The role of self-reflection in continuous performance support

Elite tennis player preparing to serve

Our traditional conception of pedagogy presumes that after a certain point, people no longer require instruction. We go to school, then to college, then to university, some do further training in a specialism. After that, we’re thrown out into the world to get on with the rest of our lives. In his talk ‘The Difference between Coaching and Teaching,’ Harvard Medical School professor Atul Gawande explained that elite athletes flatly reject this model. They believe it’s naïve, and that few people can maintain their best possible performance by themselves. For instance, upon being ranked world number one in 2011, Novak Djokovic didn’t sack his coach. In fact, he probably gave him a raise.

Elite performers understand that learning isn’t something bestowed upon you; it’s a continuous process that requires deliberate practice and self-reflection. For athletes, coaches offer an external perspective on their performance, identifying areas for improvement. This can be psychologically challenging for people: it forces them outside of their comfort zones, allowing them to realign their habitual patterns.

Encouraging self-reflection and ownership

One of the key ways in which elearning can be adapted to aid continuous learning is through the use of diagnostic tools and self-review. Including a diagnostic test at the beginning of the course prompts self-reflection. As a coach would, it gives a vital, objective view of their current performance. Following this, courses can deliver content that is most relevant to the learner by reflecting the results of the diagnostic. Adaptive learning of this kind offers an exciting route to help people achieve self-mastery. It means that more experienced people adept in many skills can focus on specific areas for improvement, while less experienced learners can take a broader range of learning. This is, quite rightly, seen as a good thing in and of itself, but the primary psychological reasons for its success often go unmentioned.

Providing learners with meaningful feedback and information, and giving learners the mechanisms to personalize the content to suit their requirements provides them with feelings of autonomy. Giving learners this freedom also creates an emotional investment which leads to higher and more frequent usage.

This autonomy has a knock-on effect of providing learners with a strong sense of ownership. The IKEA effect is the proven hypothesis that people place greater value on things that they helped to create. By including personalised action plans in courses which allow learners to plan and track their own development allows people to apply what they’ve learned, supporting growth and increasing performance in their key development areas. Not only this, but by customising these action plans to the learner’s unique preferences, you create a strong feeling of ownership from the outset.

The power of checklists

What about the cases where failure to perform isn’t a result of individual capability? Even in organisations with highly skilled people, avoidable failure is still commonplace. The solution isn’t disruptive, technological or fashionable, but it has been proven to be incredibly effective. The solution is the humble checklist.

Gawande was asked by the World Health Organisation to find a way of reducing the number of deaths during surgery. Gawande found that most fatalities resulted from basic mistakes. Gawande recommended checklists be used during all surgical procedures. Initially surgeons met the implementation of checklists with resistance, but the results spoke for themselves. By the end of Gawande’s trial, death rates across the hospitals tested had fallen by 47 percent.

In his book ‘The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,’ Gawande explains that in the aviation industry, checklists are commonplace. He explains that this is because from the beginning of flight school, pilots ‘learn that their memory and judgement are unreliable and their lives depend on recognising that fact.’ Whilst adapting to the most innovative, disruptive new technologies, it’s easy to lose sight of less fashionable, but highly effective ‘low-tech’ solutions. Checklists act as a basic stage in self-reflection for a learners.

High performers within organisations are defined by their openness to learning. But often these people don’t have the tools needed to aid them in their continuous learning journeys. For this reason, we need to move away from an outdated, one-time use approach and develop performance support tools that encourage self-reflection and inspire learners to continually hone their skills and return to training on a point-of-need basis. By giving the learner the sense of autonomy in their training and the tools for self-reflection, it will enable a continuously beneficial learning environment.

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James Tyas - Senior instructional designer

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