Effective learning requires a multifaceted approach to avoid a learn-lose cycle of knowledge acquisition.
Not every opportunity to learn requires the same technique. Recognizing the different ways you learn gives you the ability to fine tune your approach. Not recognizing the different ways means you’ll likely blend techniques and experience sub-optimal results.
You might be in a learn lose cycle and not even know it. You may end up in a never ending quest to learn everything within a particular domain. And eventually you may give up on learning altogether. And when you do come back, you’ll experience the same frustrations.
Have you ever been on a learning binge? Spent hours digging into a subject? Maybe even practiced applying it to mock situations you might face. And then over the course of weeks, months and years, not have the opportunity to put it to use and the information simply faded.
I don’t believe in crying over spilled milk, but I do like to avoid spilling it in the future. Likely you didn’t forget everything. Perhaps it will come easier to you should you need to apply this knowledge in the future. That said, is there anything about the binge you could have altered to maximize your learning investment?
Did the amount of time seem inordinate? Did you obsess over details? Did you find yourself highlighting every other sentence of a book? Did you find yourself duplicating the contents of an article in your notes? Do you still have any notes or highlights? Can you make sense of these after much time has passed?
What do you remember? How is it useful to you? Do you remember details or concepts?
When you were learning, were you of the mindset that you would need to apply this information? How soon did you think you would need to apply it? Or were you of the mindset that you probably wouldn’t be applying it anytime soon? How did this alter how you learned? What factors kept you from applying the knowledge?
When you embark on a learning opportunity if you know the following to be true:
- You don’t have a plan to use the knowledge. Practice is not use. Use means putting it into something you depend upon whether personal or professional.
- You haven’t identified how using the knowledge should benefit your circumstances. You can use something because it’s cool, it’s another thing to use it to be more productive. Is there a potential benefit?
If you identify this situation upfront, you can tailor your decision to learn and subsequent learning.
- Defer learning. Put a note in a learning wish list. This helps put your mind at ease that you can come back to this at a later time. If something seems really cool but not so beneficial or useful, stash it away. If you know it may be useful in two or three months, set a reminder.
- Gain some exposure to the knowledge. I refer to this as exposure learning. In the process you seek to understand how you can use the knowledge to your benefit.
How do you decide between the two? Do you have other opportunities to learn that prove more beneficial or useful? If so, defer the learning. If not, get some exposure. Do you think there’s a potential benefit but just aren’t sure? Then get some exposure.
Whatever your reason, if you proceed, understand your objective. If you don’t plan to use the knowledge, let alone benefit from it, you don’t want to apply the same techniques if you do plan to use and benefit from it.
Sometimes I like to refer to exposure learning as exposure therapy. I do this for those of us that love learning so much we get anxious that we’re falling behind. We’re forever plagued with a love of learning. Sometimes a little exposure alleviates our fear of the unknown enough that we don’t need to waste an entire weekend entangled in nuances. For everyone else, exposure learning is more appropriate a term since anxiety isn’t a part of the equation.
Don’t climb the first mountain
If you decide to proceed with exposure learning, remember the purpose is to gain some insight into how you may use a domain of knowledge and how it may be beneficial. In the process you want to gain some perspective of the breadth of the domain too. Depth is not the goal.
For example, let’s say you enjoy hiking and you recently moved to a new region. You’re unfamiliar with the area. You know at some point you would like to go hiking but you’re not sure when. You’re not sure what time you would have to dedicate to the hike. So you’re not really sure what would make for the ideal hike.
If you had some time and wanted to find a good hike, you could set out to hike the closest mountain. You’d get a really good idea of what it’s actually like. But unless you have endless time on your hand, you won’t gain much perspective into what could be your ideal hike.
On the other hand, in the time it takes to hike the nearest mountain, you could learn much more about the opportunities. You could enumerate the qualities that you enjoy most in a hike. You could visit a local outdoor sporting store or parks and recreation center. You could get some advice from people who make their living helping people enjoy the outdoors. You could get a map and/or a guide book and study the various opportunities in your area. And you could compare all of this information to your list of criteria and come up with a list of possibilities.
