Metalearning is concerned with understanding the factors and processes that support—or thwart—learners’ ability to gain and apply new knowledge or skills.
Understanding and leveraging metalearning improves the chance that individuals will learn something in the first place, be able to apply new knowledge and skills to their work and life, and continue to do so for the long term. Metalearning, in short, improves the chances that learning will stick. And yet few learners are ever taught how to learn. And if they are, they may be taught ineffective tactics—highlighting key passages in a text, for example, is not a successful approach.
Metalearning’s ability to support effective learning coupled with the usual silence on the subject creates a tremendous opportunity for the attentive learning business. For those of us creating and providing lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development, if we can help the adult learners we serve be better learners, they’ll learn more, they’ll apply more, and they’ll be more likely to return to us for more educational offerings.
In turn, their improved performance will help us make an impact on the fields, professions, and industries we serve—and their repeat business will help our learning businesses survive and thrive. Metalearning enables a virtuous circle where learner and learning business co-exist in a mutually beneficial and enriching relationship.
Read on for how you can leverage metalearning principles, or you can download a PDF by clicking the button below.
The Role of Set and Setting
To help your learning business understand and leverage metalearning, we’ll look at twelve principles of metalearning, divided into two categories:
The expectations and orientation learners bring to a learning experience
The context in which learning happens
The twelve metalearning principles we’ll cover in this resource are neither serial nor entirely discrete—in practice, the principles often intertwine and overlap, and the more principles your learning business can encourage and tap, the greater your chance to influence learning.
Set deals with principles that determine and influence the expectations and orientation learners bring to learning experiences. Six key principles of metalearning fall under that umbrella:
Mindset: A Growth Mindset Sets the Stage for Learning
Mindset is the frame of mind and perspective we bring to anything we do or experience in life—on the job, at home, professionally, socially, and intellectually. Consider the following:
- “You can learn new things but can’t really change how intelligent you are.”
- “No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.”
Take a moment to decide if you mostly agree or disagree with those two statements. According to Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, your answers reveal whether you possess a fixed or growth mindset.
If you have a fixed mindset, you believe “your qualities are carved in stone,” Dweck explains. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is founded on the “belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
The first statement above (“You can learn new things but can’t really change how intelligent you are.”) conforms to a fixed mindset. The second (“No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.”) reflects a growth mindset.
The growth mindset sets the stage for learning. Dweck writes, “[T]he belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning.” If you believe you can always change substantially—and that your own efforts make that change possible—you will embrace the potential of learning.
But individuals are usually not entirely of the fixed mindset or entirely of the growth mindset. We often bring different mindsets to different circumstances and situations. We may have a growth mindset in many areas of our lives and yet be stymied by a fixed mindset in others. You might have a growth mindset about your ability in a sport—you know you can practice basketball and get better. But you might have a fixed mindset about your ability with music and believe it impossible at this point in your life to learn to play the banjo.
In another variation of mixed mindsets, we may have a fixed mindset about our own ability in some area but have a growth mindset for others. As learning business professionals, we may judge our own abilities differently than those of the learners and customers we serve. We might embrace the almost limitless possibilities of learning for ourselves (the growth mindset) but think our learners will never get it. Or vice-versa—we may believe our learners can achieve anything but think it impossible to ramp up our digital marketing savvy.
Mindset is the backdrop for everything we do: how we engage with others, how we learn, what we choose to learn. One key to becoming a better learner—and to helping others become better learners—is to ferret out fixed-mindset areas and cultivate a growth mindset instead.
The two mindsets interpret challenge, risk, and effort differently. The growth mindset embraces challenge and effort and sees failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. The fixed mindset sees challenge and effort as dangerous—if intelligence, social skills, and other abilities are fixed, then working hard for something is a sign of inferiority. The logic of the fixed mindset is if you’re good at something, it should come naturally, effortlessly, immediately. The fixed mindset sees failure as forever—if you fail at something, then you’re bad at it, now and always. The more generous growth mindset concludes that you did one thing badly one time.
The growth-mindset view of setbacks offers resilience and perseverance and is important because effort is an important principle of learning. (See the later section “Effort: Efficient Isn’t Always Effective” for more on the importance of effort in learning.) Dweck writes, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”
Worth noting is that not only do we as individuals have mixed mindsets, mindset won’t be even across any group of learners we serve—some learners will come to an educational experience with a growth mindset, others with a fixed one. This adds a dimension to the “prior knowledge” issue that Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) points out in The Adult Learner, a classic in the field of andragogy. (For more on the impact of prior knowledge, see the later section “Past Experience: What Learners Already Know Impacts How They Learn.”)
The encouraging news is that people can be put in a growth mindset. And putting your learners in the growth mindset is a potentially powerful tool for your learning business. Here are some ideas for how you might put learners in a growth mindset:
- Simply tell learners that whatever they’re about to study can be learned, and the learning experience you’re offering will give them the chance to learn it.
- A related approach is giving learners an article to read, such as a scientific article that describes people who did not have natural ability but who developed exceptional skills.
- When setting rules and norms, the instructor or facilitator can stress that effort and contribution are valued above being right or doing something quickly.
Then, of course, we need to ensure that what we do throughout the learning experience, not just before the start or at the beginning, remains focused on the growth mindset. Feedback should stress and praise learners’ effort and process rather than judging learners’ talent or intelligence. (For more on feedback, see the later section “Feedback: Information About Performance Drives Improvement.”)
