Making pictures in front of a mirror : a cognitive perspective on reflection in learning

I.C.M. Damen

Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 3 (Research TU/e / Graduation NOT TU/e)


This research project was inspired by the observation that self-managing teams are often said to succeed because of reflection practices. Notwithstanding some prejudice regarding the merits of reflection, the literature did not provide much insight into those ways of thinking central to reflection. Merits attributed to reflection, such as demonstrating the ability to take responsibility and providing legitimacy, stimulated us to further explore reflection’s content and the extent to which it is related to certain personality traits and group dynamics. This produced the research question: ‘What cognitive effort does reflection involve and how does it manifest itself in (group) learning settings?’. To examine meaning and the manifestations of reflection, the research project was subdivided into four studies. The four studies together explored the meaning of reflection in terms of cognition and interaction content. First, we conducted a literature review (chapter 2), hereby focusing on the manifestations of reflexivity and reflection as described in organization literature. This resulted in a sensitizing concept of reflection that focuses on questioning. It became clear that although most approaches did describe organizational manifestations, they did not demonstrate what reflexivity and reflection involve in organizational practice. No approach emphasized organizational relevance. Nevertheless, they all envisioned contexts in which social interaction takes place. This means reflexivity and reflection do not occur in isolation. Studying the literature has produced images of reflexivity as an historical label on changed collective consciousness, and reflection as an act of learning by posing epistemological questions. Theoretical approaches towards reflexivity, e.g., Lynch (2000), Holland (1999), Cunliffe & Jun (2002), and Sandywell (1996) considered reflexivity as a means for change, though failed to describe the use of reflexivity. Crucial issues, such as why social transformation is necessary, how transformation could be accomplished, and what social actions are required, were left unaddressed. In a similar vein, approaches to reflection, e.g., Cunliffe & Jun (2002), Swift & West (1998), and Davis & Klaes (2003) did not discuss the what and how of reflection, such as ‘who is involved?’, ‘for what reasons?’, and ‘at what point in time?’. Furthermore, these approaches did not consider the change of individual awareness as precursors of social transformation. Since the implications of reflexivity and reflection for organizational change, work design, daily organizational practice et cetera were largely ignored, we decided to study the pragmatic concept of reflection in organizational contexts. Comparison of theoretical concepts revealed that reflection involves questioning. Epistemological questions trace back the type of logic in use, hereby explicitly taking into account the role of the self. In the effort to understand the concept’s ambiguity, the role of paradox became prevalent. Because paradox involves formal logic based on self-contradicting premises, the combination of premises should be examined on generality and particularity. Although paradoxes are difficult to solve (if solvable at all) they can be dealt with by examining the conditions which give rise to the premises. Focusing on conditions differentiates ‘true’ from ‘untrue’ conclusions given the frame of reference in use. Thus, reflection is operationalized as questioning to disclose paradoxes, such as circular logic. 178 Second, we performed an exploratory study (chapter 3) to find indicators for constructing a measurement instrument on reflection. This study was led by the question ‘What type of questioning constitutes reflection?’. We used a sensitizing concept for reflection to begin observations. This sensitizing concept was defined as questioning the coherence of argumentation. ‘Questioning’ points at the reduction of uncertainties. ‘Argumentation’ refers to the chain of premises that constitute (assumed) uncertainties. A synonym for ‘coherence’ is consistency. This term indicates the interest in the origins and logical construction of an argument. Starting from this concept made us sensitive to events, actions et cetera that could contribute to our understanding of the meaning of reflection. This exploration of reflection revealed six cognitive aspects inherent to questioning. More specifically, questioning the coherence of argumentation: (1) is based on the willingness to do effortful thinking (need for cognition), (2) is provoked by a challenging event or task (provocation of cognition), (3) touches upon the nature of knowledge and the act of knowing (epistemology), (4) examines the combination of premises that constitute argumentation (logic), (5) addresses strategies for exploration and problem solving (heuristics), and (6) differentiates between types of cognitive processing on the basis of the effort needed (level of cognition). Furthermore, questioning is induced both internally as well as externally (locus) and produces cognitively complex outcomes (cognitive complexity). Based on these six aspects of reflection as well as an antecedent and an outcome, the sensitizing concept has grown into an operational definition for reflection. Drawing on these aspects, reflection is defined as a tendency to distinguish between subjective and objective realities and exceed one’s own frame of reference by questioning the coherence of argumentation. The term ‘tendency’ indicates reflection is not demonstrated at all times or in any situation. Since cognitive learning refers to sensemaking in cognitive systems, reflection is not confined to the individual level. In considering groups or organizations as cognitive systems (e.g., Weick and Roberts 1993), reflection also takes place in social interaction. Individual reflection is denoted as private reflection, whereas reflection in social interaction is called public reflection. In order to address reflection as both a trait and a cognitive process we developed a new measurement instrument for private and public reflection (chapter 4). The cognitive aspects serve as indicators for reflection. By means of our six cognitive aspects we measured reflection in terms of cognition and interaction content. The number of aspects involved and their interrelatedness determines the degree of reflection. The measurement instrument took the form of a questionnaire about writing a thesis. Part one of this questionnaire dealt with thoughts that occurred while working on the thesis. Part two addressed thoughts shared when discussing one’s own work and the work of peer students in thesis circle meetings. Based on validity and reliability assessments we found that measuring cognition and interaction content in questioning the coherence of argumentation determines the degree of reflection. Although confirmation was not found for all six cognitive aspects on reflection, three cognitive aspects were found for private and for public reflection. Private reflection consists of logic, provocation of cognition and heuristics. Public reflection is characterized by three subcomponents of locus of cognition, that is the role of peers, the role of the self and the role of supervisors in discussion. The subsequent two studies on private and public reflection investigated reflection at the individual as well as the group level. The study on private reflection (chapter 5) focused on personality traits and cognition. The trait approach on reflection, holds that people vary in their inclination to question argumentation The trait model includes