The Best Way to Learn is….

by Darren Hood

There are lots of folks out there today who spend time trying to convince people about what they call “the best way to learn.” One of the most interesting things about the vast majority (if not all) of these folks is that they’re not educators. They don’t have any training in learning cognition. They don’t know anything about instructional design. Yet, they present themselves as experts.

Someone might say, “Darren, youre just a UX professional yourself. What do you know about the subject? Who are you to say anything about it?” Well, I’m glad you asked the (misguided) question. Here are my credentials regarding my subject:

  • 30 years of training experience
  • Certified instructional designer
  • Certified e-learning designer
  • Certified Master Trainer
  • Former Captivate Advisory Board member
  • Graduate certificate from Michigan State University in Educational Technology
  • Serve as an adjunct professor for 2 universities
  • Completing a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership

Methinks I have just cause and the qualifications to have “something to say,” wouldn’t you? ;-) I’m not just a UX professional. I’m also an educator.

Just as I have a passion for UX professionals to be the absolute best they can be and constantly labor to help them reach their goals, I recognize the role of education in that process and transformation. I also recognize and understand when someone is being sold a bill of goods regarding the educational process and, once again, seek to provide insights to help people avoid any erroneous ways (e.g., “the best way to learn is by teaching”).

Instead of providing a cookie cutter or microwaved approach, deceiving you into think that learning or teaching are both something they are not, I’ll provide everyone with a high-level, but sound approach to understand the associated concepts. I will also address the aforementioned, popular fallacy of teaching to learn.

What is Learning?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skill through instruction, study, and experience. This means that the act of learning requires exposure to THE RECEIPT OF instruction, study, and experience (and experience refers to actually performing tasks associated with the subject-at-hand).

The definition of learning, alone, puts the learner in the primary position of being a recipient. Any learning done while being the distributor is indirect and secondary. It is not the main dynamic at work during this experience.

Components of the Learning Experience

This time, we’ll shift focus to the key cog in the learning experience — the instructor. During my says in route to obtaining some of my instructional design and training certifications, one of the most important things I learned revolved around the three critical components that comprise any complete learning experience—presentation, application, and feedback (PAF):

  • Presentation
    The act of providing information to an audience of learners (e.g., a lesson, lecture, or address).
  • Application
    An opportunity for learners to practice what was presented (e.g., exercises based on the info shared).
  • Feedback
    Confirming what was done well, what was not, and providing recommendations on how to advance or proceed.

The instructor is in the business of driving the learning experience via giving the presentation (or selecting the modes, could be from an external resource), providing opportunities for learners to apply what was presented, and giving feedback to confirm how well the learners performed. The PAF process is repeated until all of the associated lessons in a course or experience have been completed. Without PAF, a learning experience will lack authority and effectiveness.

Building Blocks for Learning

Any dispensing point serves as and provides a building block for learning. Here are a few examples:

  • Reading books and articles
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Attending conferences
  • Taking classes

Any viable resource that we tap into provides us with the opportunity to receive a PRESENTATION of info worth digesting. After we receive the information, we can practice (i.e., APPLICATION). For the FEEDBACK component, we can self-evaluate or seek input from others. No matter the source, we can receive assistance confirming how well we applied the information gained during our presentation experience. Repeat.

There may be opportunities to present what we’re in the process of learning, but we don’t actually learn during such a process. Those who do such are simply presenting (and honing presentation skills). Presenting doesn’t hone acumen. If you’re not careful, however, it can and will result in fostering a Dunning-Kruger mindset in self (i.e., overconfidence).

The Best Way to Learn is….

As stated, the learning experience consists of partaking of a presentation, practicing what was presented, and obtaining feedback to confirm and gauge understanding. I’ve also mentioned how lots of people are saying that teaching is the best way to learn. You will notice, however, that teaching is NOT a function within said experience.

The most active part of the learning process and the best way to learn is (wait for it)…. through PRACTICE (i.e., by DOING), not speaking or teaching others. Ironically, to tell someone that the best way to learn is to teach is actually associated with malpractice. Practice is the part of learning where people get to exercise the most critical thinking. Practice provides an opportunity for learners and builds the foundation for true confidence. It is through PRACTICE (i.e., engaging in exercises of practicality) that people gain experience. Teaching, especially before one has their skill and knowledge confirmed, doesn’t build confidence. It doesn’t provide an opportunity to practice. Instead, it builds conceit. It should also be noted that practicing, based on inaccurate presentations and without feedback, is null.


One of the interesting things about learning is that it never truly ends. Some people feel that graduation is the end of the journey, but it’s actually just the end of that particular chapter. Also, regarding UX, everyone who truly opts into the UX profession is opting into a commitment to lifelong learning.

Through this learning, we achieve an understanding of the discipline’s purpose and standards. We learn how to assess our state. We learn methods, methodologies, and techniques. We learn that mature operation as a UX professional also requires much more than said methods, methodologies, and techniques.

When you consider the broad range of things we need to learn and concern ourselves with, they’re no way we can reach the conclusion that “the best way to learn is by teaching.” Not only is such a deduction misguided, but it’s unethical and uses the supposed learners as guinea pigs. How disrespectful is that?

If you truly want to learn, the best way to learn involves engaging in presentation, application, and feedback. Tap into as many knowledge dispensing resources as you can. Repeat the process often. Tweak yourself as you go. Over time, you continue to increase your knowledge and skill. Eventually, you’ll have something of value to say (besides telling your story).

You can hear more from the author by checking out The World of UX with Darren Hood wherever podcasts are available.

Darren Hood: UX pro (20+ yrs), adjunct professor, international conf. speaker, founder of Kaizen UX Consulting & Education, & host of The World of UX podcast