All these approaches can apply to asynchronous online courses as well as facilitated experience, where it becomes a matter of the text and audio in an e-learning course versus what a facilitator says or does.
Just as we can put them in a growth mindset, we can also put learners in a fixed mindset, so we must act, speak, and write intentionally. We need to ensure those designing and delivering learning experiences understand the mindsets and what triggers them. For example, they need to know that labels can trigger the fixed mindset. Even positive labels can do this—calling someone “smart” equates that person with their achievement or performance. To prompt a growth mindset, you want to praise effort or a way of thinking. “That was a smart way to think about that problem” is different than saying, “You’re smart.”
Possessing a growth mindset doesn’t equal learning. Nor does a fixed mindset mean no learning will occur. But the growth mindset increases the odds of learning and increases the odds of that learning sticking—making it an important principle of metalearning.
Reflection Questions: How good is your learning business at putting learners in a growth mindset? Are there approaches in your offerings that trigger a fixed mindset? Across your portfolio, how you might foster and maintain a focus on the growth mindset?
Motivation: Intrinsic Motivators Are More Effective Than External Ones
“Adults are responsive to some external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries, and the like), but the most potent motivators are internal pressures (the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like),” Knowles asserts in The Adult Learner. This means we as learning businesses should support learners’ internal motivation. But how can we intrinsically motivate others?
For ideas on how to undertake that paradoxical task (and for a deeper understanding of motivation in general), Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation is an excellent resource. One of Deci’s most interesting findings is that extrinsic motivation isn’t simply less effective than intrinsic motivation; extrinsic motivation can erode intrinsic motivation. As learning business professionals, we must be careful how we use extrinsic motivators—whether praise, a digital badge, or a certification designation.
We have an opportunity to leverage motivation at three key points:
- When a decision is made to engage in a learning experience (e.g., the decision to buy a course, register for a conference, or devote time to self-study)
Here motivation impacts whether individuals decide to learn, what they decide to learn, and which option they choose from an array of possibilities.
- During the learning experience itself
Here motivation determines how much attention the learners give to the experience, how invested they are in understanding what’s being taught, and whether they engage wholeheartedly in the activities.
- When applying the learning
Here motivation impacts how well learners will apply what’s been learned on the job and in the real world—or whether that learning will be applied at all.
The more choices and decisions we provide to learners at each of those three points—the decision to engage in learning, participation in a learning experience, and application of the learning—the more we as learning businesses create conditions that foster intrinsic motivation. Here are a few ideas for how you might create conditions that foster intrinsic motivation:
- Allow learners to choose their own path, whether within an offering or among offerings. This might mean dropping prerequisites for courses where they aren’t absolutely necessary or allowing learners to jump around in an online course rather than enforcing a linear navigation path.
- Structure projects and graded assignments to allow learners to choose their own topic or area of focus and, if relevant, the partners they’ll work with.
- Crowdsource rules and norms for facilitated experiences so the learners have a say in how things will be done.
While choice can be a powerful tool for tapping intrinsic motivation, too much choice can be problematic—think of information overload and analysis paralysis, particularly for more novice learners. Your learning business needs to set context, curate, and frame things in ways that give learners choices and ensures the choices are rational, relevant, and appropriate.
Reflection Questions: What external motivators do you use in your learning offerings? Do you emphasize the external motivators at the expensive of intrinsic ones? What might you do to further foster the intrinsic motivation of your learners?
Autonomy: Adult Learners Expect the Freedom of Responsibility
In The Adult Learner, Knowles writes:
Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives…. They resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them. This presents a serious problem in adult education: The minute adults walk into an activity labeled “education,” “training,” or anything synonymous, they hark back to their conditioning in their previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say, “teach me.”
“Dunce hats of dependency.” What a wonderful turn of phrase—and what a completely undesirable situation. Knowles points to a huge problem we face as learning businesses—sometimes our learners are hostile. Expecting to be treated as dependents, they sit and wait to be spoon-fed. Based on their earlier K12 education, many adult learners don’t expect to be asked to be full participants in learning experiences. This has at two least implications.
- Adult learners don’t necessarily come to learning experiences knowing how to be active, self-directed learners.
Two years after The Adult Learner first comes out, Knowles publishes Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, a practical primer, to help fill that knowledge gap.
- Learner engagement can be abysmally low among adults.
So much time, energy, and attention has been devoted to engagement tactics precisely because learning businesses are desperate to get learners to stop sitting back with folded arms and start leaning forward and sharing their questions, insights, and experiences.
To address these two points, choice becomes critical when a learning business designs, develops, and delivers learning experiences. Being responsible implies making choices. Offer options for how learners can engage with your content. That may mean offering the same content in different formats (e.g., having audio, video, and text options for each major point in a learning experience). It may mean offering different ways of interacting with the content (e.g., offering a self-paced course and a synchronous course). It may mean providing additional resources and readings or an online community or listservs so the learners can decide how deep (or shallow) to go on a topic. Or it may mean something else. Actively think about what choices your learning business can provide that make sense—and then provide them.
Above and beyond what you can do for a slice of content or a particular course, you might also choose to look at overarching resources that will support your customers becoming effective self-directed learners. At the less scaffolded end of the spectrum, you might point them to resources (like Self-Directed Learning, 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner, Coursera’s Learning How to Learn MOOC, or this resource). At the highly scaffolded end, you might create and staff a service to help learners identify their personal needs and then create an individual learning plan.
