Boise State on Business by Nancy Napier: Learning, Round 2, requires more time, focus, practice

NANCY NAPIER, executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and Innovation.July 16, 2013 

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Nancy Napier

I was one of those nerds who "played school" during the summer. Yes, shortly after summer vacation started, I'd invite neighborhood kids to my fantasy school and pretend to teach. I grew up to become a teacher and moved beyond the "pretend to teach" phase, I hope, but that would be a question for my students.

I suspect I liked to play school in the summers because I learned fairly easily during the school year. I was a great student 'til I hit college and realized everyone there had been a "great student" in high school and discovered the professors wanted me to question and to think a lot more than I'd done. Hard at first, but a good thing once I learned how to do both.

So I've skittered along for the most part, learning quickly, retaining most, and challenging myself by finding new things to learn. Professors typically find some area of research of interest and spend their careers becoming the world's expert in it, studying it for 10, 25, 40 years. If you read about Nobel Prize winners, that's what they've done very well. I've taken a different path, studying new topics about every five to eight years, gone deeply into it, loved the learning that I got to do in the process.

But now, it's harder to be so flippant about quick learning (and remembering). I think I'm entering Learning, Round 2.

Perhaps because my brain already has absorbed a lot and it feels like the hard drive is pretty full, I find I've got to adjust my learning approach. But I'm trying not to be discouraged. In fact, there was some research a few years ago that tested older and younger learners: The older ones took more time to learn but retained information longer than younger "fast rabbit" learners who absorbed fast and forgot fast. Now more than ever, I need to purposefully make sure information gets in and gets stuck.

So as I think about my own learning, I've also been studying some organizations in town that are serious about helping people learn. I'm finding out how athletes and dancers and actors learn and how some business organizations operate with similar principles.

At least three things seem critical:

1. Break down the information, but know how it fits into a bigger context.

2. Practice deliberately.

3. Practice more than you think you'll need to.

Now, when I try to learn a new piece of software or about a new industry or how to use gym equipment, I know that I can't just hear or see or do it once or twice, but I was embarrassed to admit it. Then when I learned that football players may need to practice a play 100 times, actors spend weeks on their lines, and leaders may practice some leadership skill for a month before focusing on another, I felt better. Now I can relax knowing that the dozens of times I need to practice is just par for the course. For me, practicing more, focusing more, and not getting frustrated when it happens slowly is the theme of Learning, Round 2.

Learn something new. But give yourself the slack to do it in ways that fit how you learn today, not when you were 10 … or 20!


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