Learn about your Learning Curve

When students are offered opportunities In the formation house to learn a new skill such as playing musical instrument, learn a new language or a meditation method, many of them enlist their names for the training course.  If forlearning curve2mators do not accompany and challenge them to stand up to the test of perseverance, a good number of them back out within a short time.

This is because there is a period of frustration and lack of progress in any learning process. A learning curve will explain that movement. Observe the following diagram watch the movement of the learning line.

Notice the immediate rise at the beginning phase and then it drops to show the decline in learning pace and confidence level and then again it leaps up indicating the consolidation and mastery of the skill. This phenomenon is explained by the following two theories of habit formation.

 Three Phases of habit formation

Coaching experts identify different progressive phases in habit formation. Jason Selk in a blog explains three phases following the insights of coach Tom Brow[1]. The following are the three phases. If you remember your own experience of learning a skill in the past, you may easily recognize these phases.

Phase 1: The Honeymoon

This phase of habit formation is characterized by the feeling of “this is easy.” The hopes and dream of a future prospects of mastering the skill and the facility of learning the initial quick steps give confidence (if not overconfidence) and good feelings about learning the skill. The honeymoon phase is usually the result of something inspiring. For example, a person attends a highly motivational conference, and for the first few days after the conference the individual is making positive changes in his or her life.

Phase 2: The Fight Through

As all married people will tell you, at some point even the greatest honeymoon must end and real life needs to begin. Inspiration fades and reality sets in. A person finds himself struggling with the positive habit acquisition and old habits seem to linger on. The key to moving to the third phase of habit formation is to win 2 or 3 “fight thru’s.” This is critical. To win the fight thru, use the following techniques:

learning curve0Recognize: Recognition that you are at this phase is essential for winning the fight thru. When you have entered the fight through, simply say to yourself, “I have entered the fight thru, and I need to win a few to move past this.” Winning each fight thru will make it easier to win the next. Conversely, when you choose to lose a fight thru, you make it easier to lose the next one.

  • Ask Two Questions: “How will I feel if I do this?” and “How will I feel if I don’t do this?” Bring emotion into the equation. Let yourself feel the positive in winning the fight thru and the negative in losing.
  • Life Projection: If the above 2 techniques haven’t moved you to action, then visualize in great detail how your life will be in 5 years if you do not begin making changes. Be totally honest with yourself, and allow yourself to feel what life will be like if the changes are not made.

Phase 3: Second Nature

Entering second nature is often described by feelings of “getting in the groove.” Once in second nature, the following are 3 common interruptions that will send a person back to the fight thru:

  • The discouragement Monster: An individual allows negative results discourage him or her into thinking, “This isn’t working for me, and there is nothing I can do.”
  • Disruptions: An individual experiences significant change to his or her current pattern (e.g., new assignments, holidays, illness, weekends).
  • Seduction Of Success: An individual begins to focus on positive results and begins to think, “I have made it. It is not difficult.. I can make to it easily”

If a person experiences an interruption that sends him or her back to the fight thru, winning 2 or 3 fight thru’s will bring him or her back to second nature.

 2.“Conscious competence” learning model

Another way of understanding the process of habit formation is the four levels of learning[2]. It is important to be aware of the emotions that you are likely to experience at each level so that you can manage the ups and downs that go along with any learning process.

