How Learners Make Learning Last

How learners make learning last is important to optimal talent development. The learner plays a big role in learning that lasts because the learner is central to the four elements that neuroscientists have discovered are critical to learning that lasts (https://membership.neuroleadership.com/material/the-science-of-making-learning-stick-an-update-to-the-ages-model-vol-5/). The first element to learning that lasts is the learner must focus attention on the learning content whether presented live in-person, live on-line, pre-recorded, or pre-written. The second element to learning that lasts is the learner must compare the learning content to what they already know in order to draw helpful insights. The third element to learning that lasts is the learner must be emotionally committed to learning without having too much emotion that can end up being a distraction. The final element to learning that lasts is the learner must revisit the learning content with enough repetition that using new tools and techniques becomes a habit.

Learners incorporate the elements that neuroscientists have discovered are critical to learning that lasts with effective preparation, seeking knowledge, and following up. Good preparation enables learners to tap into focused attention and emotional commitment for the learning experience. Seeking knowledge enables learners to generate connections to existing knowledge and avoid the traps of distraction and cognitive biases which impair learning. Finally, following up is how learners implement new tools and techniques with repetition to develop new habits from what they found most valuable in the learning experience.

Preparation for Learning that Lasts

Preparation is how a learner ensures a learning experience will be meaningful to them in some way. Something that is meaningful to us gets our attention and our emotional commitment. For example, being asked to give a presentation is a great way to get a person’s attention and emotional commitment typically in the form of fear. The three steps needed to prepare for learning that lasts are brainstorming learning objectives, identifying learning needs, and researching learning experiences.

The first step to prepare for learning that lasts is to brainstorm learning objectives. Learning objectives are the things you want to achieve in your career or the new things you want to be able to do at work or in life. Some examples of learning objectives are as follows:

  • To lead meetings that are engaging and productive
  • To design course content for business skills
  • To deliver great presentations
  • To write an article
  • To supervise others

Learning objectives come from thinking about what you want to do next in your career or what you want to do more of in the workplace or in life. Learning objectives can also come from a pivot or change you want to make in your career path or life. If you are struggling with ideas for learning objectives, then you can try Marcus Buckingham’s Loved It or Loathed It exercise (https://www.marcusbuckingham.com/spend-a-week/). What you learn from the Loved It or Loathed It exercise will help inform what you want to change or do more of in your work. Remember as you view your “loathed it” list that motivation to change comes from the desire to tackle a challenge rather than distance yourself from a challenge.

The second step to prepare for learning that lasts is identifying learning needs. Learning needs are the gaps in know-how, tools, and techniques preventing the pursuit of your learning objectives. Learning needs are determined by assessing the skills needed to achieve a learning objective.

For an example of determining learning needs, let’s consider the learning objective “to lead meetings that are engaging and productive.” First, research the topic of leading meetings that are engaging and productive on the internet and by reading books, articles, and blog posts to identify the skills needed. Also, take notes when you observe someone doing a great job leading a productive and engaging meeting. Finally, interview other people on what skills they think are needed to lead productive and engaging meetings based on their experiences. Let’s say the following is the list of skills you come up with from your research on what it takes to lead meetings that are engaging and productive (Valerie Patrick, When Bad Teams Happen to Good People: Your Complete Repair Guide for Successful Teamwork, New York: Career Press, 2021):

  • Possess social, physical, emotional, intangible, and cognitive well-being to have the resilience needed to manage disruptive behavior in a meeting well
  • Leverage one or more of your talents or strengths in leading meetings
  • Address meeting participants’ needs for inclusion and respect, control, and a shared and accurate understanding of what is going on during the meeting
  • Use appropriate and proven decision-making processes during and outside of meetings
  • Be strategic in who to invite to meetings you lead
  • Leverage the diversity of meeting participants for creativity and good decision-makin
  • Create a meeting environment appropriate to and supportive of the meeting purpose and objectives
  • Identify and prepare prework and meeting work needed to support the meeting outcomes
  • Design a meeting agenda with sequenced activities to achieve outcomes that fulfill the meeting purpose and objectives

Next assess your ability in each skill on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being low to none, 3 being average, and 5 being high. For a rating of 3 or lower add a specific comment on what you need to develop relevant to that skill. The skills that receive the lowest ratings point to your learning needs.

The third and final step to prepare for learning that lasts is researching learning experiences to address your learning needs. I like to start with Internet searches using different search engines to identify different ways to address a learning need. I get smarter about my learning need from Internet research and can articulate good questions to help identify the best learning experience to meet my learning needs. I feel even more confident about choosing a learning experience when I have included others in my search for educational resources and learning experiences relevant to my learning needs.

