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Systematic Reflection: Implications for Learning From Failures and Successes

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Drawing on a growing stream of empirical findings that runs across different psychological domains, we demonstrated that systematic reflection stands out as a prominent tool for learning from experience. For decades, failed experiences have been considered the most powerful learning sources. Despite the theoretical and practical relevance, few researchers have investigated whether people can also learn from their successes. We showed that through systematic reflection, people can learn from both their successes and their failures. Studies have further shown that the effectiveness of systematic reflection depends on situational (e.g., reflection focus) and person-based (e.g., conscientiousness) factors. Given today's unrelenting pace and the abundance of activities in which people are involved, future researchers may want to investigate how to effectively integrate systematic reflection within the busy daily environment of the learner.
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Running Head: SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 1
Systematic Reflection: Implications for Learning from Failures and Successes
Shmuel Ellis1, 2
Tel Aviv University
Bernd Carette2, Frederik Anseel, and Filip Lievens
Ghent University
Paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science:
*Ellis, S., *Carette, B., Anseel, F., & Lievens, F. (2014). Systematic reflection: Implications
for learning from successes and failures. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23,
67-72.
(* First two authors contributed equally)
1 Address correspondence to Shmuel Ellis, Recanati Business School, Tel Aviv University,
Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel, email: sellis@post.tau.ac.il.
2 First and second author contributed equally to this paper.
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 2
Authors
Shmuel Ellis (sellis@post.tau.ac.il)
Recanati Business School
Tel Aviv University
Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv 69978
Israel
Bernd Carette (bernd.carette@ugent.be)
Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology
Ghent University
Henri Dunantlaan, 2
9000 Ghent
Belgium
Frederik Anseel (frederik.anseel@ugent.be)
Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology
Ghent University
Henri Dunantlaan, 2
9000 Ghent
Belgium
Filip Lievens (filip.lievens@ugent.be)
Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology
Ghent University
Henri Dunantlaan, 2
9000 Ghent
Belgium
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Abstract
Drawing on a growing stream of empirical findings that runs across different psychological
domains, we demonstrate that systematic reflection stands out as a prominent tool for learning
from experience. For decades, failed experiences have been considered the most powerful
learning sources. Despite the theoretical and practical relevance, scant research has
investigated whether people can also learn from their successes. We show that through
systematic reflection people can learn from both their successes and failures. Studies have
further shown that the effectiveness of systematic reflection depends on situational (e.g.,
reflection focus) and person-based factors (e.g., conscientiousness). Given today’s unrelenting
pace and the abundance of activities in which people are involved, future research may want
to investigate how to effectively integrate systematic reflection within the busy daily
environment of the learner.
KEYWORDS: reflection learning successes failures performance
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 4
Systematic Reflection: Implications for Learning from Failures and Successes
"We learn from failure, not from success!" In Bram Stoker’s classic novel ‘Dracula’
(1897), these were the words of Professor Van Helsing to Dr. Seward. It is not only
conventional wisdom that we learn most from failures and mistakes. For decades,
psychologists have considered failures as the most powerful learning sources. According to
Thorndike’s law of effect, negative outcomes that accompany failure serve as punishment,
increasing the probability of adapted behavior in subsequent events. Furthermore, traditional
attribution theories have posited that people who are capable of attributing failure to personal
and controllable factors (e.g., limited effort) learn the most (Weiner, 2000).
It is remarkable that scant research attention has been paid to the question whether
people can also learn from their successes. Learning from successes is not only vital from a
theoretical point of view, it also has substantial practical relevance. For instance, in high-risk
environments (e.g., nuclear power, hospital or aviation industry), failure can mean maiming,
disability, and huge environmental, financial, societal, and psychological costs. Hence, it is
key that people are also able to learn from their successes before disasters take place. Despite
the motivational benefits successes may have (e.g., increased belief in one’s competence;
Hall, 1971), they also confirm prior expectancies and boost confidence in old routines,
causing restricted search and reduced attention, while increasing complacency and risk
aversion (Sitkin, 1992; Zakay, Ellis, & Shevalsky, 2004).
The objective of our review is to highlight systematic reflection as an effective tool for
learning from both failed and successful experiences. In the following section, we introduce
systematic reflection as a learning procedure, after which we draw on a growing stream of
findings that runs across different psychological domains to empirically substantiate its
effectiveness. Subsequently, we review research that has sought to determine situational and
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 5
person-based moderators that shape the effectiveness of systematic reflection. We end by
discussing future research prospects.
Systematic Reflection: Concept and Process
Systematic reflection is a learning procedure during which learners comprehensively
analyze their behavior and evaluate the contribution of its components to performance
outcomes. To facilitate this comprehensive processing of experiential data, Ellis and Davidi
(2005) emphasized that systematic reflection serves three functions: self-explanation, data
verification, and feedback. Systematic reflection requires individuals or teams to engage in
each one of these activities.
