Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.”
— Confucius


It’s been a while since I covered an academic paper. But one by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats on the role reflection plays in learning is fascinating.

Learning plays an important role in everything. This is why the concept of learning has gotten a lot of attention from scholars. You can argue that today’s “Knowledge economy” further accelerates the pace of learning; things are changing and we need to keep up.

This, the authors argue, makes our experience more productive and builds our confidence “in the ability to achieve a goal,” which further translates into “higher rates of learning.”

What is learning?

“Learning,” they write, “is defined as a lasting change in knowledge generated by experience.”

(There are) two types of learning, which are based on the source of such experience: direct learning from one’s own experience and indirect learning from the experience of others.

Most research tends to focus on “learning by doing” whereas Farnam Street is more oriented towards indirect learning.

In Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance the authors “take a less traveled road and focus on how individual learning can be augmented when individuals can not only “do” but also “think” about what they have been doing.” That is, we learn better when we couple learning by doing with reflection — “that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.”

This, the authors argue, makes our experience more productive and builds our confidence “in the ability to achieve a goal,” which further translates into “higher rates of learning.”

Dual Process Theory

The argument is based on the dual-process theory, which suggests:

“… the existence of two systems of thought that underlie intuitive and reflective processing, often referred to as type 1 and type 2, respectively … We propose a dual-process learning model in which the automatic, unconscious process of learning generated from experience is coupled with the controlled, conscious attempt at learning.”


Our findings suggest that reflection is a powerful mechanism by which experience is translated into learning. In particular, we find that individuals perform significantly better on subsequent tasks when they think about what they learned from the task they completed. Interestingly, we do not observe an additional boost in performance when individuals share the insights from their reflection efforts with others. Results of mediation analyses further show that the improvement in performance observed when individuals are learning by thinking is explained by increased self-efficacy generated by reflection.

Interesting, my system for remembering what I read has intuitive roots built around reflection.

General Discussion

Though some organizations are increasingly relying on some group reflection (e.g., “after-action reports”), there has been almost no effort to encourage individuals to reflect, and people often fail to engage in self-reflection themselves. Though reflection entails the high opportunity cost of one’s time, we argue and show that reflecting after completing tasks is no idle pursuit: it can powerfully enhance the learning process. Learning, we find, can be augmented if one deliberately focuses on thinking about what one has been doing. 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 part was also interesting. What matters is reflection, not why you are reflecting.

Across our studies, we also included a condition in which people shared their reflections with others. Interestingly, our results show that while sharing one’s learning improves one’s subsequent performance, the value of sharing is no different than that of reflecting and keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.


The implications here support much that we’ve already covered on Farnam Street.

“… taking time away from training and reallocating that time to reflection actually improved individual performance.”

Learning and decision journals encourage reflection and thus knowledge.

Companies often use tools such as learning journals as a way to encourage reflection in training and regular operations.

It’s all about smarter, not harder.

“Our personal experience is that individuals of all ages may not treat these exercises with much seriousness.”

So if you want a leg up, pay attention and take this seriously.