We’ve all tried at some point. Whether it was revising for exams at school, or attempting to learn Spanish by attending evening classes or downloading language podcasts. Somehow, it just didn’t work.
Despite trying our very hardest, we struggled to retain anything beyond the first few sentences. Then promptly forgot those as we got up to fetch a cup of tea.
Why is this? Why is it that sometimes, despite trying as hard as we possibly can, learning just won’t stick?
And why is it just so easy for other people?
We all believe that young children find learning languages very easy. (Is this true? See below.) And we all knew one clever-clogs at school or university who just sailed through their exams without appearing to break a sweat or miss an episode of EastEnders. So what do they all know, that the rest of us don’t? Let’s have a look and find out.
Every September, universities and colleges are packed full with newly enrolled students keen to achieve a new qualification. Within six weeks many will have dropped out and it’s usually due to a dip in motivation.
When real life takes over, work becomes busy, families and friends need our attention, and we need to prioritise our time, it’s a challenge to stay motivated. After a hard day at work on a cold, rainy evening, who really feels like walking to college to do three hours of Spanish verb revision?
Within the workplace, every trainer knows that some learners are more motivated than others. Usually, the least motivated are those who turn up for training with a half-hearted mindset. They think – sometimes correctly – that they already know all about the topic; they may have been working with the subject for years, or have experience of it from a previous role. Their manager has now said they have to do some training and pass a test. Their heart’s not really in it and they don’t see the point of the training as they already know how to do whatever it is.
Knowing how to do something is not the same as having a clear academic understanding of it. We may have picked up a bit of holiday French from our travels, but without a good working knowledge of French grammar we will never progress beyond ordering a cup of coffee at a tourist café.
Starting learning without motivation means we not focussing on success. Those who are most successful at learning new skills tend to be those who need and really want to do it, and who have a clear focus on what they want to achieve.
So are Children more Motivated to Learn than Adults?
Have you ever seen a baby trying to learn to talk? They are desperate to communicate with those around them so at every opportunity they will be trying to tell us that they’re hungry or want to play, or just repeating something interesting they heard us say. Young children are often thought to be naturally gifted with languages. Maybe. But it’s more likely that they are children who have a family member who speaks one language, and friends or classmates who speak another. The child wants simply needs and wants to talk to both sets of people and that’s their motivation – very simple and very effective.
When it comes to passing tests, there is usually a right and a wrong way to approach questions which a good tutor will set out. This is something which a lot of students fail to realise. Most school teachers know of students who had a great understanding of the subject but just didn’t bother learning or practising how to answer the test questions, and ended up performing badly with marks that did not reflect their ability. Similarly, trainers have seen adults in the training room who assumed that – as above – just because they already knew the material, they didn’t need to practise answering test questions, and consequently performed poorly.
Without proper practise and attention in tutor lead classes, no amount of existing knowledge will usually be enough to achieve a good mark in an exam or a test.
This is one which is familiar to most of us and a classic example of poor study technique. We leave it until the last minute, panic the weekend before the test, and then start to cram. Or we skip a few lessons from our evening classes or course of study, and then block out a weekend to try and catch up on what we’ve missed.
Of course, it doesn’t work.
Within a few hours our brains feel fried, we become frustrated, angry and bored, and the information just doesn’t go in. Then we decide that the outstanding work is way too much, and give up.
Most of us can only cope with approximately 20 minutes concentration at at time. With this in mind, good pacing of study, and an effective revision routine, is important. And while you may have pulled an all-nighter at university and written the best essay of your life, I still believe that structure, time set aside, and a proper timetable are usually more effective in the long term!
This is the Holy Grail of learning. We need to learn new information and revise old information, but without regular practise of using or explaining the material it is difficult to get it to stick.
To revisit our example above of a child learning a language, the other thing that children tend to do is practise, usually through necessity, the new words they have learned. If they mistake they simply move on. Most adults are too embarrassed to do this and so shy away from the essential practise required to become proficient. Similarly, if we are trying to learn a new topic or skill, we need to try and explain and discuss the material so we can truly master it. To this end, most teachers will set GCSE and A Level students ‘pair share’ tasks where they ask each other questions and critique each others’ answers. In a work training situation, most professional trainers agree that it is important for the learner to start doing the thing they’ve been taught as soon as possible after the training.
Lack of Confidence
This is a tricky one which, in my experience, a lot of adult learners suffer from. A negative experience at school, perhaps coupled with some time out of the work place, means that some people approach training or study with a combination of fear and dislike.
There is a little demon sitting on their shoulders telling them ‘you’ll never be able to do it’ or ‘you’re too old to learn’, or ‘your school teacher told you you were the slowest in the class’. They go into the training room expecting the worst and looking for signs they are failing and – guess what? – they usually find them.
At the very first challenge or piece of tricky detail to master, they tell themselves they can’t do it, their teacher was right, and they mentally switch off having proved themselves correct – they are indeed poor at learning.
Did any of these sound familiar? If so, here are some tips for the best learning experience:
- Think about your motivation. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What do you hope to get out of it. Have a clear goal in mind to focus on for when things get tough.
- Don’t be complacent. Even if your employer has insisted you attend a course on ‘health and safety techniques’ and you have been your department’s designated H&S person for the last five years, you can always learn something new. Use it as an opportunity to update your skills, and refresh and test out what you already know with new learners.
- Practise, practise, practise! Take every opportunity to practise your new skill. If you’re learning a language, try texting a friend in that language or writing your shopping list. If you’re learning a new topic, maybe read a journal article or download a podcast to listen to on your journey to work. Write a few notes about your topic before you go to bed to keep your knowledge fresh.
- Have confidence and set yourself up to pass. Just because you had a bad experience with maths at school, it doesn’t mean you will never be able to work with figures. You can do this! Everything is possible with the right teacher.
- Make sure you set aside quality revision time, learn at your own pace, and most of all enjoy it.
Did you find this helpful? What are your favourite learning and revision techniques? Have you tried and succeeded in learning a completely new skill as an adult – what methods did you use?