  1. Unconscious incompetence: This level is before you start learning a skill. You are blissfully unaware of your incompetence and you do not bother about it even when you occasionally encounter your own handicap. For example, you are asked to sing or play guitar during a party.
    To begin with you need to assess yourself and your work competence in order to identify the skills that are important to give relevant contribution in the field of your commitment. Of course, there is no point investing in learning skills that are not in tune with the goals of your life.
  2. Conscious incompetence: You are awakened to the fact that you need to learn new skills to do well in your work or assignment. You see that others are much more competent than you and they do things easily whereas you are struggling to cope up with.
    This awareness can demoralize you and lower your confidence level. You may think of not attempting at all or give up on your efforts to learn. It is important to stay positive and combat negative thinking. Remember, you need to “fight through” to reach the goal of learning.
  3. Conscious competence: At this level you are consciously acquiring the knowledge and skills you need. You gain confidence as you are becoming adept in the new skill.
    You may become easily fatigued and desire for a change as you expend energy for conscious practice. Hence you may have the temptation to settle with the minimum functional knowledge. For example, as you learn a new language, you stop with the level you are able to converse and “manage” the immediate needs of your ministry, and give up further systematic learning of the language.
    At this level you need to look for opportunities where you can use your skill such as volunteering for services or sign up for programs that require the use of the new skill. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them to become more proficient.
  4. Unconscious competence: At this level you use your skill effortlessly and use them in your work without conscious effort. It has become your second nature. If you master a set of skills, it is important to continue practice so that you can continue to grow.
    One best way to consolidate and further improve your skill is to teach another person. That takes you to the next level which some learning experts have proposed.
  5. Reflexive competence: Some learning theorists are proposing a 5th level of competence and termed it “reflexive competence”. This is a level which coaches, teachers and formators need to arrive at in order to help others to learn. How can you teach what you are unconsciously competent at? Reflexive competence is a step beyond unconscious competence where you are able to look at the whole learning process and assist others in their learning. You improve the theories and practices related to the skill in the light of your own experience and impart it to others.
    reflexive competence1

Tips for formators and teachers

The two theories which we have seen above are helpful for formators and teachers in facilitating learning in the students. Here are a few tips:

Level 1: Unconscious incompetence: At this level students may not be aware of how unskilled they are. They should be helped to become aware of how much they need to learn and why they need to learn these skills. Have lot of undersanding and motivate them with positive feed back.

Level 2: conscious incompetence: Students need lot of encouragement and support to pursue their training. Explain the learning curve and help them to be in touch with their feelings and handle the feelings of discouragement. Avoid comparisons and any kind of belittling them for their poor performance. Your goal is to help them maintain their self confidence and persevere in practice.

Level 3: Conscious competence: At this level invite the students to keep focused on perfecting their practice and offer them plenty of opportunities to practice the skills. Give them assignments where they can use their skills or organize opportunities for performance. For example, organize an orchestra for the students who learn musical instruments, or invite them to play instruments during liturgical services.

Level 4. Unconscious competence: At this level invite students to avoid complacency and that they stay up-to-date with their skills. You may also need to remind people how difficult it was to reach this level, so that they are kind to people who are at an earlier level in the process.

Level 5. Reflexive competence: At this level you may review and improve your own coaching skills and methods helping others to learn. Create opportunities for the students to teach their skills to others and help them evaluate their way of teaching.

 A Practical Approach to learning skills

 When you learn a new skill, it is always important to practice them within your abilities. Runners don’t try and run a 6-minute mile the first time out, they build on it. The same is true of reading skills, memory and other learning skills. The key is to support the students to deal with that period of learning when there is no gratification and no apparent progress in learning. The awareness of the learning curve can help them to persevere in their practice. If they persist during the low period of the curve, they master the skill and acquire the virtue of perseverance.

 Here is a 5-point approach to learning a skill

1.      Assess your current ability at the skill

2. Set an attainable goal. E.g. A higher speed of reading and comprehension, say 300 word per minute or 30 minutes daily meditation. Support the goal with the image of a known person who is proficient in the skill.

3. Practice regularly for a certain period (preferably 7X3= 21 days). There is a common belief that habits are formed by completing a task for 21 days in a row. Of course, more practice will give better results.

4. Deal with the boredom and fatigue of repetition and lethargy  immediately after an initial phase of progress

5. Evaluate and consolidate the skill by making it part of your everyday life.

Often most people stick to the project of learning as long as the novelty of a new skill remains. When the boredom and fatigue of the acquisition of a skill demand personal commitment, most people back up. Some go shuttling from one skill to another without mastering any of them.

There are millions of sad stories about people who did their best, and then stopped only 3 meters away from the gold mine. Do not let yourself be one of them. Hold up!

 Exercise:

Think of one of your own experience of learning a new language, musical instrument or another skill. What kept you stick to your project of learning? What were the difficulties? How did you manage them? Write them in your journal.



[2]  The theory was developed at the Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in 1970

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