February 2021
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Learners Are Made, Not Born
TD Magazine

Learners Are Made, Not Born

Monday, February 1, 2021

Get employees to become better at learning.

Historically, the topic of how people learn was connected to intelligence, memorization, and what individuals feel about learning rather than what scientists now know about it. Today's research focuses on how a learner can get better at learning, leading to an organization's ability to respond to the rapid speed of change in information, experiences, and the workplace.


A novice's acquisition of knowledge—intellectual abilities and metacognitive skills—are powerful predictors of learning outcomes. However, educators and trainers often entirely skip understanding the role of metacognition or gaining an awareness of how people learn. Taking the time to teach employees metacognitive skills such as planning, monitoring, and reflection helps them to cope with new, unfamiliar learning tasks; self-regulate; and build self-efficacy.

According to Charlotte Dignath and Marcel Veenman's Educational Psychology Review article "The Role of Direct Strategy Instruction and Indirect Activation of Self-Regulated Learning," focusing on how students understand their learning is 15 percent more important than the measure of innate intelligence. Dedicated strategies for integrating metacognitive skills into the workplace improve employees' ability to learn, develop expertise faster and more effectively, and ultimately get better at getting better.

Identifying the barriers to why learners don't succeed helps in creating a plan for making learners. Studies in cognitive psychology and the neuroscience of learning have identified three weaknesses that derail a learner:

  • The organization has no learning strategy in place.
  • No learning goal or area of mastery has been determined by or for the learner.
  • The learner has an ill-defined and hazy understanding of practice and its role in learning.

This growing body of research centers on how a learner can get better at learning, which has great significance for L&D leaders and the future of work. Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University and an expert on self-efficacy and personal goals, notes that negative emotions keep individuals from learning something new and that if there is a plan in place with clear objectives, people are more committed to learn. With a learning strategy in place, companies will see their employees outperform others, be able to manage their feelings when learning difficult and complex concepts and ideas, and make progress toward their goals in the areas of learning outcomes and professional performance.

The ever-expanding area of what makes a learner is providing practical ways for L&D professionals to build employees' learning skills. Several concrete methods that are also teachable exist for trainers, managers, and employees to foster and implement in their organizations.

Organize learning goals: Project management

Managers play a role in their employees setting achievable learning goals. Encouraging employees to create incremental baby steps about what they want to learn leads to ambitious and challenging learning outcomes. By identifying their own learning goals, employees develop strategies to achieve and reach their goals.

The challenge is for individuals to overcome negative feelings associated with learning new, difficult, or complex things. Questions that block learning include: Am I good enough? Will I fail? What if I'm wrong? Isn't there something else I'd rather be doing?

Employees who set targeted goals manage their feelings more easily and, consequently, achieve progress. Specific and demanding goals lead to higher performance than easier goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals at all. So, what do goals do? They:

  • Direct attention and focus.
  • Rally effort behind a purpose or target.
  • Increase persistence.
  • Motivate strategy development.

For purposeful learning to work, the goals need to be based on both specific content ("Work on this task") and a degree of difficulty ("Try for a score of 72 on this task in the next three days"). In fact, the more specific a challenging goal is, the greater the likelihood that it will lead to higher commitment and improved performance. Employees who set personal attainable goals for learning (self-efficacy) are more likely to do what they say they will do. For even better results, make sure learners perceive the goal as both important (purposeful) and possible, because that will enhance their commitment.

For managers to strategically support an employee in setting a learning goal, they must ensure that the goal is relevant (value); is attainable (just the right amount of effort—the Goldilocks Effect); and has an assigned time limit that, combined with persistence and tenacity, will motivate the learner. Breaking down long-range or complex goals into achievable bite-size chunks is important strategically, because chunking up the learning makes the step-by-step goals feel doable rather than overwhelming and unattainable.

Think about thinking: Metacognition

Individuals should check themselves for how they know what they know. Some self-check questions include: Do I really get this idea? Could I explain it to a friend? What are my goals? Do I need more background knowledge? Do I need more practice?

Metacognition comes easily to those who take the time to reflect. Thus, the biggest mistake learners make is not stopping to ask whether they truly comprehend a skill or concept.

Managers can help facilitate their employees' understanding of metacognition. For instance, to communicate the benefits of learning about learning, managers can:

  • Provide opportunities for self-improvement.
  • Challenge employees to show what they can do.
  • Be supportive and trustworthy.
  • Explain the whys behind the learning.
  • Expect high levels of performance.
  • Be knowledgeable about the task and job at hand.
  • Serve as a role model for the same learning behaviors they desire in their teams.

When all team members participate in achieving their learning goals, peers then have influence and the ability to enhance each other's commitments, which generates friendly competition and celebrates the act of learning.

Reflect on learning

"We all need to let go of our learning to understand our learning"—that's a practice L&D professionals can instill across an organization. When employees temporarily step away from learning (take a walk or get a good night's sleep), insights or eureka moments happen. The benefit of reflection is a moment of calm—moving from focused to diffused thinking. The understanding a person gains upon reflecting results in mental ease during which the digestion of knowledge and content occurs.

Reflection, recognition, and sharing are essential elements in learning. Managers and L&D professionals lead the way here by actively positioning reflection into the organization's learning cycle. Share the following behaviors with employees, which they can easily integrate and make habitual in their daily work routine.

Ask for feedback. Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset suggests that "There has to be a better way, and I don't know it yet." Feedback is a way to show progress in relationship to the learning goal. It's also a form of reward: Feedback improves people's self-esteem and fulfills their basic need for attainment that's hardwired into the human brain.

Experiment with new approaches or behaviors. Learners should reflect on a challenge and ask themselves: What's one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation? What will I do differently in the future? Have I taken on different points of view?

