“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” - Arie De Geus (1).

How can you learn more effectively? It's a question that has provoked many answers over the years and one that I hope to help you with by referencing some key theories and principles.

Encoding process

As obvious as it may sound, an individual will not learn something new unless they first pay attention to whatever it is they are trying to understand. Creating an environment that facilitates your ‘encoding process’ (i.e. the manner in which someone takes in some form of information, and processes it into a sensation e.g. a sound, sight, smell, memory etc.) is something which is often overlooked.   

It has been found in empirical research that, distracting an individual’s attention to learn a word list, impedes their later ability to recall the words, as opposed to when they are allowed to give the word list their full attention (2).

The more deeply information is encoded at the time of learning, the easier it will be to recall at a later time. Therefore, when trying to learn something, it may be wise to remove all potential distractions and/or disturbances as these will simply interfere with the ongoing encoding process and lead to a detriment in the later recall of said information.

Mindset

Whilst external factors are important to learning, you must also be aware of how your own mindset influences your ability to learn new information. Mindset is referred to as how individuals view their own ability to complete mentally demanding tasks.

A Fixed mindset is characterised by a view that mental abilities are fixed and difficult to change. A Growth mindset sees abilities as skills that are dynamic and can change with time and practice. Whereas an individual with a fixed mindset may see a failure as a closed door; a growth mindset sees it as a door you just need to try and open again and again until you succeed.

Believing that you are able to learn new information and not fearing failure in your efforts to reach your goal, is clearly beneficial to your success and (in my opinion), a far more enjoyable way to learn new information than fearing the potential for failure at each step of the learning process.

The need for cognition

Furthermore, it has been found in empirical research that individuals with a high need for cognition (i.e. how strongly/deeply you like to think about information), will most likely gather more details on relevant information for group discussions (3). Questioning information and asking “Why?” is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to build interest in a subject area and learn information in a more profound way.

For example, someone with a high need for cognition may be questioning the very information presented in this article. An individual like this will often seek out answers to questions they have about a chosen area, leading to them to formulate their own informed opinions on a subject matter over time.

What about me?

Every individual is unique and, by extension, likely to have their own preferences and strategies which they utilise to learn information. Certain learning strategies however, have been found to be tried and tested methods which seem to benefit a vast majority of an individuals’ learning processes. An example of this was found in a review of teaching methods for medical students from 1969-2003, which found that the aspect which was most frequently stressed to aid learning was being provided feedback by a supervisor. Feedback allowed the students to obtain clarification and a more in-depth understanding of their particular area of interest.

Repetition was found to be the single most effective aspect individuals utilised on their own to aid learning in an academic environment(4). Rehearsing information allows information to be revised upon and in effect, encoded for a longer period of time to a more in-depth level.

In conclusion, if you wish to optimise your learning, you need to consider three things:

  • Environment

Consider finding a place in which you feel most at ease and free from distractions so that you may give your full attention to what you want to learn.


  • Mindset and Cognition

Having a positive outlook on the learning process by adopting a growth mindset and developing a higher need for cognition is likely to lead you to both enjoy the learning process and to actively engage in the content by asking questions and seeking out answers.

 
  • Seek feedback

Once the information has been learned and understood, you may consider seeking out another individual, (such as a trainer or teacher), who is informed on the matter for feedback on any questions or uncertainties you have.

  • Repetition

Repetition of the information is likely to aid your recall of the subject matter further, as you will have given yourself more time to encode the information for later recall.

 

If you would like to find out more about optimising your or your staff’s learning then get in touch!

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(1)    De Geus, A. (1998). In Partridge, L. (1999). Creating competitive advantage with HRM. Select Knowledge Limited. 1999: p128. 
(2)    Craik, F. I. M., Govoni, R., Naveh-Benjamine, M., & Anderson, N. D. (1996). The effects of divided attention on encoding and retrieval processes in human memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 125(2), 159-180.
(3) Cacioppo, J. P., & Petty, R. E. (1983). Effects of need for cognition on message evaluation, recall and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(4), 805-818.
(4)    Issenberg, S. B., Mcgaghie, W. C., Petrusa, E. R., Gordon, D. L., & Scalese, R. J. (2005). Features and uses of high-fidelity medical simulations that lead to effective learning: A BEME systematic review*. Medical Teacher, 27(1), 10-28.