When we take the time to think about what we've learned, we learn much more effectively, according to a new report.
In "Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance," researchers at HEC Paris, Harvard Business School, and the University of North Carolina found that reflecting directly after a lesson increases individuals' performance the next time they return to the material. While most research on learning focuses on doing, the authors say, this is the first study to test the effects of reflecting on learning.
The researchers divided participants into groups and asked them to solve a series of brain teasers. After completing the first round, one group received instructions to think about what they had done, and then to write about the strategies they had used. According to reports, when participants in this group completed a second round of brain teasers, they performed 18 percent better than those who hadn't reflected between rounds.
In a field study, this discrepancy was even more striking. The researchers divided employees in a job training program into groups, and for ten days of the program, some of the employees were asked to reflect on what they had learned for 15 minutes each day. When the employees were given assessments at the end of their training, those in the reflection groups performed 23 percent better than those who hadn't been given time to reflect, according to reports.
But what changed? According to the researchers, reflection leads to a stronger feeling of self-efficacy, which in turn leads to improved performance.
To test this, the researchers conducted another experiment that was almost identical to the brain teaser experiment—but this time, participants were asked to answer questions like whether they felt "able to solve difficult problems if they tried hard enough." Participants in the groups that reflected between rounds reported significantly higher feelings of self-efficacy than participants who hadn't reflected at all.
"When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy," Francesca Gino, one of the study's authors, told Forbes. "We're more motivated and we perform better afterward."
And that's especially true for students. In their report, the research team points to a series of previous studies showing that, when compared to students who feel less self-efficacious, students who feel more self-efficacious select more challenging tasks, exert more effort, handle difficulties more effectively, and demonstrate higher academic achievement.
The researchers were also curious as to whether study participants would perform better if they thought they were teaching someone else the material they had just learned. However, when study participants were asked to share their reflections with someone else, they performed at approximately the same level on follow-up tasks as participants who had only reflected and not shared their reflections. So sharing what we've learned might help—but it isn't any more effective than reflecting on our own.
Unfortunately, the study's authors argue, we generally don't take the time to reflect on our own as often as we should. Sometimes we don't think we have the time and that reflecting on our work is a "luxurious pursuit." And sometimes, even if we're encouraged to reflect, we don't recognize reflection's benefits.
"Companies often use tools such as learning journals as a way to encourage reflection in training and regular operations," the study's authors write. "Our personal experience is that individuals of all ages may not treat these exercises with much seriousness; however, our findings suggest that they should."
The report talks extensively about the use of reflection in companies, but what about in classrooms?
"The authors emphasize that reflection is what matters for learning, whether it's about management skills, school subjects, or sports trivia," Nanette Fondas writes in The Atlantic. "Teachers, trainers, and tutors just have to add a little reflection to their lessons."