A Review of “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD and Lauren Thomas, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinators

A practical reason to implement reflection activities is to assist students in learning the material, and optimize their performance. In a business context, researchers evaluated three hypotheses about reflection, reflection and sharing, and self-efficacy in two lab tests and in the field (Di Stefano et al., 2014).

The two lab studies were used to identify the relationships between reflection, reflection and sharing, the influence of incentives, and self-efficacy. They found that (1) reflection improves performance, (2) self-efficacy mediates reflection and learning without reflection, and (3) reflection increases self-efficacy and performance (p. 11 and p. 24).

The field context is particularly interesting; at an international call center the authors tested these relationships in a practical way with new employees who were participating in a two-week training program.  The participants were assigned to one of three groups: control, reflection, and sharing. At the end of the work day, those assigned to the reflection group were given a basic journal prompt to reflect on the day’s activities and given 15 minutes to respond. Those in the sharing group were given a similar prompt to journal for 10 minutes, and then discuss with another participant for 5 minutes. In the field, reflection and sharing resulted in improved performance on a subsequent assessment and that self-efficacy explains that relationship.

While this paper has its reasonable limitations, it does provide an interesting connection to self-efficacy, a topic that many engineering educators are familiar with. The authors also introduce the importance of a social component to improving reflection. Essentially, reflection can be best supported when participants have the opportunity to engage with others who shared a similar experience.

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • The value of reflection. This paper provides some evidence indicating that reflection does improve performance. In each case, those who had the opportunity to reflect outperformed those who did not.
  • Social aspect of reflection. Incorporating a social component to reflection activities may assist students in achieving greater performance outcomes for the activities. In many engineering classrooms, creating a sense of community is a challenge.  This research does not specifically explore the topic, but it is likely that reflection activities with a social component may assist in that effort.

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • The researchers found that self-efficacy had a mediating effect on reflection and learning and that reflection predicted self-efficacy. How have you seen self-efficacy and reflection play out in your context/experience?
  • What are creative ways to implement a social component to reflection activities in the classroom?


Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G., & Staats, B. (2014). Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance. Harvard Business School Working Paper, 1-48.