How to turbo-boost your upskilling with active learning

Accelerate learning and professional development with these four steps.

As machines and algorithms continue to modify many traditional accounting and finance roles, professionals are under increasing pressure to learn new skills and embrace the concepts of continuous and active learning. In the wake of the global pandemic, which rapidly accelerated digitisation, the pressure to reskill or upskill is palpable across industries and sectors.

According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2020, 94% of business leaders now expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. Apart from the technical reskilling, the report notes that employers are placing increasing importance on self-management skills with the emphasis on active learning, resilience, and flexibility.

Yet for many professionals and business leaders, the concept of active learning is unclear — not to mention the actual strategies that differentiate active learning from more traditional approaches.

"Active learning is learning by doing, and it's a dynamic approach that combines theory with real-world applications using the likes of articles, case studies, formative assessments, discussions, and debates," said Sanlie Middelberg, FCMA, CGMA, Ph.D., professor of management accounting at North-West University in South Africa. "This approach to learning prepares students and professionals to apply theory to any situation or circumstance and to be flexible and adaptive when under pressure in the workplace."

According to Giancarlo Brotto, global education adviser for SMART Technologies and co-founder of Catalyst, a community for leaders looking to crowdsource solutions to education's biggest challenges, the spirit and core principle of active learning can be encapsulated by asking: How can I get my brain activated?

"This activation element is often what is missing from many of the online courses offered to professionals, which is why you see high attrition rates, with less than 20% of people actually completing self-directed learning courses," he said.

For Mathetha Bopape, ACMA, CGMA, strategy associate at Old Mutual Specialised Finance in South Africa, continuous and active learning has been a key priority since joining the organisation.

"Unlearning and relearning new skills has been the order of the day pre-pandemic, and I knew, being a finance professional, that employers would use this time to reimagine how they ran their companies and, for some, even go as far as restructuring," she said. "For instance, I've recently taken an online short course in design thinking, because we are now in a design thinking world in which we're constantly reimagining how to best solve new and complex problems."

Bopape applies the principles of active learning to all her online short courses, an endeavour that she said is supported by her company, which provides the courses and tracks the progress of employees.

"As it's all online, leaders are able to see that you've shown foresight and taken charge of your own learning," she explained.

At a practical level, active or self-directed learning can be broken down into four key components, namely:

  • Learning: Absorbing the material from classes, books, videos, seminars, online courses, etc.;
  • Application: Using the new information in a practical way, ideally in the working environment;
  • Feedback: Gaining feedback through tests, assessments, exams, quizzes, discussions, etc.; and
  • Reflection: Reviewing what you have learned and assimilating this into your growth and career trajectory.

When approaching the first step, learning, Brotto said that it is important to perceive and clarify what you already know about the topic — and where the gaps lie. This requires self-directed professionals to break down what they are learning into core pieces; for instance, concepts where there is already a basic understanding, and those that are completely new. Professionals should then start with the familiar concepts, gradually adding new layers and working through the content that is completely unfamiliar.

Focused learning in bite sizes

He emphasised the importance of focused attention while learning, noting that even if you cannot control the delivery of the content, you can control how much time you spend on it.

"Many experts suggest that you do not try and jam in more than six or seven concepts at a time," he said. "On the flip side, I think time is a better variable. A person who spends half an hour or even 20 minutes every day, for five days, will know more than a person who spends the same amount of time studying in one sitting."

As you are learning, Brotto said that it is critical to keep activating your brain by using retrieval practice. "Pause every so often to jot down what you just learned," he said. "See if you can retrieve it."

Although you may think that simultaneously typing notes, underlining, or highlighting words while watching an instructional video or listening to a live instructor is effective, Brotto said the key to transferring new knowledge into long-term memory happens when you regularly pause to create small summaries or draw pictures to illustrate key concepts.

"Having conversations or, even better, engaging in debates around the new concept or topic is also a very effective way of keeping the learning active and making it stick," he said.

For self-directed learners, the next step, application, can involve taking a case study or new concept and applying it to a real-world scenario. This scenario can be in the professional's current workplace, or the learner can use an academic/hypothetical scenario.

"To teach application, I give my students a specific article or video and then ask a question," said Middelberg. "For example, 'Identify the risk management strategy a company followed for its currency risk and comment on it in 200 words.'"

For working professionals like Bopape, the motivation to apply new concepts and theory into the real-world context comes from carefully aligning professional goals to the active learning.

"The motivation comes from within, so how I go about it is to look for skills I want to acquire for my future roles or upcoming projects and enrol for those," she explained. "That way I know that I can almost immediately apply the knowledge, and I can always refer back to the material to refresh because it's all online."

Seek feedback along the way

The next step, feedback, can be more difficult to achieve outside of a formal setting or online course. However, Brotto said there are strategies to ensure that you stay active, engaged, and motivated. For instance, create key questions for yourself on a certain topic or section, and then a few days or weeks later, test yourself on these questions without referring to the material.

"If you are taking a formal or directed course, it's very useful to seek out formative assessments during the period of study, instead of just taking one exam at the end," he added. "Getting feedback this way is like receiving coaching from the sidelines, in the moment."

Examples of formative assessments include impromptu quizzes or one-minute papers on a specific subject matter which are then evaluated and assessed.

Involve peers to embed learning

The fourth and final step, reflection, is often completely overlooked, yet it is critical to solidify and embed the new learnings, noted Middelberg.

"Active learning requires a lot of reflection, and it requires the professional to look back on the process and to assimilate what the learning means for them going forward in their career," she explained. "One of the most effective ways of reflecting is to engage with your colleagues, peers, and mentors around the content, and ideally, to involve them in your learning journey from the outset."

Brotto echoed this sentiment, and pointed out that many learning programmes, platforms, and experiences miss the collaborative aspect of active learning.

"By involving peers and engaging in discussions, the social aspect produces dissonance, which in turn creates lively discourse," he said. "There is also this element of, oh, wow, I understood it, and I can explain it to someone else, which is a powerful part of making the learning active."

Although active learning is no panacea for the stresses and complexities of learning on the job, finance professionals who can stay engaged by focusing on small chunks every day, apply the learning to their daily context, and proactively involve peers will almost certainly reap the benefits in the long term.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at