Five levels of reflection – and memory

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Confucius

Reflection is one of the most important factors that contribute to successful learning. According to the constructivist model of learning, people play an active role in constructing their understanding and knowledge of the world through reflection. They use reflection to embed their new information within their existing concepts and experiences. Some would say that learning cannot take place without reflection. Lev Vygotsky, the pioneer of social constructivism in learning, talked about “consciousness being formed by communication”. In other words, reflecting on and then explaining what you have done, are doing, and intend to do next, becomes a significant learning activity in its own right.

This has significant consequences for understanding and creating the conditions under which people learn most effectively. It’s not enough to tell people about a concept, skill, or behaviour, they also need opportunities to experience these, and then reflect on their experience to incorporate them into their model of the world. For example, I might intellectually understand the steps in a negotiation model, but until I sit across the table from someone and use that model in the real world, I don’t really ‘know’ it. And until I practise that model many times in many different situations, and reflect on the results I get, I won’t be able to use it as fluently as an expert. It will still be theoretical knowledge rather than practical.

What are the five levels of reflection? – the Learning Stack

Experts learn their expertise through experience, reflection, and deliberate practice. Let’s look at how we can use this to underpin the thinking for a learning intervention and subsequent learning transfer.

I have developed a very simple model that I call the ‘Learning Stack’. It’s based on the premise that reflection can have levels of ‘quality’. The model has five levels. Better-quality reflection at the higher levels is far more likely to ensure that learning is embedded and results in sustained behaviour change. In other words, better quality reflection supports learning transfer.

Let’s consider what these five levels of reflection look like…

  1. Unconscious reflection:

I know ‘unconscious reflection’ sounds like an oxymoron, but it occurs when we practise something and improve our performance without consciously reflecting on what we need to do to improve. We have an unconscious targeting mechanism that guides us towards improvement. This ‘practice makes perfect’ process is very evident when we practise physical skills, such as driving or typing or sports skills.

  1. Conscious reflection:

This is what we most commonly think of as reflection – where we consider what happened. Note that for this type of reflection to be useful from a learning perspective, it needs to be questions-based. We need to be asking ourselves how things could be different, who can do it better, how do they do it and so on. Simply reflecting on how well, or how badly, you did something has little effect without a questioning overlay.

  1. External reflection:

If we take our thoughts and externalise them to a journal, a colleague, or even the dog, we need to re-formulate the disorganised content of our internal processing into a sequence of ideas and language that the outside world can understand. This ‘translation’ for external consumption adds another level to our thinking and engages larger areas of our neural network.

  1. External reflection with consequences:

When we think there may be consequences to us of externalising our reflection, or if we think someone will judge us based on what we put out there, we will think twice. It adds another layer of reflection when we imagine what someone else will think about us if we share our reflection with a coach or a boss, or in a blog or an email.

  1. Teaching someone else:

I am sure you have heard the aphorism that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I believe it is more accurate to say that the best way to learn something is to prepare the lesson plan with which to teach it. It is the reflection on how to prepare and present the material to novices that deepens understanding, rather than the presentation itself.

The audience effect

Level 4 is a result of what social scientists term the ‘audience effect’. There have been some fascinating experiments on this effect in which students were asked to put their English homework on a blog rather than just hand it in to their teacher. The extra level of exposure their homework received caused them to improve their standards considerably. This is well explained in Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson, where he cites a range of experiments and research. He sums it up on page 55:

“The effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.”

This clarity through expression is one of the reasons communities of practice are successful and valued by experts. A community of practice provides a context in which people reflect, reinforce, and extend their knowledge by discussing it with each other.

Where are your learners on the stack?

Although this ‘Learning Stack’ is a very simplistic view of a complex process, it is useful. For any learning intervention, consider how far up this learning stack you are pushing the learners. For example, if you give them something to read you are pushing them to level 2. In the classroom, when you generate discussion between the trainees, you are pushing them to level 3. When they are debriefed on an activity by their manager or a coach, you are pushing them to level 4 and so on.

The level of reflection correlates with understanding and recall. This has implications in terms of the amount of time it takes for someone to reach proficiency, not just in relation to how far up the learning stack they have been pushed, but also how frequently they are on the learning stack in relation to a specific set of skills. By exposing learners to a systematically organised set of situations in a compressed timeframe, they experience what might otherwise take years to accumulate.

