How SNHU's Programs Promote 'Learning How to Learn'

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Idea in brief:
Learning how to learn is more than jargon. It has a definition, and it informs instructional design.

Most professionals understand that “learning how to learn” was a valuable part of their own education experience. Our careers thrive during change not because of the domain knowledge we acquired years ago. We succeed because of our ability to keep acquiring new knowledge.

That’s why learning how to learn is often a goal of learning and development (L&D) programs.

But what does learning how to learn mean, exactly? It’s one of those concepts that people recognize but can’t always define. And how does higher education actually cultivate it?

Definitions of learning how to learn

If you search online for the concept of learning how to learn, you’ll find many courses promising to teach it. But most of them are lessons in study skills. They help the learner get the most out of educational settings. They usually don’t define attributes a professional needs outside of class.

Self-directed learning involves skills like making a plan, monitoring progress and self-assessment. Leadership consultant Erika Andersen, writing in The Harvard Business Review, describes learning how to learn as embracing the uncomfortable.

“It requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again,” she wrote. “An extremely discomforting notion for most of us.”

Andersen finds that high performers “think of and ask good questions, and they tolerate their own mistakes as they move up the learning curve.”

She names four attributes of professionals who learn throughout their careers: aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity and vulnerability.

What higher education does for learning skills

Learning how to learn involves asking good questions, self-assessment and being open to mistakes. So how does a college-level curriculum develop that?

By planning for it. That means using the expertise of learning science specialists and instructional designers.

For example, Jerome L. Rekart, associate vice president of learning science and workforce insight at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), recently wrote about the foundational skills built into SNHU courses. One of those is “cognitive determination.” He described that as “what happens when initiative and problem solving intersect.”

Cognitive determination comes from a belief in your ability to succeed in a given situation. That comes from past success in similar situations. College-level projects, if they are workplace relevant, provide that experience of success.

And they provide a lower-risk environment where students get comfortable with trying and failing.

How courses and projects teach students how to learn

Instructional designers at SNHU design “learning how to learn” into all courses, said Brian Sollenberger, director of instructional design and product development operations.

At the end of a course, students shouldn’t just understand the subject. They should also have the ability to build on that knowledge independently in the future.

Courses include, for example:

  • training in how to access resources
  • just-in-time learning guides
  • real-world projects embedded within the courses

For individual courses, “we think about how people are learning at the competency level,” Sollenberger said. “I think, if I were really stuck on this thing, how would I go about understanding it?”

At the program level, instructional designers may front-load learning skills to help prepare students for the rest of the curriculum. One example is “SNHU 107,” which gives new students an overview of resources and learning strategies to support them through their studies.

Connecting to real-world experience

Well-designed courses go beyond the informational, said Linda Ruest, director of instructional design.

“You don’t want them to just consume knowledge,” said Ruest. “You want them to practice applying it.”

To do that, instructional designers create practice scenarios around problems students would actually encounter in the workplace.

For example, a coding course at SNHU asks students to imagine working at a car rental company. To calculate how much to charge customers, the student must write a short program.

“There’s a difference between describing a solution based on the theory and actually performing the experiment,” said Ruest. “You want to reinforce the knowledge with skills-based practice.”

Going beyond the classroom

Practice with real-world problems develops the cognitive determination to tackle unfamiliar challenges later. Students also learn to find answers on their own, break down tasks and problem solve when they are stuck.

“Those are the mental connections we can help make for them through the narrative of the course,” said Sollenberger.

Learning how to learn is valuable while in the classroom and for the rest of a professional career. As job requirements shift, employers need workers who can quickly learn new skills and technologies.

In the end, an employee with strategies for tackling unfamiliar challenges is not just expanding their own career opportunities. They also become a more valuable member of your team.

Contact the Workforce Partnerships team at Southern New Hampshire University to learn about our tailored learning solutions.

Workforce Development

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