What distinguishes best lawyers, doctors, architects, etc. from the rest of the crowd? What do they know or do that others don't? One possibility is that they are very proficient in using certain meta-skills that can be applied to multiple tasks and contexts and supercharge whatever these experts do. Effective learners invest time and effort in developing the skills that help them learn and perform to their best potential. What could those meta-skills be and how can we develop them? Here is what I've brainstormed so far:
Extracting only relevant information. Being able to zero in on the essential elements saves time and brain power.
What to do:
- Learn the basics well. Applying meta-skills takes up working memory, which is very limited. When you have to think about the basic content and try to use your meta-skill, your working memory gets overloaded. You have to know the foundations well in order to filter any additional information.
- Clarify and simplify. If you have clutter on your desk and somebody leaves an important piece of paper there for you, you may not see it. But if you have a clean and well-organized desk, anything new will jump out at you. The same applies to your head.
- Practice "selective ignorance." In this day and age, we consume much more information than we really need. It's not always better to read and learn more. Making sure you pick the best in the ocean of information is important, so become selective. Each piece of information you consume should have a purpose and application.
- Learn to prioritize. Prioritizing forces you to make decisions about the relative importance of things. The ability to see the essential will strengthen with this practice.
- Use effective reading strategies that allow you to get to the important information quickly.
Recognizing patterns easily. If we can connect pieces of information into a pattern, we are able to use our previous knowledge and experience more effectively. Once something falls into a familiar pattern, we know what to do because we encountered a similar situation before and we can draw from the past experience.
What to do:
- Compare and contrast things. You will teach yourself to notice important differences and similarities.
- Reflect on your past experiences. As you do so, look for patterns in actions and outcomes.
Memorizing. Working with our memory means being selective about what we need to memorize and why. It is also about choosing the right strategy to retain information.
What to do:
- Learn how memory works.
- Find memorizing strategies that work best for you.
- Ask yourself why you need to remember something.
- Choose the appropriate strategy and give your full attention to the material you need to memorize.
Analyzing and comprehending information. We constantly rearrange our knowledge base to integrate new information. How do we know that we truly comprehended something? It fits into our big picture of how things work.
What to do:
- Summarize and synthesize what you have learned. Make sure you know how the concepts fit together.
- Ask questions. Questions help to reveal blind spots in your knowledge, challenge assumptions, expand your thinking. Opt for open-ended questions, which start with what, who, how, why, when, where.
- Teach what you have learned to others. It will help you master the subject matter.
Occasionally, we analyze something incorrectly, hence the next point…
Verifying and testing the knowledge. Effective learners are able to test and adjust their mental maps continuously. They are not afraid to put themselves out there because that is how they receive feedback and make improvements.
What to do:
- In the ideal world, you encounter a problem and ask yourself what you need to know to solve it. Then, you go and learn what you need in the easiest and fastest way. It is called "just-in-time" learning. It ensures that your learning is relevant and valuable. You apply it right away and gain competence in the process. In the "learning-in-advance" scenario, look for opportunities to practice what you have learned. If it is a skill, try transferring it to a different context and use it there.
- Learn collaboratively. Share your ideas with others. Talk through your thought process.
- Capture your ideas in writing. Writing makes things clearer. If somebody reads it, you may get feedback as well.
- Be adventurous and get out of your comfort zone.
Reviewing. Assessing past actions is a crucial step if we want to achieve mastery. We need to figure out what worked and what didn’t and adjust the behavior.
What to do:
- Develop a habit of looking back at your actions and evaluating how well they served you. Did you get the outcome you wanted? Can you think of a better and faster way to achieve the same result? What would you do differently in the future?
- Always search for ways to simplify, speed up and improve the process.
- Ask people for feedback and once you’ve received it, consider it carefully.
Self-monitoring. Here, we have to assume the roles of the doer and observer at the same time. We assess the performance in the moment, react, predict, and make adjustments as we go. Such self-regulation offers a big learning advantage because we are attuned to instant feedback and can correct our course of actions accordingly.
What to do:
- Practice mindfulness.
- Think about your thinking.
- Pause and reflect on what you are doing. Eventually, you will be able to monitor yourself without having to stop what you are doing. It will be like a second layer of awareness that will allow you to stay attuned to the relevant clues in the context and adjust your actions as needed.
Maintaining the right attitude. Cognitive skills are important but they are not everything. Emotional intelligence is needed as we navigate through our lives. Think about how much information is encoded in people’s emotions and attitudes. We have to be "emotion detectors" to succeed. Read my earlier post on "How to develop your emotional intelligence" for more tips and resources.
How do you develop your meta-skills?
Orientation Series: 21 Steps to Becoming a Better Learner:
Step 1: Setting your learning objectives
Step 2: Taking an inventory of your skills
Step 3: Taking an Inventory of Your Learning Tools
Step 4: Finding opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship
Step 5: Determining the "IIQ" of what you read
Step 6: Choosing helpful books for law students
Step 7: “The Three 'P's of Performance” in Action
Step 8: Tapping into your social networks
Step 9: Identifying your learning barriers
Step 10: Finding your sources of motivation
Step 11: Managing your energy
Step 12: Focusing on how you think
Step 13: Mastering informal learning and professional development
Step 14: Asking Good Questions
Step 15: Condensing your knowledge
Step 16: Memorizing
Step 17: Becoming a reflective learner
Step 18: Establishing rhythms, rituals, and routines
Step 19: Learning holistically