Three tips for adult learners

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

We never truly stop to educate ourselves. Maybe we believed that once we are out of school, we are done with our studies. Instead, we are going to learn for the rest of our lives.

I am thinking of the most disparate reasons. You want to learn a new language. You want to build a career in a different industry. Sometimes because we need, and sometimes because we just want to – we begin new learning journeys.

Although the core of the learning process remains the same, the shift to adulthood and its lifestyle comports many adjustments to the way we study. Focus, memory, thinking, trying and testing remain the underlying foundation. However, our life does not revolve anymore around school. In fact, many have barely the time or the conditions to study in peace.

Having a full-time job, taking care of our children, and managing whatsoever setback of our daily routine are things that take a lot of our concentration, depleting our mental energy. Furthermore, studying may not be a critical part of our daily life, being reduced from 5-8 hours to “whenever we have the time”.

When unscheduled and randomized, the time for learning can lead to poor performance. Which in turn, leads to frustration.

Why it seems to hard to learn for good?

Two scholars have left some insights that explain how adults experience learning.

The first is Malcolm Knowles, the educator who postulated the assumptions of andragogy (namely, adult learning). In a nutshell: adults learn if they have a need to know something, but also be ready to do it; the possibility to experience what they learn; being responsible for their learning process (i.e. not being dictated).

The other one is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, behavioural scientist who formulated the framework of what he called optimal experience. This process, also called flow, occurs when we are totally absorbed in what we do, and it feels good at the end of the process. Flow occurs when there is a balanced coordination between our skills and the difficulty of a task. Focus on the target and immediate feedback enormously contribute on keeping this status, which why athletes, farmers, artists all are able to access it.

Of course, this is an extremely shrunken explanation of adult learning assumptions and flow. And obviously, these rules do not necessarily apply to everyone, but chances are that:

  • you find challenging to learn something if you do not see immediate results,
  • you have troubles to be consistent, finding time to study and practice on the side, and
  • if, by studying some theory, you realized you can’t remember everything.

Three proved best practices

I decided to share three pieces of advice with you, in case you are thinking to drop something or deciding to start learning something new. These are best practices that come from the research of Knowles and Csicszentmihaliy.

They are backed up by science, and I am applying them daily to everything I have to study, including foreign languages, coding and new technologies, and psychology.

Be self-directed, but look for confrontation

An issue with learning on the side is that often we do not have a group of interest or a community where to get feedback.

Feedback can come in various forms: it could be an observation based on facts, as well as the opinion of an expert. Without immediate feedback we are prone to either drop because we are missing the dialectic part we human beings usually crave, or else to be self-deceptive: believing we know something better than we actually do.

Coaching and mentoring are two forms of conversational frameworks that help while learning something. The former focuses on thinking critically, rehearsing thoughts and validate our knowledge through the dialogue, while the latter is more like direct guidance by someone who has been in your shoes before.

Communities of practice, including those online, are excellent places to reframe our knowledge by using our skills in order to gather feedback.

Few legitimate examples:

  • Busuu is a language learning platform where you can interact with native speakers, who can help you fix your pronunciation, writing, and syntax.
  • StackOverflow is an open-source community for Computer Science where you can ask for help about anything (from errors to easier ways to compile a Python script); once you acquire enough skills, you can help other people too, strengthening what you have already learned.
  • Kaggle is the Data Science community that holds challenges where amateurs and professionals alike can test their Data & AI skills, and are even prized for that.

Finally, if you are serious about learning something, you should look for somebody who can consult with you or a teacher. I started many learning journeys on my own, but once the learning curve became too steep I decided to take classes.

By doing this, I saved a lot of money at the beginning, narrowing down my (quite many) interests to the ones which matter the most. Counting on my own strengths but knowing when to ask for help is very important.

Hone the “learning skills” in parallel

Especially if you have been out of school for a while you may find it hard to engage in complex learning, whether your sources are old-fashioned books, online courses, or gamified learning applications.

Memory retention is, in my opinion, the biggest blocker: and probably you had issues with it during school, too.

Our memory works like a muscle. Two are the main analogies:

  1. The more and better we train it, the more effective and efficient it becomes.
  2. More versatile is your memory training, the better it is for the success of the memorization.

As with all kinds of training, the one for memory is tiring at first but in time it brings many benefits and even pleasure. But while you are thinking of memorizing something as the process of repeating a piece of information over and over in your head with the hope of impressing it for good, I am more for a qualitative approach.

