The Dangers of Learning Without a Well-Defined End-Goal

The Dangers of Learning Without a Well-Defined End-Goal

I’d like to switch gears to touch on a subject that’s near and dear to me: how to make learning more effective and meaningful. If I launched a poll to sample opinions regarding the relevance of each course you took in college, more than likely it’ll reveal a list of courses which were perfunctory at best or simply a blatant waste of your time. For courses that fall into this bucket, I’ve sampled the opinions of family and friends to understand why. Their reasons can be broadly summarized as:

The future relevance of the course content was not immediately apparent at the time. This adversely impacted the level of effort committed to it. 

This opinion piece focuses on why future relevance is key to effective learning today. Over the course of my decade-long practice as an engineer, I’ve often come across concepts that were totally opaque to me back in college. However, under different circumstances these seemingly impenetrable ideas turned out to be easier than expected. The new scenario often entailed: a clearly defined problem along with the desired end results, lofty expectations from management and a tight deadline to top it off. 

A good example of this for me is “Engineering Statistics”. I took this course in my 3rd year as an engineering student in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile Ife. It was a mandatory course in statistics for all students of the faculty of technology. I barely understood a thing and got through by the skin of my teeth. My result: 40- E. I remember this clearly because it’s the worst mark I’ve ever received as a student. One mark lower and I would’ve had to retake the course.

I recall struggling through the drudgery of endless impromptu tests, homework and exams. I never saw the point of the concepts to my future career as an engineer. While there are a few other reasons to blame for my poor performance, I thought my professors (or lecturers like we called them back in Nigeria) were simply sadists who were hell-bent on ensuring my sojourn through OAU was as painful as possible. By the way, some of them actually were. But that’s the subject of a separate write-up.

Fast forward a few years, I’m working with Intel D1C as a Process Engineer. I’m shocked at how much statistics is required in manufacturing. My learning curriculum on day 1 included Stats courses that covered everything from sampling to hypothesis testing. The key difference here however was that I had clear manufacturing problems that needed solving. A good knowledge of “Engineering Statistics” would go a long way in arriving at the best solution without needless iterations of wasteful experiments. 

I confronted this behemoth head on and was shocked at how easily I was able to comprehend the concepts. Understanding the problem I was trying to solve gave me laser focus on key areas of the course curriculum. It also narrowed my questions to things that were relevant to the problem at hand. I was able to master concepts in weeks that took me months to flunk back in college.

If the purpose for the existence of companies is to solve problems, for which they get compensated, doesn’t it make sense to first the immerse problem-solvers in the issues and have them work back to a solution? Immersing workers in the full gamut of the problem facing any organization is key to its success. The challenges faced by companies tend to be complex and multifaceted. Only personnel who are aware of this possess the diversity of perspective to proffer effective solutions. 

This top-down approach to problem-solving weeds out over-simplification of complex issues and gives workers the oomph to hunt down a solution where one isn’t in clear view. As organizations grow the tendency to develop harmful work silos increases. This tendency means the vast majority of problem-solvers only possess a narrow perspective of the issues facing the organization. Complete immersion implies breaking these barriers by exposing engineers, for instance, to the financial or marketing angle of their problem to increase the chances of global success.

The most successful companies today are ones that are uncompromising in hiring the right talent and developing them for success. Effectively deploying such talent requires training that exposes them to the full complexity of the problems being faced. Only then will your hiring start to positively impact both your top and bottom lines.

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