“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey
(Based on research reported in a working paper by Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G. P., and Staats, B. R., Learning by Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection (March 29, 2015). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2414478 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2414478)
As a faculty member, I have been an advocate of having students use writing to reflect on their experience with the expectation that this exercise will help students learn from their experience. But taking time to reflect on your experience is not an approach that is in alignment with trendy advice on how to succeed—what we hear in the popular press is that we learn from doing, from experience.
In my own life I often apply the “learn by doing” advice when I am learning to play a new piece of music—I spend my practice time playing over the piece and will spend additional time playing those parts that I find most challenging. If I find I have extra time at the end of a practice session, I play the piece some more. Like people who choose to spend a few extra minutes practicing their tennis serve or their golf swing, my actions are based on my sense that spending more time doing the activity will bring greater benefits than other options.
We have a bias for action – we typically choose to keep doing a thing if we want to improve what we are doing. But recent research by Di Stefano et al. (2014) provides evidence that “once a certain amount of practice with a task has been cumulated, the benefits of additional practice are inferior to the benefits of reflecting upon the cumulated practice.”
Di Stefano and her colleagues’ results are not surprising to anyone who is familiar with theories of learning. For example, Kolb (1984) argues that learning results from progress through a four stage cycle: (1) doing/having an experience, (2) reviewing and reflecting on that experience, (3) analyzing and generalizing from the experience, and (4) using what has been learned to test hypotheses in future situations, resulting in new experiences. Kolb uses this cycle to argue that reflection is a critical part of learning. What is different about the work presented by Di Stefano et al. is that they have collected empirical evidence on the benefits of reflection.
Di Stefano and her colleagues conducted experiments to test the following hypothesis: Learning generated by the coupling of practice with reflection will be greater than learning generated by the accumulation of additional practice alone. Defining reflection as “the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate key lessons taught by experience,” they note that reflection is more than simple thinking. “Reflection requires experiential data as the basis to understand, process, and derive patterns from.”
In their first set of experiments, Di Stefano et al. recruited adults on Amazon Mechanical Turk to complete mathematical puzzles under time pressure. Each puzzle was a grid of numbers and the participant had to find the two numbers in the grid that summed to 10. After completing a practice round with multiple grids, the participants were then randomly assigned to one of three conditions: reflection, practice, and control. After a new round of puzzles, participants in the reflection condition were asked to take three minutes to reflect on the task they had just completed.
Please take the next few minutes to reflect on the task you just completed. Please write about what strategies if any you used as you were working on the task. Also please write about what you think one can do to be effective in solving the math problems included in this task. Please be as specific as possible.
Participants in the practicing condition were given three minutes to keep practicing on puzzles.
Please take the next few minutes to practice some more on the task you just completed. Below you’ll see a few puzzles that you can try to solve. (You can keep track of your performance on a piece of paper if you’d like.)
And participants in the control condition were instructed to watch a cooking video that lasted about three minutes and were told that later they would be asked questions about the video. All participants then completed two other rounds of puzzles.
After controlling for performance on the practice round (before the participants were assigned to a condition), the researchers found that there was no significant difference in the performance of the participants in the practice condition and those in the control condition. However, the research found that there was a significant difference in the performance of the participants in the reflection condition—participants assigned to the reflection condition correctly solved more grids than participants in the control or practice conditions.
The researchers then conducted a field study to test their hypothesis. Their study was conducted at an India-based company that provides customer support. For employees to successfully do their work, they need technical knowledge covering a wide range of topics. The company recruits college graduates and provides six weeks of technical training.
The field study included workers who joined the company over a three-month period. Workers started in groups of 10 to 25 and each group was assigned to one of three conditions: reflection, practice, and sharing. Each group received the same overall training with the difference being that the employees in the reflection and sharing condition spent the last 15 minutes of their workday in tasks assigned by the researchers while the control group spent the same amount of time having additional practice in their training.
Employees in the reflection group were given a paper journal and asked to do the following:
Please take the next 15 minutes to reflect on the training day you just completed. Please write about the main key lessons you learned as you were completing your training. Please reflect on and write about at least two key lessons. Please be as specific as possible.
Employees in the sharing group were also given a paper journal and asked to do the following:
Please take the next 10 minutes to reflect on the training day you just completed. Please write about the main key lessons you learned as you were completing your training. Please reflect on and write about at least two key lessons. Please be as specific as possible. When done, you will be given another 5 minutes to explain these to another participant who is completing the training process with you.
The employee’s learning was evaluated on the basis of tests they took at the end of their training. These tests were administered by their employer.
The results showed that “participants in the reflection condition displayed a significant increase in performance as compared to participants in the practice condition.” The results also showed a significant increase in performance for employees in the sharing condition but there was no statistically significant difference between the reflection and sharing groups.
Di Stefano and her colleagues conclude the following:
Learning, we find, can be augmented if one deliberately focuses on thinking about what one has been doing. Results from our studies consistently show a significant increase in the ability to successfully complete a task when individuals are given the chance to couple some practice with purposeful reflection effort aimed at synthesizing, abstracting, and articulating the key lessons learned from such practice.
As a society and certainly within academia, we are biased toward action. The work De Stefano and her colleagues have done may not be conclusive, but it provides evidence that practice and action alone is not as effective as practice coupled with purposeful reflection on the lessons we have learned.
Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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