Self-explanation is an active process whereby learners are asked to analyze their own
behavior and advance explanations for the resulting success or failure. A high number of self-
explanations indicates active processes of gathering, analyzing, and integrating data (Ellis &
Davidi, 2005). Questions that might prompt self-explanation are "how did you contribute to
the performance observed in the experience" and "how effective were you in this experience"
(DeRue et al., 2012), but also more direct questions such as "why did you do A or decide B?".
The relative advantage of these direct questions is that they encourage learners to provide
specific and internal explanations. The more learners attribute performance to specific and
internal factors, the more effective is the reflection process (Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006). In
lay terms, accurate analysis of the experience is an important factor in the learning process,
but this is not the only one. By attributing the causes for successes and failures to oneself,
people take more responsibility for their behavior.
Data verification is the process whereby learners are confronted with a different
perception of the same data (i.e., counterfactual thinking), enabling them to cross-validate
information they hold before making changes to their mental models. Data verification also
enables to sidestep potential biases, including confirmation bias, whereby information that
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contradicts assumptions is overlooked, and hindsight bias, whereby outcomes strongly affect
how past experience is viewed. Possible prompts include "consider a different approach that
could have been taken" and "what might have happened if that approach was chosen" (DeRue
et al., 2012). Similarly, comparing and contrasting personal actions with similar actions
played out in other (more or less successful) situations may be an effective way for
developing a different perspective on the value of one’s actions (Roberto, 2009).
Finally, two kinds of feedback are generated during a systematic reflection process.
The first type is the performance evaluation: absolute/relative success or failure. Such
outcome feedback does not only serve as a motivational trigger for the reflection process;
without outcome feedback, reflection is not focused and goal directed and therefore not
effective (Anseel, Lievens, & Schollaert, 2009). Second, process feedback is generated which
is aimed at improving the process of task performance. When systematically reflecting, the
learner is responsible for the analysis of his/her performance data and for generating reasons
why things went right or wrong. Possible prompts are "what worked, what did not work",
"what has been learned from the experience", and "how will you behave in the future?"
(DeRue et al., 2012). Taken together, systematic reflection is not the same as outcome
feedback moments. Whereas outcome feedback is merely evaluative in nature, the process
that follows this feedback in a reflection procedure focuses on helping the learner to
systematically analyze the decisions that produced the performance outcomes.
Effectiveness of Systematic Reflection
Generally, the combination of the three functions that characterize systematic
reflection (self-explanation, data verification, and feedback) lead to a greater willingness
(motivational effect) and ability to draw lessons from prior experiences (cognitive effect) and
eventually to a behavioral change (behavioral effect).
Motivational Outcomes of Systematic Reflection
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Successful experience is not a "natural" stimulus of learning. Although successes may
improve learners’ judgment of how well they can execute similar courses of action for dealing
with prospective situations (i.e., self-efficacy), they also reduce one’s inclination to revise
existing knowledge structures. The motivational impact of systematic reflection on these
successes is twofold. First, research in military psychology found that systematic reflection is
most effective to attract soldiers’ attention not only to the obvious failed experiences
encountered during navigation exercises but also to successful experiences. Through
becoming aware of the role these less apparent successful experiences have had on one’s
performance, learners’ motivation to revise their knowledge structures (i.e., epistemic
motivation) may be intensified (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). Similarly, in experimental social
psychological research, it has been shown that the prompt to not only consider better, but also
worse alternatives for what actually happened (leading to a focus on successful experiences)
can have a beneficial impact on an individual’s motivation to thoroughly process a subsequent
task (Dyczewski & Markman, 2012). Second, through analyzing their successful experiences,
learners become more aware of their share in the successes, further increasing their self-
efficacy and motivation to set higher goals (Anton & Villado, 2013; Ellis, Ganzach, Castle, &
Sekely, 2010).
Cognitive Outcomes of Systematic Reflection
Increased epistemic motivation caused by reflecting on both failed and successful
experiences has been found to produce richer cognitive structures (Ellis & Davidi, 2005;
Matthew & Sternberg, 2009). Research in sport and organizational psychology has shown that
systematic reflection changes the relative number of internal versus external and specific
versus general perceived causes of behavior (Allen, Jones, & Sheffield, 2010; Ellis et al.,
2006). Similar findings were found in aviation psychology, where post-flight reviews
following a successful flight or a close call yield specific lessons for navigating future flights
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(Morris & Moore, 2000; Ron, Lipshitz, & Popper, 2006). On a team level, reflection enhances
similarity of team members’ task representations (van Ginkel & van Knippenberg, 2009). The
realization that task representations are shared has been shown to increase psychological
safety, which enhances group processes (Edmondson, 1999).
