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Academy Xi Blog

Education: on the line

By Academy Xi

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Rethinking virtual classrooms

Have you ever read a novel on your laptop or desktop screen?

Have you ever watched a feature-length movie where one person talked the whole time? 

Have you ever wanted a Zoom call to last twice as long?

Me neither.

Yet in 2020, education providers made students read thousands of words within PDFs and e-textbooks, watch hours of talking head videos, and worst of allattend long PowerPoint lectures on Zoom every day.

Why? Because they had no time and no choice. COVID forced universities, schools, and private training providers to upload their physical classroom materials to the first cloud in sight. Unthreaded chat windows and glitchy forums replaced focus group discussions. Slide decks from teacher presentations became standalone learning content. Using common digital tools, educators created “emergency virtual classrooms”. 

And it worked… for a while. But like reading a book on a laptop, students and instructors became fatigued and frustrated with the new format. Zoom overwhelm was real. So the question arises: are these emergency tactics going to become the new normal? Hopefully not. Because there are better ways to learn online, and failing to embrace them would be unfair to future students like you.

Social media and social learning

Bringing human interaction and experience into the digital space is the key to successful online learning. But it isn’t simply a matter of moving real-life inside a device or screen. Just as you don’t need a salesperson to greet you at an online checkout, you don’t need online learning to mimic a classroom. There is no requirement for consistency with the real world. 

In other words, just because you can learn in a Zoom lecture, doesn’t mean you have to.

Instead of a poor copy of a lecture hall, why can’t online learning be something else entirely? Something that harnesses the best aspects of our most used technologies? Social media apps are the world’s most widely adopted tech platforms. And they have reimagined the social and behavioral aspects of the real world to create a new online existence. A nod is replaced with a ‘like’, group excitement morphs into sharing, and walking into a room becomes ‘join group’ or ‘follow’. Content becomes the teacher and the topic. But despite these adaptations, social media shows us that we still have the same strong desire to connect with other people. Online educators should not ignore this.

As a recent Harvard Business article outlines, online learning can still be social. Many would agree that it must be social.

Crucially, social media platforms give you control over your online experience. Navigate, like, love, leave, join, report, comment, share, participate, complain, poll, collect, or save. It’s all in your hands. Choice and freedom are critical aspects of online learning too. When your experience is limited and fixed (as Zoom lectures and textbooks can be) you lose the ability to create your own learning journey.

 

Adapt and evolve

“How can we make online learning irresistible? How can we give learners control and input? How can we build an online learning community?”

For better or worse, the rise of online media and – in particular – social media, has changed the way we consume content and the way we interact with one another. The shift can be seen in our attention span, our expectation to navigate and opt in/out, and in the degree to which we expect to be entertained by our screens. 

Feeds and home pages are full of mixed media material; video, podcasts, images, chat, Q&A, polls, live streams, written articles (with comments and opinions from users trailing behind each piece). If online educators expect courses to co-exist with other forms of digital media, then we must rise to the challenge, compare to and compete with it. 

Technology is nothing if not flexible, constantly changing and evolving – forever innovating. If online education wants to play in this space long term, it asks this of us too. 

Education providers have a lot to learn from those who excel at understanding the intersection of humans and their favourite technology. Any online course provider should be asking themselves “How can we make online learning irresistible? How can we give learners control and input? How can we build an online learning community?”. And when shopping for your next online course, you should closely examine how different providers answer these questions.

As we leave a year of necessary emergency measures, it’s time to reset the bar for online learning. Expect more from it than just Zoom and digital textbooks. Expect to feel supported, connected and in control of your experience. Expect to learn in ways that respond to your screen-time attention span. Expect to be active and participate in your learning, not just watch. Expect technology to improve your education experience, not hold it back. These factors are very likely to be the ones that will help you cross the finish line, and you might actually be energised and smiling as you do so.

Tiff is our Head of Product at Academy Xi. A musician at heart, she lives in a small coastal town halfway up the east coast of Australia. She’s been creating experiences through learning and course design for 15 years and never gets bored of learning new things. 

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If you’re looking for a more effective way to deliver online training for you and your team, reach out to us at [email protected]

Academy Xi Blog

Designers in Residence Program – Highlight of 2020

By Academy Xi

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One of the things we are proud of at Academy Xi is being creative, agile and adaptable to the changes. This is a story about how we were able to reimagine one of our community-based initiatives for our students. 

