The best competitive advantage you can gain in your career or business is to master the ability to learn new skills and acquire knowledge quickly. There’s usually no time or money available for you to enroll in classes. Fortunately, you can adopt strategies to teach yourself what you need to know to compete and win in your career or business goals.
As I create various training programs for thousands of employees in large organizations, I must develop training that accommodates many different learning styles and preferences. When it comes to skill development, some people want to see it demonstrated. Others want it explained to them. Another group of people want to dive in and try it themselves.
Now, what about your learning preferences? How can you improve your learning habits to master higher paying skills? Do you know how you learn best? Understanding your own learning preferences will accelerate your skill development and help you get better work and income more quickly.
Learning theory classifies the process of acquiring new knowledge into three main channels:
- Auditory (through hearing): verbal communication or explanations of new concepts and information
- Visual (through sight): visual communication or demonstrations that convey concepts or processes
- Active (through activity): “hands-on” learning; experimentation and discovery to gather new information and understanding
Chances are that you prefer a combination of all these channels. Or, your preferred channels may change depending on what you are trying to learn. For example, if you’re studying history or business principles, reading or hearing an explanation might be enough. However, you may need to see a diagram or video to understand how a process or machine works. If you need to know how to repair a computer, the best path to mastery might be by grabbing the tools, reviewing the instructions, and by working through it yourself.
So, how should you approach learning new skills when any one (or a combination) of these channels might work best for you? You will cover all your bases by following a simple process that incorporates all of these learning channels.
An Effective Learning Process
The approach we take in the training industry to accommodate a wide range of learning preferences is by following a simple process. It’s effective because most people learn best with a combination of the channels we just discussed. We follow this sequence:
- Hear It: Have someone who’s knowledgeable on the subject explain it to you. Ask questions for clarification. Write down what they say in your own words.
- See It: Find someone who can show you how to effectively apply that skill. Look for a demonstration, diagram or video on the Internet. Watch other experts to see how they work.
- Try It: Practice using the new skill. Find someone who will observe and give you feedback. Use instructions or notes as you work through it.
- Apply It: Put the new skill or knowledge to work in the real world. The more often you apply what you’ve learned to a real situation, the more likely you are to retain that information or ability.
You can take this approach to learning new skills on your own. It will help you master new abilities more quickly. Remember that repetition is necessary to master new knowledge and skills. Repetition is necessary to master new knowledge and skills.
Create Your Own Learning Plans
Now that you’ve considered options for learning new skills, you need to create a plan to accomplish your skill development. Start by writing down a specific, measurable goal and the date by which you will accomplish it. You also need to define a purpose or incentive for your learning goal. Let’s look at some important elements of your learning plan.
Theories about how adults learn best indicate that we need to know exactly how we’ll benefit from learning a new skill. Will I make more money? Get promoted? Run a business more effectively? Experience less stress through the workweek? While learning just for the sake of learning is enjoyable, it’s a luxury we can’t afford when we’re worried about financial survival or employment security.
If you want to accelerate your own learning and career development, keep reminding yourself of your motivation for learning the new skill. Include it as part of your learning plan. For example:
- “I’m learning management skills so I can get promoted, make more money, and start advancing my career.”
- “I’m learning how to market my services so I can start my own business and quit my 9-to-5 cubicle job.”
- “I’m learning negotiation and selling skills so I can close more sales and generate more revenue for my company, and more commissions for myself!”
- “I need to learn this computer skill so I can make more money and get out of debt!”
- “I will learn the principles of finance and investing so I can retire in five years!”
After that, write down the most effective options available to master that new knowledge or skill based on your learning preferences. Share your learning plan with someone who will hold you accountable for it. Post the paper with your plan on the wall, or take a photo of it to use as a background image on your computer or mobile device. This will keep your learning plan on your mind. Some important points to remember about creating a learning plan include:
- The more specific you are about what you want to learn (why, how, and when to learn it), the more likely you’ll be to accomplish this goal.
