Moving Beyond The Blank Stares

How often do we as trainers complain that students do not come prepared to learn? As students, how often do we blame less than spectacular performance by instructors for our lack of skills? In both situations, we fail to realize that learning is collaborative, and is only as good as the commitment brought by teacher and student.

In this newsletter we will explore three principles that can help trainers, presenters and students be more effective in the learning process. Enjoy the newsletter and feel free to pass it on to others.

The other day I got a rude awakening while taking my first lesson in Quickbooks. Having used a homegrown accounting system for the last fifteen years, I though I was faced with the simple task of consolidating my Excel spreadsheets, Word docs and Quicken files into one application. Quickbooks, I was told, would be my savior. I think I'm fairly savvy with technology and plunged head first into my one-on-one session. At one point, I must have blacked out. When I came to, my accountant's lips were moving but I couldn't understand a word she was saying. I had reached my learning plateau and could no longer absorb any new information.

How can we improve our ability to absorb and retain new information? Here are three principles that contribute to effective learning and retention.

Principle 1: We learn by referencing new information against existing knowledge
Learners compare what they're familiar with against what they're trying to understand. When I mentally related a Quickbooks task to my familiar homegrown system, the new skills did not seem so daunting.

Whether teaching or self-managing your own learning, maintaining this frame of reference is key to the learning process. Once that bridge is established, you can begin to focus on the new skills independent from the old behavior. Until that point, keep setting the "context" for the new behavior by referencing the old.

Principle 2: Package information in small chunks
Chunking is the process of organizing information into meaningful groups, similar to how we use a table of contents. Imagine teaching someone how to play solitaire. First you introduce the purpose of the game, then how the game is played and finally any rules that are associated with it. This allows the learner to understand a "chunk" of information before moving on to another task.

Also, limit each chunk to no more than three learning points. It's been proven that people grasp and can retain three distinct ideas at one time. If you introduce four or five unique concepts in a learning situation, you increase the chance that you or your students will begin to tune out.

Principle 3: Accept confusion as part of learning
Is it possible that confusion is the opening we need to grasp new information? When I found myself lost in Quickbooks, I had this desire to go back to my old ways. Instead, I stopped the lesson, pinpointed where I was lost and then was able to move on. As students, we need to take responsibility for these momentary losses of clarity and know that we can get beyond it. As hard as this sounds, we need to welcome confusion versus avoid it.

I think I'm getting the hang of this Quickbooks tool. Recognizing confusion as a part of learning has helped. Like being thrown in the deep-end of a pool, learning requires taking risks, including accepting that it won't all make sense. You'll swim, it just won't be comfortable the first time.