Past Experience: What Learners Already Know Impacts How They Learn
Learners’ past knowledge and experience determines what and how they learn. A perennial challenge for learning businesses is that the people who participate in one of our offerings often vary widely in their levels of prior knowledge about whatever topic the offering addresses. This prior knowledge gap can be sizable—even when learners come from similar industries, job roles, or the same organization.
This issue of prior knowledge poses both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is learning businesses have to do the work to address and account for the varied backgrounds of our learners, both before and during learning experiences. The opportunity is that addressing the problem well makes our learning offerings more effective and positions our learners for greater success.
There is no way to completely level prior knowledge across participants, but it is possible to take steps before a learning experience to help compensate for differences in prior knowledge. That might mean employing one or more of the following approaches before a learning experience.
- Label offerings (e.g., intended for novices, those with intermediate knowledge and skills in the topic, or experts) so learners know which is appropriate for them.
- Use pre-assessments and prerequisites to make both learners and instructors (if applicable) aware of knowledge gaps. Feedback from the assessments should include recommended resources for addressing gaps, and it should be clear to learners that they are expected to use the resources.
- Provide a common body of content in advance of an educational experience. This pre-work helps ensure learners have some common points of reference. A key part of success with this (or other approaches to addressing differences in prior knowledge) is communicating the expectation to learners that they do the work requested.
Once learners are engaged in a learning experience (having hopefully picked one appropriate for their prior knowledge and completed any pre-assessments and pre-work), we should draw out the learners’ experience and expertise. Knowles writes in The Adult Learner:
[F]or any kind of learning, the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves. Hence, the emphasis in adult education is on experiential techniques—techniques that tap into the experience of the learners, such as group discussions, simulation exercises, problem solving activities, case methods, and laboratory methods instead of transmittal techniques. Also, great emphasis is placed on peer-helping activities.
Knowles offers a list of techniques and tactics we can use to draw out the experience our adult learners bring. Time for reflection, discussion questions, case- and problem-based activities, simulations, and hands-on practice, all can elicit learners’ prior knowledge. Sometimes learning businesses can get caught in the desire to look like they have all the answers. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the expertise resident in your learners. Give them opportunities to share their experiences and to draw on these experiences as they engage in your products and services.
Peer learning offers the potential for one learner’s experience to directly help another learner, and there’s the potential for a learner’s experiences to help her learn better, through elaboration, one of the learning strategies showcased in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Relating material to what you know already is a common approach to elaboration. (For more on elaboration, see the later section “Reflection: Contemplation Creates Deeper Learning.”)
Drawing on our learners’ experiences represents a great opportunity, and not drawing on them presents a danger. As Knowles puts it, “To children, experience is something that happens to them; to adults, experience is who they are. The implication of this fact for adult education is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adults will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but rejecting themselves as persons.”
There’s also a second danger inherent in prior knowledge. Even when we as learning businesses acknowledge and draw it out, prior experience can bring the curse of knowledge, biases, or inappropriate expectations. There too we have work to do in positioning our offerings and in delivering them in ways that seek to surface and address such unconscious tendencies. Indeed, our most important work with adult learners may sometimes be helping them unlearn.
Reflection Questions: How do you address the prior-knowledge challenge before and during the learning experiences you offer? What techniques and tactics might you use to draw out learner experience and expertise?
Memory: Cognitive Load Impacts What Can Be Learned
Dr. Patti Shank, author of Manage Memory for Deeper Learning, asserts, “One of the largest constraints that learning designers and developers don’t realize that they have when working with instruction is the nature of our memory.” There are three types of memory:
- Short-term memory involves the recall of information for a relatively short time (around ten seconds) and has an extremely limited capacity (roughly five bits of information at a time).
- Working memory involves storing, focusing attention on, and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time.
Note that while working memory and short-term memory are sometimes used synonymously, they are believed to be distinct systems—short-term memory passively holds information while working memory actively processes it.
- Long-term memory involves the storage and recall of information over a long period of time (days, weeks, or years) and is thought to have potentially limitless capacity.
Working memory is the gatekeeper to learning. Everything we hope to impart to the learners we serve must go through their working memory—and because working memory is so limited, it may also bottleneck learning.
Cognitive load, or the amount of working memory resources used for a task or in a situation, is another key concept. The basic tenet of cognitive load theory is that instructional design techniques that accommodate the limitations of working memory can be used to reduce learners’ cognitive load, making it possible for them to learn more effectively and efficiently. There are three types of cognitive load:
- Intrinsic cognitive load is the level of difficulty inherent in whatever skill or knowledge is to be taught. As a learning business, we can’t impact the intrinsic cognitive load—but we should be aware of it. The higher the intrinsic cognitive load, the more important it is for us to manage the two other types of cognitive load.
- Extraneous cognitive load is determined by the design of instructional materials, and it’s something we control as a learning business. There are many possible ways to teach any subject, and which one we choose has profound implications for extraneous cognitive load. For example, to convey what a pangolin looks like an instructor could verbally describe the animal. Or she could show a photo of a pangolin. It’s entirely possible for an instructor to verbally describe a pangolin’s appearance—but it requires significantly less effort and less time to convey its appearance through a photo. The verbal description, in this case, creates unnecessary, or extraneous, cognitive load.
- Germane cognitive load deals with schemas, or frameworks, that represent an aspect of the world. Schemas influence learners’ attention—learners are more likely to notice things that fit into their schemas—and schemas help with organizing and understanding new information, which makes them a powerful tool in the service of learning. When we design learning, we should aim to promote germane load—that is, we should help learners create or modify schemas that deal with the knowledge and skills being taught.
As learning businesses, we need to ensure our offerings reduce extraneous cognitive load and optimize for germane cognitive load, all with the recognition that the higher the intrinsic cognitive load, the more critical our work with extraneous and germane load becomes. Or, to say it more simply, we must design to control cognitive load and focus learners’ working memory on what’s relevant and necessary to learn.
Lifestyle Factors: Sleep, Diet, and Exercise Affect Learning
Sleep, diet, and exercise play important roles in our overall health and also impact brain health and cognitive function—and shouldn’t be overlooked if we want to learn better.
It’s long been known that sleep helps humans solidify and preserve memory and prevent forgetting. More recently, studies have suggested sleep may do more than just preserve memories—it may make memories much more accessible, ensuring that people are able to remember when they need to. As we sleep, the brain remains active, working to rehearse, reinforce, and consolidate the learning we’ve done throughout the day. Even a relatively brief nap following a period of learning can significantly improve recall of what we learned.
The takeaway is sleep is important, and learners must get enough of sleep to ensure proper memory functioning. But what is enough sleep? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. The most consistent recommendation is for adults to aim for at least seven to eight hours a night, pay attention to how they feel and act based on that amount of sleep, and then adjust up or down as needed.
Diet, like sleep, can help keep our bodies and minds functioning well. Food is like a drug in many ways—it contains specific substances that impact how the brain functions, some helpful, some not, and some downright detrimental. How much food we eat and when we eat also impact our brain and overall health.
With diet, as with sleep, there is a no one-size-fits-all answer, at least based on current scientific studies. Michael Pollan, author The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says everything he has learned about food and health can be summed up in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The first two words—“Eat food”—tell us to avoid packaged and processed items (what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”), like Twinkies and spray cheese. The “not too much” tells us that it’s not just what we eat but how much (and when) that impacts our health. And “mostly plants” reminds us that research generally agrees that consuming plants is healthy, whereas there’s more debate about the appropriate amounts and kinds of meat and other animal products.
There is a reasonable body of evidence linking physical fitness and cognitive fitness. At a minimum, a short-term effect of at least 30 minutes of exercise—in particular aerobic exercise—is an increase in blood flow and corresponding oxygen supply to the brain. This can help boost cognitive function, including memory. A regular exercise habit can help to improve circulation in general and also ward off stress and depression—two established enemies of optimal cognitive function.
How much exercise should we get? There’s plenty of debate on the topic, but the Centers for Disease Control’s “How much physical activity do adults need?” resource is a good starting point.
As learning businesses, we often don’t have control over these lifestyle factors for our learners. But sometimes we do—think of place-based conferences where the F&B and schedule directly impact what learners eat and how much exercise and sleep they’re able to get. Even when we don’t have direct impact, we’re likely to have influence. A reminder to eat a protein-rich breakfast before a certification exam, an e-mail campaign that prods learners to review material weekly before bed, or a break in a conference where learners get out of their seats for a seventh-inning style stretch or a pre-breakfast yoga session are just a few examples of how you might pass on to learners the important impact of diet, sleep, and exercise on how well they learn.
Reflection Questions: What offerings in your portfolio provide you the chance to have a direct influence on your learners’ diet, sleep, and exercise? What changes might you make to support healthy diet and sufficient sleep and physical activity? How might you promote to learners the important role in learning of diet, sleep, and exercise when you don’t have direct influence?
Having looked at the six principles under set (which deal with learners’ expectations and orientation), let’s look at setting. Setting refers to both the context in which learning happens and how the learning experience is scaffolded. We’ll look at six key principles of metalearning that fall under setting:
Relevance: Adults Become Ready to Learn When They Need
Knowles writes in The Adult Learner, “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.” He continues, “Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations.”
These two statements can be boiled down to two words: Relevance matters. You might have heard this metalearning principle phrased as the question “What’s in it for me?” or simply WIIFM.
Letting a learner-centered, WIIFM focus guide our learning businesses has far-reaching implications. It begins with our marketing—not promotion only, but a marketing approach that encompasses all four Ps. Embracing and addressing relevance begins with doing the tracking, listening, and asking necessary to understand what our learners need to know. If we do our homework to discover learners’ needs upfront, then the learning experiences we create will be grounded in why learners need to learn whatever the topic is.
We also need to communicate the why to our learners and build in opportunities for them to explore and make the why as personal as possible. As we design and develop an offering and promotions for it, we should ask:
- What are the outcomes learners will be able to achieve based on this learning experience?
- What positive change will we help them create through their participation in this offering?
Then we must communicate the answers to the learners.
As we deliver a learning experience, we should overtly tie the content or skills we’re teaching back to the outcomes and positive change the learners are after. Even more importantly, we should help learners make such connections for themselves. They’re better able than we are to make the why of any learning experience more meaningful and specific. We just need to encourage them and give them the cognitive space to do so.
Such encouragement and cognitive space might take the shape of simple reflection questions—e.g., “What are your biggest challenges with marketing?” or “Which of the tactics just covered would help you most in generating ideas for new educational products?”—along with some quiet time to think and jot down notes or an opportunity to share in pairs or small groups. Or we might scaffold the experience with real-world examples or more formal case studies that show how a concept has played out for an individual or organization.
