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Reflection can be more beneficial than additional practice
A surprising research result that has implications for your MTB practice
Last week, a subscriber named Dogtank commented on my post about incorporating a “What did I learn today?” reflection after each of my wheelie practice sessions. He wrote:
And as a devil's advocate, do you think you would have progressed as well if you had put in the same time but without the reflection element? It was obviously a driver that helped get you out, so maybe that was the underlying utility. It's a hard one to quantify as you can't run a control experiment (where are the clones when we need them?), but what are your thoughts?
Coincidentally, on the day that he posted that comment, I had listened to a new podcast episode by Trevor Regan, founder of The Learner Lab, titled:
Trevor interviewed Dr. Giada Di Stefano, author of the research paper titled Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Can Spur Progress Along the Learning Curve.
The results surprised him. He says:
So the results of the pilot experiment are interesting and compelling, that the reflection group actually outperforms the group that practices more. That goes against everything we think about learning.
From the Abstract:
… we provide a rich understanding of the conditions under which the marginal benefit of reflecting on previously accumulated experience is superior to the marginal benefit of accumulating additional experience
[I’ve included the abstract of Di Stefano’s research paper in this footnote:]
Another way to put Dogtank's question might be: Can you make the same amount of progress without reflection if you're showing up to practice the same amount of time?
And a provocative version of the question: If you only have 30 minutes to practice on a given day, would you cut it short to make room for 5-10 minutes of reflection?
In the past, I've often treated reflection as a luxury option, a good thing to do if I have time for it. Much of the time, that meant it didn't happen.
But that recently changed when I learned the importance of incorporating "What did I learn today?" after each of my wheelie practice sessions. In short, the game-changing benefit of doing that type of reflection is that it fuels curiosity in a way that increases understanding and spurs motivation to practice again, despite the challenging plateaus.
And now, research indicates that time spent practicing plus reflecting is more beneficial than additional practicing without reflection.
Dogtank also asked several other questions in his comment:
Do you reckon it was the writing of the notes that made the difference? Do you think you would have got similar gains by spending the same time mentally reflecting, by typing or by recording your spoken thoughts? I'm wondering how this technique could be adapted for use by a person with an injury or disability that restricts their ability to write. Could be a really powerful tool.
Di Stefano’s research included different types of reflection. Trevor Ragan says:
As far as the type of reflection, in some of these experiments Giada and her team compared sort of broad level reflection, where people just have to think about what happened and then more concrete, specific form of reflection where they're challenged to write down the specifics and they found some interesting results. - There is a difference in the sense that if you are working with an easy task, thinking about it is enough, but the more the task gets complicated, the better it is to actually write something down. Because this is when you really get the additional boost by trying to codify somehow what you're learning.
Recording one's spoken reflections or conversing with others (a coach or fellow riders) would be effective, as the effort to create sentences and paragraphs is the same for speaking as it is for writing.
Dogtank also asked in his comment:
Did you ever have or note down any negative reflections - 'I have learnt today that I truly suck' - or were they either not allowed, filtered out or simply not part of your thought patterns?
I note my frustrations, but thus far, I redirect them with "What can I learn from my frustrations?" If I'm not curious, I'm not thinking about it right. Failure is information, say the scientists.
Di Stefano’s research included ‘negative’ types of reflection. She says in the interview:
And one thing that we did in more than one of the studies was actually check whether… people that were very good at what they were doing before reflecting or were actually doing very badly. And what we basically see is that it makes no difference. So it's not really about reflecting when you're doing poorly or when you're doing awesome. It is just about the act of stopping and thinking…
Dogtank also asked in his comment:
Did you ever review your past notes? If so, just the last couple or the reflections as a whole? And if the latter, was there any trends that you can see in how you reflected on your learning journey?
Thus far, I’ve adopted a pattern of 1) making a written reflection immediately or within a few hours and 2) reviewing the previous practice session reflection before I practice and writing out a few words of my plan for the upcoming session.
There might be value in reviewing all my written notes of the whole journey at some point, but I’ve not done it yet. Good suggestion, Dogtank!
Dogtank also asked in his comment:
Do you have any examples of the kind of [reflection] note you would write? And of the not-so-helpful reflections?
Here’s an example of a paragraph of written reflection from a few weeks ago:
I tried keeping pressure on my middle finger, leaning forward for the launch, and pulling back while ensuring the front wheel was going straight. Then I tried a completely loose grip, just ready for my middle finger to yank, but actually not touching the grips. That seemed to help launch more straight sometimes. I also noticed that I could detect when I was pulling on one side of the bars more than the other once the front wheel was up. That increased awareness of the sensation was new. But will that be enough to fix it?
Here are some examples of short reflections:
Steadying the front wheel with gentle palm pressure seems to help
Lean body forward with core engaged, but don’t bow head down
Try more physiological sighs in between attempts, and then concentrate on letting go of tension in the glutes and wrists
A relaxed hip hinge helps to get into the float zone
Here’s an example of a reflection that, thus far, has turned out not to be accurate. But I would argue that it was still helpful because it led to more experimentation:
Locking my elbows seems to help with tugging the bars evenly when launching
I’m interested in hearing from those experimenting with MTB practice-related reflection. And I want to know your rationale if you’re skeptical of its benefits.
Artwork or photos not required!
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It is common wisdom that practice makes perfect. And, in fact, we find evidence that when given a choice between practicing a task and reflecting on their previously accumulated practice, most people opt for the former. We argue in this paper that this preference is misinformed. Using evidence gathered in ten experimental studies (N = 4,340) conducted across different environments, geographies, and populations, we provide a rich understanding of the conditions under which the marginal benefit of reflecting on previously accumulated experience is superior to the marginal benefit of accumulating additional experience. We show that reflection has the potential to generate spillover effects to different but related tasks, and that reflection is mostly beneficial at the beginning of the learning curve, as long as one has accumulated a sufficient amount of experience on which to reflect. Interestingly, our study results also suggest that the way in which one engages in reflection may play a major role in its effectiveness as a learning tool. We test the robustness of the reflection effect to different tasks and its persistence over time in a series of additional studies.