A few weeks ago during an all-employee meeting, our team was discussing whether or not to hold “lunch and learns.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s very straightforward: the company schedules a presentation or training session during the lunch hour. In some cases, lunch is provided to incentivize attendance.
Lunch and learns are common in many companies—and are popular. They’re fun and can be useful for bringing people together and building camaraderie. Everyone’s eating, taking a break from work, and generally in a good mood. Most people walk away with positive feelings. Nothing wrong with that.
But the real question is, “How much do people actually learn from these things?”
Typically, the answer is not much. There’s not necessarily a problem with that, but you just have to know what you’re doing it for.
True learning takes effort. And as much as people like to think they can master a concept just by watching a presentation on it, the reality is very different. Study after study has shown that it takes much more than simply hearing about a topic before anyone can internalize it and really claim to have learned something.
That said, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take certain steps to get the most out of these quick sessions and turn them into real learning experiences.
1: Know what you’re looking to learn.
If you start reading a textbook with absolutely no guidance, you may still be able to learn quite a lot. After all, the information is freely available to you.
In reality, you’re better off going to the end of the chapter, reading the questions there, and then reading from the beginning of the chapter. Or a quicker way to get guidance is to convert the Table of Contents into questions. What question is each chapter title answering? It’s uncomfortable to learn that way because you won’t know any of the answers, but it’s also beneficial because those questions tell you what to focus on as you read. They prime your brain to search for the answers.
You can create the same focus at lunch and learns.
If you know the topic beforehand, write down any questions you have about the subject that you’d like answered. Do some research. So, even if you’re focused on your free sandwich, your brain will be primed to pay attention when it hears the concepts you want to know more about. You’ll also be prepared to ask the speaker questions about those concepts, rather than just passively absorbing what they’re telling you.
2: Think about what will be different afterward.
Another essential element of learning about a topic is figuring out how it fits into the knowledge you already have.
It’s not likely that everything a presenter is sharing is completely foreign to you. It probably has to do with an aspect of your job or life. So to really absorb the new knowledge, spend a few minutes considering how it interacts with what you already know.
Will your behavior change based on what you learned? If yes, what exactly will change?
Let’s say one of the lunch and learns is about one-on-one interactions at work. Is there a tangible piece of advice you can take away from the presentation and incorporate into your next one-on-one meeting? Once you’ve figured out how the new information fits into your current mental model, then you can actually act on it.
3: Put what you learn into practice.
If you’ve identified a task, habit, or goal you can approach differently, try it out sooner rather than later.
Quickly reinforcing what you’ve learned through practice gives you a better chance of remembering it and incorporating it into your life.
That doesn’t mean everything you hear at a lunch and learn is going to dovetail perfectly into your own routines and practices, however. Sometimes, you’ll try out a new strategy and realize it didn’t really work for you. It wasn’t quite your style, or it didn’t work for your specific goal. If that’s the case, at least you know it isn’t a tactic for your tool kit going forward.
Either way, practicing what you learn adds to your store of knowledge—even if you’re figuring out what doesn’t work.
4: Review what you learn immediately, and then again the next day.
Active recall is an essential principle for retaining new knowledge.
Basically, active recall requires that you continually remember something until that information has moved from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. Each time you bring the information into your conscious thoughts, you extend the “decay” of your memory. The more frequently you retrieve the information, the longer it stays in your mind.
This is exactly why every educator advises against last minute cramming for a test. You may be able to pass the exam the next morning, but you won’t retain that information for more than a few hours. The student who reviews and recalls information a number of times over the course of a semester, and then is forced to recall it again on the final exam, will carry that knowledge with them for years.
So, when you leave your next few lunch and learns, don’t immediately focus on something new.
Instead, think about the concepts and the areas you designated to focus on beforehand. And the following day, try to remember everything you learned the day before. It may be helpful to write it down or talk about it with someone else who was there, but make an effort to bring it forth from your memory. Then, do it again the next day. Continue the process of regular recall until the information comes to you effortlessly.
If you never think about what you’ve just learned again, then the memory will quickly fade. It will be as if you never went to the lunch and learn in the first place.
5: Teach someone else.
It’s been proven over and over that one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of a subject is by teaching it to someone else. Sometimes, you don’t know what you know until you’re forced to describe it in detail to other people.
I’ve noticed over my career that the most consistently high-performing people all tend to do the same thing—they transform knowledge.
This usually takes the form of both actively recalling the information and teaching it to someone else. When they see a presentation, they don’t just passively absorb it and move on. They create a document outlining the speaker’s points and their own thoughts on those points—then they email it to a few people. Or they discuss what they’ve learned with a coworker and consider the different ideas that emerge from that discussion. The exact process may vary, but they always convert their knowledge into a different form that they can use for future recall.
As a final step, I’d recommend relating what you’ve learned to another person.
Take the knowledge, make it your own, then teach someone.
Honestly, I have nothing against lunch and learns. I think they’re good for morale and team chemistry, and it’s quite possible to listen to a speaker while enjoying a meal. But whether or not you actually learn anything from that presenter is really up to you and the effort you’re willing to put in before, during, and after the presentation.