We can also provide exercises and activities that prompt learners to tie what they’re learning back to their own lives and work. And, where possible, we should provide bridges that encourage that tie-back and application: checklists, worksheets, and other tools learners can use in the context of their lives and work.
Reflection Questions: Have you identified the underlying whys that bring learners to each of your products and services? What approaches do you use to ensure learners begin to apply what they’re learning as immediately as possible?
Context: Adult Learners Are Task- and Problem-Centered
This metalearning principle dovetails with the relevance principle just discussed. “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive that learning will help them perform tasks or deal with problems that they confront in their life,” Knowles writes in The Adult Learner. Adult learners tend to be task-centered or problem-centered rather than subject- or content-centered.
Once we have adult responsibilities (full-time job, kids, etc.), most of us have limited interest in knowing stuff just for the sake of knowing it—or at least we have limited time to spend learning such stuff.
As a result, most adults don’t want information from a learning experience—they may already be drowning in too much information. What they want is meaning. This is one of the reasons the case study method is so popular in business schools like Harvard’s. Give your learners case studies. Give them activities and assignments that enable them to apply their new knowledge in the context of their own lives. Approaches like these help learners move beyond content and into the application of learning to life.
Identify and emphasize the problems and tasks from real life your offerings help learners with. Focus your promotion on those tasks and problems—use them in the subject line of your e-mail marketing. Maybe even rethink how you name products and services—not subject-centered “Metalearning 101” but task-centered “How Metalearning Can Make Your Learning Business More Effective.”
Reflection Questions: How topic- or subject-centered are your learning offerings and your promotion of them? How might you restructure or reposition what you offer to highlight the real-world problems and opportunities they address?
Practice: Retention and Performance Improvement Rely on Practice
A problem with many educational experiences is that the learning evaporates once the learner exits—whether a physical classroom or an online course. To combat forgetting, learning businesses have to encourage and guide learners to practice.
Let’s look at four types of practice proven to be effective for learning and retention.
- Deliberate practice
Not all practice is equal. That’s the main tenet of deliberate practice, a concept based on the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson. Two people putting in the same amount of time to acquire a skill or knowledge may have dramatically different results; one might master the skill or knowledge while the other makes only mediocre progress.
Malcolm Gladwell (drawing on Ericsson’s work) suggests in Outliers that 10,000 hours, or approximately 10 years, of practice is needed to attain true expertise in almost any field of real substance. That’s repetition—which is insufficient on its own. With practice, it’s a question of both quantity and quality.
High-quality practice is deliberate practice, which involves not only diligent repetition but also feedback, reflection, and a focus on continuous improvement that stretches the learner beyond existing skill and ability.
Deliberate practice also requires feedback on performance and results. Sometimes a learner can tell on her own whether she’s doing things right—a wrong note on the piano, for example, may speak for itself. But often this is an area where having a good teacher, facilitator, or mentor can make all the difference. (See the later section “Feedback: Information About Performance Drives Improvement” for more on the topic.)
Deliberate practice involves reflection on performance during and after practice. What might need to change to ensure ongoing progress? (For more on reflection, see the later section “Reflection: Contemplation Creates Deeper Learning.”)
- Spaced practice
Spaced practice (also called distributed practice or spaced repetition) involves breaking up practice into more, shorter sessions over a longer time period than massed practice, which consists of fewer, longer sessions. The classic example of massed practice is cramming for an exam the night before. Spaced practice spreads the review and preparation for the exam out over the weeks leading up to the exam—and it’s more effective.
“Durable learning…requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation,” the authors of Make It Stick explain. “Hence, spaced learning works better. The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”
- Varied practice
Evidence shows that it helps to change the contexts in which learners study and practice if they are to be able to apply what they learn as flexibly as possible.
It’s one thing to recall a procedure, like CPR, in the context of a training course, and another to be able to recall the steps on a sidewalk with pedestrians striding by, car horns honking, and stoplights and crosswalk signs blinking. The latter, of course, being the far more likely place where someone might actually need to perform CPR.
- Interleaved practice
When interleaving, you don’t go from a complete practice set or session on one topic to another complete practice set—you mix related topics in a single practice set.
That might mean studying a variety of patient intake forms and trying to diagnose the case versus studying only cases of patients presenting pulmonary issues. While highly effective, interleaving usually feels—and usually is—slower to the learner, which may be why it’s often not used. “But,” as the Make It Stick authors write, “the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.”
Interleaving, like these other forms of practice, is tied to higher-level learning. Again, from Make It Stick: “Like interleaving, varied practice helps learners build a broad schema, an ability to assess changing conditions and adjust responses to fit. Arguably, interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep, and durable learning….”
While the onus is on the learner when it comes to practice, there are things we can—and should—do as learning businesses to encourage and allow practice, both in the context of an educational offering (a course or conference, for example) and after.
- Build more practice opportunities into our learning experiences. Shank, author of Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning, asks, “How many courses have you seen where it’s 95 percent content and 5 percent practice?” It’s a common pitfall to focus on the content to the detriment of the practice.
- Foster environments that allow the focus and concentration required by high-quality practice. This may mean dreaded “dead air” in a webinar or conference session to give learners a chance to practice something—which they can’t do if the presenter continues to talk.
- Remind learners of the importance of practice and provide them with a cadence (e.g., via a drip e-mail campaign or a customized print or electronic calendar) to help them practice repeatedly and at appropriately spaced intervals.
- Provide practice opportunities—or encourage them to seek them out—that correspond to how they will ultimately use whatever skill or knowledge they’re learning.
