Three new tips for adult learners

Setting goals, proposals and wishes for the new year is a habit as old as time. Also, it is usually pointless.

Our idea is that we begin a new cycle while adding a unit to our year count in a fixed 12-months timeframe, often opting for objectives that are too ambitious or too generic.

This, of course, applies to learning as well. Motivated by the celebrations or frustrated because we haven’t yet achieved what we wanted, we reframe our energies into new targets. This is that time when we decide to start programming courses or language classes, and we feel like this time it will go differently.

The philosopher Nietzsche is known to have formulated a theory of “eternal recurrence”. According to him, a flow of events which is at its end is cyclical, repeating itself for indefinite times.

New year’s resolutions happen to be a tangible incarnation of this theory. We may finish a course, or even start practicing a language, but next december we probably won’t have moved much from the start (once again).

The thing is, motivation is a good start because it really triggers our first sprint toward new things. But it is born from emotions, and as with all emotional things, it does not keep the same intensity in the long run. We depend too much on our motivators to seek consistent purposes, so once our enjoyment lowers, we most certainly drop out from our learning journey.

Having faced the same problematics over and over again, I decided, one day, to beak this cycle of incompleteness.

Of the many things that helped me to stay on track I selected three very useful ones that I am about to share. My hopes are that they would be a great starting point for you to break the old vicious circle.

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Ask yourself: “What For?”

Motivation is, indeed, your worst enemy framed as a friend. At first, it makes you feel this surge of goodwill and positivity, almost like endorphins do. Once it abandons you, you can only count on yourself, but deprived of that original energy shot.

Whereas your motivators are literally drawing you to a fast start, you shall be able to control these impulses and channel them in some minimal planning.

I want to stress on the “minimal” because too much planning is going to quickly take that spark of goodwill away. Instead, we should keep it simple and consider it as a sort of “validity test” to see how consistent our resolutions are.

And the simplest answer we should find is about the purpose of our learning flame.

“What do I learn Portuguese for?” is a question that calls for finality. It differs from “why” because it narrows the answers down to the usefulness of our future learning. And therefore, if we will make use of something we are about to invest time and energy.

All the rest (because it’s cool; because I like how it sounds; etc.) comes after, on the side, but at first we must focus on the meaning of our future investment.

Things can always turn out differently, and that is why too detailed learning plans do not work for many. When I decided to learn Portuguese, it was to make a surprise to my love during our first trip to Lisbon, so that we could communicate smoothly with locals without stress.

It turned out, most people could actually speak English and my “what for” went missing in action. But my fiancee still appreciated the effort and I am now fluent enough in another language. Good enough that I am using it to study an online course on Udemy that is only available in Portuguese with no English caption.

I am even able to read Fernando Pessoa’s poems in his native language and translate them with little help from a vocabulary. Nothing is for nothing!

Anyone at this point would tell you to define a SMART goal around your learning (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, and Time-framed), and sure that is great for you to be able to allocate time boxes in your daily life for learning.

Yet, it is having a clear purpose and repeating it every day, like a mantra, that is going to hold you on the game until the very end.

Expect challenging peaks

The learning process can be represented by a upward slope, to indicate the relationship between our level of skills and the difficulty we face at a given time.

Learning Flow (from New Maieutic)

While we have a certain degree of control over our skills level, it is important to consider that the deeper, the more technical, the more specific knowledge we need, the more challenging upskilling becomes.

In fact, beginner-level knowledge is amusing because they provide us with immediate validation and feedback, such as learning how to introduce ourselves in a new language, or the basic principles of a new discipline, or a Hello World program.

At this stage we are inebriated by the easiness we learn, we feel more talented than we hoped, and we build in our head the illusion that we know. That is unconscious incompetence for you.

Then, there is a moment when the learning slope becomes too steep for us. Suddenly we aren’t improving anymore. We despair because we realize how little we know and how much we miss to really feel fluent, competent, expert. Enter the conscious incompetence.

