Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle: Feel the Benefit of Experiential Learning

Learning by Doing – The Gibbs Reflective Cycle

The Gibbs Reflective Cycle first became recognised in 1988 when Graham Gibbs published his book ‘Learning by Doing.’ Professor Gibbs’ innovative system reinforces learnings from training and experience (experiential learning) through a cyclical sequence of reflective activities. Since then, Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle has become a seminal text for healthcare professionals, staff developers, and higher education teachers. And it’s popular in business, too. 

In this article, we consider how Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle can help companies and individuals get more from training. Additionally, we detail how to do a Gibbs reflection. From there we compare Gibbs with other respected reflection models. There’s Atkins & Murphy, focused on emotions, helpful in training staff to support colleagues’ wellbeing. Also, Kolb reinforces training through experiential learning, though some critics find Gibbs more analytical.

We explore various resources, including the free online edition of Gibbs’ ‘Learning by Doing.’ To help you get started using reflection methods, we also have the snappily titled 5 Rs of Reflection and Edinburgh Uni’s Reflection Toolkit. So, take a ride on Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and see where you fetch up. You might even increase your employability!

ATTENTION: Reading The Gibbs Reflective Cycle Could Inspire Serious Thinking

How Do We Use Gibbs Reflective Cycle?

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle is a self-reflection and management tool that helps people think clearly and systematically about learning experiences. It encourages them to make sense of situations and work out how to do better next time.

Who is Graham Gibbs?

Graham Gibbs has had a distinguished career in the field of learning development. His book ‘Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods’ remains the definitive manual on reflective learning.

What is Reflective Learning?

Reflective learning involves the learner stepping back from their learning experiences and applying critical thinking skills to reach conclusions. It’s an intentional process. Success requires commitment.

How Does Reflection Help?

Reflection allows people to make sense of an experience in relation to themselves and others, and the background circumstances. The process enables them to reimagine the experience, for future personal or business benefit.

Woman sat at desk reflecting about Gibbs reflective cycle

What are Reflective Models?

A reflective model is a structured process used to guide personal and situational analysis and improvement. Reflection emphasises awareness of our knowledge, past experience, and beliefs.

Why Do We Need Reflective Methods?

Reflecting on a learning experience helps improve our performance while it’s happening. It also helps us do better in the future. But without this reflection, it’s hard to improve. And if you don’t reflect on the experience, chances are you’ll forget and lose the possible learnings.

Gibbs Reflective Cycle in Detail

What is Reflective Cycle?

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle leads the individual through six stages of exploring an experience. These stages are:

  1. Description
  2. Feelings
  3. Evaluation
  4. Analysis
  5. Conclusions
  6. Action plan

6 part cycle titled Gibbs Reflective Cycle
Reflective methods like this follow a set process and use the resulting thoughts and feelings to create generalisations. These learnings then enable you to tackle new situations.

How Does Gibbs Reflective Cycle Work?

Gibbs’ reflective method systematises reflections and isolates feelings. Further, the different stages create a structure that helps slow the thought processes, so people reach considered conclusions.

Gibbs created his model as “structured debriefing” to support the process of experiential learning. He designed it as a continuous cycle of improvement for a repeated experience. But it can also be used to reflect on standalone instances.

One thing Gibbs did differently from other reflection systems was to acknowledge the importance of feelings in reflection. He also put greater emphasis on evaluation: deciding what went well in the experience and what didn’t.

What Happens When You Write a Reflection?

You explore the experience in six stages, in sequence:

Rose gold helium balloon in the number six

#1 Description

Set the scene:

  • What happened?
  • When it took place
  • Who was present?
  • What they did
  • The outcome

#2 Feelings

Review your thoughts about the experience:

  • How did I feel at the time?
  • What did I think?
  • How did my emotions, beliefs and values affect my feeling?
  • What do I think other people were feeling?
  • How did I feel about the experience afterwards?

#3 Evaluation

How did it go? Focus on both the positive and negative, even if it was mainly one or the other.

  • What was good and what was bad about the experience?
  • Which bits went well? What didn’t?
  • Were my contributions positive or negative?
  • If it was difficult for me, did I feel the situation was resolved afterwards, so I benefited?