- Provide varied contexts for practice. Challenge your learners to seek out different contexts in which they can apply what they’re learning. You might require evidence, like a report on the experience, as an assignment in a course.
- Provide checkpoints or coaches to provide learners with the feedback needed for practice to be as effective as possible.
- Build review of previously covered concepts into lessons. Send out drip messages to prompt learners to answer questions or apply an idea in their work or life. Often learners don’t need another course as much as they need a reminder to prompt them to practice.
Practice is key not only to learning but to the application of learning. It’s the only way that what you teach transfers from the classroom or course or conference into the reality of the learner’s situation.
Reflection Questions: Do you give appropriate attention to practice opportunities in the design and delivery of your learning products and services? How might you better support deliberate practice, spaced practice, varied practice, and interleaved practice?
Effort: Efficient Isn’t Always Effective
“[L]earning is most efficient in the long run when it is inefficient in the short run,” writes David Epstein in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. There are no shortcuts in effective learning—the learner simply has to do the work. There may be shortcuts that look like they work (e.g., cramming for a single test or doing well on quizzes when hints are given), but long-term, behavior-changing, deep learning requires effort.
It’s hard before it’s easy. Masters and experts make it look easy, but they’ve put in the effort and repeated the process so many times that they’ve can perform the skill or access the knowledge readily.
Learning business can feel that making learning as convenient as possible is the key to success with adult learners. This is true only to a limited extent—we need to make it easy for learners to find us, easy to find the relevant learning experiences we offer, and easy to buy and access those experiences. But then “easy” and “convenient” end.
If we want the learning experiences we offer to have an impact—if we want the learning to be remembered and applied—then the learner must make an effort. Making an effort involves effortful retrieval, practice, and elaboration. (Practice was discussed more in the previous section. For more on elaboration, see the later section “Reflection: Contemplation Creates Deeper Learning.”) Effortful retrieval means challenging learners to recall specific information or actions from memory, as opposed to passively reviewing content or notes. These challenges can be more or less formal—ranging from infrequent grade-determining exams to daily self-quizzing.
Building for effort requires our learning offerings to be more active and experiential, so learners grapple with a situation or problem and arrive at an answer before being shown a solution that others found. The effort pays off in concrete results. “[E]ffortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability,” note the authors of Make It Stick.
Some learners will be turned off by having to put in effort and may resist or even decide not to participate in the experiences we offer. But if we’re careful to establish relevance and appeal to implicit motivation (see the earlier sections on motivation and relevance this resource) and if we explain the importance of effort, pointing out that when things seem easy, they’re often superficial and easily forgotten, there will likely be fewer learners who resist.
Just as importantly, we should consider effort from a strategic standpoint. Our learning experiences are bound to be more effective, more memorable, and more impactful if they require effort. And they will almost certainly stand out from the commodity continuing education experiences that plague many fields. While more effortful learning experiences will repel some learners, they will also attract and produce learners who are much more likely to return for more and spread the word.
Reflection Questions: Are there ways in which convenience and ease undermine the effectiveness of your learning products and services? How might you build more effort that supports learning into your offerings?
Feedback: Information About Performance Drives Improvement
Learners must practice to improve. As they practice, learners need meaningful feedback on their performance—evaluative and corrective information about how they’re doing.
Giving feedback is a responsibility of and a potential liability for learning businesses—a responsibility because it’s necessary for learning and a liability because it’s hard to do well.
Feedback should focus on improving the learning so the learner better understands the skills and information being taught and is better able to apply those skills and information. The corrective and evaluative nature of feedback should keep the goal of improved performance in mind.
If the goal is improved learner performance, then it’s easy to see that there is such a thing as unnecessary feedback, gratuitous feedback, and even bad feedback. Any feedback that undermines improved learner performance is counterproductive. And it’s not hard to imagine—or perhaps even remember—examples of feedback gone awry. Feedback about how distracting someone’s facial expressions are while speaking results not in more pleasant facial expressions but that person speaking up less frequently, not presenting at events, and so on.
In addition, feedback should take the learner and the situation into account. Ideally, individual learners should be considered when giving feedback—e.g., feedback for confident Naomi may not be appropriate for shy Ilya. If taking individuals into account isn’t possible or feasible, then consider appropriate feedback for different types of learners—e.g., novice versus expert or native English speakers versus non-native English speakers. Knowing who’s receiving the feedback allows us to structure it in a way most likely to achieve the goal of improved performance.
More expert learners are more likely to be able to process nuanced feedback and feedback on a variety of aspects. Novice learners may be overwhelmed by too much feedback and may need help understanding what to do with the feedback—for example, a recommendation to a novice public speaker to be more engaging won’t be as meaningful as that recommendation coupled with some examples of how use stories or strategic movement on the stage to be more engaging. We need to be more directive with novices and more facilitative in our feedback to more experienced learners.
It’s also important to keep in mind the subject matter. Feedback on a knowable, reproducible task or procedure (e.g., giving an injection) will be different than feedback on a more open-ended topic (e.g., being a more strategic thinker). With knowable tasks, the corrective side of feedback is important—there’s a right way to give an injection, and you want to make sure learners get it. With more open-ended topics, the feedback will be more evaluative than corrective. There’s not a single right way to be a strategic thinker, but there are some things you can say or do that might point learners in the right direction—hints, cues, or details that might get them thinking and experimenting.
