Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle: What every student and researcher should know

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Many people find that they learn best from experience.

However, if they don’t reflect on their experience, and if they don’t consciously think about how they could do better next time, it’s hard for them to learn anything at all.

This is where Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle is useful. You can use it to help your people make sense of situations at work, so that they can understand what they did well and what they could do better in the future.

About the Model

Professor Graham Gibbs published his Reflective Cycle in his 1988 book “Learning by Doing.” It is particularly useful for helping people learn from situations that they experience regularly, especially when these do not go well.

Gibbs’ cycle appears below.

Figure 1 – Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle

Figure 1 – Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle

From “Learning by Doing” by Graham Gibbs. Published by Oxford Polytechnic, 1988.


Gibbs’ original model had six stages. The stage we have not covered here is “Analysis” – we have included this as part of the Evaluation stage.

Using the Model

You can use the model to explore a situation yourself, or you can use it with someone you’re coaching – we look at coaching use in this article, but you can apply the same approach when you’re on your own.

To structure a coaching session using Gibbs’ Cycle, choose a situation to analyse and then work through the steps below.

Step 1: Description

First, ask the person you are coaching to describe the situation in detail. At this stage, you simply want to know what happened – you will draw conclusions later.

Consider asking questions like these to help him describe the situation:

  • When and where did this happen?
  • Why were you there?
  • Who else was there?
  • What happened?
  • What did you do?
  • What did other people do?
  • What was the result of this situation?

Step 2: Feelings

Next, encourage him to talk about what he thought and felt during the experience. At this stage, avoid commenting on his emotions.

Use questions like these to guide the discussion:

  • What did you feel before this situation took place?
  • What did you feel while this situation took place?
  • What do you think other people felt during this situation?
  • What did you feel after the situation?
  • What do you think about the situation now?
  • What do you think other people feel about the situation now?

Tip 1:

It might be difficult for people to talk honestly about their feelings. Use Empathic Listening at this stage to connect with them emotionally, and to try to see things from their point of view.

Tip 2:

You can use the Perceptual Positions technique to help this person see the situation from other people’s perspectives.

Step 3: Evaluation

Now you need to encourage the person you are coaching to look objectively at what approaches worked, and which ones did not.

Ask him:

  • What was positive about this situation?
  • What was negative?
  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What did you and other people do to contribute to the situation (either positively or negatively)?

If appropriate, use a technique such as the 5 Whys to help your team member uncover the root cause of the issue.

Step 4: Conclusions

Once you have evaluated the situation, you can help your team member draw conclusions about what happened.

Encourage him to think about the situation again, using the information that you have collected so far. Then ask questions like these:

  • How could this have been a more positive experience for everyone involved?
  • If you were faced with the same situation again, what would you do differently?
  • What skills do you need to develop, so that you can handle this type of situation better?

Step 5: Action

You should now have some actions that your team member can perform to manage similar situations more effectively in the future.

In this last stage, you need to produce a plan so that he can make these changes.

Once you have identified the areas he will work on, get him to commit to taking action, and agree a date on which you will both review progress.


This analytical tool is in the form of a cycle, reflecting an ongoing coaching relationship. Whether you use it this way depends on the situation and your relationship with the person being coached.

Key Points

Graham Gibbs published his Reflective Cycle in 1988. There are five stages in the cycle:

1. Description

2. Feelings

3. Evaluation

4. Conclusions

5. Action

You can use it to help team members think about how they deal with situations, so that they can understand what they did well, and so that they know where they need to improve.


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