Focus on the big picture
So when you don’t know when you’ll use the knowledge, or how you’ll benefit from it, don’t climb the first mountain. Don’t get into details. Focus on the big picture. Look at the map. Don’t go out hiking every mountain. Spend time with the breadth of the subject, not the depth. You’ll quickly forget the details anyways. They’re always the first to go, within weeks if not days. Admit to yourself, “I’ll forget the details.”
What does the big picture entail? Identify concepts. Identify potential benefits. Learn how you might apply the techniques. Discern when you could use the knowledge. Set yourself up for a better understanding of what mountains you might want to climb in the future.
Have an objective
Have an objective for what the exposure learning will entail. Since you’ll be looking at maps, you don’t want to end up reviewing the entire world. Unless you have the time, and it’s worth it to you. Limit your exposure. In the case of finding good hikes, perhaps identify hikes within reasonable driving distance. Driving distance could become a criteria for a good hike.
If something isn’t readily apparent to limit your learning, perhaps time box the learning. Set aside a Saturday afternoon. Whatever makes the investment in the exposure worthwhile.
If you don’t have constraints, you’ll find yourself exploring the world. Just as easily as you could be climbing the first mountain in sight.
Along with constraints, understand why the exposure will be worthwhile. If any old mountain will do, there’s no sense in compiling a list of every mountain within a fifty mile radius, go climb the closest one.
Periodically check in to see if you’re meeting your objectives. No harm in getting off track, unless you don’t realize it.
Because you’re focusing on the big picture, skim the details. Do not obsess over details. In fact, don’t even look at them unless they’re necessary to solidify the big picture. If you detect a potential benefit but don’t feel confident, briefly look into the details. For example, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book in the process of gaining exposure to a subject. Just don’t fret over following every detail. Skip what you can come back to later. Read the parts you think will help with the big picture.
Find ways to relate what you’re learning to what you already know. Find perspectives that will provide this for you. If you’ve hiked a few mountains in the area, maybe one stands out. Find others that are similar or maybe not similar. Use what you know as a frame of reference to accelerate your understanding.
You can’t have it all
You can’t know everything, even in terms of the big picture. You only need to know enough to make the investment in learning worthwhile. There will always be a better hike that you missed. If you find three thoroughly enjoyable hikes, who cares about the rest.
In the process, actively summarize the big picture: concepts, benefits, how to apply it, relationship to what you know, when you could use it. This helps you stay true to your objective and within your boundaries. It also helps you know when you’re adequately exposed. For example, if you’re excited about five hikes you’ve found, stop looking for more. Go do one of them if you have the time. Wait until you’ve done some of them to look for more.
Practice as appropriate
The best way to solidify learning is through practice and then actually apply it to a real situation. However, with exposure learning, your goal isn’t necessarily to practice. In fact you want to stay away from details so you can see the bigger picture. That said, if practice would help solidify concepts and benefits, go for it.
But if you’re in the middle of exposure learning and you want to apply something to a real situation. At least take the time to re-evaluate if the benefits are worthwhile and if now is the appropriate time. Otherwise you’ll quickly find yourself hiking the first mountain when you should be looking at the mountain range.
When you think you’ve fulfilled your objective, take a minute to reflect. What did you learn? Did you fulfill your objective? Was the learning beneficial?
What would you do different next time. If you spent an entire day, ask yourself what you could have done to spend half a day and walk away with the same outcome. Ask yourself if you applied the appropriate learning technique for the given situation.
The big picture of learning
Exposure based learning can play a very effective part of a learning strategy. However, it shouldn’t dominate your strategy. If you never expose yourself to new ideas, you’ll never learn. But, if you never apply what you learn, you’ll end up in the learn-lose cycle.
You should be able to distinguish at least two types of learning at this point: exposure to the big picture and digging into the details. How much time are you investing in each? How much time would you like to invest in each?