Behavioral Outcomes of Systematic Reflection
In organizational, social, and medical psychology, reflecting on successful and failed
experiences has been found to improve task performance (e.g., Anseel et al., 2009; Ellis &
Davidi, 2005; Ellis et al., 2006; Kray, Galinsky, & Markman, 2009; Vashdi, Bamberger, Erez,
& Weiss-Meilik, 2007; Wong, Haselhuhn, & Kray, 2012), and to cause changes in
interpersonal behavior (e.g., DeRue et al., 2012; Grant & Dutton, 2012; Van Ginkel & Van
Knippenberg, 2009; Villado & Arthur, 2013).
Ron et al. (2006) demonstrated that post-flight reviews were not only vehicles to
improve individuals' learning, but also to improve air crews' performance via shared
observations and interpretations of what went good and bad during the flights. This reflection
procedure also shaped the training methods of the squadron, and even helped to develop the
air force doctrine.
When and For Whom is Systematic Reflection Most Effective?
An important stream of research has sought to determine under which conditions
systematic reflection is most developmental. Learners can reflect on objective, video-based
recordings or on subjective, memory-based recalls of their performance. Research has
revealed that these ways of reflecting are equally effective (Villado & Arthur, 2013).
Similarly, Ellis et al. (2010) showed that observing the filmed behavior of someone else who
participated in a reflection procedure is equally effective as personally participating in a
reflection procedure. These findings are especially relevant for contexts where different
individuals need to learn similar tasks. For instance, members of a fire brigade can learn from
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 9
events that their colleagues have experienced, simply by watching their reflection processes.
In this respect, filmed reviews may offer a cost-effective, technology-based, and easy-to-use
tool to provide training.
Ellis et al. (2006) demonstrated that the effectiveness of reflecting on successful
versus failed experiences may depend on the focus of reflection during the self-explanation
stage. They examined the relative effectiveness of three different reflection foci after a failed
or successful experience: a focus on (1) correct actions that supported progress in the
experience, (2) erroneous actions that hindered progress, and (3) both correct and erroneous
actions. Besides the fact that after a failed experience, providing any kind of reflection
contributes to one’s progress, the results also showed that one can learn from successful
experiences and that the performance improvement after failed and successful experiences is
contingent upon the particular focus of reflection (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Comparison of the effectiveness of three different reflection foci after a failed
versus successful experience. The effect size (Cohen’s d) represents the standardized
performance difference between participation versus no participation in a reflection
procedure. Effect sizes of d = 0.2, 0.5, and 0.8 are generally considered small, medium, and
large, respectively (Cohen, 1988).
After a failed experience the biggest performance improvement takes place when
focusing on both correct and erroneous actions. However, after a successful experience the
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 10
strongest learning effect emerges when reflecting on the erroneous actions only. It could be
that after successful experiences, learners feel more psychologically safe to discuss their
errors. Conversely, after failures, self-efficacy may be harmed and psychological safety may
be lacking, requiring reflection on correct actions as well. Hence, through reflection we can
learn from both successful and failed experiences, but the focus of reflection should be
adapted to the outcome of the experience.
Apart from research on situation-based moderators, it is likely that people who go
through the same reflection process draw different lessons. The reflection effect is
accentuated when people are conscientious, open to experience, emotionally stable, and have
a rich base of prior experiences (DeRue et al., 2012). Furthermore, systematic reflection is
more effective for learning oriented people, and for people who enjoy effortful cognitive
activity (Anseel et al., 2009). Likewise, people who can accurately evaluate their performance
benefit more from systematic reflection (Ellis, Mendel & Aloni-Zohar, 2009; Ellis et al.,
2010). This also means that systematic reflection is likely to be less beneficial for people with
the reverse personal characteristics.
Future Research Prospects
Although important progress has been made to uncover the role, effectiveness and
boundary conditions of systematic reflection, there also exist key unresolved issues. We
outlined three central functions in which learners should engage when reflecting (self-
explanation, data verification, and feedback). To date, the outcomes of these functions have
not been disentangled from each other. This makes it unclear whether all functions contribute
to the same extent to the effectiveness of reflection. Also, their relative functionality may
depend on the outcome of the experience that is reflected upon. For instance, Ellis and Davidi
(2005) suggested that if learners want to analyze successful performance, they must focus on
the potential misfits between the existing mental model and the conditions under which
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 11
performance was executed, highlighting the importance of data verification for learning from
successes. Conversely, as people are naturally inclined to attribute successes to internal
actions and failures to external factors (self-serving bias), self-explanation instructions may be
more important when reflecting on failed experiences.