Pre-Covid: Industry Night 

A few years ago, we organised our first Student Showcase event (or Industry Night as it became known), it was the main event for our User Experience and Service Design courses which students worked towards throughout the 10 intensive weeks of theory and client projects. This event represented the graduates’ first official introduction to the industry community as specialists, a networking opportunity to make a first impression in front of their potential employer and receive invaluable feedback from the experts that would bring them a step closer to their first interview. 

As we ran many Industry nights, we also gained deeper insights to help improve each time. As such we recognised that our graduates valued  more time connecting with industry practitioners, and so we introduced mentoring rounds to Industry Night. Before opening the night to everyone, the students would have rounds of brief sessions with the experienced  UX and SD specialists who would provide their feedback on the student’s portfolio and would answer their burning questions one-on-one.  

Being dedicated to our values and caring about the student experience, we’ve been seeing incredible outcomes resulting in 87% of all our full-time students landing their first job within 6 months after graduating. 

With the arrival of COVID-19  we had to iterate once again, this time taking the mentoring rounds digital. It is important to mention that we’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the support of the amazing HCD community in Sydney and Melbourne. No matter what, they always were there at our Industry Nights as experts, at our events as thought-leadership speakers, at our courses as Instructors, mentors and clients for students. So when the pandemic struck, they stayed with us and kept giving back to the community no less than ever! 

Again, what we find most important in our work, is to keep listening to our students and everyone involved in the courses. Through the internal and external feedback, we realised that the way we organised the final step of the course experience – feedback and networking with the industry professionals, was not sustainable anymore. And this is how our newest project was born.

Launch of Designers in Residence

We launched Designers In Residence (DIR) program with the huge support from Matt Tsourdalakis, a Design Lead and Consultant passionate about design leadership and having an insanely inspiring idea of transforming Melbourne into the capital of the UX knowledge and leadership. Being used to dreaming big at Academy Xi, we teamed up with Matt to gather the first cohort of DIRs to  mentor our full-time students throughout the 10-week program.

Believing in that value of diversity of experience, we chose to focus not only on industry veterans but also engaging our talented alumni and early specialists. With this in mind, we’ve built the the program the way that it would support not only our students but also our DIRs in their growth as mentors and people leaders. Filled with numerous learning sessions for the mentors, check-in sessions and active slack community discussions, this program is designed to empower mentors to share their own experience and pass on their knowledge and expertise to the next generation.

Throughout the 10 weeks, our mentors have fortnightly catch-ups with the students helping them in setting their mentee’s short and long-term goals by guiding them on the way to achieving them through practical steps and advice. Besides the sessions with their mentees, mentors also have regular meetings with the Lead DIR and each other where they discuss different techniques, tools and approaches to mentoring. 

At Academy Xi, we care about every single student walking through our, now virtual doors and we want to be able to support them not only while they’re studying with us but also after they finish the course. DIR is our first step to building a greater Xi community with a vision of become a learning hub for our alumni and other designers in Australia. 

Some of our Mentors

Anthony Currenti

Berenice Chong

Berlin Liew

Daniela Stoyanova

Lindsey Liao

Maria Sereno

Matt Tsourdalakis

Michael Dyson

Pola Trofimiuk

Rachel Zhang

At Academy Xi, we see this program as a step to building the learning hub which would be a place of life-time growth for our community. You might start with a course and later come back again as a mentor working on your leadership skills or a speaker willing to build your personal brand and practice public speaking, or having your own company you’d like to offer a client project to our students and explore external creativity of a fresh mind. With this one step closer to our bigger goal we look forward to building out our DIR program next year!

Interested in DIR? Apply here!

Academy Xi Blog

How to collaborate effectively in an online course

By Saga Briggs

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Social learning is effective learning

If you’re motivated by social interaction at school, and enjoy group projects, there are ways to make your online course more engaging. You don’t have to go it alone if you don’t want to. In fact, online course collaboration tools are even more advanced than they were a few years ago, allowing for more interaction between students and instructors.

At Academy Xi, students who are part of intake-based courses (starting the course at the same time) have fortnightly live session videos where they can interact with one another and with the instructor. These courses include project work or practical activities, supported by collaboration tools like Slack and Miro. Students can work in pairs or in groups to study and complete projects together.   

In this article we’ll cover some of the ways you can collaborate in online courses—many of which, surprisingly, allow for even more engagement than IRL—and provide a resource list of tools to consider in your online learning journey. The hardest part is knowing which tools are available, and which ones will facilitate greater engagement between you and your peers. That’s why we’ve carefully curated the information you need to know and presented it for you in one place.

How do students collaborate online?

