Fishbowl Reflection

The Problem

A fundamental problem with writing about reflection is the cognitive load it puts on the student. Not only do students have to attend to participating in some activity, observing it, and engaging in reflective thinking about it, they also have to think about how to express these thoughts. It is not surprising that with all this mental activity going on, students take shortcuts and end up simply reporting on and relating experiences.

The Context

One way to deal with the cognitive overload, is to remove the students from participation in an activity, so that they can concentrate on the tasks of reflective thinking and expression. In fishbowl activities, students are set up as observers to a discussion that is being carried out by others. The focus of the activity can be varied so that over time distinct reflective activities may be emphasised.

The Pattern

  1. Preparation. Choose an issue or topic that links to discipline specific concerns that the students are currently dealing with. It should be an issue on which there are a variety of opinions or a topic that can be addressed from a number of viewpoints.
  2. Introduction. Present the issue/topic to the class and outline the broad stages of the activity: discussion/observation, individual/pair reflection, whole class wrap up.
  3. Discussion. Select a small number of people to discuss or argue the issue. Arrange the discussion group so that the observers surround them. Tell the observers that they are not to participate in the discussion, but are to take notes so that they can remember the main points at a later stage. Set a strict time limit to the discussion and provide prompt/s to assist in the beginning.
  4. Reflective write-up. After the discussion, provide some quiet time to the observers to go back over their notes and to compose some reflections. Provide prompts for this reflection using example questions based on a reflective writing scale (see Resource 1). Students new to reflective writing can be paired up either during or after this quiet time.
  5. Wrap up. Collect the whole group and initiate a discussion that first asks them to reveal their reflections, label and order them based on a reflective scale, and then make comparisons between the different offerings. Connections between the discussion and discipline knowledge and between the reflective writing and assessment instruments should be made.

Related Patterns

MCIF (Mapping Critical Incidents (Foundation)): A Fishbowl Reflection could set up a context so that students gain some experience in choosing and interpreting incidents for reflection.
SQR (Socratic questions for reflection) and FQR (Formulating questions for reflection): A Fishbowl Reflection can provide an environment in which students develop their own questions to help them to reflect. This would be more appropriate for students at intermediate and higher levels.


The basic pattern outlined above asks students to reflect at different levels (e.g. report & respond, relate, reason and reconstruct) on the discussion of the topic or issue. This would be appropriate for foundation level students being introduced to reflective thinking.
A variation to this pattern is to ask observers to note examples of the different levels of reflection produced by participants within the discussion. This would be more appropriate for students at intermediate and higher levels.
Fishbowl participants need not necessarily be members of the class. The discussion group could be arranged beforehand with teaching staff and/or outsiders. In this case, all the students would be observers.


The 4Rs (or similar) framework as a prompt and as headings to organise notes


Klein, B. (2009). Future collaboration [Image].The End Of ‘Panel Discussions’ And ‘Discussion Panels’. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from
Reed, J. (1995) Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators. Retrieved June 10, 2008 from


This pattern was started by Michael Ryan (Education).
Suzanne Carrington and Louise Mercer (Education) have used the pattern as a way of focusing students’ attention on the levels of reflection in a discussion.
Lenore Adie (Education) and Jimi Bursaw (Education, UQ) have modified the pattern to develop students’ ability to formulate their own questions for reflection (see FQR and SQR patterns).