Talent Tips: The Path to Real Learning

It is an amazing truth that what we end up truly learning for ourselves we never really forget.

By Roy Saunderson, Chief Learning Officer, Recognition Management Institute

I will never forget my Psychology of Memory course—no pun intended.

Being a mature student when I started university, I fell into the normal throes of prerequisite courses in my first year, which required taking science and math courses missed during high school.

Not fully appreciating all the prerequisite courses assigned to me, once they were completed, I vowed to make my second year of university a far more relevant learning experience by choosing exactly what I wanted to learn.

Taking Learning into My Own Hands

Using the same Consumer Report techniques for buying a car or an appliance, I first went to the main library and scouted out student evaluations of professors at the end of each year. I matched up those professors with the courses I was considering taking and checked out the student perceptions of them. Armed with this ranking of best professors, I lined up interviews to meet with them over the summer so I could learn what they expected from their students and gain a first impression.

That’s how I ended up meeting for the first time Dr. Allan Paivio, a world-renowned psychologist who researched the areas of imagery, memory, language, and cognition.

He was an austere and serious man, and after talking about his course, I asked one of my Consumer Report-like questions I asked all professors: “What do you expect from your students?”

His simple answer was, “Perfection,” which was an intimidating response, especially since he didn’t even crack a smile when he said it.

Armed with a desire to learn the subject matter and a determination to meet the challenge of “perfection,” I registered for the course. I entered the classroom the next semester prepared to learn all I could about the Psychology of Memory. But this was not where my real learning would occur.

Trial and Error from Learning

Besides the in-depth and thorough in-class lectures by Dr. Paivio, we also had to do scientific labs. Divided into groups, we had to replicate previously researched experiments supporting the topics and principles of the course. After each lab, we individually had to write a paper using the steps of the scientific method. Each lab report paper was worth only 5 percent, but we had seven to do, so this made up 35 percent of our course mark. The papers were marked by a tutorial assistant (TA) who was well versed in Dr. Paivio’s methods and expectations of perfection.

I spent more than 24 hours writing the first scientific method paper, proving or dispelling the original research findings based on the outcomes of our replication of the experiment. The references were written properly, and I truly felt good about my paper.

Then I got the paper back at our next class. I stared silently at the percentage mark written in red ink on my paper by the TA—46 percent! Many of the students in the class held their own papers in disbelief with marks similar to my own.

The Real Learning Begins

Taking the bull by the horns, I made an immediate appointment with the TA to find out not only what I did wrong but also to desperately learn what I needed to correct for my future papers.

What I learned from the TA became a life changer for me. Apparently everyone in the class had purely written up the experiment we did and compared it with the original and other related experiments. She also told me it should only take about eight hours to write a paper instead of the 24 hours I had taken.

That’s when I threw up my hands in the air and asked how on Earth I could cut out two-thirds of the time from research and writing and somehow achieve higher marks?

She said you first must think about the experiment you recreated and ponder for at least half-an-hour alone and ask yourself: “Why do I think the experiment worked or was not successful?” When you come up with your own hypothesis, she said, then go and find the scientific research to substantiate your own point of view.

Imagine going home after the next lab experiment and telling my wife I needed half-an-hour to mediate and think. However, my reflecting, thinking, and asking myself questions about the lab project resulted in the thrill of my personal Eureka! moment.

Armed with my own thinking, ideas, and learning, I ran to the university library seeking research to substantiate my thoughts and wrote up the paper with this direction.

At the next class, I received my paper and was the only student who had obtained 86 percent, while many others were still below 50 percent. From then on I made the amazing discovery that I could think for myself and validate my own ideas with other people’s research. And I continued to receive high 80s for each subsequent paper submitted.

Lessons Learned Outside of Class

My experience in taking this course was one of self-discovery about what real learning is all about, namely:

  • Besides the content of a course, what do you need to learn? I needed to become an independent thinker and less reliant on all the professorial researchers and their writings.
  • If you need the subject matter, but it seems difficult to learn, do it anyway. The value of striving for perfection in a challenging course subsequently caused me to think differently about many subjects since and for the rest of my life.
  • Realize that real learning is thinking differently today than you did yesterday. Never approach a learning experience the same way you have before. See if you can go deeper and wider in your learning and development.

Hopefully, this personal sharing will allow you to examine how you learn now and why you need to learn differently at each learning opportunity that lies before you.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of the Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit http://www.Rideau.com.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.