Intriguing research suggests we underestimate the value of reflection in learning new and complex skills

In Brief: Most of us think that the best way to learn a complex task is by maximizing our experiential learning. However, research suggests that leaving time to codify and document our progress actually increases learning performance in the long term.

Analysis: “Practice makes perfect,” is a well-known adage, and very few people would question the need to repeatedly complete a complex task in order to master it over time. From music to surgery, learning at the highest level often involves intensive repetitive work. However, a team of researchers (Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary P. Pisano, and Bradley R. Staats) asked a related question, namely, what is the value of reflecting on the completed tasks compared to repeating the tasks yet again? In other words, they ask, imagine a surgeon in training who seeks a high degree of proficiency through repeated operations. After extensive practical experience, she is given a choice: spend the next two weeks doing only more surgeries or do fewer surgeries and use the remaining time to reflect (defined as “codifying and documenting” progress) on what she has learned so far in the process.

To find out the answer to their query, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with groups of people learning a new role. Some subgroups focused their time exclusively on practice. Some sub-groups were allowed to mix practice with time for reflection. For example, in one test, a group of new call-center workers at Wipro BPO was asked to learn the call management processes of a new client. One group worked continuously to learn the new practices. A second group was given regular time to pause and reflect on what they had done and learned during various stages in the training process.

In all three cases, the group took some time away from “doing” and devoted it to reflection demonstrated significantly higher overall performance. As the authors note:

By being allocated to the reflection (rather than practice) condition, participants improved their score on the final assessment test by

14.843 points…a 23.2% increase with respect to the average score for the entire sample (63.911). We ran an additional test to evaluate whether the positive effect of articulating and codifying the accumulated prior experience lasted over time. To this end, Wipro

shared customer satisfaction data, as rated by randomly sampled customers served in the first three months after each agent transitioned into their customer service responsibilities. In particular, our performance measure is a common measure of customer satisfaction in call centers called “top box” – that is, the percentage of randomly sampled callers that mark their satisfaction in the highest category. Compared to participants in the practice condition, participants in the reflection condition improved their likelihood of being in the top-rated category by 19.1%.

Watch: The power of reflection at work, by HEC Paris Prof. Giada Di Stefano

The results of all three experiments prompted the authors to hypothesize about just how reflection created a higher performance level. They came up with two explanations, one has to with self-efficacy and the other with task understanding.

The first explanation for the higher level of performance has to do with the confidence created as one reflects on progress made in acquiring a skill. The researchers noted that taking time to assess progress and reflect on skills mastered creates a higher incentive to achieve more. Participants who did not take time to reflect may have considered their progress insufficient or may have been dismayed by what had not been achieved. Those participants who had the time to understand and appreciate work well done had a higher chance of reaching even better levels of performance.

The second reason for the higher scores among the reflecting group is that taking time to reflect and document progress allows for a higher understanding of how complex tasks work. In other words, noted the authors, “an improved understanding of the causal relationships between actions and their associated outcomes (our cognitive mechanism) is used to motivate the hypothesized relationship between deliberate learning and performance outcomes.” Put simply, the more we understand why we get something right, the more likely we are to progress in a given learning journey.

With the research complete, the authors then asked if most people would naturally think that reflection would improve learning performance. In their analysis of this final question, they concluded the following:

Results from our experiment show that the overwhelming majority of participants decided to gain additional experience rather than taking the time to articulate and codify what they learned from prior experience. Their preference for “experiential learning” over “deliberate learning” was supposedly based on the premise that gaining additional experience would have given rise to superior performance improvement as compared to engaging in a deliberate articulation and codification effort. In other words, individuals chose to do because they expected this would enable them to perform better in subsequent rounds. However, our results show just the opposite: this strategy was counterproductive, as participants scored higher in the following round when they decided to reflect upon the experience accumulated in the past instead of collecting additional experience.

The results presented by this research have serious implications for managers everywhere. If the paper’s analysis is correct, then time for reflection should be a consistent and mandatory part of all corporate learning programs – which is hardly the case today. Moreover, since the collective learning of employees makes up, for the most part, the collective knowledge of an organization, a good argument could be made that companies and institutions should also take time for serious reflection if they want to maximize learning and performance.

As one of the authors noted to one interviewer:

“Our research shows that if you’re doing the same thing over and over without taking the time to step back and think about what you’re learning, you may not perform as well as those who take time to reflect. Consider this: Trainees who spent the last 15 minutes of their day thinking about what they learned ultimately did better than their colleagues, despite the fact that they ‘worked’ 15 minutes less.”

In other words, you could spend all of your available time “doing,” but you’d learn more effectively if you spent some of that time reflecting on your learning.

The Research:

Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G.P., and Staats, B.R. Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093.

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga