Reflection is the adhesive that makes learning stick. Without it, what you’ve learned simply slips away.
In other words, reflection strengthens retention.
Your ability to change your behavior and correct your activities suffers if you have no insight into your actions or take time to make sense of them. Reflection creates psychological distance from work, which allows people to examine experiences, find meaning in them, generate new knowledge and change behavior.
Our research shows that successful learning must consist of action — mental, physical or both — in conjunction with an opportunity to reflect and process the action and its outcome. People learn by doing and then through the process of thinking about what they have done. The iterative action-reflection-action-reflection cycle generates retention and a foundation for future action, and allows people to examine experiences, find meaning in them and generate new knowledge and insight.
So, what can we do to improve learning at the workplace? We can apply it in four ways:
1. Organizations need to engineer learning experiences that are on the job. Organizations must expose leaders to experiences that can be springboards to future action and possibly to career paths. Projects that demand new and different capabilities — for example, stepping into another employee’s role or regular job rotation — can further lead to additional understanding and experience. To make the most of these experiences, encourage people to be conscious of their actions, aware of their reflection activity and diligent in sharing what they’ve learned with their coworkers.
2. Include reflection in coaching conversations. Coaches can encourage reflection by asking questions that cause people to give more attention to the problem and quietly reflect on possible solutions. Insights coming from the coached employee should be nurtured through additional questions, or rounds of questions, that go beyond the initial reflection. A great coach then motivates the individual to take action quickly based upon the insight.
3. Make reflection part of the work. It can be very difficult to maintain a discipline of intentional reflection. While reflection encourages people to pause, evaluate and become aware of their new knowledge, it is most useful when practiced on a regular and ongoing basis as a part of daily work. A simple set of questions that can be built into projects or even meetings can help guide reflection and deeper insights.
4. Diversify learning options to encourage reflection. New technologies and options allow for novel and creative ways to build in reflection. For example, learners can have learning delivered to their mobile phones or tablets, and can instantly share what they’ve learned on social channels. This can spark ongoing conversation that improves ongoing understanding. With proper participation and modeling of behavior, the ongoing social conversations can be the foundation for reinforcement and collective learning.
If you want to make your learning stick, make sure you add reflection to the process. Remember, reflection leads to retention, which should be the goal of every learning program.