Learning is a very broad subject and vital for progress in anything. There are many aspects of learning, such as the willingness to practise, the preference for learning and the quality of the teaching. But if it doesn’t lead to learning then they are of little value.
Learning is acquiring knowledge which is then readily available from memory, so we can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
Firstly, learning requires effective memory. Secondly, if our knowledge is not to become dated, we need to keep learning and remembering throughout our lives. Thirdly, learning is an acquired skill where the most effective strategies are often counter intuitive. We will deal with a few of these in this article.
An example – my own attempt at learning may be illustrative
My first real attempt to form a deliberate learning strategy concerned my degree examinations in mathematics in Oxford and the examinations to become an actuary during the few years after these. Of course, prior to these I had also had to learn vast amounts. My methods though were obviously not transparent enough because they have not remained in my memory. Now I was convinced that there was a strategy which ensures success.
I worked on the basis that I should condense all relevant material so concisely that it could be written into very small notebooks which would fit easily into a pocket. The strategy behind this was threefold. Firstly the act of condensing study material in my own words acted to stimulate memory. Secondly having to make selections of what had to be learned as against what was not necessary to learn or what was already firmly in the memory. Thirdly, by having my whole learning material in my pocket enabled frequent access, often, for example, in the bus on the way home, or while waiting for something to happen (for instance, somebody is late for an appointment). But there was also something else. I aimed to finish my course in a fraction of the time available (see Pareto’s law) so that my energy could be applied to condensing, reading, re-reading etc. with increasingly shorter intervals between each complete circuit. The results surpassed my expectations and I have continued with similar methods.
Ways of learning
There are many different ways of learning. There are also preferred ways of learning, although it has not been demonstrated that a preferred way is any more effective than many other ways.
As was clear from my use of notebooks, and I have continued to use similar approaches (thus seldom highlighting sections of original text), I prefer to learn from the written word. This places an emphasis on detail, clarity and interpretation. Experience suggests that proper understanding only results after many trials. Probably this applies to which ever learning method is employed. The use of different methods will undoubtedly provide a more complete picture.
Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful. Retrieval – recalling facts, concepts or events from memory is more effective than re-reading the original material.
Spacing out practice and interleaving it with other activities produces longer-lasting learning. Interleaving leads you to notice similarities and differences. This is made possible by leaving large amounts of time (always relatively speaking) for processing what you have learned.
Trying to solve a problem before being told the solution also leads to a more permanent record if you consult the solution afterwards. I must confess, however, that at times I have aimed to try to remember the solution rather than exerting myself to find it.
In all areas of learning you build a better mastery by testing what you have learned, by paraphrasing new material in your own words. All new knowledge needs to be placed in the context of existing knowledge.
Delaying feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.
Learning is never enough. Without practice it will never remain in tact (easily accessible). This has to do with the fact that practice creates myelin, an insulation of the nerve fibres in the brain, which leads to stronger, faster and more accurate signals to and from the brain. Myelin continues to increase (net) until around age 50.
The most effective way to consolidate learning is by deliberate practice. This is practice designed specifically to achieve your aims in the situation in which it will be tested.
An extraordinary ability can be achieved through years of dedicated and specially designed practice, improving step by step. There are no short cuts, not even for those with exceptional talent. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert but much more to achieve mastery (being able to deal with any situation). Starting later in life is hardly an option any more.
When learning it is normally helpful to have a qualified coach, if only to stop you learning the wrong things, because these are very difficult to unlearn. A coach, however, is not there to do the learning, he has mostly already done that, he is there to ensure that there is an environment in which the learning can take place and to assess which training system would seem to be the most effective.
A coach holds a mirror so that the person being coached can discover his own thinking process, and that the coach understands how this thinking process actually works, and can make an accurate assessment of feeling and the will to succeed.
A coach is there also to reinforce what he wants repeated, and be silent (not critical) about lesser performances. Ultimately everything which is regularly required, or at crucial moments, has to be operational (automatic – self 2).
I am convinced that the role of the coach in the success of the team or of the individual is central. He needs to get the correct balance between insisting on a particular way of performing and giving the freedom to perform in actual situations.
Learning is personal and very motivating. But it requires discipline and it requires help (at least from time to time). Learning becomes particularly difficult when time is less available (middle life), but more important, as you get older, to ensure that your knowledge remains up to date and your brain active.
The clue is to realise when it is enjoyable and realistic to invest in knowledge (learning). And how to bring it into practice. This will require choices. For instance, I have stopped practising as an actuary because I can’t guarantee that my knowledge is up to date, although I do a lot to ensure that it is.
Lastly, your approach to learning changes throughout your life. This has to do with time, energy and previous experience. But one thing is essential to recognise, learning is not about the pieces of paper (diplomas). Every time I have joined the rat race in pursuit of diplomas I noted that my enjoyment receded. I was no longer learning something that I really wanted to learn. This happened to me again not so long ago, when I attempted to follow a B.Sc. in psychology with an M. Sc. in business studies. Given that my background was in business, I discovered I was not learning to acquire new knowledge but instead pieces of paper! That was the time to stop! And I did!
There are a few exercises which you might like carry out to bring your learning more clearly into view. Start with thinking about how you learn. Do you have any examples? What have been the successes and failures and why? What do you need to facilitate a suitable learning environment (it is not as difficult as it may seem – I studied mostly at the kitchen table, so that I was not only learning but being part of the family)? What should you now be learning in the context of your work, but also your self-development, and how you are going to set about this.
In the end you are responsible for your own learning.