First off, let’s take a look at some of the latest research on collaborative online learning. You may be surprised to find that the methods you’ve used in the past can be improved with some simple changes, or that you’ve been on the right track all along. Research on online course collaboration is a burgeoning new field, and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting it is essential to online learning in general.

Even if you think you work better alone, you may want to reconsider your view in light of the latest findings. Research suggests it’s not always better on your own. The bottom line is this: social learning is effective learning. 

Community-building takes time

A 2016 study from the University of Southern Queensland found that students in an online language learning course benefited from the social aspect of collaboration, but that it took time to develop: 

“The main points to emerge from the study were the importance of the social aspect of collaboration, of allowing time for collaboration to develop, and the effect of the gradual development of confidence among the students,” the authors wrote. “Patterns of collaboration changed as the group developed a sense of community and mutual trust, with students who initially held back from offering their work for comment gradually posting their work early to encourage feedback from others.” 

The take-away point may be that even if it takes a bit longer to build community in an online setting, the ultimate effect is one of equal if not higher engagement. That may be important to keep in mind as your course progresses. 

Shiny new tech doesn’t impress

Researchers at Anadolu University in Turkey found that students “generally use educational technology in a narrow way, rarely engaging with technological tools, unless it is presented to them as integral to their learning or if they are already familiar with a particular tool and/or perceive it as useful.”

They add: “Despite a well-cited characteristic by proponents of ‘digital natives’ that students need constant entertainment, this study found no evidence that this was the case.” 

Perhaps it’s the case that social media and other forms of social technology are appealing mainly because of the social aspect.  

If you need a motivation boost, be a “connector”

Students who aren’t already highly motivated to take an online course might benefit most from the social aspect of online course collaboration, according to researchers at the University of Helsinki.

“Experiences of intrinsic motivation were found to be weakly negatively related to both centrality and betweenness centrality in the social network,” they write. “This means that students who reported intrinsic motivation were less likely to be central figures in the learning community and also less likely to be a person connecting subgroups within that community.” 

In other words, if you find your motivation lagging during the course, try becoming a “connector” to bring your enthusiasm levels back up. You don’t have to be a group facilitator so much as a sub-group facilitator, according to the study:

“The social structure that emerged from the social interactions was very clustered, indicating that sub-groups emerged during the course. Overall, the network was not very dense, indicating that students did not interact with a wide range of other students but stuck to interacting with few of the other students.”

Students interacted with the other students by sharing materials, chatting, commenting, and asking questions. “There was a very high degree of variation in how much students participated in the social interaction. Some sent nearly 500 messages, whereas some didn’t send any.”

Being a good connector can become a fun challenge, then, working with different personalities and communication styles to achieve the most group harmony. 

Online social forums improve grades

At the University of Indiana, physics department chair and associate professor Andy Gavrin says online social forums are effective collaboration tools because they create a social learning environment.

Gavrin and his colleagues found that when there was more activity in the online forums for his physics and engineering classes, the students who were most central in the network were “more likely to achieve a higher final course grade.”

Analysing data from three consecutive fall semester courses, Gavrin and his colleagues discovered a “clear correlation between students’ centrality in the network and their success in class.” They used Google’s PageRank to determine what data was most central to the network, and a tool called “target entropy” to measure the variety in links among individuals. Gavrin explains it this way:

“If a person interacts with a lot of other people in a social network, it indicates they are likely central. If the people they interact with are central themselves, that reflects back on the first person.”

Participation in the forum, which was designed to be like a social network, was not graded but students could earn extra credit. Nearly 200 students were enrolled in the class each semester, producing thousands of forum comments, responses to comments, polls, and response ratings.

Students who were more central to the network achieved higher grades at the end of the semester.

“This project is about how students interact with one another,” Gavrin said. “Learning is very much a social activity, and you see that with students getting together to study and in classroom discussions. The more opportunities students have to interact with one another to talk about the subject, the more successful they are likely to be in learning.”

Team video gaming builds community

A new study by four BYU information systems professors found newly-formed work teams experienced a 20% increase in productivity on subsequent tasks after playing video games together for just 45 minutes. The study, published in AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, adds to a growing body of literature finding positive outcomes of team video gaming.

“To see that big of a jump — especially for the amount of time they played — was a little shocking,” said co-author and BYU associate professor Greg Anderson. “Companies are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on team-building activities, and I’m thinking, go buy an Xbox.”

For the study, researchers recruited 352 individuals and randomly organised them into 80 teams, making sure no participants with pre-existing relationships were on the same team. For their initial experimental task, each team played in a geocaching competition called Findamine, an exercise created by previous IS researchers which gives players short, text-based clues to find landmarks. Participants were incentivised with cash rewards for winning the competition.

