The Psychology of Effective Learning

September 18, 2014

We are always looking at the best options for our course design to help people learn the masses of material needed for the PMP, CAPM and PMI-SP examinations in particular.  A report published on the 9th January by the Association for Psychological Science, written by Professors John Dunlosky, Katherine Rawson, Elizabeth Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and  Daniel Willingham, suggest most of what we do in our PMI courses aids effective learning (read the report).

Teaching and learning are interrelated – a successful examination outcome requires good materials, good teaching techniques and effective learning on the part of the exam candidate;  but people lean in a variety of ways and have different learning preferences. This post and the referenced reports highlight the most effective learning options.

Learning styles

The term learning styles refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. Whilst there are many different models of ‘learning styles’, they all basically include variations on these three modes:

  • Visual learners have a preference for images, they ‘think in pictures’ and like visual aids that represent ideas such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.;
  • Auditory learners learn best through listening to lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.;
  • Kinesthetic or tactile learners prefer to learn via experience – moving, touching, and doing things to ‘build experience’.

These styles are overlaid with a person’s preference for learning is a social or solitary environment and how they absorb and process the information through reflection or other options to create a complex web of possibilities:

Learning styles

There is plenty of evidence that, if asked, people will express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. Derived from this starting point, the most common hypothesis about the instructional relevance of learning styles is the meshing hypothesis, according to which instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preferences of the learner

However, there is very little evidence to suggest this ‘meshing hypothesis’ is valid. Whilst we try to include elements of all three styles in our courses, a person’s preferred ‘learning style’ is not a measure of effective instructional design, see: Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence http://psi.sagepub.com/content/9/3/105.short.

Learning techniques

Techniques are partly instructional design and partly student behaviour. However, unlike ‘learning styles’, there is a significant body of literature evaluating the effectiveness of learning techniques. From this large resource, the Dunlosky report examines ten of the most popular learning techniques to assess whether the technique’s benefits generalise across four dimensions:

  • learning conditions (e.g., studying alone vs. studying in a group),
  • student qualities (e.g., age or ability),
  • materials (e.g., scientific concepts, historical facts, mathematical problems), and
  • the criterion tasks on which learning is measured (e.g., essay tests that require transfer of learning, multiple-choice tests).

The report’s conclusions rate each technique from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence the author’s amassed:

Study options

The least effective techniques

Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of ‘low utility’:

  • Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning because it draws attention to individual facts, which may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences.
  • The practice of rereading is common (and to a degree essential) but it is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use.
  • Summarising, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled in the practice, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time.

More effective techniques

Techniques in the middle ground are better, but not especially effective and were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence to be able to recommend them or in other cases, the strategy has been shown to work in some situations but not in others. These include:

  • Mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text. This practice is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images (eg, for McGregor’s Theory X, Theory Y imagine a lazy person laying on the X axis of a chart);
  • Mnemonic, using words, phrases or images to link more complex ideas. A mnemonic aims to translate information into a form that the brain can retain better than its original form; for example:
    –  Learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff;
    –  Using the letters of a word to spell out the first letters of a process; SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed (applied to objectives or delegations).
    –  Using a phrase to remember a sequence. For example, to memorise the colours of the rainbow, use the phrase Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – each of the initial letters matches the colours of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.
  • Self-explanation and elaborative interrogation were shown to be reasonably effective in experimental studies. Elaborative interrogation involves students ask themselves why the information they are reading is true; and self-explanation is where students explain some procedure or process to themselves. But, the effectiveness of the techniques depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are;

The Best
Learning strategies with the most evidence to support them, rated as having “high utility” by the authors, include distributed practice, and practice tests.

  • Distributed practice and interleaved practice. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions. Learning can occur quickly under massed-practice conditions and is an efficient way to teach, but hundreds of studies have shown that distributed practice leads to more durable learning. Certainly cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through a test, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time and mix up different types of problems and learning. This is core to our course design – topics are taught in blocks (unavoidable for intensive courses) but each test and revision element always covers a range of subjects covered to ‘this point’. Interleaved practice (in which bouts of study for one topic are interleaved among study for other topics), seems promising in some situations, but lacked the general utility of distributed practice and retrieval practice via testing.
  • Testing – but not for a grade. Research shows that the act of recalling information strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. Again, practice testing is central to our course design and there is robust evidence supporting its value!
  • Flash cards are a good option for implementing distributed learning and testing. We offer a free ‘daily flash’ via Twitter, see: https://twitter.com/PMPQuestions; and our PM final on-line simulator can be used in a similar way and possibly the best option – make your own. We are exploring the concept of ‘electronic flash cards’ – watch this space.

So in summary, the authors recommend you spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your tests and flash cards.  And you do need to practice!