One of the options is to perform your memory training while you are studying something. This way, you get to master certain meta-learning skills that will improve your retention and learning speed, while you will be already learning what you need to!

The other option would be to master a mnemonic framework first (or at least a few memory techniques) and start your learning afterward. This works better if you have no time at all; but then, you should question yourself whether you have set your priorities right.

When it comes to memory tools, my baseline is the Magnetic Memory Method developed by Anthony Metivier. In my opinion, it is very effective because it makes uses of all senses aside from mental imagery, and it focuses on practice over theory.

It is the ultimate method because it gives immediate feedback and provides enough challenge to keep you engaged, but not that much to let you down. And since there are people who do not feel creative or cannot use mental imagery, this method is perfect to overcome that problem.

With this method I was able to learn (or simply memorize) information like:

  • Mathematical formulas
  • Sci-kit learn functions and arguments
  • Linux Commands
  • Portuguese and Slovak vocabulary
  • Car plates

If you believe a mnemonic framework isn’t for you: I still recommend you get a grasp on some memory techniques, like dual coding or memory palaces. They are simple to use and can be practiced everywhere.

By having some mnemonics in your toolbox (essentially knowing how to focus, stock information, and rehearse them any time), you will be able to learn something even if you have just 10 minutes a day.

The other great benefit is that the more your memory is trained, the better your retention becomes, regardless of the method you decide to use.

Do not jump ahead too fast

When we aim to master a skill, we usually need to work on a set of “micro-skills” in order to get where we want. This is how Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel Prize in economics, puts it:

What we consider as “expertise” usually takes a long time to develop. The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of miniskills.

D. Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

These are some intermediate steps that are designed to give you a full grasp of concepts and the awareness necessary to achieve your goal. While not all of them are necessary (it depends what are you learning for), skipping them will may help you to achieve a certificate faster, but will pay you back later on.

This is the case with courses with hands-on exercises, where the practical part is essential to really own new knowledge and competencies.

Furthermore, you may need in-depth to fully understand what you are doing, and that can mean two things.

  1. You need to diversify the way you are learning. Sticking to one medium alone can prove detrimental to your experience. You cannot learn a language only from a book: you need to speak it. You cannot pretend to know a new Python function without knowing how to use it in a real project.
  2. You need additional resources to understand what you are doing. The book you are using to learn positive psychology may be the best on the market, but if it uses too many complicate words you never encountered before, chances are you will not follow anymore. That is why blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos can bring a different perspective to what you are learning.

Slowing down when it matters will speed you up later on. The learning curve is often represented as a gaussian: it goes smoothly at first, then it becomes steeper and steeper. From the perspective of skills-challenge balance, this is where things get interesting. As you face a new level of difficulty, you may start to think that what you are doing isn’t really for you.

Trial and error are needed to proceed further, so you may need to adjust your learning style and resources to the current needs. Maybe it is the resource that isn’t fit, not you!

There are other best practices that I use when I am learning or studying:

  • taking notes: physical notebooks for some stuff, virtual ones for others. It depends if I need to see progression or simply catalog the new information.
  • flashcards: they are used as a learning device where you test your memory. Just preparing them is a form of rehearsal. You can test yourself at any time. I use Ankiweb for this purpose.
  • further research: geeky individuals like me may need atomic bits of information to see the big picture. This is particularly important when you approach a field so new you cannot orient yourself.
  • retrospect: going back on pieces of information that weren’t clear at first, but become obvious after building additional knowledge.

In conclusion

Learning when having little time and energy can be challenging. But if you are driven to it, these are the three tips I think you need the most.

Seek feedback wherever you can. Immediate feedback is what keeps us self-conscious about where we stand, with our strengths and weaknesses. It makes our learning journey more personal.

Improve the way you study while you do it. If you need to memorize many things at once or in a shorter time, then you should invest in mastering some memory technique or even a framework.

Take your time now, you will sprint later. Missing important concepts at the beginning is terrible because it will make it harder for you to put all the pieces together later on. It is like sport: you need a decent warm-up before going in-depth, to adjust your training based on performance, and good stretches to avoid injuries.

BONUS – Do not compare yourself to others. It does not matter if for somebody else it seems easier than for you: your learning experience is not theirs. We all have great memory potential but it is the way we use it to make the difference. As there are different body types, so there are learning types. We also can commit different amounts of time and energy to learning, one from another.

Do not let the successes or failures of others hinder you: nothing is too difficult, and yet nothing is too simple.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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