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ATD Blog

Want Them to Learn? Give Them Time to Think!

Monday, November 28, 2022

While facilitating leadership development workshops at Emerson (a Fortune 125 company with 90,000 employees in 140 countries), there is an interesting comment I frequently hear: “I did not realize how much time you would give me in this workshop to think!”

Is that a compliment or a complaint? I believe most people mean it as a compliment because they are surprised. Most of them haven’t had enough time to think in prior trainings.

I’ve heard this comment many times, and it never takes me by surprise. In fact, I would be disappointed if I did not hear it. Most learners aren’t given adequate time to think and reflect when they attend training sessions.

Far too many training programs rely on content rather than application and do not offer learners time for intentional reflection. In my 28-year learning and development career, I’ve seen too many programs approach learning by telling learners as much as possible in the time provided. Many of us in L&D call that strategy “ten pounds of training in a five-pound sack.”

Fred Harburg, former chief learning officer at Fidelity Investments, sums it up well: “If there is no time for reflection, there is almost no chance for improvement.”

L&D professionals want to create value for learners. One of the most valuable activities we can build into the design and delivery of our courses is intentional reflection and implementation planning. To improve our training programs, we must stop talking and pushing content, and let learners think.


This represents a paradigm shift for many L&D practitioners. Spend less time on content and more time on intentional thinking and reflection.

L&D thought leaders Roy Pollock, Cal Wick, and Andy Jefferson (authors of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning) popularized the term “learning scrap.” Learning scrap refers to content covered in a workshop that is never applied. Most L&D programs have a typical learning scrap rate of 85 percent. At best, most learners apply 15 percent of what’s taught in a workshop on the job. If you want to decrease learning scrap and increase learning transfer, build more deliberate thinking and reflection activities into your courses.

In his classic book, Learning and Memory, Donald A. Norman writes, “To remember is to have managed three things successfully: the acquisition, the retention, and the retrieval of information. Failure to remember means failure at managing one of these three things.” I argue failure usually occurs at the retention level. If there is no reflection, there is no retrieval. If there is no reflection and retention, do not expect retrieval to follow.


This issue is well-documented by Ruth C. Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller in another classic book, Efficiency in Learning. They refer to this concept as “information fatigue.” We need to give learners more time to process during a training program. The authors’ research shows a lack of time for reflection leads to cognitive overload. Overload implies a malfunction; learning is short-circuited. If a person attends a program to learn, and we cram it full of content without giving them time to think, it’s no wonder learning scrap occurs.

Several years ago, I codeveloped a workshop with Michael Watkins (a former faculty member at Harvard Business School and founder of Genesis Advisers) to create a workshop based on his bestselling book, The First 90 Days. Our workshop designed intentional thinking activities that asked participants a series of questions at the end of each module. The reflection activities took between 20 and 30 minutes to complete and consisted of five or six questions. These were not simply recall or comprehension questions, but rather synthesis and evaluation questions (the higher levels of cognitive thinking).

Some of the top executives who attended this workshop told me that if I had not built in deliberate time to think, their goal would have been to rush through the course so they could move on to the next thing on their list.

Here are some ways to build time for reflection into your programs:

  • Build thinking time into the design and delivery of every learning program you create, no matter the delivery method (in person or virtual).
  • Resist the temptation to add more content to your courses. Do not fall prey to the “myth of more.” More content at the expense of intentional time for reflection will not improve learner performance. It will diminish it.
  • Remember, the goal is not to give the content. The goal is for learners to get it, which will only happen through the discipline of quiet reflection.
  • If trainers are given the option to talk or let their learners think, many would choose to fill the silence with their own voices, but the greatest value trainers bring to a workshop is knowing when to stop speaking and give learners time to reflect.
About the Author

In his role as corporate director of learning at Emerson Electric, Terrence shapes and supports the performance of current and emerging leaders across the world. He supports the leadership development of 67 business units under two main business segments with an employee base of 107,000. He leads a team of talented, passionate, and high-performing learning and development professionals focused on the instructional aspects of leadership development, while also supporting the broader talent management initiatives. Over the last 19 years, he has trained and equipped more than 32,000 people on five continents. His training and business skills help drive major corporate initiatives in areas such as outcomes-based training, succession planning, leadership development, and learning transfer.

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Thank you for this valuable reminder on how learning happens. Will share with our trainers so we remember why reserving reflection time really does matter. Thank you!
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Wow! I've tended to see the
reflection stuff as kind of fluff, but I understand MUCH better why it's important. Thank you
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Excellent post. I believe the purpose will be served when we mindfully include some reflection time. Thank you!
Thank you Vanishree! I am glad you found value in the blog. It comes down to this: Where there is no reflection, there is no improvement.
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