We all know we have to practice a skill to get better at it, but the improvement we’re aware of making is only part of what’s going on. Well past the point when we think we’ve ‘got it’, continued practice allows our brain and our muscles to become more accurate and efficient in carrying out the task, using less energy to do so. As decathlete Daley Thompson said “An amateur practices until they get it right, a professional practices until they cannot get it wrong!”  And lastly, the easiest way of all to improve implicit learning is sleep. Research has shown that during sleep, the brain identifies meaningful patterns in our memories from the preceding day and makes them stronger and more permanent.

A final thoughts: studies from 1901 onwards have shown that learning is context specific. Practicing memorizing one type of material (eg, lists of words) may improve performance on memorizing similar lists (the phenomenon of learning to learn), but the benefits of such practice will not generalise to learning other materials. If you want to study for a multi-choice project management exam, your training and study needs to be focused on that challenge. For more thoughts and ideas on learning see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1028_The_Art_of_Learning.pdf

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Developing your team

November 30, 2013

If you are a leader, you are responsible for the team you lead! And one of the key stakeholder management roles fulfilled by effective team leaders and project managers is helping their team members grow and improve.

Remember, you cannot be successful as a leader unless your team succeeds in achieving its objectives! And helping team members develop their capabilities has two paybacks – helping people develop their skills and capabilities is a great motivator (see more on motivation) plus having more highly skilled, capable and motivated team members gets more work done. A win-win outcome that can return big dividends for a relatively small investment.

Coaching

As a leader you have four basic options to choose from: teaching, coaching, counselling and mentoring. Understanding the differences and selecting the right option for each situation helps you help your team to be successful.

Teaching
The focus of teaching is to impart knowledge and information through instruction and explanation. And the goal for the student is to acquire a skill or pass a test. The learning has a one-way flow and the relationship between teacher and student is low. These days’ web tools can be used to deliver teaching on demand.

Teaching is effective for: Simple knowledge transfer. This can be facilitated by external experts delivering focused training sessions or asking a skilled team member to do the teaching. Your job is to make sure the right training gets to the right people at the right time.

Coaching
Coaching usually focuses on task and performance. The role of the coach is to give feedback on observed performance and this usually happens at the workplace. The coach is likely to set or suggest goals for the learner and measure performance periodically as the learner develops new skills. This needs a good working relationship between learner and coach.

Coaching is effective for: Driving improved performance. Every elite sports team has a committed coach. As a team leader, you need to take this role seriously if you want to lift your team’s skills and performance to the elite level!

Counselling
The counsellor uses listening and questioning to build self-awareness and self-confidence in the client. The goal is to help the person deal with something they are finding emotionally difficult. Once again learning is one-way and the closeness of the relationship low.

Counselling is effective for: Helping a team member deal with personal difficulties. Again, in appropriate circumstances don’t be afraid to bring a skilled external counsellor.

Mentoring
Mentoring is a partnership between two people and emphasises a mutuality of learning. The role of the mentor is to build capability and help the learner discover their personal wisdom by encouraging the learner to work towards career goals or develop self-reliance. Mentors may draw on a number of approaches (teaching, coaching and counselling) to help mentees achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves. Because the relationship is mutually beneficial strong bonds are often forged which often outlast the mentoring relationship. However, because the mentoring relationship is focused on the mentee’s personal goals it should be kept separate from direct lines of management control; it is very difficult to mentor a direct report.

Mentoring is effective for: Building the capability of the learner. Carefully select the people in which to invest the effort and emotion of building a relationship. If it’s not right for you, help your team member find the right mentor

Selecting the best option
Within you team;

  • Use teaching for simple knowledge transfer, there’s no harm in bringing in expertise or asking a skills team member to do the teaching.
  • Use coaching to drive improved performance – every elite sports team has a committed coach, as a team leader you need to take this role seriously!
  • Use counselling one-on-one to help a team member deal with personal difficulties; again don’t be afraid of bringing in external assistance from a skilled councillor.
  • Use mentoring to help build the capability of the mentee. You need to carefully select the people to invest your emotions in building a relationship with, if it’s not right for you, help the person find the right mentor for them.

The difference between coaching and mentoring is largely about focus and goal setting. Coaching focuses on improving performance, mentoring on building capability. The coach usually sets goals for the learner, whereas in mentoring the learner sets their own goals, and to help achieve these goals, a mentor may draw on a number of approaches: teaching, coaching, and counselling.

The other significant difference between mentoring and the other forms of development is the relationship forged between two people. Good mentors offer the learner the right kind of help and support and adapt to the needs of the learner – so what makes a good mentor?

