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Become an Effective Self-learner by Using the Right Mental Models

As children, although we learn out of curiosity, we generally receive instruction and guidance throughout our journey. There will be individual differences, not to mention variations in the degree and quality of education, but we follow the same general model. Everybody learns to read, write, solve math problems, and develop other skills.

But as adults, we are all free to pursue our unique aspirations and interests. This bespoke demand requires us to take charge of our learning if we are to succeed. And doing that can be difficult once you’ve grown accustomed to the structure of education. Here’s how you can use specific models to help become an effective self-learner.

Progressing to competency

In the 1980s, researchers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus published the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition as a framework for understanding and assessing progress in skill development. The model details five stages of development for learners: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

Most people start at the novice level when learning a new skill. They can find resources on the internet, follow tutorials and guides, but limitations circumscribe their learning potential. They can spend hours at practice, but they will only be learning more rules and guidelines.

By grasping and applying this framework to your learning efforts, you can make deliberate progress towards increasing levels of competency. You can move past the novice stage by placing knowledge within a specific context and aligning attributes with situations where they are most needed. With intentional practice, you aren’t just following rules, but learning why they exist, and when and how to break them on occasion.

Using stress in the right way

However, all learning comes from an original stimulus or stressor. It can be a simple acknowledgment of the fact that a knowledge gap exists, and must be addressed if you want to improve. Perhaps you applied for a higher position but fell out of consideration due to a lack of proficiency, or a missing skill.

Stress stimulates learning. But it also conditions the outcome of learning. Thus, it’s vital to have a model recognizing the differences in stressors. Most people associate stress with negativity. If you approach learning driven by fear of failure or shortcomings, the challenge will be more significant. You’ll be reluctant to experiment, push, and test yourself.

Recognize that positive stress, known as eustress, exists; it’s suitable for learning. Creating this sort of environment is usually the task of instructors. It’s less stressful to learn about the real estate market or look for a loan if you’re a first-time homebuyer when you have guidance from someone with experience. Gradually, as you take full control of your learning, you need to understand how to leverage eustress to your advantage.

Finding the zone

There’s another model that can help improve how you learn when it comes to stress. Rohnke’s zones of comfort, stretch, and panic allow us to visualize how stress influences learning.

We’re all familiar with the concept of staying in a comfort zone. This area is usually the default for anyone new to self-learning. Things are comfortable because we’re grounded in the familiar. But being comfortable, by definition, doesn’t push you to change.

Learning takes place in the stretch zone. This is where you can harness the benefits of eustress. You can try unfamiliar activities or experiment with everyday activities in a new way. Stretching ourselves leads to growth; it can be awkward, but it’s also exciting.

What you want to avoid, though, is the zone of panic. Taking on a challenge that’s too big triggers a fight-or-flight response rather than the productive discomfort of eustress. This is the negative sort of stress we’re familiar with; it makes you feel overwhelmed, anxious, and disheartened.

Feedback and attunement

online lesson

Everyone has unique boundaries for these zones of learning. Moreover, they aren’t static. As you learn, what was unknown enters the comfort zone. Challenges that might’ve caused panic in the past might now fall within your capabilities.

You have to continually be aware of these challenges and how you test and apply yourself as you learn. The final model to make this work is known as the OODA loop. You have to be engaged in a continuous process of observing, orienting, making decisions, and taking action.

Suppose you attempted to create a novel to test your skill as a writer but failed. Don’t stop there. Analyze what went wrong. Was the timeline too short? Did you experience roadblocks writing characters? Or was there a plot hole you discovered too late? Create a hypothesis on how you can correct the issue, and put it into action with the next iteration.

Never give up, and keep trying new ways to find what works. Taken together, these models will help you on a lifelong journey of learning.

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