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How to Make Online Learning Stick?

24/09/2016 1:46 AM IST | Updated 30/09/2016 7:27 PM IST

Regardless of whether you work for yourself or have a role and an annual salary in a corporation, I’d like you to think of yourself as a business. When I buy a course, I make an investment in the employee training at Katya Seberson Inc.

Employee training like any investment requires careful tracking. In finance, there is a term called ROI (return on investment). When it comes to tracking profits or accumulating assets you can easily spot indicators that can help you stay on track with your goal.

If you are familiar with a personal finance tool Mint.com, you may know that they allow their customers to set monthly spending budgets for multiple categories (food, clothes, entertainment, etc.) If you allocated $500 to eating out and bars per month and you ended up spending $837 in the month of September, it’s pretty obvious that you need to adjust your behavior next month to stay on track. This data indicates that you must reduce your spending in October by $337. To reach your goal, you will have to change your behavior and decrease the number of meals you buy at restaurants and start eating at home more. This metric is directly affecting your behavior.

When I was trying to lose weight I knew exactly what I needed to track. I was weighing myself every morning and writing down the food I ate. If my weight on Day 2 was less than on Day 1, I knew I had to continue doing what I was doing on Day 1. On Day 7 I noticed that I weighed more than on Day 6. I knew I had to eat a little less on Day 7 to make up for my food on Day 6. Again, this metric influenced my behavior. It was very helpful to have my journal because I could see clearly what caused the weight gain.

I even created a little game for myself. I took two beautiful jars. One jar was short and chubby looking, and another one was tall and skinny. I wanted to lose 5 lbs of fat, so I gathered five small rocks and put them inside the chubby jar. Once I lost my first pound, I transferred one rock inside of the skinny jar. When I gained a pound, the rock went back to the chubby jar. Once I ran out of rocks in the chubby jar, I knew I reached my goal. I continue monitoring my weight to stay at my goal weight, but I stopped keeping the food journal now.

When it comes to online learning, disciplined students still keep track, but they track the wrong thing. They transfer a rock for each video they watch. But we know that there is a gap between watching and learning. You can watch a video and remember nothing, just like we can read an article and retain ZERO.

When I was working on the video course for Making Online Learning Stick, I identified five pivotal moments that required a change of behavior to improve the effectiveness of learning from Video Courses.

  • The moment of Enrollment in Courses.
  • Pacing through a Course.
  • Following through on learning when learning gets tough.
  • Staying focused when watching videos.
  • Retaining what I have learned.

But how could I measure these behaviors?

You can measure enrollment simply by asking yourself how many courses have you enrolled in the past month and why? If your goal is to take three meaningful courses per year, you shouldn’t be signing up for a new MOOC (massive online open course) every month. When you notice that happening, take a moment and assess your learning. Are you becoming a course collector? Do you really have time to follow through on all of those courses? If so, I’d like you to open your calendar and find those time slots.

How can you measure pacing through the course? Answer this question honestly: how many times today have you stopped a video in the middle and had to re-watch it from the beginning? Nobody is perfect, and distractions do come up, but I encourage you to keep this number as low as possible. Every time you stop a video in the middle, you ruin the momentum and have to start the work over from scratch.

If you stopped in the middle of the video lesson three times today, you may need to adjust your environment and get away from people that are distracting you online or offline. Close IM, open tabs, Facebook, change location, go to the library or leave the library, etc. You may also want to adjust your own state and get away from distracting thoughts. Go for a walk, take a break, shower, nap, etc.

How can you measure following through? Pushing through a video course is incredibly hard, especially if the learning gets complicated. Any meaningful learning will get difficult and will challenge you as a learner. Dropping out of the online course is easier than dropping out of Stanford University. The price of the investment in a video course is low or free, so dropping out is either cheap or free. Additionally, there is no social pressure involved in online learning achievement. You usually take the course alone. It's between you and your computer. If we drop out, we won’t be missed. Compare to the number of friends, classmates and relatives you will disappoint by dropping out of an Ivy League school.

Following through is the game changer of future learning! Here is how to track it. If you commit to spending 25 minutes (one Pomodoro) per day on a particular course, I suggest that you employ a Don’t Break the Chain strategy popularized by Jerry Seinfeld. The idea is pretty simple, yet, increasingly powerful. Every time you finish a session, you draw a cross in your calendar on that day. A cross means you followed through. I recommend that you put this calendar on the wall, right above your desk, where other people can see it. It can be used for added accountability. If you write your goal at the top and start crossing days, it will be harder to quit on Day 9. It works if you do it.

If you look at your calendar at the end of the week, you will see how many days you missed. That will allow you to plan your next week accordingly.

