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How to Learn - Eve's Commonplace
How to Learn
I recently wrote a leaflet for Ashridge on how to learn, based on a combination of Ashridge's 50 years' experience in executive education and our recent research into the neurobiology of learning. Here are my Learning Basics and Top 10 Tips.

Learning Basics

Your brain tries harder to learn things it thinks you need, so when you hear anything, ask yourself: when can I use that? And keep asking the question until you get an answer.

Your body needs to be awake for your brain to function. Monitor your alertness and make physical changes when you find your mind wandering – look around, stand up, ask for a break, drink water, eat a banana, go for a brisk walk, ask a question…

When you are on a course, you often feel tired, and want lots of coffee, sweets or carbohydrates to pep you up. These may work in the short-term, but will slow you down, creating a vicious cycle over the day, so try water, walks, and healthy snacks instead.

Sleep is crucial, both for rest and for the formation of memories. Try not to eat or drink too much too late in the evening, particularly as alcohol will interrupt your sleep patterns. Sleeping away from home can be hard, so pay attention to light, heat and noise levels before you go to bed so that these don’t disturb you in the night.

Top 10 Tips

1. Remember, if you leave your learning to chance, it may not happen. And if you let others set your learning aims or agenda, you may learn what is important to them but not to you, so set yourself challenging but achievable learning goals. Make these as concrete and specific as possible.

2. You are coming to the programme with a unique set of skills and knowledge, and will engage in the programme in your own unique way. You will end up in a different place from your fellow learners, so stay focused on your own learning journey, rather than worrying about what others are learning, or getting ‘learning envy’.

3. You will not learn well if you are bored or disengaged, or if you become anxious, overwhelmed or stressed out. Don’t suffer in silence! It is our responsibility to help you learn, so work with us to find ways to make the experience both engaging and challenging for you. And, most importantly, relevant.

4. Memory depends on you making connections between what you already know and what you are learning. Make conscious efforts to create these links by looking for metaphors and analogies between this experience and knowledge and past experience and knowledge. Or draw yourself a map of what you already know, and how your new learning links in.

5. Our research into the neurobiology of learning shows that emotional learning sticks more deeply that rational learning, so it will accelerate your learning if you really care about it. This is time you won’t get back, so find a way to make this experience worthwhile for you personally, and be selfish about your learning needs.

6. Your brain needs to chew things over in order to forge new neural connections, so beware of learning that slips down too easily. Your fight to make meaning will create stronger memories, so asking lots of questions and wrestling with what you hear will help you to make better sense of it.

7. Just when you are dying to get home, it’s time for Action Planning. But this is the most important part of the course, as it means the difference between learning that sticks and a nice fuzzy memory. Although you may ‘get’ valuable learning during the programme, that doesn’t mean that you will ‘keep’ it. Use it or lose it, and the sooner the better, before the memories fade. Look at your diary for the days and weeks following the course, and find or create opportunities to try things out immediately after the programme. If you don’t, the inbox will take over, and your learning will evaporate.

8. Teaching others is a great way to cement learning, so use a team meeting to pass on your new-found knowledge.

9. Make sure there is at least one person back at work who will hold you to account for your learning – ideally your boss or a close co-worker. Ask them for regular feedback and help them to help you to wring out as much on-going learning as possible.

10. And while you are here, regard this as a test of your delegation skills. Try hard not to switch on your phone or email at every break, as the distraction interferes with your processing time and interrupts the learning process. We will make sure you receive urgent messages, so give your colleagues our switchboard number and prioritise your learning.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 11th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

emotional learning?

Hi Eve

Thanks for a really interesting article. I'd fascinated and would like to know more about point 5 - the neurobiology of "emotional learning" vs "rational learning". Could you point me in the direction of some of the evidence?

many thanks


evepoole From: evepoole Date: May 12th, 2011 10:35 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: emotional learning?

Hello Sarah. While the field of neurobiology is moving so fast that it will already be making these metaphors of mine redundant while you read this, our understanding is as follows. When a memory is formed, if emotion accompanies it, the memory is given the equivalent of a special 'tag'. This is because the presence of emotion suggests that it is an important memory, and one that the brain wants to be able to find quickly in the future, given that the function of memory is to improve our chances of survival. Under pressure, the brain seems to look to these 'prioritised' memories first, so making sure that those memories (or learning) that you want to keep and access quickly are acquired in an emotional context is the best way to future-proof their retrieval. Does that make sense?! Happy to talk you through this if you want to get in touch. Refs that might help on this would be: Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne & Frith, Uta: The Learning Brain (Blackwell, 2005); Doidge, Norman: The Brain that Changes Itself (Penguin, 2007); and Ratey, John J & Hagerman, Eric: Spark (Quercus, 2008). Have a look at this website too: http://www.kaizen-training.com/
2 comments or Leave a comment