The Power of Learning as You Go

Abby Weng, English Coach & Consultant

When I was trying to get my driver’s license, I went to a school that had all sorts of facilities designed to help me practice for the test I had to pass.

My coach told me exactly how many times to turn my steering wheel at which point. It was a matter of memorizing the routines, and then executing them. On the day of the big test, everything went as planned. I passed easily and got my license.

That’s actually the end of my driving story

I learned everything I needed to know in order to get my license, only to discover that the outside world is a whole different story. There are countless variables on the road: people walking around, motorcycles zipping by, other cars that can get aggressive and roads that are not perfectly constructed to the likes of my practice course.

I know that I’m not the only one who’s gotten a license but still can’t drive

I had to jump through specific hoops to get my license, and I got really good at doing that, but none of what I learned really helped me get on the road. Many English learners encounter the same challenge when they transition from their English classes into the real world. Somehow, we have to find a way to bridge the gap.

To be sure, what we have learned in classrooms can still be valuable, but we need to re-examine the knowledge in the context of our life and start applying those lessons immediately. I will attempt to convince you of the power of learning as you go in this article.

I wish I were that cool behind the wheels!


Learning as you go allows you to:

1) Give shape to abstractions
2) Figure out what you really need to know
3) Troubleshoot real-life problems


Recently a member in English Ever After completed an ambitious project

She took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about Evernote and then taught the rest of us about the service. I wrote about this some more in another article Why We Should Go to the Places That Scare Us”, so I’m going to take an excerpt from there to give you an idea of this project:

When the timing is appropriate, I encourage members of English Ever After (my membership) to take on greater challenges that are outside of their comfort zone. For instance, a while ago, one of our members asked me about how to better organize her English learning notes.

I recommended trying Evernote, and in the process, shared a great book on the service: Brett Kelly’s Evernote Essentials. She promptly began a project on Evernote in the membership and created thorough summary notes based on her reading as well as experimentation. 

Then, I gave her a huge challenge

I asked if she would be willing to turn what she’d learned into a live presentation for our community.

At the end of this amazing project, we did a retrospective

As we looked back and re-examined the process together, she mentioned that it had been tremendously helpful to work on Evernote as she learned about it.

According to her, the words on the pages at first seemed intimidating: there was just so much! But once she followed along step by step and tried everything out, the information no longer seemed so complicated.

What happened was that she was able to convert the abstract ideas and rules into something concrete, and more importantly, into something meaningful to her life.

Case in point:

If I were to tell you how to go from one place to another right now, it would probably be difficult for you to picture the route in your head unless you’re extremely familiar with the places already.

But if I were to give you a map to follow along, that would be much easier, wouldn’t it? Because now you could use your finger to trace along the places mentioned.

Taking a step further: if you were to find yourself in that very location, you would be able to comprehend my directions even faster.

In short, learning as you go is effective because you have the chance to immediately implement the otherwise abstract ideas, turning them into parts of your life, making the information easier to digest.

However, that’s not all

This practical approach of learning as we go also allows us to prioritize what we need to know when we are overwhelmed with a deluge of information!

This brings us to the second powerful benefit of learning as we go: clarity on what we really need to know.


As you may have figured out by now: knowledge is limitless! 

Until you have tried to implement the material taught to you and understood the context you are in, it’s difficult to determine what is important to know and what is not.

No matter how much we learn, or how long we’ve been doing it, there’s always more to know. Learning is a lifelong endeavor; it never ends. Even though I am a professional English coach with years of experience, I am still learning all the time.

The point of learning isn’t to FINISH it

Sometimes, learners get upset because they feel like despite their years of effort, they still have so much more to learn. What they don’t realize is that this is going to be the case forever, and there’s nothing despairing about the situation!

The goal has never been to get to some finish line (it doesn’t exist!) Rather, it is to absorb what we can at the moment and make use of what we know.

The words on a page or the topics taught in a class contain only what someone or some team subjectively think is crucial for us to know. That opinion may differ from person to person.

Finishing a textbook, a class or even an entire program is by no means the end of the journey. Moreover, not everything you pick up in those places is going to be useful to you at a personal level.

In English Ever After, we had a live session about the simple tenses

In it, we covered the past, present as well as future tenses. When we reached the future tense, we discussed the difference between “will” and “to be going to”.

