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?

Can People Really Learn At Their Own Pace?
[Image: Flickr user Tulane Public Relations]

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.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at