How to accelerate performance with learning logs

Posted by on 15 November 2016

How to accelerate performance main

Earlier this year while reading Paul Matthews’ Informal learning at work: how to boost performance in tough times I was reminded of the potential of journals and logs in learning. The idea of learning logs is not new but it feels a bit like I’ve rediscovered them. We have since begun to use them in some of our projects.

A learning log is a simple document, or a place or a system, where someone regularly jots down notes about what they have been learning. I’m sure many of you have been involved in learning experiences where there was a need to write a journal. A journal is often seen as ‘good for us’ but those required to keep one don’t always enjoy the process.

I’ve personally started to experiment with using a learning log in an area of Sprout Labs I’d like to improve. In the past, as I walked out of the office at the end of the day I've tried asking myself:

  • What went well today?

  • What would I do differently?

Doing this verbally worked okay, but actually writing it down gave me very different results. Some outcomes I observed:

  • It has helped me to clarify what the challenges I’m facing really are.

  • It’s easier to see patterns.

  • It makes progress easier to see.

Writing down and clarifying my plans helped give them clarity and made achieving them more likely.

At the same time as writing the journal I've been developing a ‘playbook’, where I’m writing up the practices and approaches that work. I’ve found the learning log process to be a transformational learning experience. It’s rapidly accelerated learning and change for me.

Our experience with learners so far

While I was certain that learning logs are a good idea I still wasn't sure how learners were going to respond. I was worried the job of keeping one would be seen as a chore. But the opposite has happened – many learners have passionately adopted their learning log.

We are finding the term ‘log’ is useful too, particularly in technical environments. ‘Learning journal’ sounds a little too personal. It’s not unusual for employees to be required to keep a log of their other activities too.

Some learners use their learning log simply to collect and make notes, but this may be the least meaningful use of a learning log.

Different ways learning logs can be used

Open reflective learning questions

With this approach we are encouraging the learner to regularly answer these questions:

  • What have I learned recently? If the focus of the learning log is learning while working,  then this process often involves writing up what the employee has done recently and reflecting on what they have learned from it.

  • How will I apply what I've learned, or another question I like, what wouldn’t I do next time?

  • What do I need to work on next?

Integrating the learning log into learning programs

The other approach we have taken is to integrate learning logs into workplace activities, e.g. mirror an experienced person for half a day and then write up what you have learned. We have also included them as part of formal learning activities, often at the end of a topic. This has worked well for topics that need self reflection, e.g. working in an ethical way or for compliance training.    

Common questions about learning logs

A couple of questions keep on emerging, the more we work with learning logs.

Should learning logs be assessed?

Many of Sprout Labs’ programs are competency based. It's common in higher education to use a journal to develop evidence for assessment. Personally I think this reduces their potential as a learning aid. Learning is often messy, and most cases people wouldn't want that process assessed. Journals and logs for assessment are different to those for learning. These are about tracking the outcome of learning, and are not so much focused on aiding the learning process.

Should learning logs be shared?

The answer is ‘it depends’. I don't share my learning log If the focus of the learning log is personal, e.g. intra or interpersonal skills, I don't think it should be shared. If the focus is more on technical skills then yes, maybe it’s okay to share it. The nature of the learning log will change when it is shared with an audience. The real power of learning logs is for self reflection. At first glance the learning log might look a lot like ‘working out loud’, but in actual fact they are more focused on personal performance than on knowledge sharing.     

Technologies to support learning logs

One of the great things about learning logs is they don’t need complex technologies and in many ways they are best if they are kept simple. The learner just needs somewhere they can write things down. That said, there are a few useful bits of software out there.  

  • Microsoft OneNote. OneNote is working extremely well for a number of our clients at the moment.

  • Wikis

  • Blogs. Blogs are perfect, but blogging has come to be seen as highly ‘professional’, and most don’t see them as suitable for a casual conversation.

  • The 70-20 tool from Fort Hill Company. With the 70-20 tool entries can be linked to  goals. The platform also supports media beyond just text.

  • A simple text document. This is what I'm using.

Other uses for learning logs  

There are a few other ways learning logs can be used.

Data collection for evaluation

Evaluation and qualitative analysis techniques such as thematic analysis could be applied in order to find patterns in entries.  

Team-based logs

I've been focusing on personal logs in this blog post but they could also be team based.     

Project-based logs

They could be focused just on a project and could become an ongoing lessons-learned and continuous improvement log for a particular project.

Why learning logs work

Learning logs work to accelerate learning because employees can:

1) articulate what they have learned

The process of writing up what you're learning means the learner is building their own mental model of the various concepts at hand.   

2) reflect on what they have learned

The process of articulating leads to a natural process of reflection. Especially if people are writing more than just want they did and are answer the key learning questions of how they intend to apply what they learn, or what they would not do next time.

The learning log is a powerful tool for embedding self-guided learning in an organisation. It is simple and low tech. Developing one is a process that L&D can encourage that gives an employees a structure.

Learning logs are not new, but right now it feels a bit like I’ve discovered a ‘secret sauce’ for accelerating learning.

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