Seeking Knowledge for Learning that Lasts

Isn’t it obvious that learning is about seeking knowledge? What is not so obvious are the barriers to gaining knowledge from learning. For example, we are influenced by our social interactions because our brain understands that we need other people to survive and thrive in life. There are social interactions that support learning and there are social interactions that don’t support learning. If you were told that you were smart over and over again at school, then you may have developed a fixed mindset towards learning. A fixed mindset towards learning is believing you don’t need to put effort into learning because you were born smart. But, if you were told you were a hard worker over and over again in school, then you may have developed a growth mindset towards learning. A growth mindset towards learning is believing that you can learn anything with enough effort. Studies show that people with a growth mindset towards learning are not only better learners but are more likely to find career success than people with a fixed mindset towards learning (https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2019/07/09/why-a-growth-mindset-is-essential-for-career-success/?sh=424f09b28b5e).

Proficient learners use practices to avoid barriers to learning and enhance the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge in an area is understanding that can be put to use and wisdom in an area is the ability to make sound judgements in new situations relevant to that area. The three practices needed to seek knowledge or wisdom from learning are active listening, being in the present moment, and metacognition.

Active listening is a pre-requisite to seeking knowledge or wisdom from learning because of the difference in the rate of listening and speaking. Trainers speak at an average rate of 150 words per minute while we listen at an average rate of 450 words per minute or three times faster (https://www.listen.org/Listening-Facts). By listening three times faster than a person speaks, learners are vulnerable to distractions. Distractions while listening include things like being tired, feeling offended by something said, letting your mind wander to other tasks you need to do, or being hungry. Active listening takes conscious focus of your attention towards understanding what is being said by the speaker.

Being in the present moment is one technique to support active listening during a learning experience. Being in the present moment is harder than it sounds. In our modern world, we are busy with different things on our minds and have many worries. Worries are problematic because worries are about the past or the future which don’t exist in the present. There are tools and techniques to help you be in the present moment in order to get the most out of a learning experience. One way to get better at being in the present moment is practicing mindfulness meditation (i.e., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2zdUXve6fQ).

Metacognition is a powerful tool to enhance understanding during a learning experience. Metacognition is a technique for focusing your thinking towards understanding what is being taught by a trainer on a deeper level. There are a number of different ways to practice metacognition. For example, learners can craft questions they are interested in before a learning experience and then try to make connections between what is being presented and those questions. For metacognition during a learning experience, learners can reflect on how what is being presented connects to things they have learned or ways they would behave and draw insights. Metacognition is being intentional in your thinking in order to develop deep knowledge and wisdom.

Following-Up for Learning that Lasts

One technique I like for follow-up to a learning experience is to teach others the content I found to be most valuable. Our brains are wired to put a premium on social activity so social interaction creates focus (NeuroLeadership Institute Foundations in NeuroLeadership certification program fall 2017). I find that committing to teaching others what I have learned deepens my comprehension of the content. First, I identify who might be interested in the learning content I would like to share and I make a list of at least four people. Second, I prepare for how I would present the learning content to make it understandable to others outside the learning experience. Finally, I make a commitment to teach one person on my list each week following the learning experience. The repetition of teaching a different person each week for at least 4 weeks reinforces what I learned and my understanding of what I learned. Neuroscientists have found that spacing out your interactions with learning content across several weeks gives your brain the best opportunity to commit the information to memory.

Another technique I like for follow-up to a learning experience is to create a custom tool inspired by the learning content that I can use when needed. For example, I have taken several courses on how to design and deliver good presentations. As a result, I have created a speaking template that I can fill in before designing slides to help me prepare to deliver an engaging and impactful presentation. After each course on designing and delivering good presentations, I make improvements to the speaking template.

Summary of How Learners Make Learning Last

Talent development depends on how learners approach their learning experiences. The most productive learners prepare before a learning experience by brainstorming learning objectives, identifying learning needs, and researching learning experiences. Identifying learning needs helps learners understand how new information is relevant to them and the more self-relevant information is, the better the learner will remember that information (Rogers TB et al, Self-reference and the encoding of personal information, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1977, Volume 35, pages 677–688). The most productive learners also understand there are habits to enhance learning and there are habits that can limit learning. For example, drawing on previous experiences to make connections to new knowledge enhances learning while judging new knowledge based on experience biases can distort or limit learning. The habits to enhance learning are active listening, mindfulness, and metacognition to develop knowledge and wisdom. Finally, the learning experience will have staying power if the learner follows-up by teaching others what they have learned or by creating templates or checklists to customize what they have learned for repeated use.

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