#4 Analysis

This involves making sense of what happened and developing understanding:

  • Why did things go well, or badly?
  • Could I have acted differently?
  • What might have helped or improved things?

#5 Conclusion

Gibbs cycle proposed two possible conclusions from the Cycle: a personal one for the learner and a general one for the organisation doing the training:

  • What have I/we learnt?
  • From there, what can I /we do better now?
  • Could/should I/we have done anything differently?
  • What skills do I/we need to handle this better in future?

#6 Action Plan

This summarises everything you need to know and do to remember the learning, and improve for next time:

  • Where/how can I use my new knowledge and experience?
  • How will I adapt my actions and improve my skills?
  • If the same thing happens again, what will I do differently?

GO COMPARE! Reflections on Reflection Models 

Graham Gibbs isn’t the only person to come up with a reflection model. Let’s compare his Cycle with some other models.

Boud’s Triangular Model


This involves three elements:

  • Learning
  • Reflection
  • Experience

Boud’s core notion is that reflection leads to better learning. It contains the same elements as Gibbs, but no guidance on what reflection involves or how learning translates into experience.

Gibbs style builds on Boud by breaking down reflection into evaluation and analysis. It also makes a clear link between learning from the experience, and future practice. 

Atkins and Murphy’s Cyclical Model

This model supports a deeper level of reflection on emotions than Boud or Gibbs cycle. The cycle comprises:

  • Describe the situation: include feelings, thoughts, events and other significant features.
  • Analyse feelings and knowledge: identify and challenge assumptions: explore alternatives.
  • Evaluate the relevance of existing knowledge: does it help solve the problem? How did you use it?
  • Identify any learning which has occurred.
  • Assess discomfort or action/experience.

Atkins & Murphy’s focus on feelings makes it useful for training people to support individuals with emotional issues. Another thought, this particular reflective cycle can also be used to help team members develop listening skills.

Kolb’s Reflective Cycle

Kolb’s reflective model is somewhat different from Gibbs’ cycle. It offers a system for reinforcing training through experiential learning, but with more ‘how to’ detail about the process.

The first stage is Concrete Experience. This can involve:

  • Case studies
  • Role plays
  • Simulations
  • Lectures
  • Films and slide shows
  • Skill practice
  • Games

The Experience part of Kolb’s cycle involves participants actively “doing” something. In the other three stages they review, analyse and evaluate this activity:

  • Process: Reflective observation: reviewing/reflecting on the experience.
  • Generalisation: Abstract conceptualisation: concluding/learning from the experience.
  • Application: Active experimentation: planning/trying out what you have learnt.

The Kolb model works very well for enhancing the lasting value of skill training. It helps people take responsibility for their personal development. This is an important part of getting the maximum benefit from the experience.

Reflective Cycle Versus Kolb

The psychologist John Heron criticised the Kolb Cycle for being too narrow and underdeveloped. Others point out that Gibbs develops the Kolb model further. In what Kolb calls the Experience and Process stages, Gibbs includes discussion and peer- and self-assessment. And in the Generalisation and Application stages, Gibbs suggests action plans.

Both cycles essentially cover the same steps – experience, reflection, and planning. So in theory they can be used in any learning experience. But because Gibbs includes more steps, requiring more individual effort, experts say Gibbs may be better for larger groups.

How Does Gibbs Reflective Cycle Measure Up? 


  • The Gibbs model is easy to understand and easy to use.
  • Gibbs allows you to learn over time, based on your experiences.
  • It helps you develop more balanced and accurate judgement.

Possible Disadvantages

  • Depending on the individual, reflections with the Gibbs Cycle may be superficial, not deep. This will affect the potential for personal or collective development.
  • The process doesn’t take into account any assumptions people might hold about the experience. Nor does it consider the need to look at different perspectives.
  • Reflection doesn’t necessarily lead to people coming out with changed assumptions, perspectives or practice. As with other reflective processes like client-centred therapy, the individual has to commit to making change happen.

