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Making Self Study an Explicit Part of All Maritime Training

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on March 24, 2014

In this article I hope to convince you that self study is a huge benefit to your trainees, that you will get better training outcomes across a broader range of trainees, that it is easy to implement, and that it can make the training a lot more interesting and engaging.

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Making Self Study an Explicit Part of all Maritime Training

“In this article I hope to convince you that … self study is a huge benefit to your trainees, that you will get better training outcomes across a broader range of trainees, that it is easy to implement, and that it can make the training a lot more interesting and engaging …”


When we take a moment to really think about how people learn or how we train our trainees, we quickly come to realize that many parts of it just "happen" automatically - largely without our support or explicit acknowledgement. Self study is one of those aspects of learning we generally take for granted both as trainers and trainees. This (taking it for granted) is unfortunate.

The act of self study is something that conveys tremendous benefits for trainees and learning outcomes. It helps to equalize different trainee backgrounds, abilities, language proficiency and knowledge - all important issues in maritime training. It creates time for reflection and deeper learning beyond the boundaries of the course. And, most importantly to some, explicitly supporting self study as a part of a maritime training course or program can improve the quality and depth of training outcomes - simply producing better trained trainees.

This article talks about self study; what it is, why it is important, and how you can easily make it an explicit part of your training programs.

What, Exactly is Self Study?

Self study can mean different things to different people. For many, when they hear the term, they associate it with personal, self-directed learning experiences - what someone would undertake if they were interested in a topic and decided to learn more about it.  This might involve reading a book on the subject, doing some web-based research, undertaking a project in the garage to build something new, and so on.

But the examples above, while good examples of self study, all assume self-motivation or self-direction - that is, not within the context of a course or other formal learning experience. The kind of self study that is the topic of this article is that which is in the context of a course or training program. It is a real component of a course that is acknowledged in the course outline, facilitated by explicit support from  the instructor, and measured in some way through assessment. Essentially it is the act of giving your trainees some learning to accomplish outside the classroom, and then making sure they have accomplished that learning.

Examples of this kind of self study can take many forms from the very common (giving the trainees an assignment to do in their own time) to the somewhat less common (having the trainees prepare ahead of time for class by learning some portion of a given topic on their own), to the uncommon (asking trainees to research, prepare and present a short lecture to the class on a course topic). The underlying thread in all of the above examples is that they require the trainee to accomplish some learning, on their own or in a group, in the way that they think best. In other words, they learn on their own, without it being fed to them.

It turns out that this is an incredibly powerful process for learning, and for so many reasons. It is also really easy (and surprisingly fun for both the trainee and the trainer) to add to an existing course. As such, it is something we should think very carefully about exploiting when we are designing any training program - it is not enough to hand out an assignment. That's a start, but so much more can be done.

It also turns out that this is a very important topic for maritime training. Unlike in some other learning settings, both knowledge and skills are critical in the maritime work world. Self study works equally (and powerfully) well for both knowledge and skills. If instead of self study I were to just use the term "self practice" (trainees taking time on their own to practice a skill), I am sure you would see the application to the skill side immediately.

If I were to keep to the theme of this article, I might now assign you the exercise of figuring out why self study (or self practice) can be so beneficial. In fact, many of the reasons are pretty obvious. But before moving on to some concrete suggestions for incorporating self study into your maritime training program, let's look at a few of the reasons why self study is so effective as a training tool.

What is it About Self Study That Makes it so Powerful?

If I had to convey the virtues of self study concisely (which, if you've read any of my writing, is not something I am generally able to do), I'd have to say that self study is excellent at all those things that regular classes (lectures) are terrible at. We all know the various shortcomings of instructor-led training. It turns out that self study accomplishes all those things that instructor-led training cannot, or can't do well. Having said that, instructor-led training, despite its enormous shortcomings, has its advantages too.  But in general, it can easily be criticized as a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach that actually fits no one perfectly. As much as I love giving lectures, and I have given more than a thousand, every one of them was aimed at the mythical "typical student". I teach what the typical student needs to know. I assume that they all have the pre-existing knowledge and background of the typical student. I proceed at a pace that is just right for the typical student. I assume they all care about what the typical student cares about.

Of course, there is no such thing as the typical student. Therefore, who am I actually teaching to? No one, directly. Instead, the best I can hope for is that what I do in class is not too far off what most students need. If I do my job well and am lucky, it will be close to right for most, kind of right for many, not quite right for some, and hopelessly wrong for a few. That's if I (and they) are lucky.

But wouldn't it be better if I could change the learning experience so that it became exactly right for all? Wouldn't trainees be happier and more likely to learn much better? Of course they would. And that is the ultimate promise of self study. Let's look at some of the specific benefits.