If you didn't miss a day, continue the current practice. If you missed a few days, ensure you MAKE TIME in your calendar for your sessions. Perhaps, you can arrive 30 minutes earlier at work and get a head start on your investment in yourself.

Don't Break the Chain.

How can you track your focus and avoid internal distractions?

That is not an easy one to track, but I found a way. To keep our internal distraction at bay, I use a set of empty flashcards. I make my own since an A4 sheet of paper can be easily divided into eight even rectangles. I fold the paper and cut up the flashcards myself. I find it very peaceful and grounding. As I am watching a video, my mind can’t stop racing. I like to call it a monkey mind.

My monkey brain continues to think about my upcoming appointments, characters from the fiction stories I read, unpaid bills, nail polish colors, fears, and dreams. I get carried away because the rate at which information is coming at me in a video course is significantly slower than an average processing speed.

When the instructor speaks in a video course, his speaking speed varies between 150 - 250 words per minute. And even if the course creator employs imagery on the screen (additional visual input), it is not dense enough to completely occupy your mental bandwidth. Because of that, we can’t help but use that extra space in the brain to think about our laundry list as we are watching the course. No matter how interested you are in the course, distracting thoughts will show up.

Additionally, as I am listening to a lecture, some unfamiliar names and concepts may come up during the lesson. I was taking a Udemy course on Lean StartUp when the name Paul Graham, the founder of Y - Combinator, came up. A lightbulb went off in my head, and I felt an urge to open up a new tab to look him up quickly. I have heard about Paul so many times, but I have no idea what the guy looks like.

If I acted upon this urge, I would be reactive and practice distraction. And human beings get excellent at what we practice. If we practice distraction, we will get good at it.

If I didn’t act upon the urge to look him up, should I have just suppressed it? Suppressing the urge doesn’t sound realistic either. What should I do instead? Wait till the video is over and then look him up? What if I forget the name by then?

The advice I give is to write his name [Paul Graham] on an empty index card. Random thoughts, like confirm my meeting with Luke Hagler from AXA, should go onto those index cards as well. When the video is finished, you can look at those cards if you like. That way you are passing the monkey brain and allowing yourself to remove an ongoing dialog from your mind.

Focus Cards to Record Random Thoughts

The idea of focused and deep work is not to achieve a ZEN mindset and get rid of destructive thoughts, but to deal with the distractions proactively. Put your inner chatter on mute, while you are giving your full attention to the course. Every time a thought or an errand comes up - write it down. You can come back to it later when you finished the video.

But what am I tracking here? I am tracking the number of cards I used as I was watching the video. Here, more is better. If I used all my eight cards, that means I identified my random thoughts and practiced staying focused instead of acting on it. That means I acknowledged my monkey brain, said hello to it and acted proactively. What I could have done, if I was practicing distractions was to act impulsively and open up at least six new tabs in 5 minutes.

If you watched a video for 25 minutes and didn’t write anything on cards, I encourage you to assess the level of depth at which you understood the material. Chances are you were watching it like a movie while listening to you internal dialog.

But how do you monitor learning? How do you separate learning and watching courses like a movie?

Test it. If I watched a lecture and took a test and passed it - I made progress. If I watched a lecture, took a test and didn’t pass - I made progress. I now know that I didn’t understand a lot and need to work more to fill those knowledge gaps. If I watched the lecture and did nothing after that - I didn't make progress. I have no way of knowing whether I learned something or I didn’t.

If you are preparing for a standardized test (GMAT, MCAT, ACT, etc.) or a professional certification like (PHR, CFA, CFP or any of the series) you are free to take advantage of the practice tests available on the market. I usually buy a lot of practice manuals to keep track of progress. I approach those test not only as a tool to verify my learning but also as an opportunity to learn new concepts. I never mark up the book even if I am the only one using it. I like to go back to the same tests after a while to strengthen my memory.

But what if there are no tests? What if you are taking a course on leadership course or creative writing? What if you are watching a TED talk and want to remember it as opposed to just being inspired. That’s even better! How is that better you ask. Because you can make up your own test. As you are listening to a video, take notes and turn them into questions.

Let’s say you are watching Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop on Udemy. The first lecture states that leadership is not management. Instead of writing this down verbatim “Leadership is not management”; turn into a question.

“What is the difference between management and leadership?” or

“What separates leadership from management?” If you can answer this question out loud, in complete sentences, with your notes closed - you made progress.

I encourage you to make up thought-provoking questions.

Compare the items above to this: “define leadership.”

Which one do you like more? And most importantly, which one does your brain like more?

What I am tracking here? is whether I took the test or not. And if I did, how well did I ? If I did extremely well on the test and didn't make any mistakes, I should continue with the next lecture. If I took the test and didn't do well, I can now identify areas that didn't stick and can begin working on them.

You can learn more about learning from Video Courses Here.

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