The more difficult the challenge, the more it helps to think it through
Intriguing research suggests we underestimate the value of reflection in learning new and complex skills
“Practice makes perfect,” is a well-known adage, and very few people would question the need to repeatedly complete a complex task in order to master it over time. From music to surgery, learning at the highest level often involves intensive repetitive work. However, a team of researchers (Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary P. Pisano, and Bradley R. Staats) asked a related question, namely, what is the value of reflecting on the completed tasks compared to repeating the tasks yet again? In other words, they ask, imagine a surgeon in training who seeks a high degree of proficiency through repeated operations. After extensive practical experience, she is given a choice: spend the next two weeks doing only more surgeries or do fewer surgeries and use the remaining time to reflect (defined as “codifying and documenting” progress) on what she has learned so far in the process.
To find out the answer to their query, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with groups of people learning a new role. Some subgroups focused their time exclusively on practice. Some sub-groups were allowed to mix practice with time for reflection. For example, in one test, a group of new call-center workers at Wipro BPO was asked to learn the call management processes of a new client. One group worked continuously to learn the new practices. A second group was given regular time to pause and reflect on what they had done and learned during various stages in the training process.
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