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Why taking time to reflect is the best investment in learning you can make.

By Clive Martlew, Senior Associate Consultant, Taylor Clarke

How do we learn? I’ve been reading the excellent Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel - with an eye on what it can tell us about reflective practice. What struck me was the central role that reflection can play in almost all aspects of an evidence-based approach to learning. Reflection is the crucial habit that can turn day to day experiences, training events, knowledge acquisition and observation into genuine opportunities for learning and change.

The evidence is pretty strong that there are a few things we can do to learn more effectively. These key learning practices include:

  • Retrieving a meaningful event, experience or training from memory and describing it to ourselves or others verbally or in writing. This helps make the experience meaningful and connects it to what we already know.

  • Deepening this description by asking (or being asked) challenging questions to increase our insight, for example about the emotions we felt, how others saw it, its meaning and impact and lessons learned.

  • Repeating this process multiple times perhaps looking at the event from different perspectives or trying to recall those parts that weren’t initially brought to mind. Spacing and repetition like this helps consolidate learning and clarifies the most salient aspects of the experience.

  • Regularly retrieving and reflecting on multiple different types of events improves our ability to identify different types of challenge and therefore the chances of applying the correct solutions in future.

  • Elaborating on events and experiences by representing them in different ways, for example in writing, verbally, in a diagram or picture, through poetry, a bullet list, using metaphors, or storytelling. Elaboration helps us find different layers of meaning and connects new learning to existing knowledge.

  • Testing our judgement about what happened, its meaning and what we learned by exposing our reflections to the scrutiny of others such as a trusted peer or learning group. This helps overcome the ‘illusion of knowing’ and helps adjust our judgement to better reflect reality, or at least take account of a wider variety of possibilities.

  • Generating learning experiences for ourselves by setting a challenge, solving a problem, or experimenting with a new behaviour, and perhaps envisioning and rehearsing how these might play out in practice. This can be followed by seeking relevant theory or empirical evidence to make sense of what happened.

Investing in time for reflection helps us achieve all these learning benefits. As the Make it Stick authors observe:

“Some people never seem to learn. One difference perhaps, between those who do and don’t is whether they have cultivated the habit of reflection.” (p.66)

Reading. In previous blogs I’ve discussed some of the main approaches to reflection and how to use them to develop leadership capabilities.


Clive Martlew has over 30 years experience as a leadership coach. He was previously Head of Learning and Leadership Development with the Scottish Government and at the UK Department for International Development (DFID).


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