Why Reflection Drives Learning

It certainly happened to me as a kid. I would be finishing up a big exam, reviewing my answers, and I’d take another glance at a tough question, wondering: Should I change my answer? Or should I keep my first, instinctual response?

Talk to a few people, and most believe that your first response your best response. In other words, they would advise me to go with my gut. But a solid body of evidence suggests otherwise, and changes to answers on exams usually boost test scores. By thinking through the question one more time, we generally improve our performance.

The Value of Reflection

This speaks to a bigger problem. People don’t do enough reflecting, particularly when it comes to learning, and a growing body of research suggests that people can gain a richer form of expertise by doing nothing. Indeed, one recent study showed that when it comes to developing a new skill, reflection can provide greater learning outcomes than actual practice.

I gained some first-hand experience in the need for deliberation when I recently picked up neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang from the airport. A professor at the University of Southern California, Immordino-Yang has done some innovative work on the power of deliberation in learning. She was visiting Washington and asked me to swing past the airport for our interview.

As I drove away from the curb, I began to pepper Immordino-Yang with questions. But while she provided nuanced explanations, I struggled to understand. Immordino-Yang told me about her research—”we measure brain activity”—yet her words seemed to just dash past me.

Then Immordino-Yang noted that “dynamic learning is a process of moving between thoughtful reflection and a kind of simulation in your head.” But I couldn’t do more than nod along mindlessly.

American University now offers its students coloring books, which say on the cover: “Take a moment, relax.”

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The distractions of driving were part of the problem. With my attention focused on the highway, I couldn’t pay enough attention to her explanations. But more than that, I wasn’t engaged in what Immordino-Yang calls “productive mind wandering.” My brain wasn’t reflecting on her comments. I wasn’t contemplating her remarks, noodling over her comments, and so I didn’t really learn all that much from the conversation.

For Immordino-Yang, my frustrated attempts to understand were typical–and disturbingly common. After all, our society prizes action, and generally speaking, rumination is a sign of weakness. Individuals who spend a lot of time in contemplation can seem tired, eccentric, or plain lazy. Former president George W. Bush was known as the decider-in-chief, not the deliberator-in-chief.

But Immordino-Yang has found that people gain understanding during quiet moments. Our brain needs to relax in order to fully make sense of something. “The brain’s default mode is not just a kind of resting state. It’s an active consolidation mechanism,” she told me. To learn, “students need to have the time and opportunities and skill and encouragement to be able to go inside and kind of internally reflect.”

Deliberate Deliberating

When it comes to learning, not doing anything at all brings other important benefits, and deliberation also give us an opportunity to find errors. When we calmly review our work, we’re more likely to spot obvious mistakes and gaffs. Take changing an answer on an exam again. One of the reasons it pays to switch answers on a test is that a moment of respite makes it easier to uncover blunders.

Reflection also gives us the opportunity to uncover new ideas. When we quietly consider a skill or topic, we’re more innovative. This is clear in the research. Spending time outside helps people develop novel solutions to problems, for instance, while daydreaming has been shown to boost original insights. One recent study found that if someone plays with some plastic bricks for a while, they do better on creativity tests.

This idea also helps explain why insights often come to us while we’re in the shower. Or why walking the dog often seems like the best time to think through an thorny issue at work. In these relaxing moments of solitude, we’re reflecting and better able to dream up new ideas and approaches.

Given all the research, some schools have taken up the contemplation banner. The diversions of technology are the target in some areas, and a few universities have banned cell phones. Other schools have pushed students to take more study breaks, and the law library at American University now offers its students coloring books, which say on the cover: “Take a moment, relax.”

People don’t do enough reflecting, particularly when it comes to learning.

I once met up with Susan Ambrose, the senior vice provost of Northeastern University. During our interview, she argued that people often assume that reflection just happens in learning. Put content in front of someone, and the material will be quietly transformed into understanding. “You see this in a lot of college courses,” she said. “Faculty love their subject, and so they give students as much material as possible.”

But Ambrose argued that learning requires moments of focused deliberation, and at Northeastern, Ambrose has rolled out various initiatives to help students engage more directly in reflection. In the school’s internship program, for instance, students now regularly answer questions on what it’s like to work for a company or nonprofit.

“Step back and think.”

Kara Morgan was one of the students who participated in the college’s revamped internship program, working for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh. For Morgan, the experience of living in Cambodia was exhilarating. A new country, a new language, and the writing assignment served a crucial purpose, encouraging Morgan to make sense of her experiences. “It made me consider what else I wanted to accomplish while I was there,” Morgan told me. “The essays forced me to take a step back and think.”

In the end, I actually had a similar insight as Morgan, and after my interview with neuroscientist Immordino-Yang, I also saw the direct benefits of increased contemplation.

​After dropping the scientist off at her hotel, I started to drive home, and alone in my car, my mind began to drift. I began to think about Immordino-Yang’s theories, and as my car purred along the streets, I felt relaxed and reflective and finally, it seemed like I, too, understood.

–Ulrich Boser​

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