In business, learning is central to performance improvement.
If we want to get better at what we do then we want to learn. If we want to learn, we should first learn how to learn. Some key skills can help us to learn much more effectively.
Some of these skills are known as 'meta-cognition' skills. Meta-cognition is the process of analysing and understanding our own learning and knowledge.
Here are some useful rules:
- Understand what is expected of us.
- Develop learning with others - colleagues, experts, managers, trainers and mentors.
- Set clear learning goals.
- Follow a personal learning path - Start learning from where we are comfortable and build knowledge methodically.
- Relate new knowledge to existing knowledge in a 'meaningful' way.
- Structure new knowledge and make 'meaningful' relationships between concepts that we learn.
- Assess our learning to ensure that we understand before we progress to the next concept.
- Reinforce our learning through utilisation.
- View intelligence as something that is built and not a talent that we are born with.
Interactive Question: Why is it so important to start learning from a point that you are comfortable? This is because not only do we build new learning incrementally on top of previous learning - we actually use our previous learning to interpret and make sense of our new learning. Without the right prior learning, new information may as well be in a foreign language.
What is expected of us?
Understand what is expected of you. This simple rule is important because learning that is not valued by our colleagues or managers will not be appreciated or used. If it is not used it will be quickly forgotten. This means knowing:
- The company vision
- Your team's objectives
- The company's policies and methods that apply to your job
- The skills expected from you
Develop learning with others
The guidance and help of others can make learning much more enjoyable, effective and useful.
If we intend to apply our learning in activities that involve other people then learning is a social experience. It is not sufficient that we understand a topic fully as individuals - the people that we work with must also have some understanding and use a common set of terms and concepts for discussing the topic. Without a shared conceptual understanding, learning is difficult to apply in a group environment in any realistic way.
At a personal level, a trainer, mentor, manager or colleague can help define expectations, specific learning goals and how best to achieve them. On-going guidance will accelerate the learning process. Team learning can also be very effective.
Setting our Learning Goal
Set clear short-term learning goals every time that you learn. The learning goal should describe what the outcome will be for you:
"I want to stop meetings from over-running."
And what you will need to learn to achieve your goal:
"I need to understand how to manage meetings more effectively."
As you begin learning, these goals may be broken down still further into manageable goals that you can achieve one at a time.
Follow your own path!
This is a vital element of modern learning. Since we learn by building on and using our existing knowledge we have to start from that point. As we all have different experiences and learning, each of our learning paths is different. Although a challenge for the teacher or trainer in a large class, it is important that learners expect a personalised approach to their learning.
Link to existing knowledge
Step one is to look at your learning goal and remind yourself of existing knowledge that you have that relates to the topic of your goal. Having set a goal and recapped your existing knowledge, you can begin learning in a step-by-step fashion.
As you take in new information, whatever form it comes in, work out how it relates to your existing knowledge. You can do this in a number of ways: Test new ideas against existing ideas and experiences. Do they agree or contradict? Would this new idea work in a situation that you have experienced?
Discussion with others is a great way to test and reinforce new learning. This is ideally done in the presence of an expert or mentor who can guide the discussion.
Structure new learning
The process of structuring our learning is similar to linking to existing knowledge. It helps us to develop networks of concepts with meaningful relationships between them rather than memorise facts, recipes or solutions to problems.
If you are reading a book or an article, read the introduction carefully as it will provide you with an outline structure to hang new ideas on as you encounter them. This is helpful even if you don't fully understand the material yet.
Conceptual mapping is a commonly used technique for structured learning. In a concept map, we draw a map of the concepts that we know, making lines between them to connect them together. We then add a description of the relationship between the concepts represented by each line.
Other useful techniques include group or individual discussion that is guided by an expert, task or problem-solving activities that effectively reflect the conceptual structure, reforming of learning through writing of summaries or spoken presentation. The most effective technique depends on the type of learning being pursued and the preferences of the individual learner.
Since new learning is built on existing learning it is vital that we constantly assess our understanding and correct problems instantly.
Historically, assessment was used primarily to assess competency. Although this is a necessary function, it has a number of issues:
- Infrequent testing does not enable on-going tailoring of the learning process.
- Standard testing techniques do not effectively test conceptual understanding - the type of learning that we need in order to be effective. Standard tests tend to measure factual knowledge that is quickly forgotten.
- It is extremely difficult to measure learning in a general way - the fact that someone can answer a written test does not correlate to their ability to apply that knowledge practically.
- Measuring ability reinforces a negative view of intelligence as something that we are born with rather than something we develop.
These limitations of conventional testing raise real questions about the best approach to meeting statutory requirements for competence.
Wherever possible, assessment should be designed to help the learning process. It should be:
- Measure conceptual understanding
- A positive experience for the learner.
Repetition reinforces our learning and helps us to remember it over time. Learning that we do not use tends to be forgotten.
After engaging in new learning, it is vital to find a way to use it. This may be by applying it to a specific area of activity or by setting up a new project that uses it.
Periodically, reviewing previous learning and notes is also useful.
Our attitude towards learning
None of us are either experts or novices. We are all experts in some areas and novices in others. The way that we develop ourselves in areas where we are novices impacts the final outcome.
Research has shown that our attitude towards learning impacts our ability to learn: Children who believe that intelligence is built incrementally in a process are more effective learners who welcome evaluation to further their knowledge. Children who believe that intelligence is a predetermined 'ability' tend to have difficulty learning effectively and avoid evaluations that appear to them to test their 'competence'.