Can People Really Learn At Their Own Pace?

When we're left to our own pace to complete training, do we take advantage of the flexibility or fizzle out?

Employers and employees still value training. But the old gold standard—sequestering employees in classes for extended periods of time—is falling out of favor.

"We’re seeing a huge decrease in the amount of time people are spending in training rooms and classrooms," says Janet Pogue, principal and global workplace leader at Gensler, a design firm that studies how people use office spaces (among other things). Instead, employers increasingly rely on modules that allow people to learn at their own pace, on their own schedules.

When it works and when it doesn't

That sounds great, in theory. "It’s hard to carve out that time during the normal work day," Pogue says, and if people can watch modules on airplanes or trains, or at home at night, you avoid scheduling conflicts. People have lots of different ways to learn, and traditional classrooms favor some styles over others. Go-at-your-own-pace courses can be relatively cheap.

That said, experiences with other non-traditional forms of education are raising questions about whether the learn-on-your-own method works for most people. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are often hailed as the wave of the future. Students get access to lectures from top professors and courses wherever they are. Yet drop-out rates can hit 90%.

In any situation where you don’t have an instructor readily and personally available to you, "The real problem is when you get stuck," says Harman Singh, founder of WizIQ, an online educational site. "No matter how motivated you are, you can’t get through a concept." This is precisely why the most old-fashioned form of going-at-your-own-pace education—reading through a textbook—doesn’t cut it for most people either.

Some people can teach themselves. "They don’t need any external supervision, any external motivation," says Singh. But "for the rest of us—including myself—I could never do that. I need an instructor, a teacher, to help me get through some tough subjects."

There are some instances when learn-at-your-own-pace modules work. "If you’re just dusting up on something you already know, that impersonal factor is just fine," says Pogue. Indeed, many of the people who succeed in MOOCs are those who’ve already studied the subject, and are looking for a fresh perspective or to study the topic more in depth.

People who have an extremely strong external motivation to complete a course of study also appreciate the flexibility of going at their own pace. If people need to complete a course to keep a certification, they’ll complete it. If a safety module is required for people to do a certain job, they will watch it.

You just have to be mindful of how much people will absorb. Not making official time for something during the work day sends a message that it isn’t that important. So the temptation for many people will be to have a video or lecture playing in the background on a laptop while watching TV at night.

Perhaps the best approach is to combine the upsides of technology with an old-fashioned classroom approach. A small, virtual class that meets at certain times can allow for plenty of peer interaction and one-on-one time with the teacher.

But if you don’t need to bring students and a teacher together in one place, you save massively on travel costs, and the loss of time associated with getting to a corporate training center. "Virtual instruction is great, as long as it’s driven by an instructor," says Singh. When it comes to learning, the human element is still key.

[Image: Flickr user Tulane Public Relations]

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • timostankowitz

    Persolally, I can't learn at my own. When I'm in my Room on the desk, there is a computer in front of me and I think this is the reason, why it's so difficult for me to learn at my own.

    I prefer to study in a group. The only problem studying in a group is that you have to know people that wants to study with you.

  • Heidi De Wolf

    I wanted to add a commengt about self-directed learning. Self-directed learning is different from learning at your own pace. As a self-directed learner it is important to know your own learning style and whether you would welcome a coach or not.

    If we used a different metaphor and replace learning with exercise, I think the concept of exercising at your own pace would not necessarily exclude the need for a personal trainer, mentor or a peer/buddy who helps to motivate you, hold you accountable and moves you forward. Interestingly, more and more MOOCs today are proposing you join the module with a friend, recognising that 'social' supports motivation and perseverance.

    As with exercise, people often start by exploring it on their own or with a friend but research shows that people do better with help from a qualified coach who can personalise the journey to success by pushing you beyond your comfort zone. I think the same applies to learning.

  • paulb.fastco

    Learning on your own works best if you have access to a teacher whenever you are stuck. This can be by phone or email or other.

  • Brenda Herchmer

    Excellent observations. Thank you for validating the approach we've developed at the Campus for Communities of the Future after years of boots-on-the-ground learning!