How to make your learning "stick": Ensuring your professional development isn't wasted

how to make your learning stick backstory preaching

What have you done to improve your preaching?

If you’re like most of us, you have…

  • bought books
  • read some of them
  • discovered a couple of great tips you incorporated for a few sermons

Mostly, though, you got fired up about preaching for your next few sermons, and then the books started to gather dust.

You’ve probably also attended workshops or festivals where you:

  • listened to great sermons
  • heard talented speakers
  • learned some great principles about the practice of preaching
  • discovered a couple of great tips that you incorporated in your next few sermons

Mostly, though, you got fired up about preaching for your next batch of sermons, and then it all faded.

So how come we learn great stuff but it doesn’t affect our preaching long-term?

Learning Transference. 

Improving your preaching is hard because learning transference is a skill.

What the heck is Learning Transference?

Learning Transference is the fancy, academic term for taking what you learn and putting it into practice until it becomes your “new normal."

In other words, Learning Transference is about making learning “stick.”

The reason many books, workshops or festivals fail to improve your preaching is that you don't have a process to make the learning “stick.”

  • Often, these resources don’t tell you how to take a marvelous theory about preaching and make it practical and applicable. 
  • You don't have a way to clarify confusion: you can't ask questions of a book, and at festivals and workshops, time is limited for Q and A (if it exists at all)
  • When you do try to implement a new strategy, you don’t get feedback to know if you've been successful
  • It's easy to let inertia take over: once you put down the book or leave the conference, old habits and routines take over because disrupting the way you've always done something requires more effort and time than simply continuing as is.

As a result, after the initial boost of energy wears off, you’re right back to your old ways.

Getting learning to stick requires a plan. Master this three-step process to ensure your next investment in professional development produces the improvement you seek

Step #1: Make predictions about what you'll learn & hope you get it all wrong.

Before you read the next chapter or walk into the lecture, answer these questions:

  • What do I think this chapter/lecture is going to say?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • What would surprise me?

Making predictions about what you'll learn is called anticipatory learning. By asking and answering questions about your learning before you begin, you increase engagement through the process. You’ll actively listen for the answers to your questions, revising your questions and ideas as you go. This engagement increases recall and understanding.

If the answers are what you expect, the learning has been reinforced and that’s good. 

If your answers turn out to be wrong, though, that’s even better! We actually remember our mistakes more than we remember what we’ve done correctly. 

So get it all wrong!

Step #2: Review your notes and write down your action steps within 48 hours.

I have binders full of workshop notes I’ve taken. I have books filled with highlighted sentences and enough writing in the margins that not even Half-Price Books will consider buying them. 

And have I ever looked at them again? Rarely. 

Without investing time to review the information you've learned and make a plan, your learning will be relegated to the proverbial dust bin of good but unrealized intentions.

When you buy the book or make your reservation for the event, make another reservation on your calendar as soon as possible (on the airplane, for example) to review your notes. Your well-intentioned, fast-scribbled notes will soon lose any meaning without a translation. 

The book or event isn’t finished until you’ve digested your notes and made usable sense of them.

When you do go back to review, speak to yourself or write out what you learned in your own words as if you were telling a colleague who wasn’t there. That’s a great way to reinforce the information. 

During this time, write down the top three ideas you want to implement immediately, and make a plan for any logistics involved.

Step #3: Tell someone your plan.

Saying our intentions out loud helps solidify the information in our mind. Make a coffee date with a colleague to share what you've learned. Tell your spouse what you hope to change. Heck, have a heart-to-heart with your dog in front of the fire. 

Find a way to speak your plan.

Even better, recruit someone to read the book or attend the conference with you. Then you can process your learning as you go and help each other implement change when you're finished.

Having a partner committed to the same learning and improvement you are will help you fight inertia when the demands of parish life seem determined to sabotage your efforts.

I mean, why spend all that time and money and not reap the benefits? If we don’t master the skill of learning transference, we may as well put our continuing ed money back into Sunday’s collection plate.


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