- How you’ll actually learn the new information or skill should include a variety of methods that incorporate multiple learning channels.
- Working/learning with someone else will accelerate your progress. Find another person who wants to develop the same skill as you and create a joint learning plan.
- You need to devise some test or benchmark for yourself that determines whether you’ve truly mastered the skill or not. For example, if someone’s goal was to learn web design, her “test” might be to see whether or not she can create an entire website without referring to books or notes.
Make Your Learning Active Learning
In one of my jobs as an instructional designer at a large satellite TV company, I rewrote the entire training program for new installation technicians. I understood that every new technician had a different preference for learning. Yet, for the most part, the technicians who came through the program wanted to learn the skills by actually trying and repeating them.
Instead of rewriting a thick instructional manual on how to install satellite TV, I simply created a series of checklists. Trainees were given options to learn the skills on their own, refer to process documents, or they could be coached through each process by their assigned field trainers.
This modified approach to the new-hire training program got the employees up-to-speed much more quickly. It saved the company money because trainers and technicians spent a lot less time in the classroom and spent more time getting work done. I simply transformed as much of the new-hire training program as possible from passive learning into active learning methods. They learned their new skills quicker and applied them much more effectively.
You don’t want to spend a lot of time developing a new skill and end up forgetting it. You want to make your learning as effective as possible. You want to get the maximum return for your investment. You want to ensure that your efforts to develop higher paying skills bring better work and income. You can master new, higher paying skills and knowledge faster by transforming your passive learning habits into active learning habits.
Active learning couples the exposure to new information with some type of activity that increases understanding and retention. There are many ways to experience active learning. You might begin by simply taking notes. You could create your own summaries of new information. You should get into the habit of immediately applying what you’ve learned. This lesson contains a few methods you can use to transform your learning approach to become more effective and profitable.
What is active learning? As I mentioned before, active learning couples the exposure to new information with some process or activity that increases your understanding and retention. It may include stopping to ask the presenter for more details or clarification on a subject. Active learning could involve taking notes, creating outlines, or drawing diagrams while you’re being taught. Active learning may also include role playing a skill or practicing a procedure until it becomes a habit.
Why You Should Avoid Passive Learning
Passive learning is simply trying to “absorb” new knowledge and information without expending much (or any) effort. It’s sitting, listening to a lecture or program without taking notes, without asking questions, or even really thinking about the information. Passive learning may even include reading a book without underlining, cross-referencing or note taking. You unrealistically hope that you will somehow understand and retain that information. Unfortunately, you’ll waste most of your time and effort trying to learn things passively.
When you transform your study and development into active learning, you will master the information or ability more quickly, retain it longer, and apply it more accurately.
Apply Your New Knowledge and Skills
Most of the active learning techniques discussed so far have to do with understanding and retaining new information–how you can transform information into knowledge. How do you experience “active learning” when it comes to an actual skill, something you need to do? Fortunately, when you’re trying to actively learn a skill or ability, the process is straightforward: try to do the task you’re learning. Do it as soon as possible after seeing a demonstration or hearing an explanation.
If an instructor demonstrates how to do something, don’t be afraid to ask, “Can I try that myself?” As you recall from the lesson on effective learning styles, new skills are mastered best when you can repeatedly attempt them yourself.
If the new skill is something like how to communicate more effectively, or how to give someone feedback, try to role play that skill with someone else. Make a note to apply it in your next conversation with someone. Remember that a lesson not applied is a lesson that’s lost!
Learning to Teach to Learn
One of the most effective ways to master new skills and information is by teaching them to someone else. Share what you learn. Knowing that you will do this motivates you to listen, watch, or read more intently. As you try to explain the new task or concept to someone else, it helps you understand and remember it better yourself. Teaching what you’ve learned to someone else will help you identify gaps in your own understanding. You may discover that you need to go back and review something you’ve studied. Ultimately, sharing what you’ve learned will build your self-confidence in your new skills and knowledge.
What other suggestions do you have about how people can learn more effectively, in less time? Please share your thoughts in the comments section down below.