How a dedicated process helps learning.
Learning is as essential to being human as breathing. It is something we all do throughout our lives, consciously and unconsciously, at work, at school, at home. But what is learning, exactly? What does it mean to learn?
For much of human history, people assumed the ability to learn was the same thing as intelligence. "If you’re smart, you can learn." Research today supports a far different conclusion.
Yet still far too little has changed in how people learn.
As a society, we are in need of richer forms of education, where information and knowledge work alongside the creativity and problem-solving that matter in today’s economy.
Experts long argued education was about information, facts, dates and details. The idea was that you should learn in order to become knowledgeable. If you could apply that knowledge then it meant you’d learned something. It turns out that this approach to learning doesn’t always fit the world that we live in today. Nor does it match up with what science has shown works.
In the last several decades, science has found that learning is not a byproduct of natural intelligence, but a process. It turns out to be far more accurate to see learning as a method, or system, towards building understanding. Learning does not occur spontaneously based on your IQ or general aptitude.
Learning depends on many other skills: such as focusing and centering your attention, planning and sticking to a program; tenacity, resilience, and the ability to reflect on information. Using a method to learn – or better said, learning how to learn – is the difference between mastery and rote review. This is how truly effective learning can be achieved.
The precise process or method used for learning has been shown to consistently predict success. After analyzing decades of research, experts revealed a startling, consistent finding. Learning methods strongly affect outcomes across professional fields.
Depending on which learning process students used, scientists were able to closely predict their GPAs.
Learning as a process is about more than science, results and prediction however. It is about how society works today, and the changing role of ‘expertise.’ The omnipresence of the internet and our shifting attention spans mean that facts, and memorizing them, has become less valuable.
Technology tends to handle details, logistics and facts for us. The bigger questions instead become: how do our brains really work, and how do we gain mastery?
Finding the best way to learn in the first place, means to set rigorous targets. What is it you truly want or need to learn?
Within the bounds of these targets, it should be normal to expect struggle and setbacks. Still most individuals need the promise of an eventual return from their efforts. Goals should be realistic, so that it feels possible to learn – but also ambitious enough to spark excitement.
Ambition surrounding a goal can also carry us through difficulty and hardship on the path.
Recognizing that struggle is often a part of learning prevents us from becoming too discouraged, and giving up entirely. That is – ‘learning is a process.’
Learning as a process means that through method, effort, focus, and practice, we can get a lot better at gaining expertise.
Here are six steps to outline the key areas necessary to learn effectively:
Learning Process Step 1: Find value
Without motivation, learning dies. In order to want to enter the fray of struggle and hardship of learning, the topic must be something meaningful, or of value. Finding relevance is why we decide to invest our energy, and commit to goals despite setbacks. In short, we need some sort of drive for learning.
Learning is about creating a sense of meaning. The ability to connect a topic to another subject you can about, can make it much simpler to learn. Consider a cherished activity or topic, and figure out how it can be connected to the new field of interest. Involve someone you know or love. If you want to learn to sew, sew something for someone you love.
The other key tool is making learning active, making it meaningful. By active, we mean mentally active. So ask yourself lots of questions as you learn or study something. What does this mean? What does it matter? Could I explain to a friend?
Braindumps are particularly effective. Just write down our thoughts after studying something. As learning researcher Pooja Agarwal argues “No matter what you call it, try this quick retrieval strategy during your instruction before the end of the school year. Here's how it works:Pause your lesson, lecture, or activity.Ask students to write down everything they can remember. Continue your lesson, lecture, or activity.’”
Learning often involves making errors. In fact, it’s inevitable.
Learning Process Step 2: Set goals and targets
Focus is key to learning. The use of targeted goals greatly increases your chances of mastery. Research strongly indicates that those with a clear plan, and goals, far outperform others. People who wish to learn need to decide exactly what it is they want to master.
Learning can also be understood as knowledge management. As in professional management, success requires forethought, targets and timelines. Goal setting means creating precise targets without vagueness or generalization. Realistic, specific goals keep learners from becoming discouraged.
If a goal is too large or abstract, it can be difficult to picture achieving it. The learner might lose their drive, because the goal is too far in the future. On the other hand, rigor in choosing your learning goals is crucial. Learning material ought to be challenging, rather than easy, or based on already known concepts.
