When Did “Just Thinking” Become “Doing Nothing”?

by Alice Buchanan

The Importance of Reflection in Learning and Development

Those of us in the Learning and Development field are repeatedly asked about the ROI of any development initiative. Organizations spend a lot of money on training and want to know what can be done to help ensure that all of this effort is going to actually result in participant behavior change and an improvement in job performance.

ROI starts with successful learning transfer – the ability of a learner to successfully apply what he/she has learned back on the job – and how to enhance learning transfer is an extensive conversation in and of itself. Training professionals spend a lot of time defining ways to enhance transfer of learning before, during, and after training. Typical methodologies include practice with feedback, repetition, job aids, post-program follow up, and insuring the support of the participant’s manager and organization when trying out new skills. However, there is one approach that often seems to fall by the wayside in our fast-paced, “cram it all in” world. It’s the importance of reflection during and after a learning program.

We do not learn from experience . . . we learn from reflecting on experience. - John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer

However you learn best — visually, auditory, or kinesthetically — you’ll reap the most rewards by spending time reflecting on your experiences. The idea of reflection being important to learning is nothing new. When David Kolb published his seminal book about learning styles in 1984, “Reflective Observation” was one of his stages in a four-stage learning cycle.*

Educational neuroscientists agree with Kolb, and emphasize that intentional engagement in reflective practice is key to “cementing” learning, and enhances application, transfer, retention, and recall. For those of you who enjoy “brain stuff,” when learners retrieve or reflect upon experiences, they are activating neurons and helping more dendrites grow and interconnect, resulting in increased long-term memory storage. Reflection creates stronger and more numerous neuronal connections, or “pathways” to learning.

New research published by Harvard Business School clearly indicates that dedicating time to reflect on your life and work regularly has a positive effect on performance. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, supported by the National Institutes of Health, came to the same conclusion. These two studies found that reflecting on learning:

  • Consolidates memories from recent learning tasks
  • Encourages insight and complex learning
  • Helps learners understand the connections and relationships between prior learning experiences and new learning experiences (a process called scaffolding)
  • Improves performance on subsequent testing
  • Enhances the personal meaning of the learning
  • Builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning
  • Helps boost future learning

So how do we do this? Adults learn best when we control our environment, so some reflection is best done alone. This can be done through reflective writing in a journal, or through the simple act of contemplating about what we have learned – i.e., taking the time to “just think.” Even though I am “old school” enough to prefer my Moleskine notebook, there are also some great apps out there that let you post from either mobile or desktop platforms, and can integrate a calendar, photos, or other images. Reflection can be enhanced, however, when we share our thoughts with others… after we have given ourselves time to look inward on our own.

In our rush to cram as much in as we can during a training event, or to get back to the “real work” of our job tasks, we often fail to take the time for this very critical reflection and introspection. Stepping back and “just thinking” isn’t something we encourage in our fast-paced society. However, if we really want to achieve learning transfer, and a return on the training investment, we might need to slow down and do just that.

*Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four stage learning cycle: having an experience (“Concrete Experience”); reflecting on the experience (“Reflective Observation”); learning from the experience (“Abstract Conceptualization”,) and trying out what you have learned (“Active Experimentation”). Source: Kolb, David. 1984 book ‘Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, 1984.

Further Reading:

Dewey, John. How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process, 1933.

Kolb, David. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, 1984.

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, 2008.

Zull, James E. From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education, 2011.

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