The Meaning of Mastery: How to Identify and Learn a New Skill
July 12th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
As a successful college student there are many skill sets you need to perform your best in class. Though you may be aware of skills you possess that are well-developed or skills that you want to learn, there may be other areas you discover through feedback that you will need to develop. It is important to your success to learn how to self identify skills that you need to strengthen, and have a technique available to learn and master them.
In How to Master Any Skill, author Greg Wingard shared a process that involves six stages, which he has divided into sections called a theory segment and a practice segment. The theory segment consists of steps to identify the need for skill development that includes “unawareness”, “awareness”, and “clarification”. The practice segment involves steps to learning and mastering a skill including “awkwardness”, “familiarity”, and “automatic functioning”. All of these steps are relevant to learning academic skills and can be adapted for use by college students.
Wingard starts the process with unawareness; however, I believe that most college students are consciously aware that they are going to need to acquire new skills or further develop their existing skills as part of the learning process. I call the beginning stage self-awareness because without it, why would you care about going through the process of mastering a skill? This is the starting point for most new students. They begin with a general understanding that they are in school for a purpose and while they may only be aware of a general need for improvement, this prompts an initial desire that provides the motivation necessary to explore their needs further.
The second stage for mastering a skill is becoming aware of a need for a something specific. For college students, this usually occurs as they obtain feedback from their instructors (direct) and their environment (indirect). Direct feedback is given when the instructor grades a paper or writes an evaluation. Once the feedback is received, students gain a better understanding of the areas to address. One of the most common areas of development for students is their writing skills, so the insight provided by instructors is invaluable. Indirect feedback is received through interactions. For example, if a student is involved in a class discussion and does not know how to formulate an effective response, this is an indicator (indirect feedback) of a skill that needs time and attention.
As you receive feedback, directly or indirectly, you may still feel uncertain about the specific skills that need further development. As with the class discussion example it may be a matter of developing critical thinking or communication skills. This is the time to ask for clarification from the instructor so you know exactly what needs to be done. In addition, you may want to periodically check in with your instructor about academic skill sets as a means of determining overall progress – especially if you don’t have a paper to write until the midpoint or end of the class. This is an area where students struggle – believing that they have strong skill sets, until the end of class when they receive feedback and learn that there are skills they could have been working on throughout the class.
Once you have identified the skills to work on, now is the point that you should begin to find tools to assess your current level of mastery and techniques or resources that can assist you. This is stage when you are likely to experience an uncomfortable feeling as you try something new or different. We become accustomed to using our existing skills and they become practiced habits over time, whether they are completely accurate or partially inadequate. Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, found through a study that when we undertake any new behavior that is related to a competency, there may be temporary feelings of unhappiness or stress. However, in the long term, or as we become proficient with a new skill, we are likely to experience happiness and satisfaction because of the new level of competency acquired.
The more you practice using a new skill, or attempt to improve upon an existing skill, the more familiar it will feel. Learning and mastering a skill is a behavioral process and you have to train your brain functioning to accept it as the correct process. In 3 Ways to Master Any New Skill, there were three suggestions offered. The first is to focus on the process. Again, this is a new behavior you are learning – even if the skill involves any form of physicality, such as writing. Second, you have to learn to shift your perspective. It will take time and practice before this new skill will feel comfortable. Finally, it is important to become objective about the process and you can accomplish this with a three step process called DOC: Do (take action), Observe (watch the process), and Correct (practice and repeat until mastered).
Becoming a Habit
Once you have used the new skill long enough it will become automatic and replace a previous behavior. Wingard noted that this is the point when you have mastered a skill – when you can perform it without consciously thinking about it, or when it has become a habit. Habits are a repetitive behavior that becomes an automated function of the brain. A habit no longer requires your focused attention, which is similar to driving a car or riding a bike. It does not imply a perfect result or outcome, but it indicates mastery of a process.
If you have identified a skill that needs to be learned or further developed, you know that the process takes time and practice. For example, students may indicate that they want to be a better writer but continue to use the same skill level because it feels comfortable and has become habitual. If you make a conscious effort to follow the steps outlined, you can develop the focus and mindset necessary to learn, adapt, modify, and acquire new skills.
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