Following their first round of Findamine, teams were randomly assigned to one of three conditions before being sent out to geocache again: 1) team video gaming, 2) quiet homework time or 3) a “goal training” discussion on improving their geocaching results. Each of these conditions lasted 45 minutes and those in the video gaming treatment chose to play either Rock Band or Halo 4 — games selected because they are both familiar and require coordinated efforts among players.

The researchers found that while the goal-training teams reported a higher increase in team cohesion than the video-gaming teams, the video gamers increased actual performance on their second round of Findamine significantly, raising average scores from 435 to 520.

“Team video gaming may truly be a viable — and perhaps even optimal — alternative for team building,” said lead researcher Mark Keith, associate professor of information systems at BYU.

Researchers also said it doesn’t matter if people are avid video gamers to see the positive effects of gaming together; they observed video game novices established communications norms — and built working relationships — even quicker with new teammates so as to learn the nuances of the game.

There is one caveat to the finding, however: the study was done with teams of individuals who don’t know each other. Researchers admit if team members are already familiar with each other, then competitive video gaming may possibly reinforce biases and negative relationships developed from previous experiences.

Participation is learning

At the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, Michael Hammond studies the history of online collaboration and cooperation, focusing especially on the importance of social learning.

There are two useful metaphors for learning in the context of the mathematics classroom, he says, drawing on research from the late 90s. 

“The first of these was learning by acquisition, in which the process of acquiring knowledge was an individual achievement. The second was the participation metaphor or learning through participation in a group. Here knowledge (a noun) is replaced with knowing (a gerund) to indicate action and to draw attention to the ‘situatedness, contextuality, cultural embeddedness’ in which learning takes place. It is this second metaphor which many supporters of OC have alighted upon and, as put by Hrastinski (2009), ‘online participation drives online learning’.”

In other words, Hammond says, “participation is not an aid to learning or a scaffold for learning but is learning in its own right.”

That’s why collaboration is so crucial to learning.

“It is through effort of explaining and defending positions, exploring differences and reaching agreement, that new knowledge is created. For some, technology not only supports participation but provides participants with past archives which enable and represent knowledge sharing.”

Intermittent collaboration is best

Studying the frequency of online course collaboration, researchers at Northeastern University and the Questrom School of Business at Boston University found that intermittent collaboration is more effective for online students than constant collaboration or no collaboration at all.

For the study, several three-person groups performed a complex problem-solving task. The members of one group never interacted with each other, solving the task on their own; the members of another group interacted constantly, with their technology “always on”; and the third group interacted only intermittently.

The group whose members interacted intermittently performed the best.

“Even though the groups interacted only intermittently, they had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly,” the researchers wrote. “And yet, by interacting only intermittently, these groups also preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.”

What’s more, the high performers in each group learned from the low performers—but only in the intermittent condition.

“When high performers interacted with low performers constantly, there was little to learn from them, because low performers mostly just copied high performers’ solutions, and high performers likely ignored them. But when high performers interacted with low performers only intermittently, they were able to learn something from them that helped them achieve even greater solutions to the problem.”

The researchers fear that technology is threatening to break these cycles of doing work alone and then coming together, encouraging constant interaction, and we should take a step back and consider our methods more carefully.

“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” they warn.

As you collaborate in your online course, aim for a balance of isolated work and group work for optimal learning. 

Online course collaboration tools

Now that we know why we should collaborate in our online courses, we can explore how. There are countless collaboration tools meant for boosting engagement and making group projects easier to complete, so we’ve curated a few of the best for you. You don’t have to be intimidated by the thought of learning a new tool, as most collaboration platforms now provide users with educational videos and step-by-step guides to get you up and running in no time.

Slack

Slack is a messaging application for teams and classes.

At North Dakota State University, teacher Melissa Vosen Callens uses Slack in her teaching to help students collaborate more effectively.

“I used the discussion board feature on our learning management system, Blackboard,” she writes. “In 2016, I switched to Slack because it is user-friendly from both an instructor and student standpoint. One of the best features of Slack is an app that notifies users when someone responds to, or tags them in, a post.”

Callens explains how research suggests that a primary component of effective online teaching is “creating an environment where students do not feel isolated and can interact with their instructor and other students, supporting the belief that learning is a social process.”

“Because interaction is important, I ask students to engage in a weekly online discussion using Slack… Not only does Slack help students feel connected to a learning community, but it also helps them meet my course outcomes.”

For her course, she creates a channel for each week. Each channel has a prompt that encourages students to reflect on our weekly assigned course texts.

