Reflection is what makes learning stick

Posted in SSZ Briefings  ·  July 5th 2016

Reflection is what makes learning stick

Research shows that reflecting after learning something new makes it stick in your brain. Even taking just fifteen minutes to reflect on what was learned during the day could significantly affect how well students retain the information.
The authors of a recent paper published in March 2014 begin with a quotation from Confucius:
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” (1, p4)

“Learning by Thinking”
Seems like Confucius was right, all those years ago!  Learning is more effective if a lesson or experience is deliberately coupled with time spent thinking about what was just presented, this new study shows.
In “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance,” a team of researchers from HEC Paris (Hautes études commerciales de Paris – Europe’s leading business school), Harvard Business School, and the University of North Carolina describe what they call the first empirical test of the effect of reflection on learning. By “reflection” they mean taking time after a lesson to synthesise, abstract, or articulate the important points.
In the lab portion of the study, participants completed a maths brain teaser under time pressure and then afterwards wrote about what strategy they used or might use in the future to solve the problem. This group did 18 percent better in a second-round test than their control-group counterparts, who were not given time to reflect.
In the field study, groups of newly-hired customer-service employees undergoing job training were compared. Some were given 15 minutes at the end of each training day to reflect on the main things they had learned, and write about at least two lessons learned. Those given time to think and reflect scored 23 percent better on their end-of-training assessment than those who were not. And these improvements weren’t temporary—they lasted over time, researchers found.

Reflection: the vital ingredient
The study also tested the old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. The research team expected that the process of sharing or teaching newly acquired skills or subject matter would deepen understanding and produce better task performance. But the experiments revealed no significant difference between reflecting upon new knowledge alone and teaching or sharing it with someone else—both boosted performance.
For younger students, teaching someone else is a good way to practise synthesising content after a lesson. For older students, other methods are equally good: writing themes in journals, summarising the main ideas on note cards, or dictating onto their phone. The authors emphasise that reflection is what matters for learning, whether it’s about management skills, school subjects, or sports trivia.
It is possible, they conclude, to learn “smarter, not harder”. The challenge for those of us involved in teaching is to find ways to persuade students to reflect more during lessons, and to encourage them to engage in some reflection later that day.

Reflection does so much more
At the end of their paper, the researchers conclude that reflection also increases self-efficacy, which in turn leads to improvements in problem-solving, or learning, capacity.  They began with Confucius (551-479 BCE) and they end with John Dewey (1859-1952).
“Together, our results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: ‘We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.’” (1, p26)
For some of the above, I am indebted to Nanette Fondas who is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace. Her work appears in academic journals as well as Psychology Today, Ms., Huffington Post and MomsRising.
(1) Di Stefano, Giada and Gino, Francesca and Pisano, Gary P. and Staats, Bradley R., Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance (March 25, 2014). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093. 48pp   Available at SSRN: or

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