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Learning at the Speed of You

Getting the most out of self-paced training.

Self-paced learning always sounds like a great idea. Learn at your own pace, on your own time, on your couch at 3 a.m. if you want to. Plus, online and computer-based learning can make your laptop or even your Blackberry into a mobile tutor. What could be better?

There’s no question that it’s convenient, and sometimes it can let you learn a skill or earn a certification that you couldn’t have otherwise. But convenient doesn’t mean easy. There’s usually no instructor, and you might not have fellow learners to draw on, either. For that and other reasons, learning on your own can actually be harder than traditional learning.

“Students tend to underestimate the time commitment and academic rigor involved in online learning,” says Karen Hanson, assistant dean for academic advising at Walden University, an online university based in Minneapolis.

Hanson is referring to taking online courses at a university, which are generally not self-paced; they include regular assignments, an instructor, and student-to-student interactions. (Most self-paced learning is conducted asynchronously, without a fixed starting date, although it sometimes has a fixed end date.)

But self-paced learning is different from traditional learning in its pace and delivery, not its content. If you take a self-paced module about network security, you have to grasp the same concepts as you would if you took a class. You also have to make sure you keep going, which can be harder when you’re in charge of when, where, and how.

Still, with preparation and a realistic attitude, self-paced learning can be a fine way to learn.

Learner Beware

Self-paced learning’s best selling point is that anytime, anywhere factor. But that factor can be your enemy as well as your friend. Any task without a deadline often gets put off in favor of more urgent matters like paying bills, work responsibilities, or family obligations.

Christine Yoshida says that’s why she made a point of setting deadlines for herself. Yoshida is a manager of learning and development in the certification development group at Cisco. To earn her Cisco Certified Security Professional certification, she had to pass five exams, and Yoshida says she always scheduled each exam as soon as she began to study for it so she would have a deadline in mind.

That anytime/anywhere factor can be misleading in another way: You might think you can just shoehorn your learning in between work, family and friends whenever you have a few spare minutes. But you also need to carve out dedicated time for learning, and you can’t afford to multi-task.

What? No multitasking? No, says Rick Stiffler, director of partner and customer learning services at Cisco Systems. Stiffler oversees the certification programs that Cisco offers to its business partners and customers, such as the CCSP or CCNA designations. He notes that many people are used to multitasking, especially when they’re using their computers, and so they often want to send e-mails, send instant messages, or even play games while they’re learning.

“It’s a common mistake to try and multitask while you’re learning, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t turn those things off,” he says.

That’s because learning is different from writing e-mails or creating code or other tasks. It requires concentration and focus–which tend not to come with multitasking–and it requires you to understand material, not just commit it to short-term memory.

Marcia Conner, managing director of Virginia-based Ageless Learner, believes people’s experiences in school are partially to blame for a multitasking or cramming approach to learning. Since many people get through school by memorizing just enough to pass tests, she says, they often approach learning that way in their adult lives. But that won’t work for something you genuinely want to understand and access when you need it.

“Maybe you can write 1,000 lines of code the night before on massive doses of coffee and no sleep, but you’re not going to master a complex and unfamiliar architecture that way,” she says.

Conner argues that simply memorizing information without mastering the subtleties or building new mental pathways isn’t going to make you more marketable or more able to solve complex problems.

“[Memorizing] gets you thinking that you can tackle problems with what’s already known,” she says. “But a lot of people are being hired to solve problems for which there is no known solution, and you get through those types of problems with what you truly understand.”

You Can Do it

Good learning begins with realistic expectations. Yoshida says it’s easy to get frustrated when learning is unexpectedly hard or not what you thought it would be. She suggests asking others who have already done the learning what it’s like. Also, she says, think about why you’re taking it on in the first place. How important is it to you? Why are you doing it? If someone has told you that you have to, is there anything else that can motivate you?

“For example, people told me that it’s okay if you need to take an exam more than once, because it’s very difficult,” says Yoshida “Also, I talked to people who had a much stronger technological background than I did, and they had to work really hard. So I knew that even if I failed, I would try again.”

Conner says you can help yourself by considering your motivational style. Many people focus on the goal they’ll reach by learning, such as the certification they’ll earn or the promotion they might get. But when it comes to learning, some people just aren’t motivated by goals. Instead, they’re prompted by the social aspect: the people they’ll meet, or the friends they’ll get together with when they study. For some, the joy is in the learning process itself; they’re just plain curious, and the process of learning is pleasant and fun for them.

“Your style of motivation dictates the best options for you,” Conner says. “Your frustration level will be much lower if you’re working with yourself instead of against.”

Whether you’re a socially motivated learner or not, a network of compatriots can help you be more successful. Christine Yoshida notes that the support of others helped her to finish her CCSP designation. Her co-workers encouraged her, and some of them were able to explain material she was struggling with.

“There were some things I didn’t get right away,” Yoshida says. “It really helps to have a social network of others who know the material or are studying it themselves.”

It also helps to make what you’re learning concrete instead of abstract. The material might make sense to you theoretically, but it’s important to make that learning make sense in its practical application.

“Find ways to apply your daily assignments to aspects of your professional work,” says Becky Copper, an academic advisor at Capella, an online university in Minneapolis. “Learners begin to get a better grasp of the materials through hands-on experience.”

Actually, all kinds of experience helps, even if it seems redundant. Keith Koch, director of Next Generation Learning for Capella University, says learning sticks with you more readily when you experience it in more than one way. For example, says Koch, reading a textbook is a fine way to learn and always will be. But by engaging other senses–seeing images, hearing dialogue, even carrying out actions–you can digest information more thoroughly and understand it at different levels.

“People with different learning styles consume material differently,” Koch says. “By learning material in different ways, you flex different mental muscles, and it makes a difference in how you access it later.”

No matter what path you take, remember that you learn something every day, even if it’s the name of a new co-worker or the way to the copy machine. Even if you’re not sure about this self-paced learning thing, don’t worry: You’ll pick it up as you go along.

Holly Dolezalek ([email protected]) is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and former managing editor of Training magazine.

What’s Your Learning Style?

You’ve probably heard before that people have different learning styles, or methods of learning that are most helpful for them. Here’s a quick review:

* Visual learners learn best from what they see. They remember images, and they love diagrams and flow charts.

* Auditory learners tend to remember what they hear. They benefit from lectures and from reading aloud, and even written information makes more sense to them if they hear it out loud.

* Tactile or kinesthetic learners are all about movement. They learn by picking things up and fiddling with them and they would infinitely rather move around than sit listening or watching.

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