Beyond the recipients and the subject matter, there are other important dimensions of feedback to consider:
- Feedback runs the gamut from formal (e.g., a proctored exam) to informal (e.g., in-the-hallway interactions, like the quick, unfiltered expression on a colleague’s face when you share an idea).
- Feedback can be formative (e.g., end-of-module quizzes sprinkled throughout an online course), summative (e.g., a certification exam), or somewhere along the spectrum.
- Feedback can come from a variety of sources: the teacher, an expert, text provided after submitting an online quiz, peers (with more or less experience than the learner), or the learner herself.
- Feedback can be explicit, written or spoken, or implicit, conveyed through body language.
- Feedback can be offered in a positive, constructive, supportive manner, or it can take on a remedial or negative tone. In Mindset, Carol Dweck discusses how feedback can foster or inhibit a growth mindset. (See the earlier section “Mindset: A Growth Mindset Sets the Stage for Learning” for more.)
With so many variables, feedback quickly becomes complicated. As we design and deliver learning experience, we have hard and important work to do around what feedback we can provide that will support learners’ improvement.
As learning businesses, we can also play a role in encouraging our learners to seek out feedback. We can teach them to think critically about what they need or want help with and how to solicit feedback—that’s a valuable and broadly applicable skill we can impart to our learners.
Encouraging or requiring learners to ask for feedback often works best at either end of the learner journey—for the novice or for the approaching-expert learner. For the novice, there’s often so much corrective feedback to give that it can overwhelm the learner. Letting the learner pick where feedback focuses can help limit the sheer volume of information to a manageable amount. A novice tennis player might have a bad backhand, a weak forehand, and a serve that’s unreliable. That’s a lot to work on, so the player might say she wants to focus on serving and asks for pointers on that aspect.
For the approaching-expert learner, asking for feedback on a particular area can increase the odds that the feedback prompts action or elicits change. An advanced tennis player may simply not care about improving her serve. She’s a savvy enough player that she knows she can consistently put the ball in play, and that’s good enough for her. Where she wants to devote her time and energy is on improving her backhand.
The learner receiving the feedback and—in the case of a structured learning experience—the instructor or facilitator need to be ready to redirect those giving feedback if they digress from what was requested. And, if that doesn’t work, the feedback can always be ignored.
Even clear, well-intentioned, specific, helpful feedback can only be conveyed. It won’t necessarily be internalized, adopted, and put to use—it’s always up to the learner to apply it or not.
Reflection Questions: How might you better support your instructors and facilitators in giving feedback that improves learner performance? For learning experiences that don’t involve an instructor or facilitator, are design changes needed to ensure the feedback given supports learner performance?
Reflection: Contemplation Creates Deeper Learning
When we take time to reflect—to contemplate and thoughtfully consider what we’ve learned or are learning—we’re engaging in mental effort that leads to deeper, more durable learning. The authors of Make It Stick put it like this: “Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do different next time.”
The benefits of reflection for learning are many:
- Reflection helps us learn from our mistakes and our successes.
We can and should learn from our mistakes and failures—which we do by reviewing what happened, what we did, and what we might do differently in the future—but there is also evidence that we may learn more from our successes.
- Reflection helps us make connections and solidify our knowledge.
A key part of acquiring and retaining knowledge is connecting it to things we already know. Conscious reflection supports this process and helps us get full value from our learning experiences.
- Reflection provides perspective and helps us relax.
Many of us—and our learners—live overly busy lives. We make mistakes, get overwhelmed, succumb to stress. Taking a few minutes to reflect has an incredibly calming effect. It can put our efforts in perspective and equip us with renewed energy to move forward rather than give up.
We should consistently encourage our learners to reflect. We can build in pauses where learners consider reflection questions—not right-or-wrong test questions but open-ended questions that get them thinking about what they’ve learned, how they might apply it, what they might need to change in order to be able to apply it.
- “Which of the concepts covered so far is most interesting or useful to you?”
- “Of the topics we’ve discussed, which is most important for your work?”
- “What would you need to adjust in the process just covered to make it fit your situation?”
Working out loud and showing your work are also wonderful approaches to promote reflection. Showing your work requires reflection and forces learners to pay close attention to the explicit and implicit aspects of a problem, skill, or body of knowledge. Working out loud makes learners go deeper and retain key details and concepts they might not otherwise.
Another important tool for reflection is elaboration, the process of finding additional nuance and meaning in new material. This process improves learners’ mastery because it increases the mental cues available to them as they try to recall or apply the material. We can encourage elaboration by having learners express ideas and concepts in their own words (versus repeating verbatim the “official” definition) and by having them connect the subject matter to what they already know.
Reflection involves looking backwards—to what was done and what was taught—but with an eye to the future and how performance might be improved the next time and the next.
Reflection Questions: What approaches might you use to encourage reflection as part of the learning products and services you offer?
Incomplete But Powerful: Moving Forward with Metalearning Principles
The twelve principles, those of set and those of setting, discussed here do not constitute a definitive, inarguable list of the factors and processes that support learning. But, while many questions remain (How does memory really work? What should we be eating?) and while exploration of those questions may add nuance or unearth new aspects of metalearning, the principles presented here are backed by years of research and study and are unlikely to be debunked.
Even with our incomplete and imperfect understanding of metalearning, the principles warrant our attention because leveraging them offers a powerful boost in our ability as learning businesses to help the adults we serve become better learners.
