By Donald J. Ford, Ph.D.
President, Training Education Management LLC and
Adjunct Professor of Management, Antioch University Los Angeles
As training professionals, we are accustomed to leading and facilitating learning for others. In this role, we sometimes forget to look at learning from the learner's perspective. It is useful for us to put ourselves in the learner’s seat from time to time to better understand the learning process.
Viewing learning from the learner's perspective, we can reduce its complexity to four simple steps. My four step model applies to all learners and we would do well to remember this every time we step forward to teach others. The model is called OAAP, which stands for:
- Orient –identify what we want to learn and the reasons that learning will benefit us.
- Acquire – actively seek new knowledge and skill through our own efforts and the assistance of others, such as teachers or significant people in our lives.
- Apply – discover ways to use the newly acquired knowledge in the course of our daily lives.
- Perfect – continue to hone our knowledge through practice, evaluation, and continuous improvement.
The graphical representation of the model appears below:
The first phase of learning, orient, involves identifying the new knowledge and skills that we need and why acquiring it will benefit us. So much in our complex world is unknown that our first challenge is simply to identify what we don’t know. Identifying what we don't know is further complicated by our natural blind spots. We literally don’t know what we don’t know. Our lack of knowledge and blind spots often prevent us from understanding what is happening and how it affects us.
Once we have broken through our blinders and identified a subject that we don’t know about, the next step is to find a compelling reason to expend and sustain the effort required to learn. Learning is hard work, make no mistake about that. The brain expends an enormous amount of energy when learning. We literally can get a headache from the concentrated effort required to learn a difficult subject.
The reasons to learn are many! We learn in order to improve ourselves, to please others, to get a better job, to comply with a mandate, to survive. Most of our reasons are motivated by self-interest. Learning:
- Enables us to achieve a life goal
- Gives us greater earning power
- Leads to admiration and respect from our peers
- Provides its own satisfaction in knowing that we have added to our arsenal of knowledge and skill and become a better person
Whatever the reason, we need to find something to motivate us to learn, to sustain the difficult process of acquiring and perfecting new knowledge and skill. This motivation needs to inspire for the short term reward, as well as the long learning journey ahead and the final result. The best forms of learning motivation contain both extrinsic rewards, like better pay and more social cachet; and intrinsic rewards, like self-improvement and inner satisfaction. It helps to explicitly identify the reasons to learn something new and to keep these purposes firmly in mind as we embark upon learning.
The second phase of learning, acquire, is the part we know the best. Having identified a need to learn, we all realize that learning requires us to acquire something new – new knowledge, new skill, or a new attitude. Acquiring knowledge typically involves seeking out experts in the subject and reading, watching, listening to, or otherwise getting the knowledge from the expert. We need to select a medium for acquiring new knowledge and skill: Formal classes? Books? Television and movies? Internet? Others? Trial and error? As we do, it’s useful to consider key factors:
- Preferred learning style and sensory preferences – how do you like to learn?
- Sources of expertise and the availability of these experts to teach you – who will guide your learning?
- Effort required - how much time and cost to acquire the new knowledge and what will it take to succeed?
The third phase of learning, apply, is using what we learn in our daily lives. We are capable of learning many things, but we are also capable of forgetting most of it. Think back to the subjects you studied at school. If someone gave you a test on those subjects today, how well would you do? Most of us would fail miserably, because we haven’t used that school knowledge in so many years that we have forgotten it.
A key principle of learning is “use it or lose it.” Experts suggest that if we do not use newly acquired skills within 21 days, we will forget them and have to start over again. In fact, some studies suggest that we forget most of what we learn within 24 hours. For example, think about the last time you tried learning a new software program. How much of what you learned were you able to retain?
Chances are, you remembered only the skills that you actually used on the job and you became truly proficient in only those parts of the software that you use it daily. In fact, experts have estimated that most people use only about 10 percent of the total features of today’s software programs. When it comes to applying learning, several things are known to help.
First, start applying immediately. The sooner we apply what we learn, the more likely it will stick. In formal training and education courses, application begins in the class during practice activities and after class completing homework assignments. If well-crafted, practice can reinforce learning and help us move it into our permanent memory banks for future retrieval when needed.
Second, after the learning has occurred, discover new ways to use the knowledge in your daily life. Begin to practice new skills immediately in the most obvious setting where you need them. Then go beyond the obvious and look for novel ways to apply the learning in a variety of situations.
The final phase of learning, to perfect new knowledge and skill, is achieved through ongoing practice, evaluation, and continuous improvement. This last phase is how we develop expertise in a subject over the long haul. Of course, not all learning requires perfection. Sometimes, being an amateur or a layman is sufficient. So we first need to decide which areas of learning require us to become experts. These are typically areas of knowledge that are crucial to our careers or of abiding personal interest to us due to the intrinsic appeal of the subject matter.
The first principle of perfection is “practice makes perfect.” The more we practice and use knowledge, the more we perfect our ability to apply it. But legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once commented that the role of practice was misunderstood. It is not “practice makes perfect,” according to Lombardi, but “perfect practice makes perfect.” By that remark he meant that how we practice makes a huge difference in the results we achieve. If we practice the wrong way or practice our mistakes, we don’t get better. Instead, we get worse. So, Lombardi emphasized to his players the vital importance of practicing perfectly, of doing in practice exactly what you were expected to do in the game, as the basis of long term learning and success.
How do you know if your practice is perfect or not? To find out, evaluate your practice using objective feedback. This might involve:
- Videotaping your practice and watching it later, if it is an observable skill.
- Having a third party evaluate your practice and provide feedback, such as a coach.
- Asking trusted people to provide honest feedback about your practice, such as family and close friends.
- Taking a test or assessment of some kind to demonstrate your knowledge and skill.
However you acquire evaluation input, remember the second key principle: it is important to receive feedback and evaluation openly and with a spirit of continuous improvement. Confirm that the feedback is accurate. Commit yourself to continuously improving your knowledge and skills throughout your life. Look for incremental opportunities to improve and look for big breakthroughs as well. Above all, pay close attention to sources of information that you trust that can tell you how you are doing. Keep an open mind and continue to try to improve yourself through more learning, more practice, and more evaluation.
This is the ultimate secret to success in learning and success in life. Those who succeed never give up and never close their minds to the possibility of improving themselves.