Tag: Research

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.”

It’s been a while since I covered an academic paper. But this 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.

The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People

The paper below finds a link between having a sense of power and ignoring the advice of others.

The authors argue that power increases confidence, which can lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment.

In a sense, powerful people think they are right because of their place in the organization, not because of their knowledge.

This, of course, leads to flawed decisions.

From Strategy+Business:

Previous research has shown that the quality of decision making declines when people hew too much to their own beliefs and discount too readily the advice of others; outside information helps “average out” the distortions that can result when people give a great deal of weight to their own opinions and first impressions. This paper is among the first to examine whether power — defined as an individual’s “capacity to influence others, stemming in part from his or her control over resources, rewards, or punishments” — reduces or increases a person’s willingness to heed advice.

… In addition to confirming the previous experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers, this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less accurate in their answers than low-power participants. By calculating the mean deviation between respondents’ initial estimates and the true answers, the researchers showed that low-power participants came significantly closer in their final estimates to the real tuition numbers because they “averaged” their initial guesses with the input from the advisors.

The researchers propose that their findings have troubling implications for organizations — and that power could negatively affect not just advice taking, but also an individual’s approach to seeking help or accepting performance feedback. But because power and confidence are so interrelated, there are ways to mitigate the problem. By “directly addressing the inflated confidence levels of powerful individuals,” the researchers write, “organizations may be able to help people with power take (and/or seek) advice when it is valuable to do so.”

For one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful individuals have a chance to form their own opinions. Encouraging leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.

Bottom Line:
Powerful people are less likely to take advice from others, in large part because they have high confidence in their own judgment and don’t feel the need to incorporate outside views. By not factoring in others’ advice, however, people in power risk making flawed decisions.


Incorporating input from others can enhance decision quality, yet often people do not effectively utilize advice. We propose that greater power increases the propensity to discount advice, and that a key mechanism explaining this effect is elevated confidence in one’s judgment. We investigate the relationships across four studies: a field survey where working professionals rated their own power and confidence and were rated by coworkers on their level of advice taking; an advice taking task where power and confidence were self-reported; and two advice taking experiments where power was manipulated. Results consistently showed a negative relationship between power and advice taking, and evidence of mediation through confidence. The fourth study also revealed that higher power participants were less accurate in their final judgments. Power can thus exacerbate the tendency for people to overweight their own initial judgment, such that the most powerful decision makers can also be the least accurate.

Source: Kelly E. See, Elizabeth W. Morrison, Naomi B. Rothman, Jack B. Soll, The detrimental effects of power on confidence, advice taking, and accuracy, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

Writing By Hand Strengthens The Learning Process

Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.


When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

We read differently on a screen than on paper. If you’re interested in why, check out the excellent book Proust and the Squid and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain.