In-demand skills come and go, but this one will stay for life.

The only constant is change. Your degree will only carry you so far. Your current skill in a certain field will only be relevant for so long. After all, many jobs that exist now were unheard of a decade ago.

The only way to survive and get ahead in this ever-changing world is to sharpen the skill of learning.

In a world that is constantly changing, there is no subject or set of subjects that will serve you for the foreseeable future, let alone for the rest of your life. The most important skill to acquire now is learning how to learn. — John Naisbitt

It’s no coincidence that the Learning How to Learn class from Coursera is the world’s most popular online course, with students from over 200 countries learning the mental framework to overcome any difficult topic. Personally, it’s also no coincidence that I was able to consistently pick up new skills and accelerate my career through monthly learning challenges.

If it’s essential to be a lifelong learner, then it makes sense to invest time in strengthening this meta-skill. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” The more you understand how to study effectively, the better you’ll be able to apply these concepts, the more equipped you’ll be to acquire skills. Win-win-win.

Here are 3 things you can do to study smarter:

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1. Make a connection between the new and old.

Our brains are made of neurons which transmit information between each other across synapses. When you learn something new, your brain literally makes a connection between the neurons.

The more synapses made, the more interconnected your knowledge and deepen your understanding becomes. Thus, it’s helpful to generate metaphors or link an abstract concept to something concrete that you already know.

For example, making the analogy that your mind is like a library. Within a library, there are existing categories like History or Psychology to file books away under. Similarly, with new incoming information, your mind also files those away according to current labels. Thus, it’s much easier to understand something if a) you have already had an existing category for it, and b) you have examples within the category to help you integrate the information.

Knowledge is strengthened through use and meaning. Which brings us to chunking:

Chunking is the act of grouping concepts into compact packages of information that are easier for the mind to access.

Because short-term memory can only hold about four things at any given time, if you group the different pieces of information together into one larger whole, you can use just one of the four available slots. For example, if you’ve ever needed to memorize colors of the rainbow, chances are that you used the acronym “ROY G BIV”, or if you played music, you used “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” to read treble notes.

When you make a connection with something you already know, you learn and remember it better.

2. Do it yourself.

The best way to learn something is through experience because it bridges the gap between knowledge and skills.

There’s a difference between passive and active learning. Just because you highlight or underline something, doesn’t mean that you’ve learned it — and personally, the worst way to learn that is during an exam (I’m speaking from experience☺).

Also applicable to the working world, if you watched video tutorials or read guides, it only means that you are aware of the instructions on how to do it, and not necessarily the ability to carry it out. Pure regurgitation or recognition is easy but recalling it or teaching it to someone is not. If you’ve ever gotten into a situation where everything went well during studying, but when the crucial time came you realized that you didn’t actually know the material, this my friend, is the illusion of competence.

The roadblocks and obstacles we run into when we’re learning something new is what helps us store it in long-term memory. This is why companies emphasize working experience, and why side projects are helpful if you’re trying to really learn something well.

The trick is to just start. Sometimes all those open tabs to do more research are just forms of procrastination. Your brain likes pleasant things, so when it encounters something that it thinks will be difficult, it tries to switch your attention to easier things, like watching Netflix. However, researchers have discovered that not long after people actually start working on a task, the perceived discomfort soon disappeared. It’s like when you get to the gym, you realize it’s not too bad after all, and when you’re all sweaty after your workout, it feels great and you’re happy that you went.

The more you practice something, the better you’ll get, and the more enjoyable it becomes. And then you’re off to the races towards mastery! To make sure you constantly progress, you can use deliberate practice, in which you intentionally focus on weak parts of your performance and use measurement and feedback to systematically improve.

It’s only through experience that you can improve and learn what to improve.

3. Rest to get stronger.

Learning is like a mental workout for your brain. Just like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. And just like a physical workout, when you give it time to rest and recuperate, you get stronger.

When you sleep, the brain actually uses that time to clear out harmful toxins from the day, updates the cells, and integrates new information. So when you only get a couple of hours of sleep, it’s similar to only 50% of the new files getting downloaded into your brain storage system. Additionally, studies have shown that it’s actually best to sleep right after you learn something new so that the information is super fresh for the brain to consolidate into memory.

When we’re resting, we enter the diffused thinking mode, in which your brain relaxes and your thoughts are free to wander. This is also the mode that allows your thinking to get stronger, specifically your creative thinking. When you take a break from focused mode, it creates space and freedom for your subconscious to marinate on it. This is why people often make unexpected connections and breakthroughs in the shower or while taking a walk.

Another reason why it’s important to take breaks between learning is that according to the spacing effect, learning is more effective when studying is spread out over time, rather than all in one session.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that there’s scientific evidence that cramming is ineffective.

While it was passable to cram for exams and forget everything the day after, the real world doesn’t test on word-for-word answers, but rather application and skill. Thus, you actually want to learn and incorporate the information into your knowledge toolkit rather than restudying it every time. Enter spaced repetition.

Because we operate on a learning forgetting curve, in which we forget about 50% of what we learned within an hour of learning it (thanks for the tip Ebbinghaus), research has shown that spaced repetition, or repeating things after a couple of days, is the best way to reinforce learning. The language flashcard app Anki does a great job of using an algorithm to bring up words on days that you’re most likely to forget them so that your memory is constantly refreshed. Experiential projects also help keep new concepts on top of mind, by you directly working with what you’re trying to learn.

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Thus, make sure to let your brain rest between learning sessions to become more creative and effective at learning.


Learning is hard. But we can make it easier by tying new information to something we already know, getting hands-on experience and making the best use of resting periods to turn fleeting concepts to long-term skillsets.

When we learn to learn more effectively, it opens up countless doors and a world of possibilities. If we don’t know something, we can find out about it. If we don’t have a skill, we can acquire it.