Now many people deal with it by abandoning, despite the quick start. The frustration we experience at this point is overwhelming, because we feel stuck and unable to move forward.

What it now became obvious to me (but back in time, it wasn’t) is that diversifying our resources is usually the first and best option we have.

There are many ways of learning, so we do not need to rely only on a textbook, on a weekly class or on the Udemy course we bought on sale last week.

In the first place, different sources of different kinds will present you the same knowledge in alternative ways and even provide you with different perspective and details.

Second, a diverse learning experience is less boring. Having more ways to interact with knowledge (visual and acoustic; theoretical and practical, physical and digital) stimulates more types of our memory, ensuring that they sort of “cooperate” to embed such knowledge. “No way as a way” as Bruce Lee famously stated.

When I began learning Python and Data Science, I soon realized that I must alternate thinking sessions with coding ones, all while watching my video-learnings. I could not code without knowing what, and I could not just jump into algorithms without knowing how they work.

So, I got to reimagine my whole learning experience as composed of separate entities, each with a different goal, that somehow connect at one or more levels. Knowledge began to lose that feeling of staticity and became alive, mutable. And so, it was easier to use at one point but would require more complexity at another.

Reiterating with more depth what I already knew fostered my ownership of information and the skills I hoped to achieve. Quality and diversification over quantity.

Learn also how to learn

Especially from my generation onward, there is this habit to rush into things as if they were a race. That applies also to how we do learning and affects what and how we learn.

Many of us hurry to end a course or a learning path, and this is especially true for eLearning and gamified experiences.

The latter are particularly attractive due to their rewarding systems, that make an user leveling up based on immediate testing and global scoring systems in a way that should reflect her proficiency and fluency. The gamified experience is designed to make the user accountable for bits of progress while boosting her motivation.

But there is a catch in the process, and it is totally human: our attention shifts to the desire to win the game. And because we allocate most of our attention to it, we remove it from what matters: owning the knowledge we desperately seek.

Luckily for us, we can create our alternative gamified experience, but it is one that is designed for the permanent storage of information and real proficiency. It also requires little tooling, as it takes place mostly in our minds.

What I am talking about now are learning techniques which are very, very old, but whose effectiveness passed the test of time and recently even regained popularity, thanks to science and modern learning methodologies.

However, it is probable that you never tried them in your life, and perhaps you never heard about them before. That’s a pity, especially if we consider that, would schooling systems include them under their umbrella, many troubled students and future professionals would perform better, both academically and in life.

Here I am going to list some of them, and it is up to you to further explore: dual coding, KAVE COGS, Major Method, PAO systems, mind mapping, and memory palaces. As of today, I use them all: I started with one and gradually built up the others through practice.

I said that they would be working as a sort of gamified learning experience, and that is because this is my interpretation of them. I always look at these devices as one-player games rather than tools.

They are also universal, since changing the things we want to learn does not alter their effectiveness. Instead, they can be adjusted and tuned up according to our changing needs. And they can take no longer than five to ten minutes a day.

The fact is that they affect your whole learning experience enormously. They allow you to read one thing once with no need to go back to it, and to memorize vocabulary two to ten times better than you usually do.

Finally, they also help you perfect your attention and concentration when you apply yourself to them. All of this gives you back more than motivation, all while having fun from a highly creative process that renders any dull bit of information more attractive and coloured.

I am also aware that, being something new, this may feel at first an additional burden. A learning over the learning! But believe me, it is not.

Post Scriptum

If you want to give it a try, you can talk to me about it and we can spend up to 90 minutes over this topic, free of charge.

If you have troubles coming up with a learning plan;

if you do not know what’s your “what for”;

if you are stuck somewhere in your journey;

if you want to learn some new (and yet old) learning technique

then you are in the right place and I can help you with a consistent change in the way you learn. Just fill out the form below!

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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