In addition to setting up the team page and channels, Callens also records a short video which walks students through the process of setting up an account. “The process is not difficult, but by creating a video with concrete, step-by-step instructions, fewer students have questions about the account creation process.”

Miro

Miro is a collaboration platform for professional teams and classes. It is designed especially for teams working in product development, UX research and design, and learn and agile methodologies. “Whether your teams are colocated, distributed, or fully remote, Miro provides an engaging, intuitive, in-person collaboration experience with multiple options for real-time or asynchronous teamwork on an online whiteboard.”

Miro for Education comes with a whiteboard toolkit, unlimited numbers of boards, screen sharing, Google Drive integration, board export, and presentation mode. The free education account can host up to 30 participants.

Tim Jefferis, teacher at British boarding school, uses Miro for his geography and religious studies classes. He shares his story on the Miro blog:

“The best type of collaboration I find works with small classes (of 3 or less). With larger sets using Miro to its full effect can become a bit chaotic unless very carefully managed. It is for this reason that I’ve found that it’s in my religious studies teaching (where I tech just one pupil!) where I’ve really been able to adopt the dream workflow. Before the lesson I set the board up with some skeleton resources, perhaps a YouTube clip, an article or a table in a Google Doc that we’ll fill in together. My pupil then arrives, logs on (I sometimes lend him my Chromebook to speed things up yet further) and off we go. Sitting opposite each other we work in a genuinely collaborative way.”

Asana

Asana is a collaboration platform that can be used to plan projects, coordinate work, communicate effectively, align on shared goals, manage changes, and improve cross-functional collaboration.

“Good collaboration software helps eliminate communication and information silos by organizing your work in one place. Everyone knows who’s doing what. Teammates can easily discuss work and share ideas. You deliver projects on time.”

In 2018, Asana launched the Asana Academy, a learning platform on on-demand courses that provides step-by-step instructions on how to use Asana. You can follow along with video lessons and take quizzes to check that you’re doing it right—all for free.

One of Asana’s best collaboration tools is the Brainstorm Board, which can be used for group projects. After creating a board, you can allow anyone to contribute ideas by adding them as a project member; keep your ideas organised; see your team’s favourite ideas by liking tasks; use Asana mobile to upload paper notes into Asana; keep ideas actionable by assigning them out; and gather inspiration and ideas across the web with the Chrome Extension.  

Collaboration should be an essential part of your online course. Don’t be deterred by the thought of going it alone; you don’t have to. If your instructor doesn’t provide enough of a collaborative component, feel free to request another tool or strategy that you think will work better for you and your classmates.

Even if you think you’re a solo learner, keep in mind that we are social creatures and our brains are wired to store information related to the people around us. For this reason, making learning more collaborative is a smart study tactic in addition to a practice in teamwork. The more social and personal you can make your learning, the better it will stick in your mind and the higher the chance you’ll remember it not only on test day but in the long run.

Keep some of these strategies in mind as you start your new course or when you need a pick-me-up midway through. Interdependence is how you build community, and community is how you get the support you need to work through tough challenges on your educational journey. If you need help, ask for it. If you can help a peer, offer it. Best of all, the collaboration techniques you practise now will help you on your professional journey as well. No collaboration is wasted collaboration.    

 

Learn more about our highly-supported, intake-based online courses here.

Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena 

 

Academy Xi Blog

Learning how to learn

By Saga Briggs

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The only truly “future-proof” skill isn’t a specific job qualification; it’s knowing how to learn.

If you empower yourself to do one thing in the near future, make it this: learn how to learn. As the jobs of the future will require multiple skillsets—weaving technical skills together with creativity, interpersonal skills, and adaptability—we can no longer afford to specialise. The most important skill of all will be the ability to diversify your toolbox. 

“There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world,” says the British writer Robert Twigger. “It might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity—crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But it would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgement in all areas.”

That said, we can’t wait for academia to catch up. Before this new area of study formally exists, let’s start teaching ourselves how to do many things well.

Becoming an autodidact

You’re probably familiar with the term “autodidact,” which refers to an individual who teaches herself about a subject or subjects in which she has little to no formal education. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact, as were Jorge Luis Borges, Eileen Gray, Gustave Eiffel, and Frida Kahlo. Bill Gates, who taught himself to program as a teenager, is an autodidact as well.

The original “self-directed learners,” autodidacts possess intrinsic motivation, self-determination, and a true passion for learning. We’ve all known at least one person who fits this description. We can learn to fit this description ourselves.

Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) strategies include things like goal-setting and structuring learning content, self-evaluation, putting rewards in place, group reflection, and note taking.

But we’re not often taught how to do these things well. One study found that although most students can correctly identify common SRL strategies, they don’t know how to put them into practice or when to use specific techniques. In fact, only a third of students who could correctly identify a learning technique as beneficial admitted to actually using that technique in their own learning.

Just because the future will require us to learn more, and more often, doesn’t mean we will know how. That’s why the only truly “future-proof” skill isn’t a specific job qualification; it’s knowing how to learn. We all need to become experts in Self-Regulated Learning (SRL). So where do we begin?

How to identify which skills you need

The first step in learning how to learn is deciding where to direct your efforts. What skills do you need to develop now, five years from now, ten years from now?

First, learn to identify trends and see where you fit into the shifting landscape. Chances are, you’ll have at least one existing skill that can provide a foot in the door.

For example, say you work in the education industry, as an educational consultant, course designer, or online tutor. If you’ve been paying attention to business news, you’ll see that companies are beginning to create internal upskilling and reskilling programs for their employees. You can position yourself as a learning consultant, or train to become a Chief Skills and Learning Officer (CSLO), to pivot your way into the future and stay one step ahead of the game.

Similarly, if you want to move into design but your background is in marketing and communications, take a UX writing course and pivot over to the UX world. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship but your background is in biology, lean hard into your research and data science skills and create a data analytics consulting agency. Want to become a software engineer mid-way through your social work degree? Take programming courses on the side, but also direct your formal studies in a way that supports your future vision: take on projects that allow you to showcase your people skills, as employers will increasingly be looking for software engineers who can work well with teams.  

Follow organisations like the Institute for the Future and the New Media Consortium for the latest future trends forecast, and build a list of skills you want to have and skills you currently have that will help you get there.

How to make time to learn 

“How we spend our days,” said the American writer Annie Dillard, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Best-selling author James Clear has written an entire book, Atomic Habits, supporting this view: “Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.”

I find this way of thinking highly motivating, but I’ve also bought enough Bullet Journals and downloaded enough productivity apps to be slightly disillusioned with it. The most common refrain in the productivity-hacking world, “Just do a little bit each day,” sounds achievable in theory, but the reality is that life gets in the way and always will. 

Is it possible to divide our days into perfectly segmented sessions of the things we want to do? Probably not. Still, we can’t let the occasional slip devastate us into giving up. How do we stay on the right track when time or energy aren’t on our side?

When it comes to adopting any new habit, we need to allow ourselves some wiggle room. But how much? Is a vegan who eats a burger once a month still a vegan? We need to be able to let ourselves slip and still know we’re doing what we said we’d do. How do we calculate this wiggle room?

I find that it helps when I’ve done the thing before, like with distance running: I know that even if I slip, I can get back on the train and run a fast half marathon because I trust myself to achieve the goals even with some slips here and there. I know I can miss up to two days a week if I’m training for a half and still stay in good shape, but if I go beyond that I need to re-focus.

Maybe time is your main issue. If you can only devote a few hours a week to the skill, for example during a self-paced online course, that’s fine too. It may take you longer to master it than if you had time to devote to it every day, but the important part is that you’re actively doing it.

Also consider that some skills, like foreign languages, can be developed very quickly in intensive practice sessions. Other skills, like distance running, cannot. Depending on the skill you’re trying to pick up, massed practice may work better than spaced practice, and motivation will look different for each of those approaches.

How to stay motivated

When you’re picking up any new skills, ask yourself two things: 1) What’s the reward? and 2) What’s the bridge?

What is the reward?

I have struggled to learn German since moving to Berlin. I took a few weeks of courses when I arrived so I wouldn’t be totally lost. Since then, it’s been a challenge. German doesn’t come easily to me the way French did. I kept thinking, “Can I do a crash course in one week? Hire a private tutor? Watch movies with subtitles?” Nothing worked. My motivation wasn’t there: I don’t need German for work and everyone in Berlin speaks English. Plus, I don’t know how long I’ll be there, so is it worth the investment of my time if it doesn’t come easily?

One skill I already have, which some people would probably consider harder than learning German, is distance running. I’ve been a runner for eighteen years. I’ve trained for four half-marathons and completed several long relays. Most weeks I run five or six days a week. It’s not a struggle to get myself out the door because I know what the payoff of running every day is. I know how great my body will feel as a result of running for one hour each day, and after increasing the mileage by running thirteen miles on Sundays. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling.

On the other hand, I don’t really know what rewards I’ll get from learning German.