the variables need for cognition, openness to experience, conscientiousness, private reflection, cognitive complexity and (private) self-consciousness. Here, private reflection was defined as questioning the coherence of argumentation in silence. To explain reflection conceptualized as a trait, this study sought to identify which individual traits influence private reflection and the extent to which private reflection has cognitive and affective outcomes. The questionnaire used in this study included items on reflection as well as on need for cognition, openness to experience, conscientiousness, (private) selfconsciousness and cognitive complexity. The questionnaire was distributed among Dutch university students (Bachelor and Master students) who were making use of thesis circles which consisted of ten students (maximum) and one or more supervisors who shared the responsibility for supervision. Although writing the thesis itself is done outside the thesis circle, students discuss their work and progress in thesis circle meetings. To test whether traits effect private reflection and whether private reflection produces cognitive and affective outcomes at the individual level, we performed hierarchical regression analysis. In addition, structural equation modeling was used to test for the mediation effects of private reflection. Based on these analyses we concluded that conscientiousness hardly influences private reflection or (private) self-consciousness. On the other hand, need for cognition and openness to experience show up as antecedents for private reflection. Openness to experience also largely directly influences cognitive complexity and (private) self-consciousness. Furthermore, we found that private reflection substantively effects cognitive complexity and (private) self-consciousness. Thus, we concluded that private reflection partially mediates the relationships between need for cognition and openness to experience on one hand and cognitive complexity and (private) self-consciousness on the other. Private reflection is considered to transform cognition-related traits into metacognitive outcomes. Effectuated by the traits of need for cognition and openness to experience, public reflection extends current cognition and self-actualization. The explanatory study on public reflection (chapter 6) focused on the group level by including group dynamics. The cognitive process approach on reflection suggests it to be an act of shared contemplation, which is stimulated by certain input and completed (temporarily) by the production of certain output. Stimuli can be located both internally (e.g., personal doubt), or externally, (e.g., suggestions by another person). To test the cognitive approach on reflection this study focuses on groups as distributed cognition systems. The cognitive process model includes the variables coordination, communication, public reflection, task conflict, relationship conflict, group cognitive complexity and satisfaction with the group. Here, public reflection was defined as questioning the coherence of argumentation in discussion with others. To explain reflection as cognitive processing, this study examined what group processes and emergent states influence (and are influenced by) public reflection and the extent to which public reflection has cognitive and affective outcomes. As with the previous study, we collected data among Dutch university students working in thesis circles. By means of hierarchical regression analysis we tested whether group dynamics impact public reflection and whether public reflection brings forth cognitive and affective outcomes. In addition, we applied structural equation modeling to test for mediation effects of public reflection. The analyses revealed that public reflection positively influences group cognitive complexity. Furthermore, public reflection mediates the relationship between (1) the group processes coordination and communication on one hand and the emergent states task and relationship conflict on the other, as well as between (2) the group processes coordination and communication on one hand and the cognitive and affective outcomes group cognitive complexity and satisfaction with the group on the other. This means that as a tendency to share effortful cognitive processing, public reflection is considered another group process that influences (and will possibly also be influenced by) group emergent states. Given the importance of interaction content, public reflection differs from other group processes in that it provides higher expectations as regards outcomes. The results indicate that public reflection stimulates group cognitive complexity directly, and satisfaction with the group indirectly, via task and relationship conflict. Public reflection explicates the nature of both types of conflict and, as such, provides support for the hypothesis that task conflict and relationship conflict could also arise independently from one another. Task and relationship conflict are also responsible for an effect on satisfaction with the group. Therefore, we conclude that public reflection is a shared cognitive process that contributes directly to the development of cognitively complex group cognition and indirectly to satisfaction with the group. Based on these outcomes public reflection is seen to direct interaction quality. To recapitulate (chapter 7), the aforementioned studies revealed the thinking behind reflection and what distinguishes this cognitive process from other cognitive processes that characterize learning. Private reflection is found to be highest among people with a high need for cognition and who are open to new experiences. Public reflection is highest when the composition of argumentation (e.g., the combination of premises) is made explicit among group members. Furthermore, reflection contributes to metacognitive awareness and group member synergies for two reasons. First, we found private reflection partially mediates the relationships between personality traits and cognitive complexity. Thus, private reflection can be used to reach complex solutions and contribute to self-knowledge on job performance. In this way private reflection provides a tool for taking distance. By explicitly including the role of self, it creates a mirror-image of a mirror-image. Second, we found public reflection partially mediates the relationships between group processes on one hand and group cognitive complexity and satisfaction with the group on the other. It is remarkable that this mediating effect occurs through task and relationship conflict. That is to say, public reflection can be used to produce cognitively complex solutions found by the group and satisfaction with the group via its impact on task and relationship conflict. Here, public reflection serves to provoke fruitful discussion and release steam. In this sense, reflection resembles Argyris’ (1999) concept of double-loop learning. Furthermore, this research project contributes to current studies on group learning, due to its focus on innovation and knowledge work and cognitive systems, as well due to the use of qualitative and quantitative methods and real groups with a minimum of power differences among group members. As such, the project confirmed the predictions of Edmondson et al. (2007) that reflection could produce valuable team behaviors by helping discuss different frames of reference.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • TiasNimbas Business School Eindhoven
  • Kenis, P., Promotor, External person
  • Romme, A.G.L. (Sjoerd), Promotor
  • Curseu, P.L., Copromotor, External person
Award date27 Jun 2007
Place of PublicationTilburg
Print ISBNs978-90-5335-116-1
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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