Practical Ways to Use Reflection for Sticky Learning

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This post shares ways to close out each lesson and build in moments of reflection.

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Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of reflection in learning. You might say I’m reflecting on reflection.

How very meta of me.

Last week, a client sent me some feedback on an instructor-led course. On a summary slide, he left the comment, “Do we really need this slide?” Naturally, my response was a resounding “YES!” Obviously, we need a summary, right? Taking it out would be instructional design blasphemy. I was quick to tell him that reflection is critical for learning.

Then he pointed out that the slide wasn’t really asking the participants to reflect. It was just a list of topics—telling participants what we had covered in the lesson. Ouch. He was right. The slide broke a cardinal rule of instructional design: Telling Ain’t Training.

 That conversation caused me to reflect on the importance of always doing what’s right for the learner rather than making easy (i.e., lazy) design choices when faced with tight timelines or heavy workloads. And I started brainstorming better ways to close out each lesson and build in moments of reflection, which I’ll share with you in this post.

The Importance of Reflection in Learning

“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”

Reflection is a way for your brain to practice retrieving information. It can help you form connections between newly learned information and prior knowledge and experience. It can cause you to visualize yourself performing an activity in a better way—which activates the same neural pathways in your brain as actually doing it and can help you get better at it. Reflection is one of the most useful tools in your ID toolbox for creating sticky learning.

Practical Ways to Use Reflection in Learning

Write to Learn

As discussed in Chapter 4 of Make It Stick, one way to encourage reflection is through an activity called “write to learn.” Participants are asked to write a summary of what they learned in their own words, relating it to concepts learned elsewhere or perhaps generating examples.

The book shares results from a study of 800 college students. Those who participated in write-to-learn activities performed significantly better than those who simply copied information from slides.

Reflection Breaks

In instructor-led classes, whether face-to-face or virtual, carve out 10 minutes at the end of the session for a reflection break. Allow participants to write for five minutes about what they learned, and then use the other five minutes to let them share their reflections with the whole class or in small groups. The individual time to reflect is important, so don’t skip it.

Provide prompts for participants to reflect on and discuss such as:

  • What are your five biggest takeaways from today?
  • What are some examples of [a concept or principle learned]?
  • How can you apply [concept or principle] when [performing a job-specific task]?
  • What do you know about [topic] that you didn’t know before completing [a lesson, exercise, or project]?
  • What would you do differently if you were to do [a specific exercise or project] again?

Scenarios and Case Studies

Present a fictitious story or a real-life case study. Then ask participants reflection questions like:

  • What was done well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How does this story related to what you do in your job?
  • What would you do differently?
  • How can you apply what you learned from the story to do your job better?

This can be an effective way to close out a session or begin one—which I will focus on in next week’s post. Scenarios and case studies can also come in the middle of a learning event and help participants put the information into context, which makes it memorable.


Reflecting on an exercise or project is one of the most critical components of learning from the activity. Yet I’ve seen facilitators skip these essential discussions when they’re pressed for time, usually in favor or squeezing in more lecture.

If you’re a facilitator, never skip the debriefs. When you’re designing learning experiences for someone else to facilitate, emphasize the importance of debriefs in your activity instructions or facilitator guide. If possible, conduct a train-the-trainer session to explain and demonstrate the importance of debriefs.

Action Items

One of my favorite ways to close a session is by asking participants to choose specific actions they will commit to doing once they return to their jobs. It’s best to limit this to a few items—or even just one. For example:

  • What is one thing you learned today that you can implement tomorrow to improve [a specific skill]?
  • Take five minutes to write down what you learned today. Then circle three ideas you can immediately put into practice to make a difference in your job.
  • Schedule time on your calendar to work on one key idea from today’s session.

This blog post by WorkSMART lists some creative ways to frame these reflection questions.

What About eLearning and Other Asynchronous Activities?

Reflection isn’t limited to instructor-led learning experiences. You can also use structured reflection exercises during and after asynchronous courses. Consider the following mechanisms for building in reflection time:

  • Text entry questions
  • A companion workbook
  • Discussion boards
  • Closed social media groups (e.g., Slack channels, Facebook groups)
  • Follow-up conversations with a mentor

I’m eager to try out this tutorial for building a dynamic workbook in Storyline that lets the learner save or print their responses, which could be useful in guiding discussions with a mentor or supervisor afterward.

Spaced Practice

The forgetting curve tells us that most people begin to forget what they learned immediately after a learning event, and if they don’t practice it, most of the new information will soon disappear.  

Educ320, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, if we regularly recall what we learned, the forgetting curve isn’t so steep, and we remember more. Consider the following ways of supporting spaced practice for sticky learning:

  • Scheduled conversations with a mentor
  • Discussions during regular team meetings
  • Periodic questions via:
    • Email campaigns
    • Texts
    • Social media (e.g., Slack channel)
    • Discussion boards/forums


I began this post by sharing a conversation with a client that caused me to reflect on my instructional design choices for closing out a lesson. Something else happened last week that reinforced the importance of reflection for me. Rather suddenly, through the gift of adoption, I became a grandmother to a beautiful baby girl! Her name is Selah. The word Selah is found frequently in the biblical book of Psalms. It is thought to be a musical direction meaning to pause and reflect upon what has been said.

I encourage you to take time regularly to pause and reflect. What wonderful things are happening in your world? What could you be doing better?

Think about the last project you completed. What design choices did you make? How did they work out? What would you do differently next time?


What's Hatching in the Nest

My client’s feedback this week caused me to reconsider how I was closing out lessons. Next week, I’ll write about how to start a lesson. Is it important to list the learning objectives? How do you “hook” a learner and get their attention? Share your thoughts in the comments, and you may be featured in next week’s post.

Resources for Learning More

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