Dr Stephanie Burns on how to be a lifelong learner

Dr Stephanie Burns on how to be a lifelong learner

“You don’t have a bad memory. You just don’t have a way to make things memorable.”

BY Abby Ballard, 10 min READ


This article is sponsored by Ettitude.


Welcome to our series wrapping up some of the best takeaways from our annual Movers and Breakers conference in Broome. We heard from some of the world’s foremost thought and industry leaders, who inspired us to be more curious and challenge ourselves in what’s possible. Here’s some of the most important lessons from Dr Stephanie Burns, who is an international leader of brain and mind research. As one of the fist women trained as an engineer in the US Army and by 19 was training others, she went to work as a consultant in training, including NASA and ABC-TV. Dr Burns is now passionate about lifelong learning and change development in adults. 


#1. Make your learning memorable

How many times have you read a few pages of a book and realised you can’t remember anything you just read? Yep, us too. That’s because we’re just reading for the sake of reading and not making any active effort to make what we’re learning memorable.

Dr Burns’ first piece of advice is to take notes. Concepts need to be refreshed and highlighted, otherwise you’ll leave the book just remembering the title and maybe one standout concept.

“Learning is an active process … you don’t have a bad memory, you just need to find a way to make the content memorable,” Dr Burns said. “Unless you have found a way to make it memorable, and a way to reflect on it, then there’s no point in just listening to the podcast or reading for the sake of it.”

The exception to this rule? Fiction. But all those leadership books on your bedside table? You need to be taking notes or highlight copy to absorb the content.

#2. “What did I do that caused your confusion?”

Dr Burns became the first teacher in the US Army to graduate 100% of her cohort (and also with straight As). Although she admits, she wasn’t a great teacher early on in her career, so what she learned to do was ask students who stopped following her lesson, “What did I do that caused your confusion?”

“Asking this question puts the onus on you the teacher to help and be able to fix the problem, instead of the student fixing themselves.”

“The next time you teach the very same thing, you don’t make the same mistake. Slowly, you become super consistent with your communication.”

#3. You’ve probably read these words before…

Let’s try a little vocabulary test and see if you can define these words.






Write these down on a piece of paper and you have one minute to write one word that defines them. Now, go compare your answers with what the dictionary has to say (and it’s okay if you don’t know!).

If you’ve felt like you’ve never seen these words before, Dr Burns would argue you’re probably wrong.

“If you are reading and you don’t understand the word, the brain does not process the word. That’s why you think you’ve never seen the word.”

To constantly be retaining information about new words, when Dr Burns starts studying a new book, she first highlights any words she doesn’t understand and then defines them. After that, she’ll actually start studying it.

#4. Use this test on your job

If you use this vocabulary test as a metaphor for your job consider where the hinge points are for you at this point in your career. Where don’t you quite understand or know what you’re doing?

Dr Burns doesn’t believe in the “fake it ‘til you make it philosophy”, preferring to develop competence first and then confidence will follow.

“If you don’t have confidence in an area, you’ve been given a gift to point your nose in a direction of your weakness and work on it.”

“If you’re willing to think about, ‘This is what I know, this is what I kind of know, and this is what I don’t know’, you can imagine the long-term impact on your career. If you don’t have confidence in an area, you’ve been given a gift to point your nose in a direction of your weakness and work on it.”

#5. You don’t have a bad memory

Before we explain why, the first thing we’ll get you to do is write down a list of ten things you’ve forgotten recently.

And… yep, that excuse that you have a bad memory ends right about now.

A lot of people are either led to believe, or choose to believe, that as they age their memory must worsen. Dr Burns has news for you.

“There’s an age at which where people forgot something, and they morphed that thing they forgot with their age,” she said.

“They don’t see anything they remember, instead they highlight everything they forgot. The brain goes, ‘My human thinks I’m forgetful so I’m going to show them that…’”

The trick here? Don’t tell your brain that you’re forgetful or you’ll set a course to become just that.

#6. Your goals will only be achieved with frequent and consistent action

 Fact: When you give someone the confidence to do absolutely anything, most people will not make one action to try it.

In fact, 75 to 85% of people who set goals don’t achieve them. So, this means that goal-setting is more than a mindset issue and a question of biology.

To get around that, you have to take frequent and consistent action. For instance, if you want to swim 400 metres in a certain time limit, you can’t just go for a swim once a week, every now and then, and hope for the best.

#7. When we set goals, we imagine the outcome, not the process

 Imagining the outcome of a goal is a good thing! It is! Unfortunately, though, it misses all the rough and tumble in between.

If it’s learning to swim, it misses the early mornings, the aches, and the cold.

When people are learning something new, as much as 95% of people reported negative feelings. When you’re learning to do things you don’t know how to yet it can be frustrating, humiliating and confusing (let alone some of the physical impacts).

Those that succeed in their goals have an internal mechanism that kicks in during the hard parts to convince them to keep going. If they’re studying, their inner monologue will say, ““Being bored is not a good enough reason to stop” or, “The pain of swimming another 100 metres does not outweigh the feeling of achieving this goal.”

 #8. Comfort zones are always bad

 Not only this, Dr Burns thinks we’ve over-popularised the idea of comfort zones.

“A comfort zone is a habituated habit. You’re in your comfort zone when you don’t feel anything at all,” she said.

That also includes positive emotions like, excitement or adrenalin.

“You’re outside your comfort zone when your heart rate goes up, as well as your blood pressure, and maybe get a bit sweaty.”

The important thing to remember is that things will only shift into your comfort zone after you have experienced the learning stages (like above!). So, the more you do go outside your comfort zone, the more comfortable you will actually become with that task and it will slowly shift into your comfort zone (which is a good thing!).


Thinking of joining us for Movers and Breakers 2020? You should! We’re heading to the Barossa Valley!


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