In this interview:
Dr. Justin Sung was a medical professional. Now he helps people learn how to learn better. Why the shift? [00:56]
People like to say things are evidence-based. It takes a lot of research, however, to be able to claim that. [05:16]
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding learning, some of them learned at school. [09:50]
If enough people say a learning method works, does that give it credibility? [13:07]
How can course creators and educators produce better material for their clients? [16:01]
This course creation tip can save you time, money and trouble. [19:00]
Are you learning without application? How do you prevent learning material from becoming mere shelf ware? [21:05]
Course creators can and should help their customers get better results. [25:55]
It’s one thing to create a course. It’s another to market it. [29:31]
Justin gives would-be learners an unusual parting tip. [33:33]
Justin Sung does something very interesting and useful. He teaches people how to learn effectively, something James thought most listeners could well benefit from. So he was very happy to invite Justin onto the show, at the suggestion of their mutual friend Will Wang.
From physician to educator
Ten years ago, a career in education couldn’t have been farther from Justin’s mind. His goal was getting into medical school. It was later, as a full-fledged doctor, that teaching presented itself as something more attractive than medicine.
Justin was fairly early into his clinical profession when he made the switch, but he says it was actually a gradual thing. He was teaching for six or seven years as he studied medicine, though it was content knowledge, for people who wanted to get into medical school.
Then he began teaching extensively, 30 to 40 hours a week. And he realized it didn’t make a big difference – he could help people understand a concept, but they couldn’t do it themselves, and they’d have trouble grasping other parts of the concept. Also, the people who needed lots of help continued to need lots of help. It was very rare for someone to attain the same level of comprehension as other people who had a natural affinity for the subject.
That’s when Justin thought, would it be possible to teach just the learning skills? By doing that, wouldn’t people be able to learn the content themselves? It was around 2013, 2014 when he began exploring this.
Justin eventually realized content training was a waste of time. He was getting better, more consistent results by teaching the learning skills, and so focused on that. And at a certain point, he realized it gave him more fulfillment than being a doctor. So he made the switch.
The credibility that comes from research
James likes how Justin did a lot of research for his teaching, evidenced by the list of references beneath his trailer video. It lends a good deal of credibility to the material.
“Evidence-based has become this kind of buzzword.” – Dr. Justin Sung
Evidence-based has become this kind of buzzword, says Justin. People will say, Oh, here’s a paper that shows it. But you can ask any real researcher, he says, and they will tell you that to form an opinion about a single concept, you need to go through hundreds, if not thousands of papers.
Much of James’s social media feed are part-time researchers, with very strong opinions. And when you come across a real researcher, he says, it’s interesting to see the difference.
There’s nuance, says Justin, which can’t be appreciated by skimming a couple of free articles.
And then there’s the confirmation bias, says James, where we’re looking for the answers we want and rejecting findings to the contrary.
Exactly, Justin says. Overcoming that is a skill, which luckily medical training gave him. And before he even started selling his learning methods, he needed them to work, first for him and then for his students. He needed the outcome, and so he focused on what the research said was effective, and what wasn’t, and kept what worked.
Learning methods that don’t actually work
Now, what are a couple of things people think are true about learning, that actually are not, asks James?
One is the idea of how learning needs to happen in certain contexts, says Justin. This is usually based on prior experience, which isn’t necessarily accurate.
Take the accountant or financial advisor studying to recertify. The way they learn on the job, or in most other aspects of their life, is often completely different to the way they think they need to learn when they open a textbook.
This, of course, is based on their experience in school. But formal education is where many of us are like fish being taught to climb a tree. And the learning methods employed in school are in turn based on early, early research that became mainstream knowledge and practice.
The latest research says these methods only work in some very, very fixed types of instances. But it will likely be another 50 years before mainstream starts conforming to the research.
So the misconception remains that to learn something, you need to read a book and take copious notes. In fact, says Justin, there’s very little research to show that that system activates the right pathways in our brain that lead to effective learning. And most professionals know intuitively that the things you know and retain at the deepest level are not gained by note taking or flashcards.
So the first thing Justin recommends is, actually challenge the way that you’re learning and think about, where does that come from? And if it comes from just your prior experience of exam study in uni, that’s something to maybe look at.
How to make better learning material
With that in mind, how can we make better courses and education for our own clients?
One of the most important things, Justin thinks, a defining feature of a successful course or educational platform, is that the number one purpose should not be for sales. The number one outcome needs to be on creating really, truly effective learning, and evaluating every single component of the design to see, does it allow you to achieve that?
Admittedly, that’s not an easy thing to understand. But there are a few things we can do, says Justin. One is, really challenge and be very critical about the decisions that we make, like what learning management platform to use. Think about the flow we want the user to go through. What are the general feelings that we want them to have? What is the progression and the foundation that we want to build, and what is going to be the best way to deliver that?
When Justin himself creates a course, it might take him a thousand hours from start to finish. And at least 600 of those hours are spent without creating any actual content, just going mentally through different scenarios.
What are assumptions he’s made? What has he included in a certain order, because he thinks it’s the best way to do it? How does he know? How can he be sure? Would he bet $600,000 that that is the best order to do it in? Because that could be the opportunity cost of producing something that’s sub optimum.
