Developing Learning Skills

By Sue von Hirschfeld and Sylvia Downs
A common misconception is that learning skills and study skills are the same thing. They are not – for one thing, learning skills are much broader, as learning is much broader than studying. People need to be able to learn from a wide range of situations and sources (e.g. from their peers, and from actual experience), many of which cannot be termed ‘study’ situations.

The development of learning skills deliberately seeks to improve the learners’ ability to make use of learning opportunities, in addition to aiding the acquisition of vocational skills and/or knowledge. These ‘learning opportunities’ can be both formal and informal, off the job and on the job. If anything, we are seeing a shift away from formal and off-the-job learning, to informal, on-the-job learning.

Until now, a major problem with on-the-job learning is that it is often less predictable and less efficient. However, a skilled learner has the ability and confidence to first recognise a situation as a learning opportunity, and then to make maximum use of it.

Examples of learning skills are: forming a concept by comparing pieces of data; establishing relationships; predicting the outcome; using an association; solving a problem; reviewing reasons for mistakes; breaking tasks down into ‘chunks’; effective practice and repetition; asking for and using feedback, and many more. Once a person has learned one of these, s/he is able to apply or transfer the skill to other situations or people.

Some learning skills relate to conceptual learning; others relate to the learning of facts, or physical skills. The key is to know

when to use an appropriate learning skill or mix thereof.

Why are learning skills important?

• The rate of change implies the need for lifelong learning.
• Both shaping and adapting to change are themselves learning skills.
• Changes in the nature of work require greater conceptual understanding.
• Cost pressures are forcing organisations to seek alternatives to formal training. This means more learning on the job from peers, subordinates and bosses, often in less-than-ideal circumstances. This in turn places more importance on individual responsibility for learning.

In summary, the changing nature of organisations and current constraints are demanding that people adopt a different approach to learning. The education system is not meeting this need, being particularly inadequate in the development of conceptual learning skills. It is therefore by and large up to commerce and industry to meet these needs for themselves.

How can learning skills be developed?

The development of learning skills involves making the learner aware or conscious of something beyond the content of the immediate learning material. That is, to think about thinking and learning. Furthermore, to make conscious (and later unconscious) decisions about how to find out, or learn. Consciousness about learning as a process is the critical first step in developing learning skills since, once someone has this awareness, a number of things can follow.

For example, s/he could:
• change the way s/he currently approaches a learning situation, if necessary,
• build on her/his existing learning skills,
• transfer learning skills from one situation to another,
• help others to develop learning skills too.

There are many techniques to improve memory skills, but developing understanding skills is much more difficult. Early work by Sylvia Downs with adult electronics trainees has shown that learners who were shown how to use ‘keys to understanding’ (a framework for asking questions designed to act as triggers to generate ideas) displayed the following characteristics:
• the number of concepts developed on a topic unrelated to electronics was significantly greater than that developed by the control group.
• the quality was higher, as the experimental group used broader concepts, whilst the control group relied more on specific instances.
• The experimental group were able to think in more abstract terms than the control group.

A further result was that the experimental group was able to ask better questions and demonstrated improved communication and social interaction.


This was also found in work done in South Africa: a multiracial group of apprentices were given a basic course in learning skills, and both qualitative and quantitative (‘before and after’) measures were taken. Key findings were:
• an average increase in the number of ‘ways of learning’ of almost 20%. The number of understanding strategies (used by more than 50%) had risen from one to four.
• The average training time for the group who had been through the learning skills program was 12% faster than a previous, similar group who had not been through the program.
• Comments from the instructors after the course included:
– they (the learners) ask the instructor more questions,
– the stronger guys help the weaker guys,
– they are more independent and mature than first-year university students,
– the program has saved me three weeks of training time.
• The learners said they had learned:
– how to ask the right questions,
– that others have similar problems and fears,
– not to be scared to ask questions,
– how to go about learning from others,
– not to learn everything parrot-fashion;
– to pay more attention to a demonstration: “Before, I wouldn’t have thought to ask about potential problems – now I do.”

Whose responsibility?

Learning skills are not innate. They both can and need to be developed for the benefit of organisations and the people who work in them.

Trainers, managers and learners all have a part to play in the development of learning skills. Learning skills should be further developed and supported by formal training and on-the-job coaching. Unless this is done, the learner still leans on the trainer and does not own the very skills that s/he should be both understanding and developing.


Sue von Hirschfeld and Sylvia Downs are alliance partners of Advance Learning.

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