Reach beyond the comfort zone to ideas slightly beyond your grasp. This is where learning occurs.
At the same time, be sure to learn in chunks. To gain knowledge we need to have
a dedicated way to a aquire that knowledge and organize it in a way that makes sense. Practically speaking, set aside time for learning and try for small, 30 minutes studying sessions.
Also make sure to think about organizing your learning in ways that build on prior knowledge. Indeed, what you know is that best predictor of what you can learn.
Learning Process Step 3: Develop knowledge
At a certain point, steps should be taken to improve upon existing knowledge, and seek challenges beyond what has already been done. Time needs to be made to practice and further develop the bases of learning gained so far.
Not all practice is made equal however. Superior practice involves being mentally awake, where the mind is at work. Rote memorization or re-reading for instance are not active as practice or learning modes. Much better are non-passive techniques, like creating small tests and quizzes, or imagining explaining the topic to a third party.
Not only should learning build on what has been done already, but it should include being able to dredge up older, related topics. A famous study suggested students who tried to remember a passage without looking at it learned it more thoroughly than those who just read it again and again. To give an example, after reading this article, there would be more learning benefits from creating a quiz of related questions, than going back over the text.
In short, there’s no such things as effortless learning. All learning takes work.
Reach beyond the comfort zone to ideas slightly beyond your grasp. This is where learning occurs.
Learning Process Step 4: Extend expertise
Once having developed a basis of knowledge, it is important to apply that new information. Accumulated information or expertise can be expanded, when applied to real scenarios. When learning a foreign language, go to the country where the language is spoken. Try doing the thing you want to improve at.
If you imagine being better at presenting Powerpoints, present more often! It’s also possible to improve upon your knowledge base through self-questioning and self-explanation. Ask: Is this really logical? Why is this thing that way, and not another way? Making an idea clear to another person, or yourself, is one of the best ways to gain knowledge. Working on a team is positive for that reason: by exchanging information, each team member has the chance to improve.
Teaching as a means to learn is certainly a challenge. While extending our knowledge, it is important to support the affective or emotive self. Keep track of improvements and any headway made to keep up morale.
Learning Process Step 5: Relate skills
When learning, eventually topics connect. If we build value by seeing the larger picture, any small fact or particular point is less interesting than the whole. The whole is about how the picture is interacting, and different topics relate. What are the overarching concepts that make a subject area make sense?
To understand the wider whole, thought experiments or hypotheticals are useful. Albert Einstein often used these. This can work in many fields, but for biology, for instance it’s possible to imagine a counterfactual of evolution never occurring. In great pieces of literature, take the climax or highest plot point, and imagine the opposite.
Graphic organizers, brain or idea mapping can equally be used to see relationships emerge in a mass of knowledge. Visually seeing the way pieces of information or certain skills connect on a page builds understanding. Aim to see the same information in new ways, by combining topics. Connections become more obvious through combining.
This part is about seeing beyond the cut and dry. What is the bigger picture in how this topic relates to others? Try posing questions about the connections between topics. How does this subject work? Think abstractly.
Ultimately this means beginning by thinking like an expert in the field. Learning plant biology by thinking like a plant biologist. Understand neuroscience by conceptualizing the field the way a real neuroscientist would.
Learning Process Step 6: Rethink understanding
Learning often involves making errors. In fact, it’s inevitable. One of the largest mistakes that can be made is arrogance: thinking we know all there is to know. Rather, for real knowledge, we have to question what is known. Rethink what you think you know for certain.
Turning to outside sources or others offers a good chance of a new perspective. The way you learn works better when confronted with divergent systems of thought. Teams work better when made up of individuals with different backgrounds.
When stuck on a topic or question, try posing the question to someone from another field, or with an opposite life experience to yours. To figure out new solutions in a company for instance, ask the cleaning staff to offer ideas.
Finally towards the end of a learning process, consider what knowledge or skills have been gathered. Have some previous thought processes shifted? What is the connection between this content and your other knowledge bases? In essence, have I learned something? What’s next?
If you have other thoughts about the learning process, drop them in the comments. I’ll be sure to respond.
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Interview with Pooja Agarwal
Ulrich Boser on TEDx Talk
Interview with Ken Koedinger
The Learning Curve publishes articles about how people learn. Please reach out with any ideas for articles on the research on learning