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Learning Is A Skill That Can Be Improved

Learning Is A Skill That Can Be Improved
Student agonizing over his studies, and surrounded by piles of books on all sides.

Typically, when we think of skills, we think of writing, basketball, woodworking, or, you know, other things of that nature. We don’t usually think of learning itself to be a skill that can be improved. But that is not what the studies bear out. Apparently, one can learn to learn to learn better (was that too many learns? Probably.) Seriously though, if we put our minds to it, we can get better at putting our minds to it!

What do you mean, “learning is a skill?”

Most people think of learning as an innate gift from the gods above. Or as some immutable measure that can neither be changed, improved, decreased or in any way shape or form tampered with. But learning is more of a muscle than an inherent trait. If you don’t use it, then it gets harder to learn. That is the sad news. The good news is that you can train it by getting on the proverbial treadmill, lifting some proverbial weights, and not checking yourself out in the proverbial mirror the whole time. Stay focused on your training! What this means is that you can learn to improve your learning, which will, of course, improve your ability to educate yourself in all your aspirations that require the acquisition of a new skill or a body of knowledge.

Studies, like this one, are now showing that learners are made, not born. The development of expertise through efficient and effective methodologies is a learned skill, not a “ya got it or ya don’t get it” type deal. We can all get better at getting better (I won’t make that joke a third time. I promise). In the linked-to study above, the researcher found that focusing on how we understand is about 15 percentage points more important than one’s innate intelligence.

How are your project management skills going?

You can’t learn without being able to manage your time and your projects effectively. At least, that is what the studies show. Those who learned better were almost always better organized than those who learned at a slower pace. Setting down goals, and strategies for attaining those goals, will help us to better walk the path. Think about it this way: It is easier to drive along a road that has been built ahead of time.

It’s called a targeted approach, and it is almost always better than approaching your learning willy-nilly (which is an old-timey way of saying “I literally have no idea what to do first or next”). Stanford psychologist Alberta Bandura said that, when it comes to planning, it robs us of the opportunity to unproductively self-carp. Because you have a plan and guidelines, your mind is more engaged and less free to roam.

“Negative emotions can quickly rob us of our ability to learn something new,” Bandura said. “ Plus, we’re more committed if we develop a plan with clear objectives.”

By setting targets, people can manage their feelings more effectively, more easily and achieve progress through their ability to learn new information.

It’s called “metacognition”

Metacognition, aside from just being a really cool word, is all about your reflection time. In other words “thinking about thinking.” And, according to studies, it is a crucial part of the process of learning. Or, at least, it is a crucial part of the process of learning well. It’s a matter of asking ourselves questions like: Do I really get this idea? Could I explain it to a friend? What are my goals? Do I need more background knowledge? Do I need more practice?

When it comes to learning, one of the biggest issues is that people don’t engage in metacognition enough. They don’t stop to ask themselves if they really get a skill or concept. Studies have shown that most experts, in most fields (in addition to their own fields), are experts in metacognition. And so the correlation between success, metacognition and learning is quite well substantiated.

Remember those “shower moments?”

Sometimes we need to let go of our learning to really latch onto it! Although it may sound like a contradiction or a bit counter-intuitive, think about how many times you’ve agonized over the recovery of a memory, only to regain it when you weren’t trying to think about it ad infinitum? It happens. Another good example is the ah-hah moments people mention that they had in the shower (do you say “ah hah” aloud? … I say “ah hah” aloud.).

In short, learning benefits from reflection. Find some peace. Find some calm. Step away from the drama of the work and implement concentrated, and restrained, moments of peace. It doesn’t mean 13 hours of television time. But it might mean an hour of meditation, or any small segment of time that is occupied by doing something soothing and tension-releasing. Experts say that it often takes a bit of cognitive quiet, or a moment of silent introspection, for us to engage in any sort of focused deliberation.

Sleep is another good example. Studies show that a good night’s sleep can reduce the need for study by about 50 percent. This is owing to the fact that these same studies estimate that during sleep, much of what we have learned is effectively synthesized.


Although people are always innately good or bad at certain things, at the end of the day, learning is a learned behavior. The person who aced the test or learned to put together the IKEA bed fastest doesn’t necessarily happen to be the smartest person — only the best at learning to learn. And the sooner we catch on to this idea, the sooner we can really learn … to learn … about learning.

Was that right?


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