Motivated to Learn? (Just-in-Time Learning)

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March 23, 2005
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Think of a time when you wanted to learn something because there was something you needed to do. It could be as simple as figuring out how to transfer a call on your new (and insanely complex) phone system at work, because your boss' wife somehow ended up at your extension and you SO don't want to hang up on her. Or it could be that you just realized that you're really tired of copy-and-pasting your contact info onto every one of your web pages, so you need to figure out how to dynamically include a snippet of HTML in every one of your JSP pages.

Now think back to most of what you learned in high school. How much biology do you remember? I mean, really remember? (Assuming you aren't a medical student or biologist today.) I am 100% certain that I'd fail some of the exams I took when I was 16... including some of the ones I aced at the time.

OK, so that was a pretty long time ago, and no matter how well you learned something, there's a little bit of a use-it-or-lose-it for a lot of topics. You might still have it all in your brain, but the mechanism for recalling it is too rusty to be useful.

But think about something more recent. Think about the last technical topic you learned from either a class or a book. How much of the details do you remember? The answer probably depends a lot on whether you knew that you needed to be able to do that particular thing you were learning. And that's huge. Because if even at a high level you know you need to learn PHP, if the parts your studying don't seem directly related to what you know you want to do, the learning will be weak.

And that's the problem with a huge chunk of learning today, from schools to colleges to corporate/IT training to books:

Just-in-case learning sucks compared to just-in-time learning.

That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of problems with just-in-time learning, too... usually just-in-time learning is also just-what-you-need to survive the current problem, and you might not even understand why the thing you're doing works. But there's a hybrid solution that we try (not always successfully) to do sometimes in our books or in the classroom, and it's this:

Give a compelling, personally motivating reason/benefit for the thing you're teaching, before you teach it!

In other words, try to make just-in-case learning feel more like just-in-time learning. In our Head First books, for example, you'll see a lot of things like, "Imagine you've just finished working on this project when suddenly the spec changes, and your boss says..." We try to give scenarios up-front, that at least provide a tiny bit of just-in-time motivation. That feeling of, "OK, I really need to be able to do this, so I need to figure out how..." vs. "I'm sure this is relevant or it probably wouldn't be in the book, but it's not something my brain needs to pay attention to right now..."

We try to get our authors and teachers to really work on this, but it's not always. I've had learners in a Java class who had no idea if they would ever actually use Java in the real world. So I try to help them imagine what they might want to do, and I try to come up with things that might be inherently motivating, to make it more like a game. Almost anything can be made interesting and even compelling if the book/teacher doesn't suck the life and joy out of it by making it boring, academic, or too comprehensive and difficult (like when the book tries to be both a learning and reference book, so it covers absolutely everything about any given topic, including the stuff that even the author can't imagine actually using in the real world...)

I think I gave a few tips on doing this in a much earlier post on Show-dont-tell applied to learning.

A good goal: figure out ways to make just-in-case learning feel almost as motivating as just-in-time learning.