Focuses on The Goal Rather than the Process

We don't care how a skilled and knowledgeable mariner acquired his or her skills and knowledge. All we care about is that they are skillful and knowledgeable. Yet our most common learning models (courses) are almost always completely focused on the process, not the goal of learning. If you don't believe me, then consider the following fundamental aspect of the courses we deliver: timing.

For every course, there is always an answer to the question "how long is this course"? It may be a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months. Timing is a central aspect of training experiences but is completely about process, not about learning. In a training utopia, courses would never have time limits associated with them, they would only have learning requirements. Therefore, when asking the question "how long is this course", the correct answer (the one focused on learning, not process) would be "exactly as long as YOU need to learn the required material well".

Salman Kahn, of Kahn academy fame, expressed this very well in a lecture he gave when he said that one of the fundamental flaws with our education system is that the "variable" part of the process is how well and how much people learn, but the "fixed" part of the process is how long they are given to do the learning. Grade 6 (or any other grade) is always one school year long, but each student learns a different amount. This is completely backwards. Wouldn't we be so much better off is the fixed part of training was that everyone would achieve mastery of the subject, and the variable part was everything else (timing, how each trainee learns, etc.)? Now, we may not be able to completely accomplish this goal, but we can make a significant move toward it using self study. Consider again the issue of course timing or the pace of learning.

Everyone learns at different rates. Some are quick studies, others take more time. That does not mean that people necessarily learn better or worse (those that take longer may in some cases learn much better). But the pace of learning differs from person to person. Lectures are one pace for all. This generally means that half the class can't keep up, and the other half is bored. Oops.

By adding a self study component to a course, we introduce the ability for trainees to define the pace for that part of the course that suits them the best. Slower learners can spend the time they need to learn the topic well. Faster learners can learn and then either relax, spend some time learning more deeply, or move on to other topics of interest to them. Self study is completely goal focused, not process focused. This is a huge benefit for all trainees.

Accommodates Differing Learning Styles and Different Levels of Pre-existing Knowledge

Similar to the issue of pacing above, we all know that trainees, as individuals, have different ways of learning. Some can read text and take it in immediately. Others are more likely to absorb a concept if they have access to imagery that explains it. Still others are more comfortable listening to explanations.

Likewise, each trainee comes to a new learning experience with different levels of pre-existing knowledge and skill. As a lecturer, one of the most difficult aspects of delivering an engaging and effective learning experience is accommodating this diversity in your learners. Likewise, for trainees, one of the most discouraging experiences is the realization that some of your cohorts already "get it", even though the topic is meant to be covered in the course. If the trainer picks up on this, then they may assume that most of the others already "get it" too, and then move on, leaving many behind.

In both cases, self study allows trainees to choose their own way of getting to the "goal" - learning in the way and at the pace that suits their learning styles best and accommodates their preexisting knowledge (or lack thereof). It allows trainees to smooth out the gaps in prerequisite knowledge by spending more time and delving more deeply into those concepts they are already supposed to know, but do not. It allows them to move quickly over those things they already do know - thus avoiding wasting their time. Why should we make all trainees use the same learning approach rather than allowing them to choose the ones that work best for them? Why do we teach exactly the same materials to all students - missing topics that some need, and covering topics that others already have? Self study allows the student to tailor their learning to their specific needs.

Helps Accommodate Language Differences

Another important aspect of the maritime industry context is that many people are going to be forced to learn and operate in a language which is not their native tongue. This creates a huge disparity in the ability to learn and the rate at which they can absorb content. Self study is an outstanding "equalizer" in this regard. It gives trainees the flexibility to take the extra time needed to learn, and helps them fine tune their English skills. Whether self study is a formal part of your delivered training or not, people with a language disadvantage are going to be engaging in some form of self study regardless. They must. But by including self study as a part of the course that everyone must undertake, the playing field is somewhat leveled, and all trainees benefit.


"Conclusion? But wait - I'm not done"! True, there is so much more to say on this topic. And I will say it  but I have already asked a lot of you to read this far.

In the next article I am going to continue this topic and cover how self study (click here to be notified when that article comes out if you have not already done so):

  • turns trainees into active learners rather than passive receptacles of knowledge,
  • allows the exploration of new and varied interests,
  • allows critical time for reflection, and
  • allows the use of the "flipped classroom" model.

In all, I hope to completely convince you that self study is a huge benefit to your trainees, that you will get better training outcomes across a broader range of trainees, that it is easy to implement, and that it can make the teaching and learning a lot more interesting and engaging.

Oh - and of course, I'll then move on to the "how" of it all by discussing some concrete ways to employ self study in your maritime training events.

Until then, thanks for reading and happy training!

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

Maritime Training: The full library of maritime training articles can be found here.

Blog Notifications: For the latest maritime training articles, visit our company blog here. You can receive notifications of new articles on our company blog by following the blog.

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