What Makes a Good Mentor?
The attributes and skills of a good mentor include:

  1. Being committed to learning and helping others learn
  2. Being a good listener
  3. Displaying empathy
  4. Building rapport
  5. Encouraging the learner to speak
  6. Observation and reflection
  7. Providing constructive challenges
  8. Is self-aware and understands others
  9. Has intuitive wisdom from life experience
  10. Helping the learner reshape their thinking
  11. Is politically or professionally savvy
  12. Shares experiences
  13. Steps back from the detail
  14. Manages the relationship and not the goals
  15.  Offers friendship

Finally, the mentor will keep the relationship confidential. What is said between mentor and mentee is confidential and never shared with others except in very special circumstances (See more on mentoring).

Summary
However you choose to develop in your team members, the investment is worthwhile. An empowered, motivated and skilled team is the best underpinning you can have in your quest to be a successful leader.


PMI’s 2013 ‘Pulse of the Profession’ Survey

May 16, 2013

PMI’s 2013 ‘Pulse of the Profession’ Survey makes interesting reading, particularly given most of the world is in or near recession. PMI predicts that between 2010 and 2020, 15.7 million new project management roles will be created globally across seven project-intensive industries. China and India will lead the growth in project management, generating approximately 8.1 million and 4 million project management roles through 2020, respectively.

Along with job growth, there will be a significant increase in the economic footprint of the project management profession which is expected to grow by USD$6.61 trillion. This enormous anticipated growth, along with higher-than average salaries, will make the next seven years an opportune time for professionals and job-seekers to build project management skills.

The squeeze on talent has already started! PMI’s Pulse of the Profession shows that high-performing organizations don’t just emphasise strategy and improve efficiency. They cultivate talent resources to deliver successful projects and programs. With that talent, they can reduce risk, increase stability, improve growth and build a strong competitive advantage.

In contrast, poorly performing organisations that don’t see talent as part of the success equation – they believe the job market is a bottomless pit of skilled people that can be bought in as needed. This puts their projects and their organizations at risk! Whilst more and more successful organisations have adopted talent management as a core competency, many others fail to invest in skilled project management talent and talent development initiatives, and this shows in their performance.

The contrast is stark – high performing organisations are likely to find some $20 million at risk for every 1$billion invested in projects, whereas low performing organisations place $280 million at risk, over 10 time the amount.

The low-performing organizations – those which complete 60% or fewer projects on time, on budget and within scope – are significantly less likely to provide a defined career path for project managers, a process to develop project management competency, and / or training on project management tools and techniques. Poaching talent is a zero sum game that simply drives up costs for everyone.

As a result of this lack of investment, a talent gap exists in project management. A large number of skilled practitioners are reaching retirement age, organisations that train staff hold onto staff and the rest are going to find recruitment becoming increasingly difficult. Talent simply does not grow on trees – skills need developing and nurturing within the organisations that need them.

The reason this matters is that at a time when project success rates are declining and risks are increasing, organisational leadership needs to fill an anticipated 15.7 million new project management roles worldwide by 2020. If they don’t, $344.08 billion in GDP will be at risk – and that’s not even counting the $135 million that organizations already risk for every $1 billion spent on projects.

The ‘high performers’ achieve their results through a combination of good governance and good management. They see project, program and portfolio management as strategic capabilities needed to invest in their organisation’s future. They recognise process improvement and talent management are the two key elements that need investment to deliver outcomes. And they use well proven governance and management processes such as requiring active sponsors (79% of project have active sponsors in high performing organisations -v- 43% in low performing organisations).

Talent management needs investments in selection, training, mentoring and coaching; ideally from internal resources but when necessary using external help to kick-start the development of the internal capabilities. (see more on mentoring and training http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Training-Home.html)

Are you and your team ready to make talent management a strategic priority? Download:
PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™ In-Depth Report: Talent Management,  and
PMI’s Project Management Skills Gap Report, and see how you can build your organization’s success – one project manager at a time. To help PMI have developed a sophisticated career framework, see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Training-PMI_Framework.html#CareerCentral


PMOZ 2011

June 13, 2011

The PMOZ conference is one of the best regional project management confrence world-wide and has a reputation for combining fun, networking and high quality learning into one event. The 2011 conference theme Project Management at the Speed of Light has attracted a wide range of interesting speakers from around the world.

Our involvement in the conference includes my keynote presentation Motivate your manager plus Patrick’s half day scheduling workshop and his paper Time management -v- Contract administration.

It’s not too late to join us for a great event, for more information download the Registration Brochure.


New West Australia Partner

February 14, 2011

Grover Projects has joined the Stakeholder Circle partnership to offer clients in West Australia training and consultancy based on the Stakeholder Circle® methodology. Grover Projects is an independent strategy and business consulting firm specializing in developing innovative strategies for the successful delivery of major projects by providing end-to-end support to their clients. Effective stakeholder engagement is crucial element in maximising business benefits.