Another challenging issue is motivational in nature. Despite the promising effects of
systematic reflection, for most individuals reflection is probably the least favorite activity
(Ashford & DeRue, 2012). This may be caused by the unrelenting pace characterizing today’s
environment and the abundance of activities in which people are involved. As reflection is a
time-intensive endeavor, being engaged in too many experiences simultaneously typically
jeopardizes individuals’ inclination to engage in thoughtful deliberation of these experiences,
leading to lower levels of learning than desirable (Carette & Anseel, 2012). Hence, we need to
look for ways that enhance individuals’ motivation to engage in reflection despite their high
mental workload.
An interesting pathway would be to complement traditional collective reflection that
takes place when a long-term project is finished, with individual reflection that is integrated
within the learner’s daily environment (e.g., reflection via smartphone/tablet applications that
successively prompt for self-explanation, data verification, and feedback). For instance, in the
absence of collective "chalk talks" during the off-season, athletes could use such an app to
individually reflect on their training performance. Similarly, organizations could send
monthly invitations to their employees for reflecting online on personal actions of the past
month that supported/hindered progress in their most time-intensive assignment. Findings
from experimental simulation research have shown that such relatively brief structured
individual reflection yields significant returns for one’s development (Anseel et al., 2009).
Furthermore, such implementations would make it possible to reflect solitarily and on the
spot, diminishing the situational constraints that characterize collective reflection procedures.
SYSTEMATIC REFLECTION 12
All of this may facilitate a structural incorporation of reflection into the learner’s environment
making reflection a routine rather than a momentary activity which is a necessary
precondition to maintain long-term effects (Garvin, 2000).
Conclusion
In this article, we reviewed new studies that introduce systematic reflection as a
meaningful way to draw lessons from our successful and failed experiences and improve our
performance accordingly. Finding ways to learn from various forms of experience is
important from both a theoretical and practical point of view. It also exemplifies that
Professor Van Helsing was only partly right. We can learn from our failures, but we can also
learn from our successes.
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Suggested Readings
Anseel, F., Lievens, F., & Schollaert, E. (See References). Two experimental studies
exploring the effectiveness of unguided reflection and identifying situational and
person-based moderators.
Bauer, J., & Harteis, C. (2012). Human Fallibility: The ambiguity of errors for work and
learning. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer. A comprehensive overview of
research on learning from errors.
Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2011). Do conscious thoughts cause
behavior? Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 331-361. A comprehensive, highly
accessible overview of what is known about the behavioral consequences of conscious
information processing.
DeRue, D. S., Nahrgang, J. D., Hollenbeck, J. R., & Workman, K. M. (See References). A
longitudinal experimental field study following MBA-students over a period of 9
months and showing that regular systematic reflection facilitates the development of
interpersonal skills.
Ellis, S., & Davidi, I. (See References). An experimental field study demonstrating that
systematic reflection influences learners’ mental models and performance.
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performance after feedback. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,
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Ashford, S. J., & DeRue, D. S. (2012). Developing as a leader: The power of mindful
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Carette, B., & Anseel, F. (2012). Epistemic motivation is what gets the learner started.
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Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale,
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DeRue, D. S., Nahrgang, J. D., Hollenbeck, J. R., & Workman, K. M. (2012). A quasi-
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... To support this, members accumulate and evaluate information about the past, present and the future regarding goals, tasks, processes and strategies, and discuss this information with their peers (Konradt et al., 2016;Van Ginkel et al., 2009;West, 2000). This discursive aspect of a reflexive climate allows organizational members to cross-validate information by considering different perspectives (counterfactual thinking) and to actively seek feedback on performance outcomes and processes, thus enhancing systematic learning (Ellis et al., 2014;Schippers et al., 2014). New ideas are formed at the individual level. ...
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... We intend to apply this change taxonomy to reflection within the coaching programme. Reflection is critical to inducing the development coaching is meant to stimulate (Gray, 2006); to be effective, reflection needs to be conscious (Ellis et al., 2014) and needs to happen in interaction with others (Rodgers, 2002); thus, it is promoted by the coach questioning the coachees (Cushion, 2018;Theeboom et al., 2017). Considering reflection as one of the key processes in coaching, we intend to better understand how individual coachees' reflection changes. ...
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... In fact, the ability of individuals for self-reflection is an important asset making employees more self-efficacious (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998). Furthermore, the ability for self-reflection or self-questioning helps employees to see problems as opportunities (Cope, 2003) and to attain development (Van Woerkom, 2004), learning from failure (Ellis et al., 2014) and improved performance (Totterdell & Leach, 2001). Even more relevant for the scope of the present paper, when individuals are flexible and ready to adjust their plans and their behavioral strategies (cf. ...
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