Memory and retrieval

It is also worth considering this alongside the way that memory works. When we consider learning in its most abstract form, we can think of it as occurring in three related phrases. The first is encoding, the second is consolidation, and the third is retrieval. Encoding refers to how marks on a page or sounds in the air can be translated into something that can be stored in the brain. Consolidation is the actual storage process, which is the modification, over the short or long term, of neural activity within the brain to support memory. Finally, retrieval is the pulling out or accessing of previously learned information.

What is interesting here is that our traditional learning efforts tend to be focused on encoding and consolidation, when our end goal is retrieval. Sure, we must get the information input and memorise it in the first place, but if we cannot retrieve it reliably, it is useless to us.

Using retrieval for learning

Our ability to retrieve information is affected by how often we retrieve it, so a good learning strategy is retrieval practice. Each act of retrieval or recall causes further elaboration of that information and generates stronger consolidation, which in turn makes it easier to recall it again later. The frequency of retrieval seems to signal to the mind the relative importance of the information and thus how readily it will need to be retrieved again in the future. Retrieval practice is probably the most effective way of learning, so any activities following a training course that require recall will help cement the learning in place.

There is one caveat here though: what we retrieve is not identical to what we originally encoded and stored. It is a compilation that is created on the fly during retrieval from the current context and the available retrieval cues. What we encode and store is not a verbatim like-for-like representation of what we experienced. It may feel like this to us, but our brain is fooling us. I am sure you have heard about cases where several eyewitnesses described the getaway car differently. If we encourage retrieval, but don’t correct a retrieved compiled memory that is false, we will embed that false ‘memory’ more strongly than the original input. Retrieval appears to modify the memory in anticipation of how we might need it in the future. This is one of the problems with exams.

In a high-pressure exam, with stress neurochemicals on the march, what is retrieved is remembered, and yet in a typical exam an answer is not corrected if it is wrong. Unless the student is answering questions 100% correctly, they are actually ‘learning/embedding’ incorrect information that is likely to outlast and ‘trump’ the correct information the next time that subject is recalled.

What are the Strategies for retrieval-based learning?

  • Enhance metacognition. Many people predict that if they simply re-study material, it will increase retention. But this is not the most effective approach. Help learners to see that a more effective strategy for enhancing learning and long-term retention is to repeatedly practise recalling the information one has studied.
  • Practise with a range of real-world scenarios. Studies show the importance of context in retrieval: when participants repeatedly retrieve knowledge in a testing environment, they perform better on the test. Information can, however, become ‘context-bound’ when taught with limited context-specific examples. It makes sense, then, to ensure a wide range of simulations or real-world scenarios in practice.
  • Provide multiple self-checks and exercises. Since repeated recall has been shown to increase long-term retention, provide multiple opportunities for learners to test themselves for critical information, even when they have proven they know the material. (Of course, most learners would not bother with a second self-check activity unless they were informed about the effectiveness of retrieval-based learning.)
  • Provide opportunities for group discussions. After a learning event, take advantage of discussions with colleagues, fellow trainees or a coach/manager that facilitate the recall of critical knowledge. Set the discussions up to include focused questioning.

How memory is organised

Reflection on and recall of a memory modifies it in terms of how it is stored for future retrieval. Memories are not like documents we keep in computers or file boxes. We don’t simply make them once and store them. Instead, we grow our memories as we develop them into sets of complex neural connections. This takes time. Once some neural changes have occurred, we can go back and embed the learning by practising the use of our new neural connections. This strengthens their interconnectivity and the way they are organised.

Experts tend to organise their stored knowledge based on the categories of problems for which that knowledge can be used, whereas a recent graduate has their knowledge organised and encoded in a way that is similar to a textbook. As graduates gain experience and recall the knowledge for use, it reorganises, or perhaps it might be better to say, it gets re-indexed for easier future retrieval, based on how it is more likely to be used in the future. This, in turn, improves the way they interpret information from their environment, particularly in spotting patterns that a novice would not notice, and improves their ability to remember, reason, and solve problems. This suggests that the way you organise the delivery of content within the training room will have an impact on how useful it will be later in the workplace, and how easy it will be to transfer.

A bit of neuroscience

In the NeuroLeadership Journal (2014)*, Josh Davis and colleagues published an update to their AGES model, ‘The Science of Making Learning Stick’. Their neuroscience-based AGES model was developed originally in 2010 and suggests four principles that embed new learning so that it sticks.

