Learning How to Learn: The Skill Which Underpins Performance Throughout One’s Career

Article by Kate O'Brien AMIChemE, Tony Howes and Greg Birkett AMIChemE

Kate O’Brien, Tony Howes and Greg Birkett discuss the dangers of poor learning strategies, with tips on how to identify and resolve them

CHEMICAL engineering has gone from textbooks and steamtables to ChatGPT in a single generation, and the pace of change is increasing. Furthermore, the non-technical aspects of our work, such as communication and collaboration, are skills which continually evolve. For this reason, being a “life-long learner” should be a prized attribute in our profession. Here, we describe how poor learning strategies can trap engineering students in a cycle of despair, and how the same processes can cause employees to become “stuck” and disengaged. Understanding how learning works is the key to resolving both of these important issues.

“I’ve tried hard and it didn’t work, so why bother?”

One of the biggest challenges in any organisation is dealing with people who are not performing as required. What’s rarely recognised, however, is the barrier to improving performance is often the ability to learn effectively. To improve your skill at something, you need to learn, but if you do not have effective learning strategies your efforts may not yield any improvements.

When the link between effort and result is broken, people often get frustrated and lose interest. It makes sense and indeed is human nature to invest our efforts where they return the most value. For example, a university professor who makes a big effort to improve their course, but sees no change in their teaching evaluations, may give up and revert to their previous practices.

Over many decades we have seen that the most common cause of disengagement amongst students is an approach to learning which is ineffective, leading to inconsistent performance, discouragement, and ultimately, demotivation. In this article, we propose that a greater focus on how we learn can improve both student and employee performance and create the skills needed to create a life-long learner.

What prevents learning?

When learning doesn’t happen, it’s typically due to a break down in either motivation (the need or desire to learn) or learning strategies: practice, feedback, and reflection (Figure 1). Motivation and learning strategies are closely connected, because motivation is required for the most effective learning strategies, and conversely poor learning strategies can damage motivation.

There are three common patterns in which the learning processes in Figure 1 are interrupted, causing engineering students to fail their courses: the learning may be disrupted (for example, by an accident or illness), motivation may be lacking (attention focussed elsewhere, such as social life or personal issues), or learning strategies may be faulty.

Figure 1: Learning requires practice, feedback, and reflection, underpinned by motivation [1]

There are obvious workplace equivalents to each of these groups. Disruption by external factors, loss of motivation, and those whose performance is poor but have not learnt how to improve are all clear examples. Unfortunately, poor performance ultimately erodes motivation, leading to a downward spiral which limits learning even further, as we demonstrate for engineering students below. 

Learning is not necessarily easy: it’s a skill which can and should be developed

Procedural learning: focussing on “getting it right” can lead you in the wrong direction

Disrupted and demotivated students are easy to identify, however the third and largest group of struggling engineering students are harder to spot. These “passive learners” are typically conscientious students whose success is hindered by ineffective learning. They do not attempt questions unsupported in case they make a mistake, but refer constantly to solutions, carefully cross-checking as they go to ensure that their answers are correct.

A narrow focus on “getting it right” can undermine learning; copying or passively viewing content isn’t practicing and provides no feedback on actual performance. This is why one of the central tenants of effective learning is “testing”: activities which test skills and knowledge providing practice and feedback.

Worse still, passive activities such as re-reading and re-watching generate a false sense of security, as general familiarity with content is mistaken as progress. Without practice and feedback, students have no sense of what they do, and do not, understand. These students do not develop a deep understanding of their subject, and tend to struggle when confronted with new or difficult questions.

The outcome of poor study practices is that conscientious and capable students may generate only “procedural” understanding, such as the ability to repeat what they have been shown (applying a particular equation, for example). This is compounded by the lack of practice at problem solving; working out how to apply their knowledge to new situations.

Procedural knowledge causes highly variable performance – if tested on what they have seen before, the students will pass or even do well by repeating the steps they have memorised. When required to tackle new problems, however, they will struggle, and may fail the course. In contrast, students with effective study practices are more likely to develop “conceptual” knowledge. Through challenging and testing themselves in uncomfortable situations, they develop both a deeper understanding of the content, and the skill of applying their knowledge in new contexts. The process of developing conceptual knowledge is harder work than passive study, and therefore requires greater motivation.

