Learning How to Learn: Strategies for More Durable Learning

Whether you want to reinforce Fierce training, learn to play the violin, or memorize a work manual, how you approach learning can make all the difference in how well you know the material, and how long you're able to remember it.

If we're going to spend our time learning, it helps if we know how to do it the right way. The right way meaning how you can get the greatest return on your time and effort and see actual behavioral changes.

The reality is that most of the methods we've been taught for learning are not very effective. In their book Make it Stick, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel list two strategies that are often used but fail to promote long-term, deeper learning:

  • Massed practice. This is basically repetition over and over again, such as cramming for a test the night before or training for a marathon by running 100 miles the week prior without any additional training.
  • Re-reading of text. Going back over the text you've already covered, hoping to retain it. This may include highlighting, underlining, reading out loud, etc.

These methods are time intensive, they don't result in durable, long-term learning, and they can create an illusion of mastery. Mastery implies that not only do we know the concepts, but we also understand them at a deeper, more behavioral level. These ineffective strategies produce short-term, rote memorization but not mastery.

So why do we use these methods so often if they're not effective?

These methods can be useful if you only want to see short-term returns. You can pull off a good grade if you cram before a test, however, as the authors mention in Make it Stick, cramming will result in 50% memory loss as opposed to 13% with more effective learning methods. These methods don't require a lot of effort, and we often mistake our ability to recall information with mastery.

I really began exploring this concept over the past year as I was reading books related to my role here at Fierce. After finishing a book, I could remember a couple of key takeaways, but I didn't feel like the concepts were shifting my behavior and ability to sell our product or build authority.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, the main takeaway if you want to achieve mastery in learning new information is this:

True learning requires the right amount of effort.

Minimal effort equals minimal response and adaptation, meaning it won't be long term. It's tempting to take the easy route, and at the same time, these techniques will eventually feel like they're slowing you down rather than moving you forward. It can feel like you aren't making progress in the moment, and it will draw attention to what you don't know. Over time you'll find yourself feeling discouraged and wanting to quit.

Increased effort, on the other hand, increases adaptation. From strength training at the gym to forming new pathways in the brain, this effort matters. If we want to deepen our learning, we need to consider neuroplasticity. New pathways are formed through practice and effort

Effort is a good thing. Working through challenges is a requirement in effective learning, not a setback.

That said, how can we approach learning in a way that will produce better results?

The answer to better learning is retrieval practice.

It's essential, if we want to "make it stick," that we recall information from memory in a way that will reinforce what we're wanting to learn.

Here are a few of the main retrieval concepts posed by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel in a list of possible retrieval practices:

1. Spaced. Spaced is the opposite of cramming. When we take in new information in increments, spaced out over time, it's steadily reinforced and we're more likely to remember it in the long term.

2. Interleaved. This approach to learning weaves in other topics during the learning process. It could look like, for example, reading multiple books and jumping back and forth between them. Learning multiple topics is effective because it helps you make connections between them and see the bigger picture, rather than just focusing on a single concept without tying its relevance to other concepts.

3. Elaboration. After learning a new concept or idea, write it out, but this time in your own words. Analyze and uncover personal meaning in the material.

4. Reflection. Once you've taken in and/or applied new information, reflect again on the meaning and look for connections between what you learned and what you were able to solve.

5. Distillation. If you read an entire book, you won't be able to remember everything you read. Distilling involves focusing your learning efforts on the concepts you've decided are most important.

So how do these practices relate to the learning efforts in your organization?

The effectiveness of your learning strategies can make or break the effectiveness of your training initiatives.

If you want to grow as a team or organization, the actual strategies used during the learning process are critical. Equally important is whether the right retrieval practices are being implemented for the purpose of reinforcing new concepts.

The activities in a Fierce workshop and the Fierce workbooks incorporate many of the retrieval practices necessary for sustaining behavioral change, including elaboration and reflection. The activities are experiential, meaning participants call on real-life scenarios to practice the concepts, and in every workshop, participants are given the time and space needed for thoughtful reflection. The models from our conversation programs are not a script but rather a guide for approaching conversation successfully, allowing the participant to apply the model in a way that reflects their own experience.

Whether the material sticks often comes down to the individual, and it's possible to create impact with a single Fierce workshop. However, retrieval still needs to be incorporated post-training if you want to see lasting changes organization-wide, and it's essential for participants to continue practicing the material if you want to get the most return from your learning effort and training dollars.

Here are some action items you and your team can apply to keep the conversations going long after the workshop has ended:

1. Create a post-training plan. Be deliberate. Incorporate processes intended to reinforce behavior and create new structures around the material that become "action triggers." This could include several different practices. Consider creating a list of daily questions for yourself accompanied by a goal, why the goal is important, and how you can focus on effort rather than the outcome itself. Post this where you can see it. With Fierce training, we're with you every step of the way from pre- to post-rollout, and we'll work with you to create a plan for reinforcement and continued learning.

2. Find the right resources. I recommend having an accountability buddy to talk about what you're learning and who can offer support when you run into challenges. And leaders, you will need to be available to your team as a resource and coach post-training.

3. "Study" appropriately. Implement retrieval practices such as spacing, interleaving, and elaborating, and provide options for your team. Commit to reflection, especially after having an important conversation. What went well, and what could you do better next time?

Not all learning is created equal. The methods you apply will make all of the difference in whether you, your team, and your organization are able to shift behavior, understand new material at a deep level, and achieve mastery.

For more tips on retrieval and how you can increase the "sticky" factor of your training, read our blog post from Jaime here

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