B-School Researchers Find Link Between Reflection and Learning

Researchers from Harvard Business School, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, and HEC Paris have found that developing a daily writing habit of just 15 minutes a day could pay off in spades when it comes to improving job performance and advancing your career.

The study’s authors hypothesized  that when individuals reflect on their task performance and share their insights with others, they perform better on subsequent tasks as compared to individuals who do not reflect, even when they have had more time to practice on the first task.

Participants who were tasked with doing a daily written reflection did 22.8 percent better on an assessment than the control group. The physical act of writing things down is more beneficial than simply reflecting on the day’s events, says paper co-author Bradley Staats, an associate professor of operations at Kenan-Flagler, because the act of writing imposes a discipline to stay focused.

These findings are a departure from previous work, which equates direct learning with learning-by-doing. Researchers found that “learning-by-thinking” makes experiences more productive.

Interestingly, researchers did not find an additional boost in performance when individuals shared the insights from their reflection efforts with others.

“I thought reflection might help a bit, but I didn’t expect it to make such a meaningful impact on performance,” Staats says. “These people weren’t spending extra time at work — they were spending 15 minutes less on training each day so they could reflect, however by reallocating their time in such a small way we see a significant, positive impact on performance.”

Reflection is a powerful mechanism behind learning, and these researchers believe their findings give further weight to the statement made by American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

The hurdle for many, though, will be summoning the discipline to maintain this daily writing habit—no small task in our hectic, over-crammed lives.

For more details about this study, read Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance.

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