On Thursday we discussed the importance of having a learning plan. However, it’s not enough to simply have a learning plan that you loyally follow. For instance, have you ever read a book you knew could be valuable to your career, only to realize months later that there were opportunities you could have applied that knowledge? Knowledge only becomes power when you can recall and apply it at will to the situations you encounter every day. There are three key methods I use to reap the benefits of the knowledge I learn.
The biggest mistake independent learners make is not taking notes while reading books, watching videos or attending conferences. What’s surprising is that this would be the first thing we would have done when we attended College/University lecture. Recording notes is an important practice for two fundamental reasons: First, the practice makes it easy to re-disocver the knowledge we gain when reading a book or watching a talk. Most books/talks have only a couple of principles or nuggets of wisdom that can often be summarized into a couple of sentences when written down. These principles are a lot easier to follow than say paragraph three of the 200th page of the book. The second, and arguably most important reason is that you’re significantly more likely to remember those nuggets of knowledge later on. Studies have proven time and time again that note taking significantly boosts your ability to remember details about what you’ve learned.
There are many ways we can record and track our notes. The method I’ve developed and have been using fairly consistently over the years is as follows:
Carry a hardback notebook (i.e. Moleskine) and pen with you at all times
When consuming knowledge in any way (i.e. book, talk, observation), open the Moleskine and record the following details:
First line - context of what you’re recording (i.e. name of talk)
Record in free hand the points you think are important as you’re consuming the content
Important points in your notes should be demarcated, in my case they start with a key symbol
References to external resources (i.e. books for further reading) are surrounded by a encircled star symbol
After some time (i.e. couple of weeks), I’ll open my Learning Plan spreadsheet and go to the row containing the content I consumed
I’ll create a 1-2 sentence summary of the notes I’ve compiled, containing the key points
If the knowledge is particularly relevant I’ll share it on Twitter as a UX Zen of the Day
While effective note taking solves the problem of recall, it doesn’t solve the issue of knowing when to apply that knowledge. In Donald Schön’s seminole book on the reflective practitioner, he explores how critical reflection on the problems we face allow us to adapt to new and often ill defined problems. He argues that the practice of reflection is foreign to many professionals, who are more intent on charging ahead with the task at hand. instead of taking a step back and questioning what they’re doing. As a result, we often highly qualified professionals with years or even decades of experience fail to solve the problems they face in spite of them being considered experts.
So what is reflection? The key element of reflection is to be constantly questioning the situation and environment you’re in to develop a frame or cognitive knowledge model of the problem you’re trying to solve. Practitioners who are effective in reflection (regardless of profession) often share two key skills: observation and question making. They are able to carefully observe the situation around them, noting details that others might have casually brushed off. At the same time, they use the years of experience and education to come up with innovative questions that allow them to generate new theories about what they’re observing. Only after careful reflection of the issues faced can they effectively identify and target the problem you’re facing.
Hence, the reflective learner would question the content they’re consuming, allowing them to reflect on what they’ve learned so far and challenge that wisdom (not everything you read or see is true!) which also improves the learner’s ability to retain the knowledge over time. Most importantly, the reflective practitioner will question what they’re observing in their work asking themselves, “were there any lessons I can draw on from previous learnings to apply to this situation?” Sometimes you’ll recall some tidbit of knowledge from a book you read weeks ago but in other cases you’ll need to head back to the trusty notebook or spreadsheet recording those tidbits of knowledge. Discussing what you learn with your family and peers provides another form of reflection where you can both apply the knowledge you’ve learned and spread that knowledge to other people. You could even present a talk at a conference about the lessons you’ve learned as conferences like TED have proved!
Seth Berkley from TED 2015 - The Troubling Reason Why Vaccines are Made too Late...
The final aspect of effective learning is accountability. It’s not enough to have your face firmly placed on a book, you need to measure and understand how learning is making you better professionally and personally. You’ll want to identify the opportunities where you’ve managed to apply the knowledge you learned and the benefit it had on your project/task. You should also reflect on your relative strengths and weaknesses. If you’re following your learning plan, coworkers, your boss and friends should notice a marked improvement on the items you’re weak at and that are critically important for your career success. At the same time, the things you are strong at should be getting stronger and should be noted as such by your colleagues. If none of this is happening you need to refine your approach. Ask yourself the following questions:
Were there categories of learning I neglected which should be included in the learning plan? If so, what priority should be given?
Is my prioritization correct? Are there items that have a lower priority than they should which I’m ignoring in my learning?
Is the material I’m learning relevant to the task at hand?
Are notes being taken and are those notes concise and in a form where I can apply them to my work right away?