The Learning Stack

Written by Paul Matthews on 4 December 2017

One of the critical success factors for learning is reflection. In fact, most people would agree that learning cannot take place without some level of reflection. Let’s look at how we can use this to underpin the thinking for a learning intervention and the subsequent learning transfer.

I have developed a very simple model with five levels of reflection which I call the Learning Stack. The higher up the levels you can push the learner in terms of the quality and quantity of the reflection, the more likely it is the learning will stick, and be transferred into behavioural change.

  • Unconscious reflection
    I know ‘unconscious reflection’ sounds like an oxymoron, but it occurs when we practice something and improve our performance without consciously reflecting on what we need to do to improve. We have an unconscious targeting mechanism that guides us towards improvement. This ‘practice makes perfect’ process is very evident when we practice physical skills such as driving or typing or sports skills.
  • Conscious reflection
    This is what we normally regard as reflection where we consider what happened. Note that for this reflection to be useful from a learning perspective, it needs to be question-based. We need to be asking ourselves how things could be different, who can do it better and how do they do it and so on. Simply reflecting on how good, or how bad, you did something has little effect without a questioning overlay.

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  • External reflection
    If we take our thoughts and externalise them to a journal, a colleague, or just the dog on a walk, we need to re-formulate the disorganised content from our internal processing into an ideas' sequence and language that is understandable in the outside world. This ‘translation’ for external consumption adds another level to our thinking.
  • External reflection with consequences
    When we think there may be consequences to us externalising our reflection, or if we think someone will judge us based on what we put out there, we will think twice. We add another layer of reflection to try and imagine what someone else will think about us based on what we are planning on externalising to a coach, a boss, a blog or an email.
  • Teaching someone else
    I am sure you have heard the aphorism that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I believe it is more accurate to say that the best way to learn something is to prepare the lesson plan to teach it. It is the reflection on how to prepare and present the material to novices that deepens understanding, rather than the presentation itself.

Level four is a result of what social scientists term the ‘audience effect’.  There are some fascinating experiments on this effect where students were asked to put their English homework on a blog rather than just handed in to their teacher. The extra level of exposure their homework received caused them to improve their standards considerably. This is well explained in Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson where he cites a range of experiments and research. He sums it up on page 55 as “the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.”

Although this Learning Stack is a very simplistic view of a complex process, it is useful. For any learning intervention, you can consider how far up this Learning Stack you are pushing the learners. Have a look at any programmes you are currently delivering, or about to deliver, and consider what levels of reflection they trigger in the learners.

About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”. For further information, please visit



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