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Learning Strategies for Skills Mastery

Wendy Tan

Author, Keynote Speaker & Managing Partner of Flame Centre | Human Skills Institute

Updated 28 May 2024


After many interviews with adult learners with varying levels of learning agility, the differences amongst the top and bottom 20% of learners became evident. The charts below illustrate show these difference in their learning process.

Learners with high learning agility reflect more and ask what they need to learn, improve how they learn and adapt their learning process. They also reflect more often and engage more in activities to accelerate their skills mastery.

Therefore they pick up skills faster, have more success at work, and adapt to different career opportunities more easily.

Based on the interviews with highly agile learners, here are the three levels of skills mastery.

A. Knowing the Foundational Concepts, Frameworks, and Language

  1. Definition: This is an overview of the topic or skill, an umbrella to hang concepts together, and the language about these ideas so that we can converse with one another.

  2. For example: The surgical residents in the Netflix season, "Good Doctor" learned about human anatomy, illnesses, symptoms, surgery methods, hospital protocols, and etc.

  3. Input: These are learned through strategies such as lectures, courses, programs, videos, books, podcasts, articles, and conversations.

  4. Reflection: After taking in the content, reflection is more cognitive in nature to make sense of the ideas and connect new content to what we know. Questions like, "What does this mean? How does it connect to what I already know? Does it make sense?"

  5. Output: A clear understanding of the foundational knowledge emerges with this reflection.

  6. Application: This output is applied through quizzes, discussions, and assessments.

  7. Feedback: Feedback, in the form of correct or wrong answers, is given. At this stage, feedback is pretty straightforward.

This stage of learning is usually structured in the form of formal programs and courses. But with the wide availability of internet resources, e.g., YouTube videos, online courses, we can also put together our learning resources and focus on the missing gaps in our knowledge, and thereby be more efficient in our learning process.

B. Applying Across Different People and Situations

  1. Definition: At the next stage of learning, we apply our knowledge in different situations and people.

  2. Example: Using the Netflix example in the "Good Doctor", the group of apprentice doctors worked in a hospital under the supervision of experienced doctors. They met different cases every day, e.g., victims in a car accident, people who harmed themselves, elderly folks suffering from dementia, cancer from different parts of the body, and etc.

  3. Input: These experiences are a major input to their learning. The apprentices also continued their references to books and past cases, along with guidance from the senior doctors.

  4. Reflection: These inputs trigger reflection, e.g., questions like, "What do I not know? What information do I need? How is this situation or person similar or different from earlier experiences? What are the salient factors here? What are the possible solutions? What are the risks?"

  5. Output: This reflection clarifies how to apply their knowledge to a particular situation and people, including deviation from the standard approach, to achieve the best outcomes.

  6. Application: We take action based on our best thinking, just like the apprentice doctors making recommendations to their patients or performing operations.

  7. Feedback: At this stage, feedback comes from many sources - from senior doctors, objective data points, such as the vital stats of the patient, or the patients' reactions and/ or facial expressions.

  8. Continuous loop: This feedback becomes the input to further reflection, leading to further learning, application, and more feedback. This is a continuous loop deepening the learning.

This stage of learning can take years to hone. Learning is accelerated when there are diverse and frequent inputs, guidance from someone more experienced, and prompt feedback to continue the learning cycle.

C. Embodying the inherent finesse

  1. Definition: At the highest stage of skill mastery, we cultivate the qualities that represent the finest in this skill.

  2. For example: In an episode of the "Good Doctor", an apprentice doctor, Shaun (left in the picture above), who is also autistic, asks if he can be a good doctor if he is not empathetic. Another doctor, Brown has the knowledge and experience, plus she has an intuitive understanding of people, facilitating her connection with patients and earning their trust. Empathetic doctors are more effective. The best salespeople don't sell, they make it easy for others to buy. Beyond their legal expertise, the best lawyers diagnose what their clients truly need beyond what they said. These finer qualities may be inherent in some people that led them to the profession in the first place, however, not everyone has these qualities to start with and therefore need to cultivate them.

  3. Input: The best way to cultivate this finesse is through role modeling people we admire. We observe them in action and listen to their crucible stories.

  4. Reflection: These inputs trigger us to think, "What is this person doing that I am not? What leads them to make this decision? What makes them outstanding in their role?" We examine ourselves deeply and ask what shifts do I want to make? How do I need to change? What kind of person do I want to be?" Journaling, conversations, and being coached are useful learning strategies here.

  5. Output: The deep reflection leads to a sense of admiration and inspiration, "Wow, I want to be like them." The willingness to change one's thinking, and by extension, one's actions is pivotal.

  6. Application: With this conscious awareness, we begin to embody these qualities and persist in more trying situations. For example, a conversation with a veteran entrepreneur inspired me to persist knowing that I am not alone. A middle manager, sandwiched between the indecision of top management and the increased burden and stress on her people, finds strength from within to support both sides.

  7. Feedback: At this stage, learning and transformation happen over time, as we build our character and hone this finesse. Feedback continues to come from observing our impact as we do our work. Then surprisingly, one day someone asks, "How did you become good at this?" This is when we know we have come to a level of mastery.

This finesse level of learning may be most challenging to navigate, it involves seeing ourselves honestly and the willingness to change. However, the rewards are sweet and we become role models to others.

So, to translate these ideas for yourself, to whatever skill you are learning, ask yourself:

  • Which level - A, B, or C are you at?

  • What are the learning strategies that are most helpful at this level?

  • How can you put in place application and feedback structures to progress the learning process continuously?

  • What reflection questions should you ask yourself?

Watch this video for more ideas on the continuous learning process.

Download Skill Mastery in Four Steps.


Learning Agility by Dr Wendy Tan

To hone your learning agility, check out my book, Learning Agility: Relearn, Reskill, and Reinvent for more research-based insights and actionable strategies.

Happy to chat or help, send me an email or leave a comment and I will respond to it. Enjoy your learning journey!

If this topic is useful to you, let’s schedule a chat. Feel free to share this blog with others in your network. Thank you!


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