Close-up of four adult learners working together. One has a laptop, one has a thicker book, one is using a pen to point at some workbook held by the 4rth person.

Redefining Ourselves through Deeper Learning

The Training Forget Factor

I couldn’t find an authoritative source, but sprinkled about the internet (this is a testimony to my rant on what has happened to our “Information Superhighway”), anyway, sprinkled about are these stats that people forget 50% of corporate training in an hour, 80% in a day and 97% in a month. Everyone knows this pattern – in today’s workforce we must always be learning (And forgetting the stuff that no longer applies until we stumble into a viper pit of it 20 years later – then we’d better remember how to deal with it!). I drill into and learn stuff which I only need for a moment, and then I’m on to the next thing. Perfectly fine for quick bits here and there, or while cheating on trivia night, but sometimes we actually want to learn something. As in, learn it, retain it, burn it in and keep it on tap. Whether it be corporate, professional or personal learning, overcoming the “forget factor” so we can actually lean on our newly acquired knowledge at a later time takes some doing. This article explores how to enable the forces of “learning agility” and “knowledge retention”, to create deeper learning — powerful enough we can use it at our most foundational levels to course correct during our life’s journey.

Enter Gary Bolles’ Learning Agility

I took this short course from Gary Bolles called “Learning Agility” via LinkedIn Learning. It was all of 37 minutes long, but it set up the cosmic path. In that short time, he discussed strategy for deciding exactly what to learn, along with how to prioritize and pursue results. The course also discussed how to address mental fatigue and ensure we remain open to spontaneity and fun along the learning way. Even though this course was the beginning of my rethinking about learning itself, it didn’t specifically address the topic of knowledge retention. If I want to amp my learning game, I think, in addition to the concepts raised in the Learning Agility course, knowledge retention is an additional but key differentiator in our ability to learn.

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Knowledge Retention

One day, I took 2 courses on building trust, I then read about some car repairs, and some techniques for building a piece furniture, and finally I took some classes on cartoon animation. All of this could benefit from Gary’s suggestions on making a learning plan. I can do this “survey” approach, dipping my toe into each topic, but what I end up remembering about these topics aligns pretty closely with the forget factor research!

When I look back on the topics that I am good at, I consistently see a pattern that involves three things:

  • Read, Write, Say: Way back in high school I had a history instructor. He was an unassuming man with a soft demeanor. He wanted his students to enjoy history like he did and he wanted the knowledge to stick (At least long enough to pass the exam). He made history interesting by blending the facts of what happened along with theories about why various historical events unfolded as they did. When it came to remembering this content, he advocated, based on his research, that we listen, we write and we repeat out loud the stuff we wanted to remember longer. He said the act of doing those three things would help us retain knowledge. I’ve used this approach off and on ever since, and I truly believe it helps at least with the initial stage of learning.
  • Burn-In: Pop-quizzes and exam schedules are measured in weeks, and then, once we are done, that knowledge begins to decay. The decay rate is probably not as rapid as the “forget factor”, but still, if we really want to get things from short term into longer term memory, there is the notion of burn-in. We must repeat “read, write and say” and/or practice whatever it is we are learning. In the software industry there are challenges like the “100 days of code.” In that challenge, people are trying to learn how to code (write software usually using one or more programming languages). They take a course and then they burn-in the learning from the course by committing one hour a day over the next 100 days to practice coding. I don’t know the scientific value of 100 days – maybe we just need 30, maybe we need 900, but this is the concept of “burn-in.” There are notes (from the step above), there’s the source course material, and there’s the internet and search engines; however, to burn-in the new skills, we need to invest repeated effort.
  • Sustained Usage: For the topics that matter the most to us, we must utilize this newfound knowledge. I don’t like to say “use it or lose it” because that psychologically promotes loss. I think fear-based motivation culminates in self-fulfilling prophecies, hence my focus is simply on “use it.” Using knowledge is a two-fold benefit. First, after putting in the time to study something and burn it in, it only makes sense we should use it! But secondly, during the course of using our knowledge over a long period of time (i.e. years), we will be forced to keep that knowledge current. Maybe some advances have transpired, maybe there are vertical deeper dives we can take, but through sustained usage, these are the skills we make part of our life chart. These are the skills which become evident in our genetic make-up, the skills (even in a diluted fashion) which our friends and family use to define who they think we are!

Deeper Learning and Identity

I love the stuff I stumble into while thinking about other stuff! I’ve long known that we have choices we sometimes don’t realize are available. I’ve written about how we have the capability to reprogram ourselves on more levels than we might realize. But today, I’ve kinda evolved that message. Through the “sustained usage” mentioned above, I think this is the part of our learning process through which we become “ourselves.” I would conjecture a lot of this “learning” and “becoming” occurs subconsciously.

Let me connect those dots here. When we talk about learning, we think about topics like “learning how to program a computer” or “learning how to write a proposal” or [insert thousands of other categories here]. But learning and knowledge are much broader concepts. I don’t want to go off on the knowledge tangent right now, but here is a good write up on different types of knowledge. Somewhere in all these types of learning and knowledge, are topics we can study which might influence these “programs” we use to make our day to day decisions in life. These “programs” are things we have already learned, burned-in and utilized over a sustained period of time whether we did so consciously or not, and in this case adds an extra dimension to the term “deeper learning.”

When people talk about the genetic vs environment argument, this concept of knowledge and deeper learning is the process through which we make the environment part of our genetics (for those who share the belief that cognitive function can influence gene expression). But even for those who believe there is a separation between genetic predisposition and environmental influence, there are still waves of learning material addressing being mindful, improving our self-talk, promoting civility, managing conflict productively, building empathy, and the list goes on. Whether it is real-estate or listening empathetically, burning-in and practicing what we choose to learn over sustained periods of time can have a significant impact on who we believe ourselves to be and how we are perceived by those around us. I believe we can recreate foundational parts of our identity through this process of intentional deeper learning.

Cognition can influence gene expressionCognition cannot influence gene expression
The leopard CAN change its spotsOld dogs CAN learn new tricks
picture of a snow leopard looking up tword the skyDog balancing a treat on his nose
Regardless of a person’s disposition on genetics vs environment, there’s something for everyone in the world of deeper learning 🙂

Deeper Learning Recap

This post reviewed two factors which drive deeper learning:

  • Learning Plan: Part of deeper learning is contemplating all the things we want to learn, prioritizing them into some semblance of order and taking steps toward mastering those topics. This traces back to the ideas postured through Gary’s 37-minute course.

  • Knowledge Retention: The other part of deeper learning is to take the content we find most important and internalize it through a process of burn-in and sustained usage.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes our company forces us to take training that we don’t want to retain deeply. Sometimes we just need some knowledge to address a specific issue and we don’t need that to become baked into our identity. Fair. However, for the topics we choose to learn, or knowledge we believe could serve us better longer term, if it is worth making that initial investment — e.g. taking some block of hours worth of training — we owe it to ourselves to burn it in (e.g. 100-days of practice), and continue to use the content in a sustained manner to make it part of what we do and ultimately who we choose to be.

“Burning-in and practicing what we choose to learn over sustained periods of time can have a significant impact on who we believe ourselves to be and how we are perceived by those around us. We can recreate foundational parts of our identity through this process of intentional deeper learning.”

– MindFuel Blog

In short, regardless what someone might believe regarding genetics vs environment, deeper learning can be both a deeper way to learn and way to cultivate a deeper sense of self.

Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ekilby/
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matsurika27/

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