The time it takes to learn. How small steps cover long journeys.

No matter how good the design of the materials, some things just take a long time to learn. Learning is an incremental process and, whilst it may have a start point, it doesn’t always have an obvious end. Some things we can learn in an afternoon, whilst others we can practice all our lives, but never really master.

Whatever it is that you’re learning, it’s important that you can see the footsteps in the sand along the way. Whilst you may not always be able to see the finish, seeing the trail of small steps laid out behind you is one measure of how far you’ve come, and seeing how far you’ve come is one step in maintaining motivation.

Motivation is a serious issue in longer training programmes, where drop out rates are often high. Attrition within groups is always a factor, but duration of the programme and learning methodology both impact significantly on it. Students on distance learning programmes, with little contact or support from a group are more likely to leave a programme than those with direct support, but as any University will testify, just having students in the room is no guarantee of engagement either. In many cases, students leave programmes because they lose a sense of progress, a sense that they have moved from the starting line to a place of achievement.

Within individual modules of e-learning, this progress is often adequately covered, so that at the micro level, we know we are half way through a one hour module, but within a larger programme approach, or a course covering a year or two, it’s often harder to gain a sense of progress, other than the obvious one of elapsed time.

Whilst you can take a modular approach and show the individual building blocks that make up the whole, this can, in itself, miss the synergies that come from mastering all the individual elements. Whilst learning can be measured mechanistically from the number of modules completed, it’s experienced differently, with changing confidence, different ways of thinking and a sense of achievement. It’s important to recognise both the quantifiable and qualitative sensations of progress and to run discussions around both of these.

In real terms, spending time to explore with learners how they feel different, as well as what scores they’ve achieved, is part way towards helping them internalise and understand their own learning journey. Feeling more capable, feeling empowered, feeling like you’ve learnt something that you can use to act differently is a powerful feeling, and more motivational than just receiving a score.

The point where we feed back to learners how they have done is an under-utilised opportunity to engage. We should think carefully about how we use this moment.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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