How to Turn Incremental Learning into Lifelong Learning

Turn learning into a habit, and your learners will be with you for life.

Many of us are used to thinking of learning as something that happens once. We take a course, we read a book, we attend a seminar, and at the end of it, we’ve learned something! But the reality of learning is that it rarely happens this way. We might read something in a book, but it doesn’t “click” until we put it to practice. We might attend a seminar, but we haven’t really learned it until it becomes something we use regularly on the job.

Learning is the ultimate lesson in “you use it or you lose it.” Not have we not truly learned something until we make use of our knowledge, we’re also quick to forget things unless we have a reason to remember them. And this problem is only exacerbated if we try to pile on a lot of learning at once. Too much of a cognitive load leads to less retention.

Put these two things together, and it’s clear that the most effective, long-lasting learning is done in bits and pieces over a long period of time. Not only does this aid memory retention, but it turns learning into a habit that can become more sustainable. And when that learning is tied to your course, it can easily mean learners who stay with you for years.

Not every course is suited to this kind of learning. But for those that are, these tips can help you build not just a course, but an entire community.

1. Embrace micro content.

Incremental learning means you will need to move away from long lecture videos or lessons that take more than fifteen minutes to complete. Not only do learners retain less information from long lectures, but they are harder for learners to fit into a daily routine.

Micro content, which can be completed in a matter of minutes, can be drip-fed to learners every day—or even a few times a day. This helps learners build a pattern of checking in and refreshing their knowledge.

2. Be mobile.

Some learners will build a habit by creating a daily routine that involves sitting down at a desk and working on a skill for a few minutes every morning. But many learners are on the go, and creating content that can meet them wherever they are can help build those incremental learning habits that they need to sustain their growth.

Take time to test your course on mobile. Make sure it’s accessible and that learners can complete their tasks. Then you’ll be able to drip-feed content without worry.

3. Help your learners self-motivate.

Most people don’t start thinking of themselves as “lifelong learners” until they become adults and learning is no longer mandatory. The fact that they’ve shown up at all indicates a certain level of innate motivation to learn, which is good for you. But adults also have more obligations, which can make it hard for them to stay on track.

Use your course to help your learners set goals for their learning. Have your learners set those goals and measure their progress against their stated intent. To encourage them, you can even create group challenges or set a leaderboard to encourage friendly competition. The more your learners re-invest in their goals, the more motivated they will be to keep going.

4. Create seminars based on “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” learners.

Incremental learning is not particularly suited for a linear course progression, where learners take a series of courses in order. Instead, most lifelong learners want to create a learning path that’s more customized to their own interests. They still need learning material structured to match their abilities, but they don’t want to work through a long list of prerequisites to get to the course they really want to take.

Instead of a linear model, think of offering tiered courses. Label them according to skill level so that learners can have an idea of what may be appropriate for their abilities, but otherwise allow your learners to go where their interest leads them.

5. Become a coach and mentor rather than a teacher.

As we said earlier, lifelong learners are adults, and these adults usually approach learning with a different mindset. One of the main differences is the desire to take charge of their learning, and a tendency to view instructors as equals rather than authority figures. If you want to create a long-term relationship with your learners, you need to adopt this same mentality. You’re there to coach, not to dictate.

One way to build this into your courses is to offer one-on-one coaching, either as something your learners can book on their own, or as a session included in each course. You can use your time to talk to your learners about their goals, provide individual feedback, and guide them toward courses that might help them. You may even get ideas for new courses you could offer!

6. Focus on community.

No one person can create enough learning material to last a lifetime—but a community can. They’ll also take a huge burden off your shoulders as they offer support, answer questions, and provide motivation for learners to keep going despite any road bumps they may meet along the way.

You can support your community not only by creating a platform, but by participating in it yourself, designating community leaders, and even creating group challenges that allow everyone to participate. After a while, you’ll find most of your learners stay for the loyalties they’ve formed within the group more than for anything else.

Lifelong learners build an identity around their interests. Your program should support them.

Many lifelong learning courses aren’t about passing a test or gaining certification—they’re about identity. Learners define themselves by the thing they’re studying. So, for instance, someone doesn’t say “I’m learning French,” but “I’m a language learner,” or “I’m learning piano,” but “I’m a musician,” or “I’m learning taekwondo,” but “I’m a martial artist.”

You’ll notice that each of these have something in common: they require constant practice to maintain and increase skill. Or, to put it differently, they turn learning into a habit. And if you can help your learners build a habit toward a major life goal, they’ll be with you for life.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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