The question I’m getting at is this: How do you stay motivated to learn a new skill when you’re uncertain of the pay-off?

Therein lies one of the driving forces behind the superpower of learning how to learn: figuring out how to conceptualise your rewards so that motivation stays high.

If you do something without seeing a reward or impact for it, it’s empty self-discipline. Which has its place, but it’s far more difficult than discipline tied to gratification.

When I think about it, the appealing thing to me about foreign languages is the feeling of communicating with another person: it’s like sharing a secret code. That’s my joy. That’s enough for me. So with German, it would simply be rewarding to me to be able to speak in German with another person.

That means my practice sessions would have to be oriented towards this for me to stay motivated to learn. They’d need to be engineered to cover topics that I’d normally cover in English. I could choose one topic: Running. I want to be able to have a conversation with my German friend in German about running. So I’d then spend my sessions learning running vocabulary and sentence structure until I could do this. Obviously, I’d learn way more along the way than just being able to talk about running. By crafting a hypothetical conversation, I’d cover grammar, vocab, numbers and such. But that would be the (very concrete) reward: a conversation about running in German.

What is the bridge?

New skills are intimidating only because you can’t see the bridge between what you know in daily life and this huge new field. German is overwhelming to me because I see how much ground I have to cover. But if I start with something I know is part of my daily experience, I can frame it within that and stay motivated. For me, the bridge is running. Or any other subject I talk about with people on a daily basis. It’s a better, more rewarding use of my time to start specific and tackle one thing than to cast the net wide and study more generally.

If you’re a designer interested in UX writing, ask yourself what skills you already have that can be your bridge into the new area. You already know UX; you just need to improve your copywriting portfolio. If you’re a biology researcher interested in UX design, consider becoming a UX researcher first and then working your way over to the design field. If you’re a writer interested in entrepreneurship, leverage your communication skills to work your way into marketing and communications, and open up a digital marketing agency.  

How to learn efficiently

With that, here are a few ways to hone the superpower of learning how to learn.

1. Decide what you want to learn

Be mindful of what information you want to enter your mind.
Humans spend a lot of time consuming information and very little time deciding what information they want to consume and how they want to consume it. It’s tempting to try to absorb everything for fear of missing out. But that’s not possible. So learning to learn is, fundamentally, about deciding where to place your attention.

Make a list of the things you want to spend the most time attending to, things that deserve less attention, things that can wait, and things you’d like to shut out.  

2. Work out before (not after) you learn

Yet again, the early bird gets the worm. To retain more of what you learn, neuroscientists recommend working out your body before your mind. It’s well-known that aerobic exercise spurs neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells. But researchers have found that neurogenesis itself isn’t always a good thing, as it can push old information off the memory circuit, so you need to be mindful of when you work out.

Neuroscientists at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto have found they can control whether rats retain or forget new information by changing when they exercise. If they exercise before learning, the rats retain the new information. If they exercise after learning, rats are more likely to forget that information. That’s because neurogenesis functions a lot like sleep, clearing away old memories to make room for new ones.

“More neurons increase the capacity to learn new memories in the future,” says Neuroscientist Sheena Josselyn. “But memory is based on a circuit, so if you add to this circuit, it makes sense that it would disrupt it.”

Get out the door early for optimal learning performance.

3. Build your self-control in all areas

In their new study, Just do it: Engaging in self-control on a daily basis improves the capacity for self-control, Dutch researchers found that our general capacity for self-control can be increased by exercising self-control in a specific area. In other words, it builds on itself.

“Self-control is considered a crucial capacity that helps people to achieve important objectives in the face of temptation,” the researchers write. “However, it is unknown to what extent self-control is a stable disposition that is unaffected by how often people engage in self-control, or more like a skill that develops and grows over time.”

Their study answered that question by tracking participants’ behaviour over a four-month period.  

They found that “regular practice led to an improvement of medium effect size in self-control capacity” and that the level of improvement depended on “the actual times of practice during a specific interval” and not on previous beliefs about self-control or self-efficacy.

“We conclude that ‘just doing’ self-control is the underlying mechanism of increased capacity for self-control.” This means that every time you exercise self-control in one area, whether it’s limiting your caffeine intake or working out every day despite the weather, the effect snowballs and helps you achieve self-control in other areas as well.

So, if you want the ability to concentrate better on your work or studies, resisting the urge to check your phone or social media not only reduces distraction but also builds your capacity to focus on the right thing. It also makes it easier for you to get out the door for that evening workout.

4. Think positively—of others

Put another way: Self-transcendent thoughts make us more likely to engage in otherwise intimidating activities.

