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Think not do: how reflection improves test scores

Published: Sunday, May 18 2014 8:05 p.m. MDT

Harvard Business School released research this week that found a lesson deliberately coupled with time to reflect on what was just learned is more effective than rote practice.

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Harvard Business School released research this week that found a lesson deliberately coupled with time to reflect on what was just learned is more effective than rote practice.

Researchers explain that “reflection” in this sense means, “taking time after a lesson to synthesize, abstract, or articulate the important points.”

“In the lab portion of the study, participants completed a math brainteaser under time pressure and wrote about what strategy they used or might use in the future to solve the problem. This group did 18 percent better in a second-round test than their control-group counterparts, who were not given time to reflect,” Nanette Fondas explained in The Atlantic.

The same experiment was performed with newly hired customer service workers. During training, half the new hires were given time to reflect on each training session. They were asked to write in a journal about what they learned in at least two of the sessions. Those who were given time to reflect on their lessons scored 23 percent higher than those who were just put to work after training.

In response to potential criticism to the results the writers of the research noted that in the case of test scores, 18 percent is the difference between and A and a C, while 23 percent is the difference between an A and a C-minus in many school districts and universities.

The study questioned the time-honored tradition of learning by doing. The hypothesis was that people who are given time to conceptualize and process what they are learning understand material better than those who are taught through mere repetition.

“This is not to say that learning by doing isn’t valuable. Certainly it aids the learning process,” the researchers explained in their report. “But those who reflect to better understand do in fact learn faster and more efficiently.”

In the study group that did math problems, the first group did similar problems over and over again, while the second group did two rounds separated by a period of reflection. During each person’s time to reflect they were told to consider the problems they had just solved and how they would solve the next round of similar problems. Not only did the reflection group score higher, but their improvement was faster and seemed to last longer.

The research noted that the individuals in the group who worked without reflection did improve throughout the test, getting better by the end of the testing. The research showed that even though those who did not reflect were given the same amount of initial training and a longer time to actually work through problems, they did not accomplish as much or as quickly as those who were given time to think.

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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