Ulrich Boser: The 10 commandments of 'learning to learn'

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TrainingZone reports on the key takeaways from bestselling author and educational journalist Ulrich Boser’s opening address on day two of Learning Technologies 2018, which took place in London in February 2018.

In day two’s keynote, Ulrich Boser explored how people really learn, arguing that ‘a lot of the conventional wisdom on learning is wrong’. Both in education and at work we are expected to ‘learn’ by memorising information and regurgitating upon demand. But is this really the right approach? He asked.

In this talk, Boser explored the many different ways we can learn more effectively. Based on his book Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, Or, How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything, he outlined 10 key principles:

1. Make meaning

“Learning is a very active process that we need to engage in,” he said. This means that rather than just reading a book, we need to read a section of a book, close it, and try to explain what we have just read to ourselves or someone else. In essence, we need to summarise the material we have just consumed. This process, which is called ‘retrieval practice’, has been found to be a very effective way to learn, Boser stated.

2. Knowledge is a curse and a blessing

It’s very difficult to get out of our own heads and ask what the learner knows (or doesn’t know). “The way that we think is embedded in the things that we know,” Boser highlighted, which means that knowledge is a curse.

But it is also a blessing. Boser stated that the best predictor of learning is not age, learning style or personality – it is prior knowledge. We must recognise both the upside and downside of knowledge to help improve our learning.

3. Honour short-term memory

It’s important not to overwhelm our short-term memory, Boser said. Breaking things down into chunks, for example through microlearning, will make learning much more effective.

4. Think about thinking

Most people believe that they are above average drivers, that they are better looking than most people in the room and that they work harder than their colleagues, Boser highlighted. And when it comes to thinking, people think they know a lot more than they actually do.

This overconfidence in knowledge could be a barrier to our development and, to tackle this, Boser argued that we need to firstly plan what we’re going to learn, and secondly monitor the progress of our learning.

5. Promote feedback

It’s difficult for people to give themselves feedback – to examine their own actions and see where they are going wrong, Boser stated. But targeted, constructive feedback from others is crucial for development, therefore trainers need to make sure they create opportunities in which people can give feedback, he said.

6. Remember to remember

We forget a lot of what we first learn, Boser highlighted. In fact, the audience was told they would forget 50% of the talk after 24 hours. But forgetting gives us ‘an opportunity to relearn’, according to Boser. And if we forget and relearn something several times, eventually (usually by the fourth round), it will stick for a long time. This means that trainers need to give learners the opportunity to re-remember.

7. Respect emotions

Our body, feelings and actions can impact our thoughts. And how we feel at the time in which we are trying to learn will impact our ability to learn effectively, Boser highlighted. Trainers therefore need to ensure they create a comfortable and safe environment for learners to improve effectiveness.

8. Gain deeper features

Surface features attract our attention, but when we learn we need to engage with the deeper features, argued Boser. And the best way to learn the deeper features is through using a mixed approach to practising, using an ABC ABC ABC order. Boser stated that this makes learning more active, which in turn makes it easier to see the deep features that the learner is really trying to grasp.

9. Use analogies

We use analogies all the time to help explain things... And through analogies we uncover connections and learn in richer ways, Boser said. Look for connections and systems in what you’re trying to learn and it will aid your learning.

10. Reflect, reflect, reflect

We need moments of pause in order to understand and absorb information, Boser highlighted. Trainers therefore need to give learners opportunity to reflect, through essays, discussions and so on.


About Becky Norman

Becky Norman

Becky is Editor of HRZone and Trainingzone, global online communities of people working in the HR and L&D industries. Becky works closely with leading HR and L&D practitioners and decision makers to ensure the publications offer a rich source of real-world insight and fresh advice to their audience.

HR and L&D professionals today must adapt to a complex mix of challenges caused by ongoing business disruption, technological advancements, a changing political landscape, varied employee needs and more. Becky aspires to make HRZone and TrainingZone the destinations for professionals to seek guidance, analysis and opinion on how to tackle these challenges and continue to deliver value.


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07th Feb 2018 13:08

These are all good points. In a way the ten headings are more significant than what is elaborated under them. The headings are valid and suggest deeper learning. However, the explanations seem to refer to learning all at the same level. No suggestion here that we can have higher level learning in the sense of Bateson's Learning 2 or 3.

Maybe we can explore further?

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09th Feb 2018 15:00

Useful reminders - thanks.
And I do think the ability to learn effectively is a great leadership quality.

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