In a fascinating study led by researchers at U Penn, people were more likely to take on challenges when they were primed to feel compassionate toward others first. The challenge examined in the study was to adopt healthier behaviour, and researchers found that people responded less defensively to health messages (i.e. being prompted to exercise) if they first experienced feelings of self-transcendence.  

Under normal conditions, participants responded defensively to the health messages. But if they were primed beforehand to think about the well-being of others, such as their children and other family members, they responded more positively.

“Focusing on values and activities that transcend the self can allow people to see that their self-worth is not tied to a specific behaviour in question, and in turn become more receptive to subsequent, otherwise threatening health information,” the researchers explain.

Use this logic to enhance your own learning: If you’re resistant to taking on a new skill, don’t wrap up your performance so much with your self-worth. Meditate first on the things you care about beyond yourself.

5. Learn the boring stuff while you’re in the flow

It’s tempting to learn what interests us first and save the boring material for later, but researchers at the University of California say you should learn the boring stuff alongside the interesting stuff if you want to retain it in the long run.

“Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,” says Dr. Matthias Gruber, lead author of the study, in a Huffington Post interview.

When your brain’s curiosity flip is switched on, it’s as though you’ve cast a big net which catches all kinds of information—interesting and boring alike—and helps it stick. Use this to your advantage by switching to the “less fun” material while your brain is stimulated.

6. Swap learning styles for task styles

If you’re not aware already, here’s a news flash: learning styles theory is a myth. There’s virtually no scientific evidence to back up the claim that some of us are “visual learners,” “kinesthetic learners,” or “auditory learners.” For one thing, all humans are visual learners. We may have preferred thinking styles, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, but these don’t serve us when they don’t match up with the task at hand—for instance, if we’re reading a transcript of a debate instead of listening to the more emotionally charged audio version. 

“The data show that people do have some propensity to use one or another mode of thinking, but people would be better off if they didn’t; rather, they should use the mode of thinking that’s a better fit for the task at hand,” he says.

As an example, Willingham cites a study where participants were asked to memorise sentences:

“Even if you’re a verbalizer, if you’re trying to remember sentences, it doesn’t make sense for me to tell you to verbalize (for example, by repeating sentences to yourself) because visualizing (for example, by creating a visual mental image) will make the task that much easier. Making the task more difficult is not a good strategy for motivation.”

Think about how the information you’re learning could best be absorbed, and design your study methods around it. 

7. Use the production effect

The production effect is a memory trick that involves “performing” your learning by engaging with new material in multiple ways. You might try to memorise a new set of facts by speaking it, singing it, drawing it, or interacting with it auditorily or kinesthetically.

“Anytime you retrieve a memory item, it is an opportunity to re-learn it in a sense, and the information gets re-consolidated,” writes Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “So, if you speak, draw, or use another production effect during forced recall, you further strengthen the encoding and subsequent consolidation.”

8. Reflect on past learning

According to Oakley, there are two brain gears involved in new learning: the focused state and the diffuse state. The focused state is when your brain is concentrating on a specific task. The diffuse state is when you’re daydreaming or resting your mind, and that’s when a lot of processing happens, whether you’re aware of it or not.

“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” says Allison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”

She adds: “Nothing happens in isolation. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”

9. Identify the functional meaning of the information

“What enters into a memory representation (what is encoded) is determined largely by the perceived functional meaning of an item, and this in turn determines which retrieval cues will be most effective for memory retrieval,” say researchers at the University of Oregon and Arizona State University.

This means that if we picture having a conversation about the subject of an article as we’re reading it, we’ll better remember the information since we’re creating a reason to remember it. 

10. Use fear to your advantage 

Researchers have found that when we’re trying to accomplish something, there are two parts to the motivation process. In the beginning, we’re motivated by wanting to succeed; towards the end, we’re motivated by not wanting to fail. First, we imagine all the rewards we could receive by accomplishing the goal: status, wealth, personal growth, social impact. Later, we are driven by the idea that we might not reach it, and that gives us an extra boost of momentum.

You might adopt this mindset earlier on in the learning process to keep motivation high.

 

We don’t need to be intimidated by what the future holds for our careers if we stay proactive and invested in our own preparation for it. Even before we decide which skills to master next, we can streamline our education by stepping back and examining the learning process first. The time you spend learning how to learn now will save you time in the future, when the deciding factor between you and another job candidate may not be how qualified you already are but how qualified you can become. 

If you want to future-proof your career and learn in-demand skills, we’ve got a variety of short courses available in Human-Centered Design, Business and Marketing and New and Emerging Tech.

Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena