Learning new skills

This article is about studying remotely and developing our ability to be successful in a new environment or context. It is part of a series of articles and resources on the topic of the students’ academic journey.

One of the challenges that students, recent graduates and young professionals starting in their careers all share in common is the need to constantly be learning new skills.

At which stage are you now?

For students enrolled in higher education, the learning of some new skills is an integral part of working towards their diploma. There is not much choice about whether to take the class or not, it is required. A major challenge that enrolled students report, however, is the gap between theory and practice and the lack of support in developing transferable skills. Depending on the major chosen, the institution and the education system, the lack of formal opportunities to learn essential skills such as communication, creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, etc., is a challenge that students themselves must find ways to overcome. Employers today often position wanting evidence of an understanding of these skills as a priority alongside required technical skills.

For newly graduated students, this can appear as an awareness as, in the process of searching for a job, they realize that they are missing a key skill, a set of skills, or that the acquisition of a new skill will be a major advantage to their profile. If their academic journey has not included management and communication experience, for example this can create a skill-gap later in the workplace.

The new employee or young professional who realizes that a key skill is required to successfully do their job, and needs to quickly find the right training, enrol and launch themselves into a new learning experience becomes a student again. This pattern repeats constantly as life and requirements evolve.

It is important for everyone, active student or not, no matter where we are in our professional careers, to remember that we need to be constantly upgrading our skills and learning new ones. The concept of “lifelong learning” is today considered normal, even expected, at every stage of life and work, and we can never sit back and think we have learned all we need to and can stop now.

Skill vs Competence, what’s the difference?

It is useful here to pause a moment to reflect on the difference between a “skill” and a “competence”. The terms are often used interchangeably but there is a difference and the difference is important. We talk about acquiring new skills but without using the skill, practicing it in real-world situations, adapting it and adapting our own behaviour and outcomes using the skill(s) it will not become a part of our repertoire. Skills when practiced and used become competencies.

So, while important to acquire skills, of greater importance is the ability to use and apply them in a way that brings successful outcomes that are adapted to the needs of the situation, project or goal. This is rarely discussed in schools or the workplace. There is an overwhelming emphasis and belief that the key to everything is “skills”. However, students, or learners, need to be given enough opportunities to develop competency; to practice the skills in different ways to expand their capacity to make sense of what they have learned to reuse it in their own way in their work and life. Competencies represent broader combinations of knowledge, skills, and abilities, that help predict superior performance for the individual.

By quickly putting them into action, new skills can be applied and practiced even before the learner has acquired in-depth knowledge. An example would be someone like PocketConfidant AI’s founder who has always started new ventures when he was at the very beginning of learning a new skill or skills and developing competency through experience. His technique is simply to jump into doing, using experts and the market to accelerate his reflection, he provokes an environment of trial and error to give himself opportunities to discover the skills that he wants to learn. His philosophy on the development of skills and competencies is to “take the skill and make sense of it through your own reflection and experience”. This strategy has taken him to today developing self-coaching tools to support those wanting to facilitate and accelerate their personal and professional development.

Personally, at the writing of this article, I am learning how to work with the business tools on Facebook. I have absolutely no background in this and am an infrequent user of my personal page so launching myself into this area of digital learning has been a challenging experience. I require myself (as I work on evenings and weekends) to remember that I have a powerful goal for applying myself to learning this and reminding myself of the goal keeps me going when frankly it would be easy to give up. My story will be not so different from yours; it will just be the context that changes!

We all become a student as we begin a new learning journey. Sometimes, students have a background or foundational knowledge that is helpful, sometimes there is no prior knowledge at all and every piece of learning is brand new. Our goals are a) to find ways to learn quickly and efficiently and remove any blocks that come up as quickly as possible and b) to find ways to make sense of what we have learned to integrate and practice the skill to become competent.

What are some of the keys to fast and efficient learning that are supported by research?

  • Having a clear goal: be clear about your goal when deciding to learn the new skill; motivation, focus, organization, time-management requirements to get the job done will all come much more easily if we are clear on “why”.
  • Achievability: make sure your goal is attainable. Set yourself up for success. New learning is a commitment of time, energy, and brainpower, be sure the effort is worth the reward.
  • Challenging ourselves: a goal that is a stretch and gives you the level of challenge that motivates you to learn is key. Too big a stretch can be demotivating if you feel you can never achieve it but the right amount of challenge is necessary. We know that when challenging ourselves, the reward of obtaining what we strive for provides invaluable motivation.
  • Discover how you learn best: look back at the times you enjoyed learning and learning new or difficult material was relatively easy. Then think about when it was difficult when you didn’t enjoy the experience or struggled to learn. What do you notice? What were the elements that made one situation successful and the other not? Write down all you can about these different experiences so that you can define your preferred learning style and how to set yourself up for success and accelerate the process.
  • Deliberate engagement: make your own choice of where your passion and interests lie and follow it. If art is your passion and you are advised to go into medicine consider carefully the choice you are making. You are investing your time, energy, and life into whatever you decide to put into your learning journey, make sure you will love it.
  • Socialization: surround yourself with people with whom you can talk about what you are learning and who can exchange with you, share their knowledge, insights, reflect with you. We know from research that being with others, having a support system is important for learning.
  • Environment: choose to work in an environment that most supports your learning. Do you need to be at home, in a library, in a café, outside in a park, with friends, on a laptop, sitting, standing, listening to music? Maybe a mix of all of them? Question and test yourself to know.
  • Time: in order to acquire a skill and develop competence, we will need time. The amount of time will vary based on the complexity of our objective and our learning style. It doesn’t mean that we can’t go fast, but learning and becoming competent requires trial and error, reflection and feedback that helps us build a certain level of maturity in the skill itself.
  • Support: ask for help when you need it! No question is too silly or trivial. If you have a question, inevitably, someone else does too. Be courageous enough to ask. Your time is too precious to waste figuring out something that another person can help you with. The beauty of surrounding yourself with a community of learners is that not everyone is at the same level of learning at the same time – we can help each other.

Not everything requires the same amount of rigour. As you are studying, know how much work you need to put in to get the grades or results you need. Not all courses are created equal. What grade or level of learning is “good enough” and will get you to your destination?

Reviewing the different challenges PocketConfidant users report when “Learning New Skills” is a good opportunity to talk about some difficulties and alternative ways of approaching the problems, with some tips and insights.

  • “Lack of motivation”: Where can we draw the motivation from to apply the energy required to learn something new? This begins with our understanding of where the new learning fits into the big picture for us. Is it a core requirement for the profession or career path we have chosen? If, for example, you have to learn statistics to fulfil the requirements of the major you have chosen but you both hate the subject and believe you will never have to use it, how can you reframe this negative emotion (which will make the learning very difficult) and turn it into a way of thinking that is empowering for you? What questions could you ask yourself to gain both clarity and overcome any negative sentiment because you focus only on the reward?
  • “Time management”: This is a constant challenge for those of us who only have 24 hours in a day! Time management concerning learning new skills has a direct correlation to the benefit you will derive from the skills you are learning. It is very important to evaluate exactly what the investment of time and energy will return to you and to be rigorous about making your priorities here. Be sure the result is worth the effort as effective time management requires you to evaluate the amount of time you are prepared to dedicate to a project. Think in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. Some courses are pass/fail so do not require a mountain of effort to get to the pass. Spending more time than required will not bring you increased benefit so again be clear what investment you have to make to get the benefit you need. All learning will not bring the same benefit…choose wisely.
  • “Lack of a clear goal”: Being clear on what you will achieve with the new learning you invest in is key to making the decision to proceed and staying engaged and motivated. Does the new course or learning activity fit clearly into the big picture of what you will love to do? Have you asked yourself the question, what would I love? What work will bring me energy and purpose? What will my days look like as I am living them with energy and purpose? Imagine your life with this work in it and see how it feels. Then test the new learning you are considering with your feelings to see if there is a clear goal that emerges.
  • “How to know what new skills to learn”: Do your research. Are you looking for a job, an internship? Searching job postings in your field will show you the types of skills employers are looking for and valuing. Do as comprehensive a search as you can so you can see what patterns are present. How often do you see specific skills repeated in job postings? Use LinkedIn to search for a few people in the domain you want to work in, ask them to give you 15 or 20 mins for a short informational interview to ask questions about the type of work, what a usual day looks like, what expertise and skills they find most beneficial, etc.
  • “Lack of self-confidence interferes with learning and success” How do we build self-confidence so that success follows? First, ask yourself where are you not feeling confident? What beliefs do you have that bring self-doubt? If it is just that you are not yet confident in your ability to apply the new learning that is likely a normal response to a lack of practice of the skill but has nothing to do with self-confidence. When you’re feeling unsure of yourself, remember a recent accomplishment. Think back to that time and use it to remember that you can do anything you put your mind to. Do not allow negative thoughts to invade your mind, especially not ones that say you are not up to the task. That is just old programming. Remind yourself of the things you have already done and will do again. Your mind will begin to think in positive terms and will open up to the new learning opportunities.

There are many different reasons for learning new skills and developing our competencies. As you reflect on what you want to learn and how you feel about your investment of time and energy you can take advantage of the self-coaching technology we are creating to ask yourself clarifying questions, keep yourself on track and even change your perspective if that is your best strategy. Research tells us that just the act of questioning ourselves triggers learning, creative and motivational mechanisms.

Help yourself first, and ask for help, it’s a natural and rewarding process

You can access the coaching that you can use here any time by creating your own topic/issue. Use the technology to reflect, confirm, or change your thinking, figure out what needs to happen so that you can facilitate and accelerate your learning and the development of your competences.

From this blog post, you can get started on your self-coaching journey, and you can get further coaching or mentoring with options.
To read about other challenges that students, graduates and young professional face and get some tips, visit the different topics here and check again regularly to follow the topics and stories we add from time to time.

If you want more information feel free to contact us.

Isla Reddin, Chief Learning Office at PocketConfidant AI