To contact Grover Projects go to: http://www.groverprojects.com.au/


The Art of Learning

April 3, 2010

I deliver a significant number of training sessions each year through Stakeholder Management and Mosaic Project Services; including both face-to-face classroom courses and using our Mentored Email™ distance learning methodology.

One of the interesting observations is how the rate of information absorption (ie, learning) varies from person to person. The rate of learning does not seem to be correlated to a person’s IQ, industry or role in the workforce. If anything, people who absorb the learning more slowly seem to retain the information longer.

It would appear the ability to learn is a skill that is exercised naturally by younger people, but as one grows older this natural ability seems to fade with only some adults maintaining their innate capability to learn, frequently linked to active practice via university courses, etc. When presented with a large volume of new information (eg, a PMP course) the rest of us need to learn how to learn!

Some of the easier ways to absorb, make sense of, and retain information include:

Using analogies and metaphors

You can learn abstract processes by creating metaphors for more common events. So whenever you learn a fact, ask yourself what the idea is similar to in the tangible world; eg, a data store in a software program may be a cupboard with different things on each shelf.

Build mental pictures

If you break apart a complex mathematical formula into components, you can try to imagine what it would like as a graph or how each component influences each other in a railway switchyard.

Build on the basics

Do a bit of extra research on your most difficult topics focusing on their foundations. You might not understand the more complex theories perfectly, but it makes understanding your testable material much easier.

Become the teacher

The act of explanation creates connections. Ask yourself how would you explain what you’re learning to someone else? Teaching forces you to simplify and break down complex ideas and then re-connect them to build the overall picture.

Stop writing transcripts

Try to free yourself from rigid note taking (the course handouts fulfil this need), instead write down ideas in branches and connections. Add your own thoughts, diagrams and arrows linking ideas so you have a web of information. ‘Mind mapping’ tools are great for this but pencil and paper work just as well.

Draw Diagrams

Most people think in pictures and maps. Research suggests drawing will increase your concentration and help develop the connections between ideas. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it can often illuminate the connections that lead to a greater understanding.

There are many more sophisticated memory techniques available in a range of books on the subject but certainly in our areas of teaching, the ability to link ideas and understand the flow of both ideas and information seem to be the key to real understanding.

This opens up a second strand of thought – making the best use of a training course. Some simple tips that will help you to get the most from your training course include.

Before the training course

  • Have a clear picture of what you hope to get from the training course expressed in terms of the benefits to you: a pay rise and promotion is more motivating than a PMP credential.
  • Do any pre-course reading and make a note of any questions to bring along and ask the trainer. You won’t pay extra if you make the trainer work hard……

At the training course

  • Arrive prepared
  • Be open to learning new concepts, even if these challenge your previous understanding
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the trainer to clarify points; remember that if you don’t understand something, it is likely that you are not the only one
  • Share experiences when they are relevant and learn from others in the group, they are likely to be from different industries and have different experiences; take advantage of the fact that you’re surrounded by people with diverse work backgrounds.
  • Dedicate time each evening to completing your homework activities, or reviewing the work covered during the day (our training courses cover a great deal of content in a condensed fashion – reviewing the material each day helps to cement the ideas in your mind).

After the training course

  • Use the resources provided during the training course to help you integrate the concepts into your every day work life (the first 24 hrs after the course are a critical period for reinforcing learning by practice).
  • Make the effort to change if you have discovered better ways of approaching your work, but remember you will need to explain the benefits of the change to people who did not attend your training sessions.
  • Recommend the training to any colleagues that you believe will benefit from it

Learning new things should be an enjoyable process at all stages of life and career, and is becoming increasingly important to stay competitive in a rapidly changing world. Learning how to learn effectively is the first step along the journey.


Communication Planning

March 4, 2010

I have been posting a few bogs on communication recently, mainly focused on differentiating reporting from communicating.

Reports have a definite value but it is limited, ‘The Value of Reports’ posted on the PMI ‘Voices of Project Management’ blog defines their key uses.

The step beyond reporting is managing stakeholder perceptions. This was the topic of ‘Stakeholder Perceptions Are Paramount’ also posted on the PMI ‘Voices of Project Management’ blog.

These two posts and more were brought together in my paper ‘Beyond Reporting – The Communication Strategy’ presented last week at the PMI Asia Pacific congress.

What all of this feeds into is the process of developing an effective communication plan. Communication planning is more than just developing a report distribution list. It must involve the full spectrum of communication options deployed to engage effectively with stakeholders ranging from ‘lift meetings’ and coffees through to formal presentations.

This is one reason why our workshop, ‘How To’ develop a Communication Plan is separated from our SeminarsWorld® workshop The science and art of communicating effectively. Whilst communicating without a plan can be counterproductive, the communication plan itself needs to canvass both the efforts needed to ‘communicate for effect’ and the routine distribution of reports.