A copy of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker on the Columbia University campus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #390

How Reflection Aids Performance: The Thinker as Learner

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Key Concept

What is ‘learning-by-thinking’ and how can it improve individual performance in your organization? This Idea explains why it is important to incorporate time for reflection in the learning process, and how it differs from learning by experience alone, without reflection. 

Idea Summary

The concept of learning has captured the attention of management researchers around the world, particularly as it has become well-recognized that knowledge plays an important role in the productivity and prosperity of organizations. Most literature, however, tends to focus on the actual learning (i.e. the ‘doing’ part), whereas the effect that thinking about what has been learnt is much less explored.

In a working paper co-authored by faculty at HEC Paris, Harvard Business School and Kenan-Flagler Business School, the concept of ‘learning-by-thinking’ at the individual level is examined through three studies. The researchers ask whether reflecting on what we have done can teach us to do it more effectively the next time around, describing ‘reflecting’ as the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.

Their main findings included the following:

  • Learning generated by reflection coupled with experience can lead to greater improvement in problem-solving capacity as compared to learning generated by experience alone.
  • Learning generated by reflection and sharing one’s learning coupled with experience will lead to a greater improvement in problem-solving capacity, compared to learning generated by experience alone. However, while sharing can improve an individual’s performance, the value of sharing is no different than that of reflecting and keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.
  • Individuals’ perceptions of self-efficacy can mediate the effect of learning generated by reflection coupled with experience on problem-solving capacity. 

Methodology: In the first study, the researchers conducted an online experiment with 202 adults who each completed a series of brain teasers/puzzles. After the first round, participants were randomly divided into one of three conditions: control, reflection, and sharing. In the control condition, they simply completed another round of brain teasers; in the reflection condition, participants took a few minutes to reflect on their first round of brain teasers, writing notes about strategies they employed before completing a second round of puzzles; finally, in the sharing condition, participants received the same instructions as those in the reflection group, but with an additional message informing them that their notes would be shared with future participants. The reflection and sharing group performed an average of 18% better on the second round of brain teasers than the control group.

In the second study, 178 university students participated in the same experiment as the first study, but before starting the second round of brain teasers, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt “capable, competent, able to make good judgments, and able to solve difficult problems if they tried hard enough.”

Again, those in the sharing and reflection conditions performed better than those in the control group, and those who had reflected on their problem solving reportedly felt more competent and effective than those in the control group.

Finally, the researchers conducted a field experiment with Wipro — an outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. They studied groups of employees in their initial weeks of training for a particular customer account. As with the previous experiments, each group was assigned to a control, reflection, or sharing condition. In the reflection group, workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day writing and reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. Participants in the sharing group did the same, but spent an additional five minutes explaining their notes to a fellow trainee. Once again, over the course of one month, workers in both the reflection and sharing condition performed significantly better than those in the control group. 

Business Application

Executives often face pressures to learn new skills and hone existing ones, and to do so whilst battling against the clock. Though the common response when time is tight is to work even harder, these findings suggest the opposite (i.e. taking time out for reflection) may ultimately be more productive. The field study in particular demonstrated that taking time away from training and reallocating that time to reflection can improve individual performance.

Some companies already use tools such as learning journals as a way to encourage reflection in training and regular operations. Employees should be encouraged to take such tasks seriously as they can lead to overall improved performance.

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Idea conceived

  • March 2014

Idea posted

  • June 2014

DOI number



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