How to become a better, faster learner
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How to become a better, faster learner

Oct 23, 2019 · 4 min read

Most professionals grew up learning in a traditional way: They went to school, listened to their teachers or professors, and did their homework. And, of course, they gathered some much-needed wisdom from their parents.

Trouble is, that antiquated — and still utilized — way of learning isn’t the most effective, said Peter Lord, founder and director of Accelerated Learning Group, a workplace performance consultancy in Melbourne, Australia. To make things stick, people need to learn by doing, by trial and error — and instructors, coaches, and mentors must inspire others to learn on their own. "To accelerate the learning process, they need to practice what they've learned," he added.

Enter the world of faster learning, a topic and industry that has caught fire in recent years as professionals attempt to keep pace with continual changes in technology, work culture, and business.

Accelerated learning is vital, particularly for leaders, because they not only need to bolster their knowledge and skills more quickly than before, but they must also encourage others to discover and absorb new things.

“Learning is especially important for managers because leading is no longer about performing a task; it’s about adapting to circumstances and paving the path for others,” said Peter Hollins of Seattle, author of The Science of Rapid Skill Acquisition, and other books.

But changing how one learns can be tricky. The parent-child, teacher-student, or manager-employee routine is ingrained in the professional psyche. To become a faster learner, one needs to be motivated and engaged, needs support along the way from coaches or others (i.e., feedback), and needs to schedule time to learn, Lord noted. “Most of us don’t take time to work on our craft and skills,” he said. “If you are not learning now, you will be left behind because of the rate of change and rate of technology.”

Becoming a “fast learner” is not only about velocity, explained Krystyna Gadd, author of How Not to Waste Your Money on Training and founder of How to Accelerate Learning, a Leeds, UK-based company that trains facilitators, corporate coaches, and subject matter experts on the topic. “The speed isn’t as important as the stickiness of the learning,” she said. “For me, ‘accelerated learning’ is a bit of a misnomer, because not only is it faster, but it’s more lasting as well.”

And faster learning isn’t about memory tips or tools — it’s about taking ownership for one’s own progression and making learning a continual priority. “It mostly comes down to habits and being self-disciplined,” added Hollins.

So how do we learn more quickly, retain the information, and help advance the knowledge of both ourselves and our employees? These three experts offer their best tips:

Pinpoint your focus and objective. Ascertain what you need to learn. What knowledge do you lack? What skills do you need to develop? What process should you learn or follow? Should you change a behavior? “Performance is a combination of those four elements,” Lord said. “It’s our attitude and mindset that is a differential in our ability to increase our performance.”

In addition, noted Gadd, realize your end goal. Are you aiming for a promotion or higher-paying job? Do you want to improve relationships with clients or colleagues? “Know what you are trying to get out of it, at a really simple level,” she advised. Once you know the “what” and the “why,” you should create motivation to learn.

Research. “The first step in learning anything is research: the step-by-step process of reading and analyzing materials relevant to your chosen field of interest,” Hollins wrote in his book The Science of Self-Learning.

He outlined several phases for research: Gather as much data as you can on what you want to learn; weed out bad sources from your initial research; then, he wrote, “Look for patterns and overlap”, which will help you identify the major elements of your chosen topic. Once you’ve discovered the patterns, search for nonconforming opinions to add perspective. After completing these steps, you’ll be more educated about what you’ve researched, and can write and speak confidently about your newfound knowledge.

Mix it up. There are myriad ways to learn beyond reading, so spice it up to eliminate boredom. Listen to podcasts. Take a quiz or course. Write things down. “To become a better learner, you need to use variety,” Gadd said. Also, collaborate with others as a way to enjoy the process and retain information. "People learn quite well socially," she added. "They learn from each other and feel safer."

Ask yourself questions. In The Science of Self-Learning, Hollins recommended a technique called “elaborative interrogation,” a method of asking yourself how and why questions of the subject you want to study, much like the way curious children query their parents. This helps you understand information beyond learning by rote. “We can memorize all the parts of a flower — the petal, the stamen, the pistil, the receptacle, and so on — but the names alone mean nothing to us,” he wrote. “We have to ask what each part of a flower does and why that role is integral to its lifespan.”

Practice. To become a better and faster learner, particularly when it comes to skills, exercise what you’ve learned. “Learning is about change ... and going from your comfort zone to your uncomfortable zone,” Lord said. “The more I keep practicing what I’m not comfortable doing, the more I will build a stronger pathway in my learning.” Seek out a coach or mentor for feedback, to help hold you accountable, he advised.

Most importantly, make time. Your schedule may be already packed, but it’s critical to designate time to learn. “The biggest killer to people accelerating their learning is time,” Lord said. “The more you accept that you need to constantly learn, the more you are positioning yourself for future opportunities.”

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