We've Been Just In Time Learning Our Whole Lives

Oct 03, 2020 6 Min Read
just in time learning
All knowledge is useless until suddenly essential.

Back in secondary school, the one subject I dreaded more than any other was History. I had absolutely no interest in it. Unless I was a Jedi, why should I care about the rise and fall of empires?

Oh, right. Because the final exam was tomorrow.

Without fail, I would spend the day before my History final combing through the chapters, taking notes, and doing practice questions as I went along. And I wasn’t the only one. Until exam week, everyone (including the teacher) used our History periods for naps or completing other assignments. Then we would sign out from reality to clock in some eleventh-hour revision.

And it worked. I can’t speak for the rest of my class, but I used to ace my history tests. What became of all this short term information I’d memorised, though?

Like turds in a toilet bowl, I would flush it all away and make room for the next round of curry. 

I’m now ten years older, and my process hasn’t changed much. The main difference is that exams have been replaced by job assignments and promotions. When a gap in my knowledge or skillset is what separates me from completing my work or demonstrating my worth, that’s when it’s time to start learning. It’s not exactly fun, but who the heck learns Microsoft Excel for fun? 

I’ve also come to know that what my teachers used to call being ‘insufferably lazy’ actually has a proper term: ‘Just In Time Learning’. It’s got a fair bit of psychology to back it up, too. Basically, you only learn what you need when you need it. 

To the dismay of my teachers, just in time learning has been embraced as the preferred method of the modern-day workforce. When daily tasks seem to never end, just in time learning is a hell of a lot more practical than all the time learning. Employers have also warmed up to just in time learning as a way of addressing the job versus experience vicious cycle. No experience? No problem, can you learn just in time?

'Just in time learning' does not mean 'reading the fire extinguisher manual while the house is burning down'. I've had a few close calls, and it's forced me to be more thoughtful about my approach.

Even if you want to be ‘insufferably lazy’, it’s worth knowing how to do it properly. 

1. You need to know what you need to know

No one practices just in time learning for the thrill of it (if you do, get help). There is usually a goal you’d like to achieve and to do that, you’ll need to master or at least be familiar with a certain competency, or competencies.

Before you set out to learn them, it would be wise to make sure that these competencies are indeed the stepping stones towards your goal. Then there is the issue of depth, so can you stop at a surface level or do you need more?

Ask relevant parties, do research, and then cross-check for extra credit. Going one step further is to look at the sequence in which the competencies should be learned. Will learning one skill make learning another easier? Will it be a waste of time to learn this skill without prior knowledge of some other? 

Essentially, what you need is to create your own just in time syllabus. Hey, I never said this was just in time planning, did I?

2. Recognise good just in time learning content 

You did a commendable amount of research, or you decided to wing it. Either way, you have your list of competencies, and you have them in your desired sequence. Time to look for learning content. 

Here’s where Google will be your best friend and worst enemy. 

It’s like going shopping for a jar of peanut butter and seeing hundreds of brands in front of you. Surely there can’t be that many ways to make peanut butter -  but what if there are? You’re no peanut butter expert. Why did you waste your time in uni doing law? You should have taken a degree in peanut butter. Now you’ll never know what it means to be truly chunky.

Okay, it’s not that bad, but in general, it can be pretty daunting to decide on learning content when there’s so much out there. Keeping in mind that it’s for just in time learning, here’s a list.

  • Keep it short 
  • Use reliable sources 
  • Use multiple mediums
  • Test yourself (huge one here)
  • Examples and analogies

3. Use tools to make your life easier 

There’s a reason most education systems don’t really get students to write out their own syllabuses. Well, sometimes they do, but those tend to be negotiated by the students and teachers.  

As adults, just in time learning becomes tremendously easier when you have a valid and reliable plan to follow. The question is, without being that well versed in the topics ourselves, how much faith do you have in the learning plans you come up with?

Does this mean they won’t work? Of course not. When we start from zero, any plan will deliver progress. But is the progress slower than it could be? Have you left out anything important that could come back to bite you later? Do you think your time might be better spent actually learning instead of planning and organising learning? Is the risk of making a mistake worth the experience of creating your own syllabus? 

Remember, self-learning doesn’t mean learning by yourself, it means taking charge of your learning and making smart decisions. If just in time learning is about saving time, then you might want to check out Learning Experience Platforms. They help determine the competencies, curate and organise content into bite-sized chunks, and basically do everything for you except make your bed. All that’s left for you to do is learn, just in time.

4. Make it a social activity

I’ve left this last because it’s really not for everyone. 

Some people need to study alone. Some people need a study partner. After a while, some people like to mix it up and try something new. What should stay constant in all this is the quality of the learning session. 

Personally, I enjoy studying in small groups, but only after I’ve had time by myself to go over the basics and really remember them. I save the group sessions for more in-depth discussions and fact-checking. There is also an undeniable competitive element when I learn in a group: I want to be the best out of everyone there, and so do they. 

This leads to challenging and holding each other accountable for completing the content and truly internalising it. There’s nothing quite like having to tell my study partner that I ‘didn’t have time’ to read a few 5-minute articles, and then they give me a look that says they know I ate a tub of ice cream and passed out on the sofa again. 

Creating more productive last minutes

It’s in my nature to seek last minutes. In fact, daresay it’s in everyone’s nature. They are powerful motivators that make us truly focus. Rather than going against it, I’ve come to embrace it, with the condition that I don’t allow last minutes to catch me with my pants down. 

I’m currently finishing this article up, and it’s an hour from the publishing deadline. Gotta practice what I preach.

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Tags: Growth, Youth

Ashraf Farid had been happily teaching English until one day a student challenged him to ‘get a real job and prove he could make it outside the classroom’. He is currently a part of the Leaderonomics Editorial Team. His passion includes singing in the shower and fighting neighbourhood cats. During his free time he writes wicked bass lines he secretly knows are ripped off from Muse songs.

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