6 Reflection Tools to Boost Your Learning

Emma Weber

Last week I blogged about Jacob Barnett, a young, autistic teen, who spoke energetically on the TED stage about how every now and again we should stop learning, think about our learning and then start creating. Thanks to Stephen De Kalb from TP3 who, having read this, sent over a link to a particularly kindred piece of research from Harvard Business School.

Researchers Stefano, Gino, Pisano & Staats (2014) have found reflection to be a powerful component of learning.  Their results confirm that reflecting on learning and experience is in fact far more influential than learning from experience. Clearly there is real synergy between Jacob Barnett’s learning ideals and those coming out of Harvard Business School.

“Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off,” says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino , “When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy,” Gino says. “We’re more motivated and we perform better afterward.”


They found that with reflection in place after a learning event, you could significantly improve results from learning in the following 3 ways:

  • Increase your rate of learning through higher confidence in the ability to achieve a goal
  • Become more productive
  • Increase motivation which in turn leads to greater performance

Alongside the Harvard Business School researchers, and Jacob Barnett, I truly believe in the power of reflection as a tool to transfer learning and it is an integral part of our Turning Learning into Action™ methodology.

Let’s take a step back and consider what “reflection” really is. Perhaps it’s a word that conjures airy fairy notions for you. Perhaps in this busy world you think it’s something you don’t have time for. The dictionary defines reflection as “serious thought or consideration”. Clearly if we haven’t time for giving growth serious thought and consideration then that’s a concern.

While we can see much support for reflection, unfortunately people who have returned from a learning event often embark on a cycle of attempting to execute what they have learnt and use reflection in a non specific way.

Non specific reflection with no structure might sound like this:

  • “I’ve not done as much as I should have done”
  • “I should have done better than that”
  • “I could remember it on the course but back at the desk it all seemed different”
  • “I just couldn’t get it right back in the work place”

With this kind of self-talk, a person might be reflecting on the learning event, but not in a good way. The end result is that people frequently give up trying. They perceive that they are failing and are not good at the new process or will never master the new behaviour. They then layer on to this that it doesn’t work for them or doesn’t work in their particular work situation. In short, they give up practising or implementing what they have learnt, and go back to their old behaviour or way of doing things.

We believe the most effective reflection for learning transfer is when it is specific, structured and accountable. Make reflection specific by focusing on what specifically someone will put into place after a learning event. Add structure with a calibration on a scale of 1-10 of where they were and where they’ve got to, and use that to generate what the gaps are and next steps. Create accountability by holding them accountable to themselves or to others for the actions they’re going to take.

It’s important to raise awareness of the consequences of not changing the way the people reflect and give feedback to themselves. If there is no behavioural change the participants will get little benefit from the training, which means wasted resources of time, money and skills. The results they get back in the work place will be the same as they were before the learning. If they do what they have always done, they’ll get what they’ve always got. The important outcome is to break the cycle by trying and failing. The participants need to learn to reflect effectively, to give themselves some positive and useful feedback and then plan how to move forward.

Tools for Change

Of course learning can happen in many ways, not just on a program. For your personal growth and learning, here are six reflection or self talk strategies you can use at any time to boost your learning:

  • Keep a learning journal or a specific learning space in your diary, and ask yourself two specific questions every day: What worked really well today? What could I have done differently? Aim to have the ‘what worked really well’ comments double the ‘what could I have done differently’.
  • Make a specific time to review each day. If you really don’t want to write notes choose the same time each day to at least mentally review. Use the journey home from the office. Again ask the two key questions. What did I do really well today? What could I have done differently?
  • Buddy up with a colleague you trust and respect to have a five minute self-review each day. Suggest you talk about your own progress while the other person just listens. It’s important that the partner doesn’t start offering judgment. They can use this as an exercise in learning to listen without offering their own opinion.
  • Ask your colleagues to gently remind you when you are beating themselves up. Clients often ask their partners or friends to say something like “Um, sounds as if you’re just being human to me” to gently remind them when they’re stressing over not having got something right.
  • Combat negative language. Catch yourself and become familiar with your personal habitual negative response. ‘What a disaster! I did it all wrong’ can be reframed as ‘That was interesting! It didn’t quite go as I intended’.
  • Ensure if you are offering feedback to yourself, that you do it in the same manner that you would offer it to a person you were mentoring. What would you say? How would you say it? – bearing in mind that you are mentoring and want to motivate, encourage and get the best from the individual. The best way to experiment with this is by moving away from the desk and to a quiet area and reflect, as a mentor, just for five to ten minutes.

Through implementing some of the above strategies I believe people can raise the quality of the feedback and reflection they give themselves not only post a training course, but at any time. Any day can be an opportunity for growth.


Talk to us if you would like to learn more about how you can increase your return on a learning investment using powerful reflection
Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.