Learning is something we do everyday. We have to learn how to behave, how to do, and how to improve. It’s the driving force behind everything. Despite how essential learning is to our lives, we rarely take the time to define exactly what we are trying to learn at any given time.
The usual approach goes something like this. We decide we want to learn Spanish or maybe how to code. The problem is, we leave things ambiguous, so our learning is just as scattered. We dive in head first into those subject areas and randomly pick up bits of knowledge along the way. We may use some learning techniques and strategies here and there, but that’s the extent of it.
So how do you optimize the process of learning? You need to define what it is you want to learn. To help us do this, we can use the DROP Method.
The DROP Method is designed to answer the question: what specifically are you trying to learn. By better understanding the what, the how becomes much easier. We don’t get lost down this tangent or that rabbit hole. We have a clear idea of what we’re learning and can stay focused on that and that alone.
The word DROP stands for the four steps of this method: decode, remove, order, and process. By progressing through these steps you’ll be able to maximize your learning. Let’s begin with the first step, decoding.
The first step in the process is to break down the subject of learning into its most basic building blocks. What are the foundations of the subject or skill you want to learn? Breaking it down does two things. First it helps you get a better sense of what learning that particular skill requires. Second, it helps you understand what building blocks you may need for your personal goals.
I recently wanted to learn to code. I’ve been wanting to pick up the skill for years, as the idea of being able to turn my ideas into reality in the digital space was beyond intriguing. I tried many times, but I always lost steam and inevitably got sidetracked by more important work.
After realizing how many times I failed, I tried this approach. I first tried to decode what I was really trying to accomplish, after all, coding is an expansive landscape. I needed to be more specific. There was front-end, back-end, server side, client side, web, mobile, databases, and so on. I broke down the pieces to get a lay of the land.
This same approach can be applied to anything you wish to learn. Decode what’s there, what’s available, before you try to dive in head first. Once you do, you can move on to step two.
Identifying what we can learn is just the beginning. Far too often we leave our learning open-ended, not truly understanding what we want to achieve. If you want to learn a language, do you want to be able to read it or write it or speak it? Or all three? If you want to learn to code, what sort of development do you want to do?
Improperly defining your goals or not defining them at all, sets you up for failure. You can easily get overwhelmed and off track. One way to think about this step in the process is the famed Pareto Principle (or the 80-20 rule).
The Pareto Principle simply states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. For example:
- 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients
- 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers
- 80% of your engagement comes from 20% of your content
- 80% of your creativity comes from 20% of your inspiration
- 80% of your skill set comes from 20% of the material
The same principle can apply to learning. By defining your learning goal, you are able to recognize what is unnecessary for your specific objective. Learning how to write Chinese isn’t going to help you if you just want to be able to easily converse in the language. Mastering SQL databases isn’t going to make you a better front-end developer.
Instead of loosely defining what you want to learn, be more specific and then remove the excess, the 80% of the material you don’t need. Let’s go back to my effort in learning how to code. At the time I was working on a project that required additional front-end web development. Specifically, I needed to get comfortable using Bootstrap (a web framework) and SaSS (for stylesheets). Breaking that down further, the basics of those technologies were HTML and CSS.
While I naturally wanted to learn it all, having an obvious place to begin gave me more direction than I had in the past. Now that I had removed the excess, I was ready to put things in order.
Based on your refined list of building blocks, you now need to put your learning into an order that makes sense. What do you need to learn first, so that you can move on to the next thing? Trying to paint with oils isn’t going to do much good if you don’t know how to mix the paints first.
There is an order, a sequence, that makes sense when it comes to learning a skill. You have to start from the bottom up. Find the basics and progress from there by understanding the correct sequence for learning your new skill.
Based on the building blocks I had left to learn coding, it was clear that I needed to start with HTML, then CSS, and then explore Bootstrap and SaSS. The removal process helps make the ordering process much easier. Furthermore, this gives you a clear path towards your goal, a map that will get you where you want to go. Once the order is in place, it’s time to define the process.
The final step in the learning framework is process or what you will use to learn. This includes learning materials, styles, and motivations.
To begin with, you need to identify the best tools for the job, nothing a quick Google search can’t resolve. Search for the best books, classes, or teachers that can help you learn the skill. Of those, what’s accessible to you? That should give you a good sense of how to start.
While learning styles have largely been dismissed as a myth, there’s some truth in the fact that we all learn in different ways. Ideally you’ve noticed your own learning habits and what works for you. Combining this self-knowledge with best practices, can make the process of learning much more effective.
It is also useful to create a place for you to practice and play. A sandbox of sorts, where the stakes are low and you can experiment and explore your learning as you uncover it.
Finally, one of the most valuable assets you can have in this process is a teacher or coach that can show you the ropes. Their knowledge can help you get passed all the common mistakes and challenges faced by someone just getting started. They serve as motivators and help push you further than you’d go alone.
For me, learning to code comprised of a variety of resources: a few books, a couple of online courses, and a friend with decades of experience that could answer my questions and share his wisdom when I got stuck. More often than not, your process for learning will include several outlets and it is this diverse set of materials and resources that will lead to a successful learning outcome.
It is better to know how to learn than to know.Dr. Seuss
The DROP Method is a great way to streamline your learning practice. It ensures you understand exactly what it is you should be learning and how best to go about it.
If you combine this process with your knowledge of how to learn, then you can ensure that your learning will be both efficient and yield results. After all, learning is the most important thing we can do, so we ought to put some thought into how we do it.