action plan
Now, Graham Gibbs didn’t develop this cycle just for us to think about what occurred.
We also need to come up with a concrete call to action for us to avoid these repeated experiences in future. In other words, an action plan in which we show how we intend to handle the situation differently in future.
A good action plan should thus have several important aspects.
Firstly, it sets SMART goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic and Timely. The following graphic shows a general templating of how this can be achieved:
Secondly, it states what you can do – not anyone else, but you. You’re the one applying the Gibbs Reflective Cycle, after all.
Thirdly, it does not introduce anything that hasn’t already been stated in the earlier sections.
Now, you’ll learn how to write an action plan that fits within the Gibbs Reflective Cycle model.
Sample Action Plan
The action plan normally takes the form of just one paragraph.
Observe how the SMART goals are written very clearly here:
Within the next six months, I intend to attend a course on nursing negligence with a registered office or with Oxford Brookes University to further understand how to detect and prevent nursing mismanagement. In addition, I intend to first consciously orientate myself to the team dynamics during ward or company registration in any organisation in future so I am in a better position to react to changes should I need to. I will also constantly expose myself to other services and wards that the hospital provides so I get a comprehensive idea of my work environment within the next year.
The Conclusion: Stick to SMART goals, and ensure that they feed back to improving your reaction to similar events the next time.
Other Tips for Writing the Gibbs Reflective Cycle
Now that you’ve gotten the hang of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle, there are several things that you might want to note.
Writing Length may differ
Firstly, always follow your school or organisation’s format and expected length. Some iterations of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle might be long, some might be one line, and some might even be written in point form. Always check before you start.
Potential questions that you can answer directly, if you’re required to write very concisely, can be found here.
Write in First-Person
Secondly, avoid writing in third person. You’re writing a reflection of your experience, after all.
Remember this is still an academic work. You’ll need to write academically.
To End Off
The Gibbs Reflective Cycle is a common aspect of any further education unit. This is usually regarding nursing practice or any other practice-heavy discipline.
Now, you have gotten a deeper understanding of how to make your work more easily readable and meaningful.
Do you have any other tips on how to score well for a Gibbs Reflective Cycle assignment? If you do, feel free to leave a comment below so everyone gets to learn!
For a concise explanation of the cycle, we recommend this by the University of Edinburgh for more information.