In his book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, Ulrich Boser discusses methods for learning how to learn. This edited excerpt tells the story of how a grad student developed a program to help airline pilots learn a key skill to avoid deadly errors after a Northwest crash in Detroit killed nearly 150 people.

At the time of the Northwest accident, Mica Endsley was living in Los Angeles. She was studying for her PhD. in systems engineering at the University of Southern California. The Detroit crash occurred late on a Sunday night, and Endsley would have heard about the incident on the news, with accounts like "Life or Death Turned on Twists of Fate" continuing in the papers for days.

In her graduate school work, Endsley had been thinking a lot about the causes of airline crashes, and she believed that something called "situational awareness"--a type of ambient perception--might be the root cause of the issue. As a skill, situational awareness has a good amount of history, and at least since World War I, pilots have been debating the true nature of the skill and its role in flying.

At the time of the crash, situational awareness was still a vague concept, often understood as something innate, a roll of the DNA lottery.

Endsley found, for instance, that just about every pilot could misread a problem if they didn't have sufficient background knowledge. She also found that skills like awareness and metacognition were crucial, and pilots without these skills were more likely to make major mistakes. For the first time, she also demonstrated that situational awareness required planning as well as a type of relational knowledge that allowed pilots to solve problems during stressful moments.

Endsley soon developed a training initiative, taking her research to airlines and flight schools, helping them develop better educational programs. In her teaching, Endsley encouraged pilots to ask themselves "what if" questions to help them develop a more systemic understanding of flying: What if this didn't work? What if this didn't happen? What if the engines stopped functioning?

Endsley also pushed for the direct application of the skill of situational awareness, of learning as mental doing, and she and her staff would often sit with pilots in a flight simulator, helping them develop a more concrete sense of how situational awareness works. At the same time, Endsley underscored the value of thinking about thinking, and she recommended that pilots engage in self-talk, explaining situations to themselves, examining their patterns of reasoning.

Today, many programs--from Air Force basic training to medical school programs--teach Endsley's approach, and while there's no clear way to track the impact of her work, there's little question that her efforts have helped stave off airline accidents. By giving the pilots a learning process, she helped them gain a skill that they clearly needed.

Or just consider that at the time of the Northwest wreck, 2,000 people would die every year in plane crashes. Now it's less than 500.

Math or reading, biochemistry or gaming, playing the piano or knitting a sweater, there are proven ways to improve our skills and knowledge, and even something that seems as vague and ill-defined as situational awareness can be developed. The key, it turns out, is to make learning a dedicated process, to use a targeted approach that relies on focus, practice, and reflection.

For her part, Endsley has mapped out three stages of situational awareness--perception, comprehension, and projection.

Here are the steps for learning that you can use to strive for mastery:

  • Value. It's impossible to learn if we don't want to learn. To gain expertise, we have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable. What's more, we have to create meaning. Learning is a matter of making sense of something.
  • Target. In the early part of gaining mastery, focus is key. We need to figure out what exactly we want to learn and set goals and targets.
  • Develop. Some forms of practice make people more perfect than others. In this stage of learning, people need to hone their skills and take dedicated steps to improve performance.
  • Extend. At this point, we want to go beyond the basics and apply what we know. We want to flesh out our skills and knowledge and create more meaningful forms of understanding.
  • Relate. This is the phase where we see how it all fits together. After all, we don't want to know just a single detail or procedure--we want to know how that detail or procedure interacts with other facts and procedures.
  • Rethink. When it comes to learning, it's easy to make mistakes, to be overconfident, and we need to review our knowledge, to reconsider our understanding, and learn from our learning.

These steps don't always occur sequentially. Sometimes we need to simply hone our skills. On other occasions, motivation is plain. If you're studying for an exam--or checking your flaps--the rethinking stage is always going to be central.

At the same time, we often get ahead of ourselves. One reason that hands-on learning doesn't work in many schools and colleges is because it's introduced too early. Same with practice: Too often, people try to develop their skills without knowing what exactly they're developing, without any sort of goals or targets.

This brings us to again to the idea that learning is a process, a method, a system, and in the end, people can get better at gaining any sort of expertise.