Prescriptions For Success: Gibbs Reflective Cycle Practice in Nursing and Childcare

Caucasian nurse checking on sick african american patient

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle is used in various professions where professional development is taken seriously. The possible impacts of applying the same reflection in business are endless. Let’s see a few examples.

How They Use The Reflective Cycle in Nursing

Nurses and midwives in the UK are formally required to record five pieces of reflection, on either Continuing Professional Development or practice-related feedback.

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle provides a framework for this work. Reflection is a key aspect of the personal and professional development nurses are required to undertake. They must do this to keep pace with the changing nature of nursing practice. Reflection helps ensure safe and effective evidence-based care, by helping them to constantly improve their skills.

The Benefits in Childcare

Most educators spontaneously engage in reflective practice. This takes place as they make decisions in response to what happens during the day or the session. Teachers build on children’s discoveries by adding new material. They extend students’ thinking by posing questions or suggesting other ways to tackle a problem. And afterwards they review their efforts.

The consensus in these professions is that Gibbs is clear and precise. It enables description, analysis, and evaluation of the experience. This helps the reflective practitioner to make sense of their experience and examine their practice.

Get the Definitive Word From the Man Himself

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and reflection in general are powerful tools. Used effectively, the process can facilitate significant personal and professional growth. But at the outset it can feel challenging for leaders and managers to take on board and incorporate in their training.

The most accessible book on all this is Graham Gibbs’ Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. It isn’t available in hard copy on Amazon. However, you and your colleagues can download the 2013 online edition as a free eBook from Oxford Brookes University.  Have it on your phones!

‘Learning by Doing’ is written to be used as a resource, rather than a book to read right through. It starts by explaining the underlying concepts then explores practical ideas for teaching methods and designing courses. And there’s plenty of follow up information to help you apply the ideas. You’ll find all the detail you could possibly want. And it’s in accessible language.

There are also various case studies of applications of experiential learning methods, including self-directed learning in office practice. But reading the book on its own isn’t enough. To really learn about experiential methods, you need to be ‘Learning by Doing’! Use these methods and experience them. Follow Gibbs’ Cycle. Reflect on their use and then experiment again.

AND FINALLY:  Is There a Reflection #101, By Any Chance? 

Yes, there is. There’s a lot here to take in. Sure, you can see the obvious benefits of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle in training and personal development. But you’d prefer to start with something simpler then work up to using Gibbs’ book.  That’s fine. So, let’s take a look at the 5 R’s.

The 5 R’s of Gibbs’ reflective Cycle

Rainbow foil balloon number and digit five 5.

This is a framework identified by the researchers Bain et al in 2002, to help people make sense of experience. The elements ‘R’:

Reporting: Recall what happened. What did the situation involve?

Responding:  Describe your observations, feelings, and questions.

Reasoning: What are the significant factors underlying the situation? How do they relate to what happened and what the situation involved?

Relating:  Explain your connection with the situation. What is your relevant experience, skills, knowledge and understanding?

Reconstructing: Describe your deeper understanding of the situation after all this, based on this thought process?

The University of Edinburgh has an online Reflection Toolkit you may also like to explore.  As they say, if you take the time to think about the questions you will have started a reflection. Self-questioning like this, to better understand ourselves, our motivations and our experiences, is at the heart pf reflection.

As the Toolkit says, you can use reflection for many things, including

  • Allowing you to improve your working practice to gain better outcomes in the future.
  • Improving your performance and your skills.
  • Increasing self-awareness of your abilities and attributes.
  • Evaluating the quality and success of your action plans.
  • Applying theoretical knowledge of behaviour and soft skills, like listening to real experiences, and expanding your understanding.
  • Developing and expanding your employability.

Parting Thoughts to Ponder

After reading this, if you’re a boss, could Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle help you develop your team? Or are you an employee in a business where there’s no Continuous Professional Development? Don’t let that trigger ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out!) Gibbs’ insights can help you reflect on your skills development, and plan your next move.

And last of all, don’t forget Edinburgh Uni’s Toolkit’s final tip. You can also use Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle to boost your employability. This stuff can help you get a better job. Reflect on that!

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