Look for connections across seemingly unrelated areas. Encourage employees to experiment, compare, and discuss with resident fellow experts. To try that technique, workers should choose a domain they have expertise in but that's unrelated to their work and ask themselves how they could apply that knowledge to a current challenge.

Make time for reflection (systematically). Employees should integrate reflection—by themselves or with others—into the cycle of learning and assessment or quarterly performance reviews. They can ask themselves: What have I learned from this experience? What turned out differently than I expected? What is the context or framework for what I am learning?

Learning-focused activities

With a framework in place, let's explore the techniques, practices, and activities that, in fact, make learners as well as increase performance and learning outcomes. Start by reminding employees that their feelings or intuition about how they learn are often wrong. Then follow up with this statement: Learning isn't an innate ability but a skill everyone can master.

The techniques below shouldn't be difficult for L&D professionals to build into their employees' learning skills programs.

  • Practice testing: Administer comprehension check-ins via self-tests or practice tests.
  • Distributed practice: Implement a schedule of practice that spreads out learning activities over time. That enables learners to study something during two different sessions with a few days' break in between.

  • Interleaved practice: Implement a schedule of practice that mixes two or more related concepts or problems, or learning that mixes different types of related topics, within a single session.

  • Elaborative interrogation: Generate questions and answers for the whys around a fact or concept.

  • Self-explanation: Explain how new information is related to known information, or explain steps taken during problem solving. Apply problem-solving processes such as design thinking.

  • Analogy: Highlight one or more points of similarity between two different things to construct a new mental model.

To make learners and to reap the benefits of everyone becoming a better learner, offer a variety of ways for employees to learn better through daily informal activities. Promote everyday learning to encourage employees to learn more. Five key concepts lay the groundwork for making learners at work:

  • Make learners responsible for self-directed learning.
  • Create opportunities for a variety of active learning experiences followed by reflection.
  • Apply currently used tools to devise solutions in unfamiliar situations.
  • Ensure learning is a conscious activity, because accidental learning is inefficient.
  • Make learners aware of the learning process and have them set their own learning goals.

As you integrate metacognition practices across the organization, follow up to ensure that employees have established their learning goals. In addition, allow managers to introduce key concepts around metacognition to the teams that explore a variety of active and engaging learning experiences. Below are several options.

Individual development plan. This quarterly plan for self-initiated learning, co-created with the manager or team members, tracks the employee's goals and objectives, how they will meet the learning outcomes, and what relevance the goals have to their current position.

Think-pair-share. Pair up learners to discuss with each other the material that was just presented. Then they should prepare to ask questions or share observations with others.

Minute papers. Have participants alone or in pairs answer a question in writing about what they have learned that day. Use the submitted papers or learning-journal responses to gauge comprehension or what sticks.

Quick quizzes or five easy questions. Administer these at the start of a learning module or during a pause to assess comprehension of key points.

Muddiest point. Ask participants to write down which part of the material is the most difficult for them to understand or that they least understand. Review their submissions and make clarifications.

Debates. Have learners defend different viewpoints to structure discussion. Allow everyone to speak.

Case studies and problem solving. During this activity, learners work in teams, applying knowledge gained to a given situation or problem, with the goal of seeking creative and innovative open-ended solutions.

Peer-to-peer instruction. Task participants with preparing and presenting learning modules to the team or group.

Close reading. Have learners break down a complex topic or solution into parts or steps.

Pictorial takeaways. Ask learners to create visual learning aids—such as graphs, mind maps, diagrams, or flowcharts—to connect concepts, ideas, and resources.

Better learning, better results

Learning how to become a better learner is a necessary skill for employees. Learning agility, a willingness to seek feedback, and experimentation with new attitudes and behaviors enable individuals to embrace new points of view as well as achieve successful outcomes. It's a matter of connecting learning across seemingly unrelated areas and trying more than one approach with fellow co-workers.

The need for effective employee development and learning strategies arises out of companies' objectives to meet increased technological innovations, establish employee retention strategies, and support their employees' ability to keep up with the pace of change. Made learners develop an interest in learning and self-knowledge across the organization with an eye toward the future. Made learners also take the time to reflect on how they learn, ask what they have learned, and are curious about both the expected and unexpected outcomes.

About the Author

Since 2009, Laurie Burruss has consulted as the education innovation advisor for LinkedIn Learning, particularly focused on integration and implementation for systems-wide online teaching and learning solutions. She evangelizes all things education and learning as a thought leader and public speaker and writer. Burruss teaches graduate design pedagogy at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design and business seminars at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. In addition, she is professor emeritus at Pasadena City College. Before consulting, she served 22 years as a professor in interaction design and as the director of the Pasadena City College digital media, serving California as a regional resource for collaboration between education, industry, and the community. Her passion is digital storytelling.

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Kudos, Laurie, on a thoughtful, refreshing, inspirational article. That key point -- "Learning isn't an innate ability but a skill everyone can master" -- is one that can never be repeated enough. You've managed, in this relatively brief piece, to pull together quite a bit that is familiar and yet present it in a way that makes it feel fresh. Important. Useable. And worth reading over and over so we design and facilitate positive, results-oriented learning opportunities.
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Kudos, Laurie, on a thoughtful, refreshing, inspirational article. That key point -- "Learning isn't an innate ability but a skill everyone can master" -- is one that can never be repeated enough. You've managed, in this relatively brief piece, to pull together quite a bit that is familiar and yet present it in a way that makes it feel fresh. Important. Useable. And worth reading over and over so we design and facilitate positive, results-oriented learning opportunities.
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Great Article! I teach Computer Applications(i.e. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel) to Allied Health Program students. My challenge is that my class is a "why". I understand my task for teaching the applications, but I first have to get them to see the value of my class.
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