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ATD Blog

Looking Back to Advance Forward Faster

Thursday, December 17, 2020

As we head into 2021, it is the time of the year when many people pause from all of their activity and look back to assess what has happened. This happens formally at the organizational level and usually trickles down to the division, team, and individual levels. This may result in an annual report or a Year in Review document or video circulated to all. The process may also be reflected via individual performance evaluations. For many, this reflection also happens on a personal level. We spend time reviewing the past year by going through calendars and photos to find just the right highlights to share with family and friends in cards or letters. This is the time of year to take a trip down memory lane to remember the many adventures, both positive and negative.

For talent professionals, reflection and looking back is a critical component of the learning process. Most of us have a large portfolio of reflection activities at the ready to insert into learning experiences. We have memorized the John Dewey adage and put it into practice: We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on the experience.

Why is reflection important? What actually happens when we reflect? And how can we capitalize on this typical component of a learning solution to enhance the stickiness of the content and the overall experience?

During a recent Forum working session, participants were asked to reflect on a previous learning experience using several different trigger questions. After these activities were over, they were asked to describe what was happening when they did this reflection. The participants listed that they:

  • Slow down, process, and digest what they have done or experienced or learned.
  • Think it helps to make connections that may not have been obvious before.
  • Recognize learning gaps and the growth or learning.
  • Believe it helps “cement” important knowledge, behaviors and desired outcomes and also brings them back up to the forefront.
  • Feel it gives them a chance to restate what they have “learned” and gives them possible. avenues of approach to strengthen what they have learned.
  • Think it stills and focuses their scattered, disconnected thoughts.
  • Believe it allows for deeper connection and thinking rather than surface-level “blowing through” of content.

In learning terms, reflection is a diagnostic tool for:

  • Pausing to assess circumstances, actions, performance, and results
  • Unpacking actions and the component pieces from an experience, thus allowing you to put pieces back together in a different way
  • Intentionally synthesizing, abstracting, and articulating key ideas from an experience

Based on research and as highlighted in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the skills involved during reflection include:

  • Retrieval: Recalling ideas, facts, concepts, events, and experiences from memory. Doing this is like creating a path in the woods, the more frequently you walk on it, the more defined the path becomes. A test is a form of reflection and uses active retrieval. It tells you what you know and what you do not know. It also serves as a roadmap for where you need to focus next.
  • Elaboration: Connecting new experiences and ideas with what you already know from earlier actions and learning. Making these connections helps to ground an abstract idea, concept, or “aha” with something more concrete, thus increasing the “stickiness” of the new experience.
  • Generation: Rephrasing in your own words or weaving together thoughts, experiences, impressions, and feelings in a new way.

While most of us think about reflection as a process at the end of a meeting, day, learning session, or project, there are three specific times for using reflection:

  • Before an Experience: This is like priming a pump. Use triggers such as “How might we tackle this task, lesson, or project?”
  • During an Experience: Use triggers such as “What is happening in the moment? Are we focused on the task? Do we need to make course corrections?”
  • After an Experience: Use triggers such as “What happened? Who did what? What are the results? How might we get better at getting better?”

What are the benefits of reflection? Another quote that fits here is attributed to Confucius, who said that, “Learning without reflection is a waste; reflection without learning is dangerous.” In essence, reflection benefits us by:

  • Building confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (self-efficacy a la Bandura’s theory); it creates a cycle of self-confidence.
  • Lowering barriers to change; success with learning begets more success with learning.
  • Becoming a mental model for thinking about your thinking when used habitually thus catalyzing continuous learning and improvement.

So, as you prepare to move into 2021 with optimism and renewed energy, look back before moving forward. Take time to review and reflect on how to capitalize on the lessons learned in 2020 through the power of reflection. Use a more formal model such as the Army After Action Review or one of the most common retrospective triggers, the Plus Delta:

  • What worked with your reflection activities?
  • What did not work so well or what could be improved to enhance retrieval, elaboration, and generation?
  • What surprised you?

What can you learn from this discussion on reflection that will enable you to get better at getting better with creating learning solutions during 2021? How might you make reflection a daily habit that helps you and your employees build improvements daily, weekly, monthly, and so on?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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Thank you for this thought-provoking article. You have given us quite a few gems of knowledge to take with us.
Hi Natasha - I appreciate your comments. Reflection is so important and there are so many fun ways to do it. I jest read recently about using the design thinking tool - Rose. Bud. Thorn. for daily reflection or for meetings. (Roses = what worked; Buds = what have potential for being successful; Thorns = what did not work.
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