Figure 2: Effective learning strategies provide practice at applying skills and knowledge, and feedback on progress, shifting students from “procedural learning”, where they can imitate what they have seen or done before, to “conceptual learning”, where they understand fundamental principles and can apply them in new contexts

Cycles of success and despair

Poor study practices and procedural learning can cascade some students into a self-perpetuating cycle, which depletes their motivation, sometimes threatening their academic success and personal wellbeing. When someone works hard but doesn’t succeed, or their efforts yield unpredictable results, they encounter cognitive dissonance. They are naturally confused, unaware that their focus on “getting it right” prevents them from getting the practice they need for deep learning, or the feedback they need to accurately judge their progress. To make sense of the situation, students will seek a narrative to reconcile the contradiction, such as “I’m not good at exams”. Such narratives can become self-defeating and can further undermine performance.

Worse still, students can become demotivated by their lack of success or inconsistent results, and may begin to doubt themselves and disengage from their studies without having identified or addressed the true issues. The situation can escalate, sometimes trapping students into a cycle of despair, where internal conflict and destructive narratives damage their confidence and create a high cognitive load.

As their personal narratives become increasingly negative, students may start avoiding their classmates and lecturers out of shame, isolating them from social connections and support when they most need it. Thus, an issue with learning strategies can ultimately demotivate students, challenging all the key elements of learning (as seen in Figure 1) and seriously threatening their wellbeing.

This model is not restricted to students; the same mechanisms can apply in the workplace. Motivation enhances performance, and poor performance can deplete motivation. Where people put in effort which is not reflected in performance, it inevitably results in internal conflict. If the person doesn’t have the skills (including learning strategies) to improve their performance, the situation can become a negative spiral.

The key to success: learning how to learn

In education, we have found Figure 3 a useful tool for helping students break out of their cycle of despair, because it provides three things:

  • Insight: Figure 3 explains why the individual’s efforts are not generating the results they want: they need to change from passive to active learning approaches, with opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection.
  • Resolution: understanding the mechanisms that disconnect effort from success helps individuals resolve their internal conflict, and reduce their cognitive load, freeing up more resources to actually learn.
  • Normalisation: when individuals recognise their own situation in the figure, it demonstrates that the problem is a systematic issue rather than a personal failing, which can help to recover their confidence and motivation.

Used as part of a conversation with an academic advisor or workplace mentor, Figure 3 can be a powerful mechanism for reactivating individual motivation. Knowing that someone cares about them and their learning has shown to be extremely important for students’ outcomes. Once the issue has been identified, there are very practical measures a student can undertake to improve their study processes, as universities offer a variety of support for students to improve their study skills.

Figure 3: Good learning strategies can trigger a cycle of success, but poor learning strategies can trigger a self-perpetuating cycle of despair, yielding poor or inconsistent results, producing cognitive dissonance and undermining confidence and motivation, further deteriorating performance while the root cause lies undetected

So how do you teach how to learn?

It’s worth investing in teaching and learning how to learn, because this is the key skill for improving performance. While it’s popular now to talk about the “need to fail” as a requirement for creativity and entrepreneurship, the reality is that engineering students, engineers, and academics all like to get things right. We were rewarded at school and university for getting the right answer, and as engineers there are very serious consequences for getting things wrong.

So, if you see a student or employee who is stuck, we recommend you ask: what is the skill they need to learn? How are they supported to learn it? And is there a “safe space” for practice, to make mistakes and receive feedback?

The enabler for learning may be a technical solution, such as a simulator or digital twin where engineers or operators can learn through trial and error in a low-stakes environment. However, more often a non-technical solution will be the answer: a mentor who creates a learning environment, where it’s possible to reflect and receive feedback on their learning, without having the pressure of being “right” every time.

Teaching is not simply about imparting content; it’s about facilitating people learning new skills. A narrow focus on “getting it right” often hinders effective learning. And the most important skill to teach is how to learn.


1. Race P, Making Learning Happen: A Guide for Post-Compulsory Education, SAGE Publications, London, UK, 3rd edn, 2014.

Article By

Kate O'Brien AMIChemE

Director of teaching and learning in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland

Tony Howes

Honorary associate professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland

Greg Birkett AMIChemE

Deputy associate dean (academic) in the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and IT at the University of Queensland, and winner of the 2023 IChemE Morton Medal

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