The One Thing You Need to Do to Gain Knowledge November 06, 2017 10:02

Rethinking our learning is not just a matter of evaluation.

role of reflection

Rethinking our learning is not just a matter of evaluation. We also need to look for a deeper sense of understanding. We need to deliberate on knowledge and skills.

As a society, we’re not inclined toward this sort of rumination. Our world places a lot of emphasis on action. Thinking is often a sign of weakness. People who spend a lot of time noodling over decisions can seem lazy. Former president George W. Bush called himself the decider in chief, not the deliberator in chief.

For another example, take soccer goalies. During a penalty shot, it typically pays for a goalkeeper to stay in the middle of the goal rather than diving for the posts. By a small but measurable margin, most penalty shots are aimed toward the center, and the goalies have a better chance at stopping the ball if they stay in the middle of the goal.

But generally soccer goalies dive to the left or right. Why? According to Giadia Di Stefano and her colleagues, “it looks and feels better to have missed the ball” by doing something rather than doing nothing. In other words, the goalie wants to look purposeful and engaged and decisive, and so they jump to the left or right, despite the fact that they’re actually less likely to prevent a goal.


For an education-related example, take something like changing an answer on a test. Should you switch the answer? Or go with your raw instincts? Talk to a few people, and most believe that the first answer on a test is the best answer. In other words, generally people want to go with their gut. Like the soccer goalie, they don’t want to seem like they’re waffling or brooding or overly pensive. But a solid body of evidence suggests otherwise: Fixes to test items usually boost scores. By thinking through an answer one more time, we generally improve our performance.

It turns out that deliberation is a crucial part of learning. To understand any sort of skill or knowledge, we have to reflect on that skill or bit of knowledge. This is different than simply checking on the details. It’s a matter of dwelling on the experience.

The best example, though, might be guitarist Pat Metheny. In the world of jazz guitar, Metheny is a superstar. He’s landed some twenty different Grammy's, playing with everyone from B. B. King to David Bowie. But Metheny continues to reflect on what he knows, setting aside time to figure out ways that he can get better. After each show, he’ll write up half a dozen pages about the experience. The short essay reflects on how he performed, detailing musical successes and failures, describing what he thought worked—and didn’t work.


Talking out loud can help a lot, too. It’s another way to slow down the thinking process, and after an experience—or even during an experience—people can improve their learning if they talk to themselves in ways that promote reflection: “So what do I do next?” or “What am I solving for again?”

To find out more about the role of reflection in learning, I once met up with Susan Ambrose. A cognitive scientist, Ambrose wrote the important book How Learning Works and is now the senior vice provost of Northeastern University in Boston.

People need time to think through a skill or bit of knowledge in some sort of focused way. As Ambrose told me, “The more knowledge that you get, the more you need to make those connections. But you need to be intentional about it.”