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Redefining “What It Means to Learn”

Making Every Moment an Empowering Experience

 What does it mean to learn? After working with countless leaders in for-profit and non-profit organizations, one basic skill continues to elude most professionals.  As countless studies have shown that a crucial key to your success is your ability to learn, this basic skill is not present in many people.

 So how do we really learn…?  What have you learned thus far today…?  How will you apply that tomorrow…?

Defining Learning

 In the countless workshops and seminars I’ve delivered, many people defined learning as taking in new knowledge. Considering the political structures in many countries, learning might be viewed as a form of brainwashing, where your job is to only regurgitate what’s been stuffed into your brain.  Even within the American educational system, most teachers expect you to regurgitate what you’ve learned in a specific subject with little to no application in the real world.  The TRUTH about learning is that learning involves taking action with new information.  It also takes place within a complex social environment crowded by countless influential factors of life.  According to business school studies by Geertshuis, Holmes, Geertshuis, Clancy, and Bristol in 2002, learning do not function well in a social vacuum occupied by the teacher and the student.  Instead, learning is about applying new information and creating meaningful knowledge based on personal experiences.

 Your Learning Environment

The environment of learning in most organizations, including schools and training courses in companies, is very limited.  They take the assumption that they are giving you meaningful information.  In addition, another poor assumption is that their various forms of evaluation equal effectiveness.  These evaluations take the form tests, quizzes, papers, and feedback forms.  Some are even called “Smile Sheet”, as trainers measure their effectiveness by how much you liked or enjoyed the course immediately afterwards. Is that really learning, sitting through a course while someone speaks at you?  There’s no room for the application of the content within a safe environment; thus knowledge retention is below 5%, according to a study by Cornell University. 

 Empowering Yourself

 Even in such an environment, you have the power to make learning much more powerful. You can take three basic steps:

1). Conduct a self-review

2). Conduct a post-review

3). Conduct an impact assessment

 The self-review is a simple status check with respect to the course you’re taking.  Imagine training for the Olympics in a particular sport (let’s say swimming) – the first thing you need to do is to determine if your time is close to those who are in the Olympics.  No coach would ever take you on unless they’re aware of your time trials at various developmental stages.  The same must apply before walking into a training session/class.  You need to know what you know; more importantly, you also need to be aware of what you don’t know.  In addition, you’ll also need to quantify 5 elements.  First, what is the learning outcome you look to achieve?  Second, what is your motivation for attending the course?  Be honest with yourself here.  You might find that your motivations do not align with your learning outcome.  In such a case, consider removing yourself from the course and take it at a later time.  For example, one individual wanted to effectively communicate with peers in a communications workshop.  Yet, their top motivation was “I was told to be there” or “Everyone else is going”.  If someone forces you to attend a course, your openness to learning may be very limited.  Don’t waste your time and money.  You must have a desire to be open and learn.

Third, you need to have a full understanding of what your preferred learning method is. Some people prefer experimental, other prefer writing reports.  You’ll also want to know if your preferred learning modality is visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.  The fourth and fifth element is just as important as the teacher/trainer.  The forth is to identify your barriers to learning and the fifth is to identify your support for learning.  For example, if you have a group of peers who are constantly trying new ways to solve problems, they would be supportive of your learning.  On the other hand, if you have a boss that is very goal oriented, you have a situation where the need to reach goals no matter what limits your ability to experiment.  Knowing what you’re working with outside of the classroom are key elements to your learning.

 After the completion of the self-review, attend the class as you normally would.  During the course, be sure to jot down notes on what was important to you.  As a habit, always take notes.  Whether they’re detailed or high-level overview, the act of writing helps solidify knowledge inside your mind.

 Immediately after the course, give yourself a post-course review.  This could take five to fifteen minutes.  First, write down the top lessons you’ve learned.  Replay the course in your mind…; where there additional questions regarding the materials?  Second, and the most important part of learning – create an action plan based on the new information.  This action plan must have specific actions to take and a timeline in the near future (within days) of the course.  Each of the top lessons should have a specific implementation schedule into your life.  Share the plan with someone who will hold you accountable.  During this time, also create some measurements to determine the impact of this application.

For example, John took a class on Closing the Deal.  One of his lessons from the course was to use people’s names often.  So in his action plan, he wanted to use a person’s name at least 3 times in each 10 minutes of conversation with all people.  His timeline was within the next week.  He took this action plan to his boss and his best friend and asked them to randomly count and call his attention to using names.  Afterwards, John would initially reward himself with a piece of chocolate for every full day of following his new rule.  Eventually, this behavior became part of who John was – a very successful salesperson because people felt that they could relate to him.

The final aspect to learning is your impact assessment.  This should come no less than 2 weeks after the course, and sometimes a month or two after the course.  The purpose of the impact assessment is to measure how you’ve implemented the new knowledge and its impact on your life.  This assessment can be compared with your initial learning goals established in step one of the three step learning process.  It will also reveal additional strengths and opportunities for growth which feeds back into step one.

 A Conscious Effort

 As you can see, learning is a conscious effort.  It does not happen by chance!  Countless immigrants face the same challenges repeatedly; often, the only difference is in the names of people and companies.  The process of learning is often more important than the content itself.  This process is completely in your own control.  Life is a classroom, so why not make each moment of your life a learning experience.  By doing so, you’ll capture the wisdom that’s inside each and everyone of you.

By Dr. Ted Sun 

October, 2005

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