We’re absorbing new information all day, and many of us are actively working to develop new abilities, but how do we know when we’ve really learned something?
It’s an essential question because learning is more and more important to business success. ERE Media reports that the ability to learn is more useful than intelligence or education for predicting the success of a new hire.
Businesses need people who can adopt new processes, grasp new technology, and adapt to new roles. But with all this learning going on, how can managers know when people on the team are ready to tackle additional jobs?
Just hearing or reading information isn’t enough. Would you say you’ve “learned” yesterday’s news? And even passing a test isn’t enough. A few days after acing exams, we’ve lost most of the facts covered.
There are many ways to approach this question, but for business, we learn in order to do our jobs better. So the hallmarks of successful study should reflect how well we’re applying a new skill.
Here are four signs that your team has “got it:”
- Using skills without hesitation
- Applying concepts in new situations
- Explaining or teaching it to others
- Innovating new techniques or approaches
Using skills without hesitation
When we first learn information, it stays in our short-term memory. But if you want to have those facts handy when you need them, you have to commit them to long-term memory, where you can compile related information into a mental model.
Mental models are collections of information that help us make decisions when performing a particular job. For example, when driving, we have a model that associates a blinker with an upcoming turn. The model makes this knowledge “instinctive.” We don’t have to reason it out by saying, “I know that a left blinker indicates a left turn, and therefore, the car coming toward me is going to turn left.” We just “know.”
K. Anders Ericsson, a researcher on learning and expertise, writes in his recent book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “the key to improved mental performance of almost any sort is the development of mental structures that make it possible to avoid the limitations of short-term memory and deal effectively with large amounts of information at once.”
Our mental models continue to develop over time and become more sophisticated and accurate, but it seems that in order to use any new information, we need to have some basic cognitive structure available or we’d constantly have to look up the rules for whatever we’re trying to accomplish.
When you can use a skill or knowledge without consciously stepping through the instructions, you have developed at least a basic mental model in long-term memory, an excellent sign of successful learning.
Applying concepts in new situations
The American Psychological Association notes that being able to apply ideas in new contexts is evidence that learners have generalized key principles of new information or skills. Having a skill you can use means that you can draw on it even in situations you haven’t seen before. That requires and understanding of the general concepts.
For example, if employees have learned how to handle irate customers, they should be able to apply the general approach to any complaint. And in fact, they should be able to use that skill to handle irate peers, angry bosses, upset friends, and grumpy family members. It’s a good sign they’ve learned that skill when they can use it to diffuse a variety of situations.
Explaining or teaching it to others
We’ve long known that a great way to show your mastery of a subject is to teach it. When you explain something so that someone else can understand it, you have to take a holistic view of the topic. You have to identify key relationships between facts and understand which details are fundamental and which serve mainly to elaborate.
You can even use teaching as a way to help people learn faster. As reported in a Futurity article by Gerry Everding of Washington University of St. Louis, a study recently published in the journal Memory & Cognition, found that when students were told they would have to teach new material to others, they recalled more of it later as compared to students who were told they were going to be tested on the material. Everding quotes, “When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively, and they had better memory for especially important information.”
Asking employees to teach others what they know can not only help them deepen their understanding but also show you how well they’ve learned it.
Innovating new techniques or approaches
When learners have a deep and thorough understanding of a topic, they will often create new ways to use and improve on it. Innovation requires an ability to view something from a different perspective. It comes from a sophisticated understanding of a process or skill and an ability to identify short-comings. When you’ve learned something well, you can then ask how it might be adapted.
A strong foundation of understanding gives innovators the “instinct” to know where to look for improvements. And innovation doesn’t have to have earth-shattering consequences. You might see employees adapting new skills to suit their work preferences and personalities.
Pinning down successful learning
Depending on your situation, successful learning may look different from what I’ve described here, but I think we can all agree that traditional educational measurements don’t help us determine when a team member is ready to take on new tasks.
New skills may begin in a classroom and tests can reveal areas that need work, but to determine real success, we have to go with learners into the realm of practical application. We have to see if they can use what they’ve learned to do their jobs better.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping you support and assess learning through work activities and peer coaching. Learn more.