Learning About Learning

Kem Russell, P.E

Many times we don’t think about how we learn, which is something we are or should be doing most of our lives. This fact was brought home to me this past winter as I became involved as an instructor in a winter sport I like. As I was learning to be an instructor and understanding how people might learn I could see a correlation between what and how someone is teaching and how people learn.

Our learning preferences could be considered to be made up of two basic components: how we perceive and communicate information, and how we process that information. It is likely apparent that these two basic components will be different for different people. These will be affected by a person’s age, mental and emotional state, culture, past experience, upbringing, etc.

The learning styles that we each use can be broken into the following: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Reading and Writing. Briefly, here is an overview of these four learning styles:

Visual: A person is better able to retain information when it’s presented in a graphic depiction (think computer control system displays and what is happening in a system both currently and analyzing historical information), charts, diagrams (think P&ID’s, process flow diagrams, etc.) to emphasize specific design elements and operations in a system or piece of equipment.

Auditory: Someone who prefers listening to information presented audibly (think technical presentations, webinars, etc.).

Kinesthetic: These are “hands-on” learners who thrive when engaging all of their senses.

Reading and Writing: Learners who succeed with written information from written procedures (operation and maintenance), equipment manuals, presentations like from past IIAR or RETA conferences (again reading technical presentations and information from vendors), etc. Usually, note-takers (could be handwritten or on an electronic device) perform well when they can reference written material.

Each of us can likely associate with one of the above four learning styles, but we also may realize that our learning styles can vary during different occasions or be some combination of styles. Similar to the learning preferences stated above, several factors can affect how we learn such as education level, experience, mental and emotional state, physical condition, age, etc. Just imagine attending an IIAR conference technical session after spending a late night out socializing. When you sit down to listen and learn at an interesting presentation your mental state may be pretty foggy, and your physical condition is stressed from too much good food, drink, and lack of sleep. Even if you don’t doze off during the presentation, the amount you learn will be diminished. Fortunately, IIAR has all technical presentations saved for later reading (and in some cases viewing) when you are at or near your peak performance level.

You might have a good idea of what your primary learning method is, or you may need to spend some time thinking about how you learn best. Remembering that how we learn best will vary many times with what and where we are trying to learn. I would guess that many of us can see in someone else what seems to be their primary learning method. I have worked with people that are strong kinesthetic learners. Many technicians seem to learn this way. Some may not read or write well or don’t really understand just listening to someone talk (auditory). However, they may start the learning process by watching (visual), but if they can put their hands on it they can master something fairly quickly.

The location where the learning is to take place will also impact how much and how fast we might learn. It should be obvious that distractions should be eliminated or at least greatly reduced. Imagine trying to learn something while someone near you is using a jackhammer. Or your phone keeps getting calls or your computer gets a multitude of emails. Or others are talking. Or it’s hotter than … well you get the idea. If you want to learn something try to control or eliminate as many distractions as you can. In addition, you need to put in enough time and effort.

This winter I had a 6th grade Language Arts teacher as a student, and I asked her about how teaching was going. She said “It has become more and more difficult to teach the students. Most of them have the attention span of a goldfish.” I asked what she thought seemed to be causing the short attention span. She answered that most of the students have become used to getting a lot of their learning through almost instant feedback. For example, social media, texting, video games, and other entertainment sources. The students are not used to having to put in much effort or focusing on something for a long enough time to learn.

Do you put in the time and effort to learn? How much time and effort might that be? Most people have heard of the 10,000- hour guideline popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success” to get good at something, to master it.

This is not a hard and fast rule. If you are going to be a really good designer, builder, operator, or maintainer of refrigeration systems the time and effort you put in must be from knowledgeable and reliable sources. Also, you must have learning experiences (challenges) for a long enough time period that can help you achieve higher skill levels and understanding. The quality of your learning matters. Without a doubt, you still must put in the time and effort to get good at doing whatever you’re trying to get good at.

So, you have figured out what your learning style is, which likely varies with the subject, and you are putting in the time and effort to learn from quality sources. What’s next? Don’t stop learning!

Learning should be a lifetime process and as uncomfortable as it might seem to be we need to expand our learning comfort zone. Try learning something new. You might also consider re-learning something you haven’t used or done in a long, long time. What you start learning might be directly related to industrial refrigeration or some field you think might be interesting. You might look into how to use/apply other natural refrigerants, a better understanding of some new piece of equipment, a better understanding of some different process, etc. IIAR has developed many ways we can continue our learning from annual conferences, involvement in committees, the library of technical articles, monthly webinars, videos, Academy of Natural Refrigerants, Guidelines, and Standards. We also have access to many very knowledgeable and experienced people that can further our learning.

How do we learn? Know your learning style, put in the time and effort, and keep learning!