The four principles summarise the big drivers of memory systems in the brain during encoding: there must be sufficient attention (A) on the new material; learners must generate (G) their own connections to knowledge that they already have; moderate levels of emotion (E) are necessary and coming back to the information regularly – spacing (S) – works wonders.

According to Davis et al., the essential ingredients of learning are those factors that create optimal conditions for one brain region, called the hippocampus, to do its job. It registers those experiences that are to be remembered when they occur, and then later re-activates the relevant brain regions in appropriate synchrony across the whole cortex, facilitating recall of those memories. There are ways to leverage Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing to help the hippocampus perform optimally.

(A) – Attention

There are three things about the relationship between attention and learning that are central to optimising learning.

  1. Attention has limits of only about 20 minutes before needing a refresher.
  2. Multitasking is the enemy of learning because the brain uses rapid task switching rather than genuine multitasking. Ironically, people who self-report that they are good at multitasking are usually worse performers of it than people who don’t. Trying to practise it to get good at it only makes it worse because it speeds up the task switching and makes each mini period of focus shallower.
  3. Attention is especially susceptible to interference with materials of the same modality (such as reading language and hearing language). In other words, don’t speak until the trainees have read your slide, or just use a relevant picture on the slide and then you can speak over it.

(G) Generation

Generation is the act of creating internal connections to new or presented ideas. Importantly, it is the act of generation that matters and not whether the connections that are made are brilliant. Think of it as welcoming the new idea into your mind and introducing it to its new neighbours. Insight, that eureka moment when the unconscious mind solves a problem, is perhaps the most valuable form of generation. Insights are the result of wide-scale reorganisation of the elements of a problem into a new and previously non-obvious solution.

Insight is directly related to generation by connecting ideas in a way they have not been previously connected. Generation is the underpinning for the success of level 5 reflection in the learning stack. Teaching, or even mentally preparing to teach an idea, is such a sure-fire way to generate new connections and thus deep learning that we would be remiss not to take advantage of it whenever we can.

(E) Emotion

It turns out that levels of emotional arousal matter for making learning last, although too much can be distracting and therefore counterproductive. Think back to experiences you remember well. There was probably a significant emotional component at the time, but ‘flat’ experiences don’t last so long in our memory.

With emotional arousal, the hippocampus gets additional signals from brain regions that respond to arousing stimuli, and this helps to activate the hippocampus to the point where it can do its job more effectively. Both positive and negative emotions have an impact on memory retention, but positive is preferable because it is harder to over-arouse a positive emotion. Positive emotions can facilitate other factors helpful for learning, such as insight and social collaboration.

(S) Spacing

Having some space (usually a day or more) between learning and review sessions is the most counterintuitive and yet perhaps most important of the four learning principles. People think that cramming the learning into a marathon session works. However, one study found that 90% of participants had better longer-term memory performance after spacing. Despite this result, 72% of the participants reported that cramming was more effective than spacing. Perhaps the myth about cramming comes from our experiences of successfully cramming the night before a test in which short-term memory was rewarded, while longer-term retention was mostly irrelevant.

Within a study session, a spacing of a few minutes with a distracting filler task is useful, and for longer spacing, a period that involves sleep is ideal. Sleeping provides optimal conditions for processes that integrate newly encoded memories into long-term storage. Sleep not only helps the brain to strengthen memories, but also to actively forget irrelevant information, thus optimising memory for what is relevant.

How does the learning stack relate to learning transfer?

Think about the learning stack and the way memory works in terms of learning transfer. Learners need to do new things after training and reflect on their experiences of doing so. They also need to get plenty of practice recalling information within an environment that offers correction when they make mistakes while practising using the information.

So, how do we get them doing new things related to what they have learnt? Sometimes, and I mean only sometimes, they will do new things simply because they now know how to do them, they think it’s a good idea to do them after being on the training course, and their environment does not stifle their desire to do the new thing or stop them doing it.

It is far more likely, however, that whatever you want them to do differently after the training course will require the learner practising, experimenting, and going through a reflective process to try and use their newfound classroom generated knowledge and embed it into their own work context. This will not happen spontaneously. They will need prompts to trigger the behaviours of doing the practice and experimentation, and then reflecting on it.

Setting up a sequence or prompts to aid learning and application of learning is what I term a ‘learning workflow’.

Find out more about learning workflows

And get the 13 Barriers to Implementing Learning Transfer ebook


* Davis, Balda, Rock, McGinniss and Davachi, NeuroLeadership Journal (Vol 5, August 2014), ‘The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model’