How do we learn?

I got a glimpse of the answer through my experience of helping others learn.

During the end of the 2020, my friend and I worked with 2 new immigrants to Canada, who needed help in improving their communication, with more focus on how to speak confidently at their workplace.

For a period of 12 weeks – 1 hour on every Sunday, we met on Zoom(with the lockdown and winter, it was a relief to have people to talk to). And at the end of 12 weeks, both the participants told us that they benefitted a lot and it was a transformational journey for them.

They now have more confidence and improved communication skills AND know further areas to work upon in future.

We were excited and happy to hear this from them, as it was more than what we would have expected. More than expected, because even though we did put in our best effort in helping them, it was our first attempt in such a formal setup.

That gave me confidence that the techniques we used worked, and that is when I sat down and started thinking about what really worked. And what I identified is true for most learnings.

The question is how do we learn? Having an answer to this question would help us approach any new learning with more confidence. However, one disclaimer in the beginning:

If you are expecting any desired learning without effort and practice, then you are going to be disappointed.

1. Practice is the first key ingredient of how we learn.

Let us understand it in the area of improving your communication skills. Before you start practicing writing your content or speaking, create a baseline.

Like for speaking, it could be an introduction of yourself. Create a video of it. That way, once you start practicing, you can record and review every performance. That will help you identify the areas of improvement through instant feedback. More about that next. This also helps you notice the progress.

And if you are looking at mastering that area, then deliberate practice is the way to go.

Going back to our learning sessions, the participants practiced the given speaking assignments every week and then presented it during the Sunday meeting. Week after week, they were more confident in speaking as well as ready to take more challenging assignments.

The more you practice, the better you get. But anyone who has faced challenges in this step knows that this is what you are responsible for, and no one else can do it for you. 

No amount of being taught is a replacement for practice.

While just practicing will help you learn,

2. Continuous feedback is what makes the growth steady and fast.

And this feedback can fall in one of the two categories:

1.1. Feedback from self: Feedback from self or introspection is a powerful tool for identifying areas for changes, especially when coupled with practice.

Take for example, if you are working on improving your written communication skills.

You draft the content. And as the next step, you look at it as a reviewer and ask what can be improved. The areas you identify and change add to your learning. In this way you have given feedback to yourself and improved in that process. 

Now, it might sound easy but it is not. Reviewing our own work is neither easy nor without bias. Have you had that situation where after proof reading your email 3 times, you sent it and as soon as it is sent, someone points out a glaring error? The more used to we are with something, the more difficult it is to spot an area of improvement. And that is where external feedback comes handy. 

1.2. Feedback from others: I am talking about feedback coming from someone whom you trust, and are working with like a coach, mentor or teacher.

Being knowledgeable in the area that you are working on, they can save your time in identifying the areas of improvement.

And in my experience,

feedback which is instant has the most impact as opposed to a delayed one.

Coming back to our Sunday sessions. I asked both the participants what really helped them. Their answer was “Your feedback!”. I reminded them that while our feedback was a key factor, what made the real difference was their commitment and practice.

But what they observed was valuable. A teacher or a mentor creates an environment of learning through guidance and feedback. And practicing in that environment gives the most bang for your buck. The environment which is most conducive for this kind of feedback is one on one or in small groups.

Having someone who can give you feedback in your communication journey will work better than not having anyone.

So while you must own your learning in any area including communication improvement, if you feel you don’t know where to start or feel stuck, reach out to an expert for help.

It will increase your chances of success and you will be glad that you did!

Girija Pandey



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