Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2015

Learning by Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection

by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano and Bradley Staats

Abstract

Research on learning has primarily focused on the role of doing (experience) in fostering progress over time. Drawing on literature in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, we propose that one of the critical components of learning is reflection, or the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience. In particular, we argue that purposeful reflection on one's accumulated experience leads to greater learning than the accumulation of additional experience. We explain this boost in learning through self-efficacy: reflection builds confidence in the ability to achieve a goal, which in turn translates into higher rates of learning. We test the resulting model experimentally, using a mixed-method design that combines two laboratory experiments with a field experiment conducted in a large business-process outsourcing company in India. We find that individuals who are given time to reflect on a task improve their performance at a greater rate than those who are given the same amount of time to practice with the same task. Our results also show that if individuals themselves are given the choice to either reflect or practice, they prefer to allocate their time to gaining more experience with the task—to the detriment of their learning.

Keywords: learning by thinking; reflection; knowledge creation; learning; self-efficacy; Perception; Performance; Learning; Knowledge; Cognition and Thinking; India;

Citation:

Di Stefano, Giada, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats. "Learning by Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-093, March 2014. (Revised March 2015.)