How To Learn Anything

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Mustang Connection, TMU’s alumni magazine.

By Dr. Jordan Morton, Dean of the Pearl C. Schaffer School of Education

In the early days of the pandemic, when quarantine started rather abruptly, I kept hearing from people who were looking for new things to do during their expanded at-home time. Some discovered and took up new craft hobbies, like baking or candle-making; some tried their hand at blogging or podcasting; some sunk themselves into the latest video game. Someone I know started learning to speak another language. Learning something new became, apparently, a thing. It remains to be seen how many people will continue with their newly acquired skills or remember their newly acquired knowledge, but it is safe to say that those who keep baking sourdough bread or speaking Mandarin will have succeeded as learners. What makes that happen? Is it luck, willpower, or some other ethereal factor? No. You can take specific steps to help ensure that you succeed when you want to learn something new.

What is Learning?

When you approach learning something new, it’s helpful to start with understanding what learning really is — an internal cognitive process that results in change. Romans 12:2 underscores this, exhorting us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” In other words, if we are truly learning, whatever we are doing, it will change us. Yesterday, you may not have known what sourdough starter was, but today you do, and so you can use it correctly when you bake. That simple new nugget of knowledge opened a door for you. While it may be a stretch to say, “Learning about sourdough starter changed my life,” it is a fact that your knowledge base increased, and that makes a difference (a change) in what you can bake. God’s design of our minds is wonderful, indeed.

Tips to Ensure Learning

When you want to learn something new, how can you maximize your potential for success?

Tip 1: Prepare for It

In our education degree programs in the Pearl C. Schaffer School of Education, we often use taking a trip as an analogy for learning. What if you were going to take a trip to New York City? It’s highly unlikely that you would rush down to the airport and jump on a plane on a whim. You would prepare ahead of time – looking for a good deal on plane tickets, researching the weather, picking out a hotel that meets your needs. It’s best to approach learning with the same proactive and curious mindset. What exactly will you be learning, and what does that entail? Approach these questions with a willing and open mind and anticipate change. Feeling apprehensive? It’s normal to feel a little unsure when starting to learn something new, but focus on the outcome you expect. Think of what the new knowledge or skill will add to your life. Then set aside dedicated time so you can focus on the learning. You’ll want to choose time when you are not distracted or tired. Make sure you can access all the necessary materials you need in advance as well. These may seem like simple steps, but taking them will get you off to a good start in your learning journey.

Tip 2: Watch It and Talk It Out

It’s hard to know where to get the best pizza in New York if you’ve never been there. But you can be guided well by someone who has. When you are learning something new, it’s a good idea to find someone to be your model who has the knowledge or skill that you want to gain. You could reach out to a person in your circle of family or friends, you could find a professional to hire, or you could follow a renowned expert by subscribing to their YouTube channel. Observe what they do carefully and go ahead and take notes. You’ll want to break complex tasks or knowledge into smaller pieces. Talking about what you are learning is also crucial to success – research shows it makes a huge difference in retaining knowledge – so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find a mentor who will be responsive to your questions. If you can’t find an accessible mentor, talking with someone who is learning along with you is also valuable. Reach out to others who are also learning what you are learning and set up times to talk as you go. Joining a related club or organization can provide you with contacts.

Tip 3: Apply It

Research also shows that we retain knowledge better when we apply it, and certainly we need to practice any new skills. How will you use the new knowledge of skills you learn? Take steps to put them to use right away. Why not use your learning to help others? Find a ministry opportunity that will allow you to share what you have learned in the service of God’s kingdom. In other words, don’t keep your newfound learning to yourself. Even if you are not an expert, you can share what you know. If you can find a way to do that, your brain will make connections and that will cement your newly acquired knowledge or skills so you can bless others.

Go Forth and Learn!

By understanding what learning really is, preparing for it, finding a model of it, talking about it, and then finding ways to apply it, you can find success. That should encourage all of us to keep learning.

To learn more about TMU’s School of Education, including its teacher credential program, click here.

Alumni Focus: Silas Naklick

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