The twelve metalearning principles are deeply intertwined. It’s hard—and arguably inconsequential—to try to separate them in the work we do. Effort is required for practice. Mindset influences whether learners are likely to practice. Memory plays a role in reflection. And on and on. But by exploring these twelve principles separately, you now have a broad, practical, practicable understanding of how you can support your learners’ learning. You may not be able to tap all twelve in a particular course or offering, but the more aware you are of the principles and the more you can tap and the more frequently you can tap them, the greater your chance to influence and promote learning.
Tips and ideas for leveraging these principles are interspersed throughout the sections, but here are two final suggestions. First, teach content and process. Most learning businesses focus only on the subject matter to be taught. If you broaden your focus to include process as well—not just what to learn but how to learn—your learners will fare better.
Second, be an avatar of learning. People working in learning businesses often don’t take enough time to participate in educational experiences themselves. They don’t regularly attend workshops, conferences, or other events where they can continue to build their skills and knowledge. Now, as researchers and scientists are making advances in understanding how humans learn and as technology, the future of work, and the competitive landscape are rapidly evolving, it’s more critical than ever to build focused, formal learning opportunities into your schedule.
Of course, formal educational experiences are not the only way to learn. Less formal approaches to learning—reading articles and books, writing blogs, curating and sharing content, podcasting, creating or watching videos—are just as important. As learning business professionals, we must make learning, both formal and informal, a priority. We must cultivate a growth mindset, put in the effort, practice deliberately, seek and give feedback, reflect, take risks, fail, share our experiences, and continue onward. We must fully engage in the way that we hope those we lead will engage and learn.
Celisa & Jeff
Metalearning Resources, Cited and Recommended
The following list collects the works cited as well as other books, articles, podcast episodes, and resources related to metalearning and the twelve principles discussed here.
Works are listed under the principle or, in some cases, principles they address—so the same work may appear more than once. Works that address more than three of the twelve principles are listed first under “Overarching Resources.”
- The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles [book]
- “An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses” by Celisa Steele [blog post and white paper]
- 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner by Jeff Cobb [book]
- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel [book]
- “Make It Stick with Peter C. Brown” [podcast episode]
- “7 Metalearning Moves to Empower Lifelong Learning” [podcast episode]
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck [book]
- “Maximizing Learning with Mindset” [podcast episode]
- “Two Mindsets” [infographic]
- Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward Deci [book]
- “Exploring Motivation and Learning” [podcast episode]
- “Learner Engagement—What It Is and How to Foster It” [podcast episode]
- “Andragogy—the Rub” [blog post]
- Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers by Malcolm Knowles [book]
- “Learning How to Learn with Dr. Barbara Oakley” [podcast episode]
- “Learner Engagement—What It Is and How to Foster It” [podcast episode]
- “Emphatically Recommended Readings” [blog post]
- “Getting Conscious About Bias with Howard Ross and Shilpa Alimchandani” [podcast episode]
- “How To Design To Help Working Memory, Part 1” by Patti Shank [article]
- “Memory And Learning, Part 2” by Patti Shank [article]
- “Diving into Deeper Learning with Dr. Patti Shank” [podcast episode]
- Manage Memory for Deeper Learning: 21 Evidence-Based and Easy-to-Apply Tactics That Support Memory While Learning and Beyond by Patti Shank [book]
- “What Is Cognitive Load?” [podcast episode]
- “Designing Smarter Learning Experiences with Connie Malamed” [podcast episode]
- “Sleep Not Just Protects Memories Against Forgetting, It Also Makes Them More Accessible” by Nicolas Dumay [article]
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan [book]
- “7 Rules for Eating” by Daniel J. DeNoon [article]
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Physical Activity Basics [online resource]
- “The Ever Tightening Link Between Sleep, Learning, and Memory” [blog post]
- “Fish Really Is Brain Food, Study Confirms” [blog post]
- “The 4 Ps of Marketing Your Learning Business” [podcast episode]
- The Tagoras Market Insight Matrix [online resource]
- “The 4 Cs of the Learning Business Landscape” [podcast episode]
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool [book]
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell [book]
- Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning: 26 Evidence-Based and Easy-to-Apply Tactics That Promote Deeper Learning and Application by Patti Shank [book]
- “Diving into Deeper Learning with Dr. Patti Shank” [podcast episode]
- “5 Powerful Lifelong Learning Strategies for Your Toolbox” [blog post]
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein [book]
- “5 Powerful Lifelong Learning Strategies for Your Toolbox” [blog post]
- “Mastering Deeper Learning, Part 2: Feedback” by Patti Shank [article]
- “Diving into Deeper Learning with Dr. Patti Shank” [podcast episode]
- Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning: 26 Evidence-Based and Easy-to-Apply Tactics That Promote Deeper Learning and Application by Patti Shank [book]
- “The Art and Science of Effective Feedback” [podcast episode]
- “The Feedback Fallacy” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall [article]
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck [book]
- “We Learn More from Success than Failure” by Rachael Rettner [article]
- “The Power of Reflection in Learning and Leading” [podcast episode]
- “5 Powerful Reasons to Make Reflection a Daily Learning Habit, and How to Do It” [blog post]
- “A 3-Step Review and Reflection Process” [blog post]
- “How to Become a Reflection Ninja: After Action Reviews” [blog post]
- “Learning Out Loud with Michelle Ockers” [podcast episode]
- “Showing Your Work with Jane Bozarth” [podcast episode]
- “Working Out Loud with John Stepper” [podcast episode]