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How Reflection Helps Us Learn, According to Science

By Patrick Kayton
18 February 2021

Team Transformation Power Skills

When it comes to learning, simply memorizing content isn't the most effective strategy. Reflection is a necessary element.


At Cognician we drive change at large organizations by creating learning experiences based on action and reflection. Now it’s clear to many that reflection is a powerful practice for self-improvement. For some, the implicit value is self-evident, and measuring its impact isn't necessary. Others call for concrete, measurable evidence of its benefit. 

This latter group might ask, “What does science have to say about reflection?”

In sum, science says that the benefit of reflection is tangible and profound. In fact, many studies have shown that reflection is much more than just a meditative or spiritual practice—it’s a research-supported cognitive approach by which you can drastically improve virtually any process.

One of the most revealing studies of reflection was conducted by the Harvard Business School in 2013. Of three case studies, the most relevant to this topic was conducted at Wipro, an Indian information technology company. 

The company’s call center operators-in-training were divided into three separate groups. One group reflected for 15 minutes daily after their training sessions, while another reflected for 15 minutes daily and shared insights they gained with each other. The third group, the control group, did not reflect—they carried on as usual. 

And it showed.


The first group saw a 22.8% increase in productivity, while the second group’s productivity jumped by 25%.

These figures, based on final assessment scores with respect to the average, support two ideas: reflection is impactful, and, while social learning is also impactful, it is much less so without reflection. The quantum leap, so to speak, occurs only when reflection is present.

And, in support of the idea that the impact of reflection is lasting, performance benefits were observed two weeks after reflection occurred. 


So, the benefit of reflection is clear, but one question remains:
Why does reflection have this impact? 

From a scientific approach, it makes total sense. 

Reflection, in a sense, is exercise for the brain. Just as you would routinely go to the gym to stay in physical shape, the brain requires methodical reflection in order to build its own muscles—neural connections. This process requires ample time, repetition, and perhaps most importantly, action. 

Because without action, learning is shallow and ineffective.

This is why so many training programs don’t work: they do little more than bombard a learner with information. Simply memorizing words and phrases has minimal neural impact. It is reflection and action that create neural connections, which then instills lasting, valuable knowledge in a learner. In a learning scenario, reflection means spending time thinking about the information you’ve been presented with, and action means using that information to adjust any given approach to a process. 

Set an objective. Test out a new approach, guided by reflection. Learn from the experience. Repeat. 

Effective reflection is as simple as that.

The repeat step is essential, because in addition to reflection requiring ample time, it also cannot be accomplished all at once. For example, when lifting weights, we measure our strength by repetitions. On the final push, your muscles run out of ATP, become exhausted, and you’re physically unable to perform even one more repetition.  

Your brain is a muscle with finite disposable energy as well. 

Any law or medical school student 50 pages deep into textbook reading has likely found themselves scanning sentence-by-sentence without truly absorbing the material. Scientifically speaking, this is because, eventually, a reflecting brain will also run through its supply of ATP, resulting in mental exhaustion. At this point, further knowledge cannot be gained as neural connections can no longer be made. 

It’s time for a break.

Your brain, which accounts for approximately 2% of your body mass but consumes 20% of its energy, must now recuperate. 

There’s one final point from that Harvard Business School study that is critical to understanding how reflection works, and how to gain the greatest benefit from the practice. 

Writing is a critical element of effective reflection. 

Members of groups 1 and 2 in the Wipro experiment—the groups who had to either simply reflect on what they learned, or reflect and share what they learned—were required not only to mentally reflect after their training sessions. They were also asked to write down their thoughts on what they learned. 

It’s unclear whether or not the gains these two groups made would have been as significant had they only been asked to mentally consider, or verbally discuss with a colleague, what they’d learned after each training session. 

Judging from what neuroscience tells us, however, it’s highly likely that the simple action of writing had a great deal to do with the effectiveness of the reflection and reflection/sharing assignments. 

Consider this quote, from biochemist and educator James Zull: “We should remember that writing also has advantages that talking doesn’t. It’s quiet, it’s permanent, it can be reconsidered later...Reflection is, by nature, a a slow process because the brain requires time to adjust.”

Writing allows wisdom to settle more deeply in the brain.

Writing down one’s thoughts can actually slow down the thinking process, allowing what has been learned through reflection to really settle into the brain. While this idea may seem purely philosophical, it’s actually rooted in science—as previously mentioned, neurochemical constraints do mean that ample time is required for neural connections to take hold. 

This is why writing—a more methodical approach to exploring ideas than speaking or mentally evaluating—is a much more effective reflective process. 

This is also why, in a business context, reflection is often practiced through written After Action Reviews, or AARs. We use these ourselves at Cognician. AARs help effectively handle situations in which a mistake has occurred. 

So, when something doesn’t go exactly according to plan—a system malfunctions, or a client project isn’t completed on time—an AAR is triggered. Then, whoever is directly responsible for the system, project, or department is required to write an AAR exploring the problem that occurred, the circumstances surrounding the problem, and the resolution of the problem. 

In other words, they’re required to reflect

For some, reflection is the intangible, but powerful process by which they explore ideas and actions. For the more scientifically inclined, it's a process with quantifiable impact, and its value must be measured. Regardless of your preferred approach, the impact of reflection for individual and team transformation is profound—and science proves it. 



Patrick-Kayton-Opinion-PieceAbout the Author: Patrick Kayton is co-founder and joint CEO of Cognician, an award-winning international company that builds programs to activate behavior change at scale, which help organizations transform. He is a learning and behavior change specialist with 20 years experience in instructional design and corporate learning.

In 2010, he founded Cognician with his brother Barry to solve the problem of how to activate behavior change through action and reflection. He became an Endeavor Entrepreneur in 2013 and accepted a fellowship in the Unreasonable Group in 2020. 

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