Tech & Work

The ideal student: What is the best approach to learning?

Veronica Combs has trained only one person who really knew how to go about understanding a new piece of software. What made him so different from other students and made it so easy for him to learn new things was his ideal approach to learning.


During the time I’ve spent learning to use and teaching other people to use computers, I haven’t run into too many outstanding students. There are willing learners and there are reluctant learners, but there are not too many who actually love the process itself.

Mike C., however, was different. He liked the challenge of change. I worked with him for several years and was always amazed at his unflagging enthusiasm for technology and his drive to improve his skills and stay current. He was always ahead of his colleagues when it came to learning new technology and was the first person in his department to request software upgrades so he could be as current as possible.

A voracious appetite for new technology
I could install a new piece of software on his machine, and before I had time to explain anything, Mike would start clicking around and exploring. Before I could get out “This is how you start to . . .,” he would have created a new document, applied several commands, and done a Save As. He would scan through all the menus, make a note of the Help function, try a few things that looked interesting, and generally ignore anything I had said. He would talk to himself, wondering about the mechanics and logic of the software and making mental notes. He was so deep into the new program that he forgot I was there.

Mike had been at the same company for close to 20 years and hadn’t always been so excited about computers. When his department began moving to digital imaging, he and his colleagues resisted the change. They didn’t get much training, and they didn’t get any dedicated time to learn the new software. “They’re not paying me to learn this, so forget it,” was the common refrain.

Mike said that for a while he stayed with the pack and didn’t do much with the new technology. Eventually he got drawn in, however, and realized that this was a great opportunity to develop new skills. He knew that he would never be able to buy all the latest software at home, so he took advantage of being able to use it at work.

“I started seeing the new software as a good thing, instead of a burden,” he said. “This is only helping me in the long run, so why wouldn’t I learn how to use the stuff?”

In addition to wanting to do his work better, Mike saw a use for these technical skills beyond his normal workday. He did some freelance projects on the side and could use the techniques he learned at work in these projects and in his art hobbies. Mike also has a computer at home and spends hours working on his system and teaching himself to use new programs.

Qualities of the ideal learner
Although it helps, a person doesn’t have to be a computer geek to be a good learner. Attitude and approach are as important as interest level. In working with Mike and watching how he approached learning, I made some mental notes about what made him distinctive.
  • A willingness to experiment: Mike would try different commands until he got the software to do what he wanted. If he were having trouble with the operating system or a particular program, he would try a few fixes on his own before asking for help. He also knew his limits and wouldn’t try anything too risky. This would be the vital quality of humility that, in the best users, goes along with another characteristic in this list—confidence in his abilities.
  • The ability to learn independently: Mike never waited for an explanation; he plunged in feet first. He knew the satisfaction of figuring something out on his own, particularly if the problem was a thorny one. That kind of hard-earned knowledge never fades and provides motivation when the next challenge appears.
  • A strong sense of curiosity: How does it work? What does that button do? What if you try this sequence of commands? Mike wanted to master each program and work it to the fullest extent. He wasn’t content with the minimum level of skills needed to do his job. His job expanded as he learned more about the software’s capabilities.
  • A sense of confidence in his abilities: Because of his previous experience, Mike knew he could figure things out. It would take time and effort, but those two things usually worked.

A great colleague and resource
Sometimes when I had a question, I would go to Mike. He specialized in digital imaging software, but he knew enough about operating systems and system folders to be helpful in those areas also. Plus, his regular reading list of periodicals and Web sites was different from mine—another reason to check in with him from time to time.

So, if you have some really good students, don’t let your relationship end when the class does. Keep in touch with these individuals because you never know when they will have something to teach you.
We’ve all said enough about the bad ones. Now let’s talk about the good ones. Send us an e-mail describing the best student you have ever taught. What made this person good? What made you enjoy teaching this student? Write a brief profile, and we might use it in a future article.

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