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Five Questions to Maximize Your Learning

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“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Benjamin Franklin

Many of us experience life at a sprinter’s pace. We jump from one task or activity to the next without giving much thought to its purpose or how it fits into the bigger picture. I suspect that’s often the case when it comes to training and development as well. We show up in a classroom or complete an online course because we’re told it’s required. We don’t want to let anyone down or suffer the consequences of not following orders, so we show up, sign in, and check the box—without taking anything of value away from the experience.

Other times, we proactively sign up for a class because the description is appealing. It promises to give us the ability to do our jobs better, solve problems, get ahead, or learn new skills that will open doors of opportunity. Despite our good intentions to reap these wonderful benefits, upon our departure from the session, we’re smacked in the face by reality—those urgent matters that pull us back to business as usual—so we never recognize the full value of a new approach. Both of these experiences are common and serve as sources of frustration for nearly everyone at one time or another.

The frustration comes from a feeling that you didn’t get a good return on your investment. After all, learning requires an investment. At a minimum, it’s an investment of your time and effort; however, it could also be tuition dollars, travel expenses, or opportunity costs. Whether the investment is small or large, I’m a firm believer in getting the best possible return, so here are five questions you should always ask yourself if you want to get more from your learning experiences:

1. What’s in it for me?

    Before engaging in either mandatory or voluntary training, you should determine—in very specific terms—how this training can help you get something you want. Be selfish; it’s okay in this case. Here’s why: If you can identify a problem to solve, a goal to achieve, or an opportunity the new skills may create for you, then you’re going to be more engaged and focused. It’s the way we’re wired. This may require you to research the potential benefits before you sign up, but if you are clear on the WIIFM, you’ll be learning with purpose, not simply going through the motions.

2. How can I immediately apply it?

    At the outset, identify at least one pressing matter that will allow you to put what your new learning to the test. Be specific so you can more easily see the results from using the new approach or insight—that’s what will inspire you to keep going. In Core Strengths training, we call these opportunities for immediate application “high-stakes situations.” We work on them throughout the training day, and then encourage people to execute their action plans as soon as possible upon returning to the office.

3. Where does it fit in my daily life?

    Have you ever met a great musician or athlete that didn’t practice? The same holds true for great learners. You can’t sit in a class, try a new approach once or twice, and then consider yourself a master; you’ve got to practice your new skills every day to develop and sustain them. It helps to have visual reminders and tools that facilitate your practice. For example, I keep the SDI Quick Guide on my desk next to my keyboard and telephone. It’s not only a great resource filled with just-in-time tips for communicating more effectively, but it serves as a constant reminder that I need to assess motives, bring the right strengths, and communicate in the right style in each interaction throughout my day.

4. Who else should be part of my journey?

    Research suggests that adults learn best from peers, not experts in the front of the room or on a video. It’s also true that a person’s immediate supervisor wields tremendous influence over whether newly acquired skills are sustained over the long haul. Therefore, anyone who wants to get the most out of their personal development investments needs to partner with others. I recommend finding learning partners who can serve as sounding boards and sources of encouragement in the weeks and months following any sort of training experience. It’s also best practice to proactively schedule a meeting with your immediate supervisor a few days before and a few days after training to discuss how you’ll apply your new skills and how that key stakeholder can support you in the process.

5. When can I teach someone else?

    One of the best ways to reinforce what you’ve learned is to teach it to someone else. It forces you to put the concepts in your own words and explain it in a way that the other person understands. You might also need to come up with some stories or personal examples to make it relevant. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it forces you to wrestle with the new ideas. Anytime I lead a learning experience, I encourage the folks in the room to go home and share what they’ve learned with a friend or family member who might be interested and won’t be too judgmental if they stumble a bit with the explanation.

If you consistently ask and answer these five questions, you will learn more and get better, more satisfying results. You’ll also feel that you’re getting a good return on the investment you’re making in your personal development, and start to see the progress you’re looking for.

Dr. Mike Patterson

Dr. Mike Patterson

Mike is a principal at PSP in Carlsbad, Calif. and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.