Learning by thinking

Di Stefano et al. find that reflection is an important step in the learning process.

I’ve always liked learning by teaching. Be it in sailing as a teenager or more recently in oceanography – I have always understood concepts better when I had to teach them to others. I have also heard tales from several professors I work with about how many concepts are only understood by students once they start working as student tutors. Intuitively, that has always made sense to me: Since I had to explain something to others, I had to think more deeply about it in order to make sure I had a comprehensive explanation ready. In other words, I was forced to reflect on what I had learned and that improved my learning.

Recently, I came across this study by Di Stefano et al. (2014), titled “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance”. There the authors describe the same thing: “learning can be augmented by deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing”. But, contrary to what they were expecting, they did not find that sharing the reflection did have a significant effect on performance, at least not when it happened in addition to reflection – the main factor always seemed to be the reflection.

Interestingly, this seems to work through the reflection’s effect on self-efficacy: Reflection builds confidence that one is able to use the new skills to achieve a goal. This, in turn, leads to more learning.

This is again something that intuitively makes sense to me: Whenever I have been writing learning journals or been doing portfolios for one course or another, I felt like I was  constantly learning new things and achieving larger or smaller goals, whereas without documenting all those small victories they never stood out enough to be remembered even minutes later. So documenting them then, of course, made me feel more confident in my ability to work with whatever specific set of skills I was working on at that time.

So for me, the take-home message of this study is to encourage reflection whenever I get the chance. This sounds platitudinous, but what I mean is that am going to take every opportunity I get to encourage the use of learning journals, of blogs, of teaching. Both for the learning gain and for the feeling of gained self-efficacy.

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