As someone who spent many, many years in school, I definitely picked up several effective strategies for being a better learner along the way. Since then, in my career as a clinical psychologist and college professor, I’ve also seen how learning works from the other side. I’ve tried to motivate students to absorb and apply new information and I’ve assisted many people in learning how to cope with a wide variety of personal and mental health challenges.
I’ve also seen far too many examples of how people struggle to learn in various settings, such as school, work and in their personal lives. I’m sure we’ve all felt the urge to snooze through a boring lecture or meeting and we have walked away from a class or training session feeling that we gained little usable information from the experience.
I’d like to share a few tips that are effective in helping you engage more actively when you are in a classroom, meeting, training, or other learning environment. If you try some of these strategies, I think you will find you can be more alert and involved, and you will likely learn information more easily so you can then apply it effectively in the future.
1) Be prepared
In many learning situations, materials are sent out in advance which you are expected to review. Take the time to read this information and jot down possible questions for the instructor about points that are unclear. Note any other special instructions about the schedule, location, or other important details about the session. If a list of attendees is provided, take a look to see who you may know or who you may want to meet for networking opportunities. Be sure to notify the leaders or organizers ahead of time if you have any special needs (accessibility, dietary, etc.) which require attention. Anticipate other personal needs, so consider bringing a jacket, water, and a snack along with any other necessary items.
2) Be punctual
It’s always annoying and disruptive when people arrive late for a class, meeting or other training. Sometimes this can’t be avoided if there are traffic or transportation difficulties or other unanticipated setbacks, but do your best to arrive a little early. Allow plenty of time for travel, particularly if you haven’t been to the location before. When you’re not on time, you will likely miss key introductory information that may set the stage for subsequent learning. On a related note, stay for the whole session; don’t leave before the end of the session unless absolutely necessary and it’s courteous to tell the instructor in advance if you know you must leave early.
3) Sit near the front
If your classroom or training space is large, sit near the front. You will be better able to see and hear the instructor and to see the presentation screen, plus it’s easier to pay attention and stay engaged when you are closer to the instructor. This is another advantage of arriving early, as often the best seats are filled first and you may be stuck in the back of the room if you are running late.
4) Stay alert
Whether you’re full and drowsy after a meal or perhaps just tired from not enough rest, you can’t learn very well (or at all) if you’re sleeping through your opportunity for learning. While you will need to experiment to find what works best for you, some possible strategies to stay alert are to chew gum or mints, ingest a moderate amount of your favorite caffeinated beverage, and take time during breaks to walk, stretch or go outside. When I attend trainings with a friend, I’ve sometimes even asked them to gently elbow me if they see I’m drifting off or losing alertness.
5) Minimize interruptions
In our electronically connected world, it’s important to take a little time before going to your class, meeting or training to make arrangements to prevent as many potential interruptions as possible. Certainly there are clear exceptions in some settings, where you may be “on call” related to your job responsibilities. But in most cases, it’s feasible to set some limits on intrusions by phone, text, and email if you inform key colleagues ahead of time that you will be in training and won’t be able to respond right away.
6) Pay attention
I’m no longer surprised to find students or colleagues who clearly aren’t paying attention in a class or meeting. First, a lot of folks aren’t willing or able to reduce interruptions as discussed above, so they are constantly responding to texts, emails, or having to step outside to take phone calls. The second and perhaps even more common form of inattention is where people choose voluntarily to surf their emails, read, write papers, check social media or engage in side conversations with their neighbor while ignoring the presenter or teacher. The fix for this is surprisingly simple: just pay attention!
7) Take notes
Take notes as you listen to the leader or instructor. While this may seem obvious, it’s apparently not, as I’ve noticed that note-taking has largely gone by the wayside in many learning environments. Taking notes forces you to stay alert and pay attention, keeps you off your phone, and requires you to think about what is being said so you can actively absorb and summarize the new information.
You may choose to take notes on your tablet or laptop, but I usually prefer to jot down notes with pen and paper. The format of what you record will differ depending on the setting. In a class, you may be trying to extract and retain key learning points, especially if you will be tested on these later. In a meeting, you may want to capture next steps for future action or summarize main points to inform other employees.
When I attend professional development workshops, I always keep a running “to do” list of things I want to follow up on after the training. These may include additional resources to check out or other action steps I want to take related to the material I am learning.
If the learning environment allows or encourages questions or comments from participants, take advantage of this opportunity. Ask the instructor a question to get more details or to clarify a specific point of information. When asked for your feedback, offer your views or perspectives, but also allow others to have their say. Interact fully in small group discussions and activities. These opportunities also force you to be more attentive and engaged and they can make the learning experience a lot more fun.
One thing I always enjoy about attending trainings or meetings outside my local area is the chance to meet new people. Many sessions will include breaks, small group discussions or assignments, meals and other opportunities to get to know some of your fellow students or colleagues. Don’t hesitate to use these times to introduce yourself and to find about others’ jobs or interests. If you are a leader or organizer of the session, welcome the attendees. I’ve developed and maintained several long-standing personal and professional relationships which started from a brief interaction with someone in a class or meeting. An informal conversation can sometimes lead to terrific future opportunities for collaboration or personal growth.
10) Apply what you have learned
After the session, follow-up promptly on any specific actions you identified from your notes. Read and review additional resources, and communicate key points if you need to inform others about what you learned. Most importantly, think about how you can apply your new knowledge to any new goals or projects you may want to accomplish. Finally, if the instructor or organizers did a great job, send them a thank you card or email; they will appreciate it greatly.
Hopefully these tips will be of benefit in your next class, training or meeting to help you become a more engaged and effective learner.
Here’s a question: What steps can you take to be more actively engaged in a learning environment? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!