“When we are confident in our ability to learn, we can plunge into the life we imagined, like a child at play.”

Which one of the tips from above will you start incorporating to get better at learning? Tell us in the comments and start learning at Degreed.


This post was authored by a Degreed power user, Yunzhe Zhou, who founded One Month Projects to coach driven professionals in acquiring a meaningful skill in 30 days. We thank Yunzhe for her insights!

Spending a lot of time with organizations, at conferences, and reading industry research and blogs, I see the phrases “out of sync” and “learning revolution” being thrown around a lot in reference to the current state of corporate learning. There might be some truth to those words – only 18% told Degreed they would recommend their employers’ training and development opportunities.

But a more accurate statement is that there is a massive shift happening in the way people are learning in their jobs.

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The fact is, most workers do spend time learning every week, and they progress every day, in all kinds of ways – not just sometimes, in courses or classrooms. This means that the L&D environment should enable self-directed development as well as formal training – and it should do that through both micro and macro-learning. Equally as important, we as L&D leaders, have to make the vast array of learning content and experiences more meaningful by curating the right resources and tools, providing context, and by engineering useful connections and interactions.

We call this a learning ecosystem. We are in an exciting time where technology, the gig economy, the vast demographics of our workforce have given us the opportunity to rethink our approach and the possibilities! So what does a culture of continuous learning that includes formal and informal, job training and career development, L&D and self-service, look like?

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You need a comprehensive ecosystem of systems and tools that include the following capabilities:

  • curate many different types of content
  • Allow learners to explore indefinitely
  • Aggregate data from all over the organization without manual work into one tool
  • Dashboards to monitor activity deeper than completions
  • Analysis without spreadsheets or data scientist

Perhaps most importantly, embrace APIs, and standards compliance using Tin Can/Experience to ensure that all of your tools will plug in together.

There is also no one-size-fits-all for tools, but platforms like Degreed and Bridge help facilitate L&D’s expanding requirements through their support of required, recommended and self-directed talent development, allowing organizations to meet the needs of a changing workforce.

Learning and development opportunities are a critical factor in making employee engagement (and more importantly, performance) happen. Today, people expect utility, relevance, and personalization, and you create that through a comprehensive learning ecosystem.

Want to know more about the Degreed and Bridge ecosystem? Check out the PR on their new integration.

Co-authors: Sarah Danzl – Communications & Content Marketing, Degreed & Katie Bradford – Director of Platform & Partner Marketing, Instructure

Organizations spend billions each year on formal training programs. Yet it’s estimated that only about 10% of what is learned in training is applied at work. This is likely a concerning statistic, but probably not all that surprising, considering learner behavior today.

Formal, L&D-led training is still a valuable part of how workers learn – around 70% of people told Degreed they take live, virtual or e-learning courses from their employers at least once a year. But these same people use informal, self-serve learning experiences to support their growth on a daily basis. According to Degreed research, 85% of workers said they learn things for work on a weekly basis by searching online, nearly 70% learn from peers or by reading articles and blogs and 53% learn from videos.

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This data makes it clear that people progress every day, from a variety of resources.  The same survey told us they already invest 3.3 hours a week on their own. But a source that’s accessed once a year versus a source that’s accessed daily tell us people want more than what they can find in the typical L&D course catalog, though.

As demand from the workforce grows, making learning easy, accessible, personalized is only going to get more important. And not just important enough to keep workers happy. So important that it will be the difference in retaining employees.  As Josh Bersin put it at Degreed Lens, opportunity has become directly correlated to employee engagement and tenure within organizations.

So what can the enterprise do about it? Prioritizing growth, development, and learning will create a culture that positions both the company and its employees for success.

There are many ways to emphasize learning as a central strategy but here are four that can take you to the next level and make learning a strategic advantage.

The workforce is changing and it’s affecting how we all work every day. It’s also changing the expectations that people have about who they work with, how they work, and where they work. I recently met with a group of Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) and learning leaders to talk about the four trends disrupting the workforce today and how that impacts the way we think about learning in the corporate environment. We uncovered four common trends.

  1. Different generations in the workforce

People have been talking about this for years now, but the reality is that we have many generations working together in the workforce today.  By 2020, 70% of the workforce will be made up of millennials, but in addition, boomers are working into their 70s and 80s.  What does this mean for the workforce and learning?  It means that we are more diverse and have greater opportunity to learn from each other.  As for learning, although it may be true that millennials are digital natives and generally very comfortable with technology, the CLO group I was speaking with agreed that the way people like to learn has less to do with age and more to do with personal comfort level with technology.

Judy Dutton, Senior Director at eBay, shared that there is a large increase of millennials coming into the company. The 32nd most recognized brand in the world according to Interbrand in its annual ranking of Best Global Brands, many don’t know that eBay also does a lot of slick things with technology including big data, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In 2017, their HR function is focused on new ways to attract top talent, especially millennials, by revamping their intern program and recruiting from more diverse universities. Their learning teams are embracing a new digital and in-person on-boarding experience, and completely rethinking their career development and approach to development.

  1. Rise in digital technology

Technology is changing the way we think about both business and learning.  As I wrote in a previous blog, learning leaders need to be tech savvy and include a digital learning component as part of their overall learning and employee experience strategy.

At eBay, a learning technology manager helps drive the ongoing technology requirements for the global Talent and Organization Development team.  This new role has also become more heavily involved with IT, the office of the CIO, and HR analytics since the learning technology need is increasingly prevalent.  But it’s not just about technology; there has to be learning expertise among each employee too.

These are just two of the four workforce trends that are changing the role of learning leaders. We will visit the remaining two trends, an increasing rate of change and the new relationship between employees and employers, in Part 2 next week.

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