ATD Blog

Reflection Aids Performance, Says Research

Friday, December 18, 2015


In this fast-paced world, there seems to be little time for reflection or a chance to look back on our learning experiences. We are constantly rushing off to a meeting or checking our email after that e-learning module or classroom session. Even in a well-designed, learning-by-doing simulation or classroom experience, precious little time is devoted to reflecting upon the experience and thinking about the lessons learned during the experience. 

It turns out that if we design time for purposeful and thoughtful reflection into our learning processes, learners benefit a great deal. The Harvard Business School working paper, “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance,”  has determined that reflection is a powerful mechanism by which experience is translated into learning and that individuals perform significantly better on subsequent tasks when they think about what they learned from the task they previously completed. 

Here is the abstract from the study:

Research on learning has primarily focused on the role of doing (experience) in fostering progress over time. In this paper, we propose that one of the critical components of learning is reflection, or the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience. Drawing on dual-process theory, we focus on the reflective dimension of the learning process and propose that learning can be augmented by deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing. We test the resulting dual-process learning model experimentally, using a mixed-method design that combines two laboratory experiments with a field experiment conducted in a large business process outsourcing company in India. We find a performance differential when comparing learning-by-doing alone to learning-by doing coupled with reflection. Further, we hypothesize and find that the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater perceived self-efficacy. Together, our results shed light on the role of reflection as a powerful mechanism behind learning.

Implications for Learning Professionals


As a result of the study, the researchers concluded that while reflection does take additional time and effort in today’s fast-paced world, reflection after a learning-by-doing experience enhances the learning process.  This is especially true if an individual can be made to deliberately focus on thinking about what she has just been doing. 

The authors of the study indicate that “in addition to showing a significant performance differential when comparing learning-by-doing alone to learning-by-doing coupled with reflection, we also demonstrate that the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater self-efficacy.” This finding basically means that reflecting on an experience builds a person’s confidence in her ability to learn from that experience. 

What this means for learning professionals is that we can (and should) create better learning experiences by encouraging learners to reflect upon what they have learned from whatever learning-by-doing experience we create.

Applying the Research


Ask learners:

  • What did you learn today that will be helpful to you on the job?
  • Can you summarize what you learned today? (perhaps in a video clip or blog post)
  • How would you summarize what you learned today for a colleague?
  • Can you articulate the key lessons taught by the experience you had today?
  • Name the top three key lessons you learned today?

Have them share their reflections on the learning experience in writing, to a peer, or via video. Be careful, many learners may not take this part of the process seriously, but they need to take it seriously. Reflection can greatly increase learning and build learner confidence. It provides them an opportunity to practice and to think about their ability to apply the learning from the experience to similar experiences they may encounter in the future.

So take a moment now and just reflect on this information. What did you just learn? How are you going to apply it? Leave a reflection in the comments. 


Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, Bradley Staats. (March 25, 2014). "Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance," Harvard Business School, Working Paper. 14-093.

About the Author

Karl Kapp has a worldwide reputation as one of the pioneers in the gamification of learning and instruction, having literally written the book on the topic. He's making headlines with his newest book, Microlearning: Short and Sweet. Kapp is an expert in the convergence of learning, technology, and business, was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education in 2017, and is the recipient of the 2019 ATD Individual Contributor Award. He works all over the world helping employers (from Fortune 100 companies to start-up organizations) deliver effective, meaningful instruction using a game-thinking approach. He is a TEDx speaker, an international keynoter, and the author of several LinkedIn Learning courses as well the creator of Zombie Sales Apocalypse and Zombie Instructional Design Apocalypse, popular card games for learning. Follow Karl on Twitter @kkapp..

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