And when you get to the stage where people are actually using your product, you have be tracking every user on a very close basis to figure out, at what point do you see the earliest sign that something is going wrong? And then iterate on that very, very rapidly.
Save yourself a lot of resource and energy this way…
Another thing, a very quick tip Justin would say is, when you’re building courses, build them with the idea that you’re going to rebuild it and update it 10, 20 times after that.
Don’t make your course so rigid that to change a single component you’ll need to rerecord everything that comes after it. One thing’s certain – you will have to change it when you get real market data and user feedback. There’s definitely parts you’ll have to restructure or reorder. It will be vastly different from how you thought it would go, no matter how much planning you did or how confident you are.
So keep that in mind when you design your course. Start with a skeleton and add new things based on user feedback.
The problem of consumption without application
A huge problem in the online industry, says James, is people creating crappy training, which is common as most of us are not educators. And another is people consuming and consuming without applying or even, in some cases, opening what they buy. Fifty percent of Kindles have never been read, which blows James’s mind. We all buy courses, he says, that just become digital shelfware.
“We all buy courses that just become digital shelfware.” – James Schramko
Looking at Justin’s stuff, however, James can say he’s done the thing that James would recommend anyone do, which is focus on just having a great product. Because it’s so much easier to make sales and to have retention if you just make a good product in the first place.
And he totally agrees that whatever you have now will not be what you have even a year from now. Sometimes you even have to scrap a lot of material to start over, as James has with his business. You should put as much focus on obsolescence and rejuvenation as you do for creation.
What James mentioned about people just consuming content, says Justin, is actually a prevalent thing. People get this addiction to the lightbulb moment. There’s the illusion of progress. They’ll go through a course and learn skills, and say, Hey, this makes sense. I feel like I’m learning something. This feels new, novel, like it can really make a difference.
But the part that’s missing is, how does that translate into real transformative impact on that person’s life? People might take away one or two things, and haphazardly implement them. Half a year later, they’ve fallen back into their old ways, and moved on to the next course. There hasn’t been any real transformative change.
Which brings up another tip for course creators: have a lot of practice and qualitative feedback, and a lot of immersion. Ten percent of the user journey should be in consuming the content, 90 percent of it needs to be out in the real world actually applying what you have taught them. And if that balance is not there, then you’re not going to have real outcomes. You might have marketable statistics that you can use to push a sale, if that’s your goal. But to create real learning outcomes that last long-term, there has to be an overwhelming component of real practice and real feedback.
“To create real learning outcomes that last long-term, there has to be an overwhelming component of real practice and real feedback.” – Dr. Justin Sung
What is the course creator’s role in client outcome?
What James is taking away is, as an educator, we should make sure that the very early stages of our program create a win for a client that gets them excited for the next win. It reminds him, maybe he’s been accidentally lucky, but by having a community since 2009, he was very early to realize that the power is not in just the content. If he can balance it with coaching and community, that’s the power.
“The power is not in just the content.” – James Schramko
James interacts all the time with his clients in his private forum. And they have live Q&As and single-topic training every month. All of this gives people the platform to ask questions and get context around the content. How does it apply to their situation? What’s changed from what was taught before in the market?
That’s where any changes come in. It’s not just happening in the core content, it’s happening around the content.
What any learner can do to get results
James is interested: if he were to enroll in a course, what could he do as a student to maximize his success?
First of all, says Justin, go into it with the mindset that you will have to obviously put in the work. That’s the fundamental prerequisite. Get into things and try them out early. Really get heavy with the experimentation.
Too many people wait, trying to wrap their head around things and determine exactly the best way to minimize error. By the time they get to execution, they’re worried about avoiding a host of things. Better, Justin says, to just figure out, what are the four to five mistakes I will end up making out of that list of 7,000 possible mistakes? And figure that out early.
Day three or day four into a course, you should already know what mistakes you are most likely to make based on experience, not theory.
So basically, says James, if you’re going to commit to a course, commit as well to the resource required to consume it and attack it. Don’t buy a course unless you’re prepared to log in to your computer and rip through it. Otherwise, you’ll just buy it and it will sit there for one day down the tracks.
Yeah, Justin says, rip through and experiment like crazy. The mindset he’d suggest is, don’t expect to succeed the first time, expect to succeed on the 20th, and expect to fail on the first 20. Legitimately, go into it not looking for success, but just trying to find, what is the way in which I’m about to fail this next attempt?
When we buy a course, says James, we’re selfishly wanting to be better off. We want to get the best value for ourselves out of the investment.
And it’s a mutual line interest, says Justin. As a course creator, his objective is to make sure that every one of his students has a massive success, because there’s nothing better for his reputation than an entire generation of massively successful previous students and clients.
You could end up on a podcast talking about it if you did enough good work, quips James.
If you want to know more about Justin and his work, his website is at icanstudy.com. And for anyone fortunate enough to listen to this episode, they’ve got a special offer. You can use, on their checkout page, the coupon code Schramko, S-C-H-R-A-M-K-O, and you’ll get $15 off your initial signup. And they’ll make sure that coupon is available for use for at least the next year after this goes live.
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