August 10, 2017, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

How to turn experience into insight

This week Debra Fearnshaw of Postgraduate Placements Nottingham (PPN) explores the value of Reflective Thinking and highlights the upcoming launch of a new Nottingham Advantage Award module.

As a Placements Manager, much of my day to day work involves connecting postgraduate students with meaningful and relevant work experience. However I don’t see the role of the Postgraduate Placements Nottingham team as ending there. If a placement is going to be really worthwhile, a student needs to have the opportunity to digest and integrate any potential lessons and insights embedded in their experiences. As such we always encourage our placements alumni to engage in some form of post-placement reflective thinking exercise.

Reflective thinking can be done in both formal and informal ways but generally involves the careful consideration of pre-existing beliefs and knowledge as compared against new experiences. To give an actual example, when doing her reflective thinking exercise one of our placements alumni found to her surprise that, “I always thought that I preferred working alone but it was really great to be part of a team on the project. I can work in a team. Maybe I am a team player after all.” It’s not difficult to see the massive impact a change of perception such as this could have on a person’s life. The integration of a positive experience of team work means that the student can now consider a far greater range of career possibilities.

“Reflective thinking can be done in both formal and informal ways but generally involves the careful consideration of pre-existing beliefs and knowledge as compared against new experiences.”

Even though the power of reflective thinking has become more and more evident to me I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. It’s a skill in its own right that we have to continually hone and develop. But, when I have to communicate to students why I feel so passionate about the value of reflective thinking, I sum it up in two points:

1) Turn your experiences into insights while they are still fresh

Reflective thinking is important because if you don’t make time for it then the experience you’ve gained will end up getting lost in the mists of time. We all lead busy lives so it’s understandable to feel that stopping to reflect is a distraction, but when we are striving forward in our careers we will always be asked about our skills and experience, whether formally in interviews or in conversation in professional networks. That means it’s really important to build up a bank of ready-to-hand examples so that when opportunities arise they are there waiting to be used.

2) Identify your missteps and misconceptions so as not to repeat them

I like the Albert Einstein quote that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Without a spot of reflection every now and again, this can become a real risk. It’s important to learn from what we do and it’s pretty hard to do that if we don’t think about what went well, what could have been better and what we may do differently next time.

Reflective Thinking in Action

Recently I had the opportunity to do a reflective thinking exercise with a group of placement students who have been employed as Graduate Centre Coordinators for the past year. Some of their comments help to give a flavour of the benefits of reflective thinking.

“I’m hoping to undertake an academic career… and I think one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through this placement is the importance of familiarising myself with the structure of organisations [… and that] it is easier to collaborate and come up with ideas face-to-face [rather than remotely].”

“I wish I’d had a better understanding of the workload, but I appreciated how the role was flexible and you could chose your own timings and own initiative. So I guess I would ask more questions in future and be more aware of the trade-off between a clearly defined work-load and having more autonomy.”

“I really came to appreciate how challenging developing student engagement can be. Getting people to sign up for social events is hard. Students don’t want distractions so it’s hard to engage with them. People don’t even see posters when they’ve been up for weeks. But I’ve learned that personalised emails can work.”

“If I had a similar role in the future I’d do some things differently. I would definitely try to have better communication with my line manager and colleagues, keep better track of expenses and what other teams are doing.”

“I learned how important it is to be organised and that it’s an area for personal improvement. For example writing things down is important so you can check later on what you’ve agreed. I’ve learned that creating processes is useful and I can use this learning in future jobs. I now recognise that things can be forgotten.”

Explore reflective thinking more via our new online learning module

If you are interested in exploring reflective thinking some more then the Graduate School will be launching a new online learning module in October, as part of the Nottingham Advantage Award. The module will help people get the most out of their postgraduate placement and will be open to all students / researchers who are signed up to Postgraduate Placements Nottingham. As well as having a core section on developing reflective thinking, it will also help you secure a placement and gain the maximum learning from it. For more information about this please contact Debra:

If you’re interested in doing a postgraduate placement visit our webpage for more information, or check out current opportunities at the Placements Portal.

Posted in Placements