Some grammar books claim that the two are vastly different

They explain that when we use “will”, there’s a possibility that the event may not actually happen, and when we use “to be going to”, the event will definitely happen.

I talked to my members about this, and told them that despite what the books say, this is simply not practical in real life, so they can just ignore this rule.

Would you really assume that your fiancé doesn’t in fact intend to marry you just because he/she says “I will marry you” as opposed to “I’m going to marry you”? I think not.

As far as we are concerned, the two are pretty much interchangeable

However, it’s true that “to be going to” is usually more casual, and we often use it for events that are in the near future as opposed to ones that are far into the future. When in doubt, just use “will”.

I am reminded of this example because quite recently, a client of mine brought up the distinction between the two forms on her own. She had heard about it from a friend.

Based on what I know about this particular client over the course of our work together, I believe that the most important thing for her to master at this point is her basic structure (subject-verb agreement) and her understanding of the tenses. Spending the time and energy on differentiating between “will” and “to be going to” distracts her from what’s truly important, not to mention the fact that the distinction is insignificant for the most part.

We are inundated with information

People and various resources will teach us all kinds of things: some of them important in general, some of them not, and some are important to YOU as an individual, even if they may not be so for everyone else.

In our membership community for example, we have people from all walks of life. We have a periodontist who knows terminology that I may have never heard of because in my life (and in most other people’s life), it isn’t the priority to learn every word there is to know in that field, but for her, it is one of the MOST important aspects of the language, and her patients benefit greatly from her knowledge.

Let’s get back to the case of the Evernote project

The member who worked on this quickly noticed that some features of the program were more useful to her than others in the context of her life. Even though the book she was reading provided an overview of a whole range of features (and she had tried them all), in the end, she focused on mastering only a few aspects that were relevant to her.

This isn’t something she could just figure out without getting her hands on Evernote itself. If she had not gone through the process, she may have done what most people do when they learn English: try to learn everything, then remembering little because at the end of the day, we have a hard time recalling what isn’t relevant to our lives.

I hope I have made the case for why learning as we go can help us invest our time more wisely, resulting in better retention of our learning.

Now, let’s examine the last aspect we’re going to cover; it’s an extension of the reality-based argument: learning as we go gives us the ability to troubleshoot real-life problems as opposed to imaginary ones born out of fear.


Let’s first review why we have the need to acquire knowledge

It isn’t just to get a score on a piece of paper or to impress others — ok, maybe sometimes, that is why we work so hard. Ultimately though, we take the time to absorb knowledge because we want to make our lives better, and we believe that having more knowlege can help us do so.

In conventional learning, once we finish a chapter in a textbook or a unit in class, there’s a series of exercises we can practice. At times, they are served up to us in tests to determine whether we’ve truly learned what we need. The problem is that often, those exercises are artificial (like my driving school’s facilities), so they translate poorly into abilities in real life.

We see the consequences everywhere

I frequently hear intermediate and even advanced English learners say that they want to go back to square one to learn English like a beginner again. As surprising as that is, I understand where they are coming from because I’ve felt those same urges before.

What they have learned so far isn’t immediately helpful in their lives, but they don’t know how to patch all the holes, so the best solution they can come up with is: start over again.

However, going back to beginner material is NOT the solution

The problems each English learner encounter are specific to that person. The wisest thing to do is to observe what’s going on and then deal with the issues patiently, learning what’s necessary, one step at a time.

Back to the example of our member in English Ever After

Once she began to prepare for her presentation on Evernote, she quickly realized a few things:

1) She had never made a powerpoint slideshow and didn’t know how to get started.

2) She wasn’t sure how to organize all the information she had learned.

3) She noticed that she needed to work on her pronunciation of a certain word and some other aspects of her delivery while we did a run-through together.

These are problems that she encountered while engaging with real life, and she went ahead to overcome all of these obstacles one at a time. The solutions she figured out served her well. By the end of the project, she was able to say: I learned this and this and that, and here’s how those new skills have helped me in a practical way.

There is really no shortcut

Underneath the desire to learn everything we ever need to know first is actually a fantasy that if we can succeed in doing so, we’ll no longer encounter difficulties on our journey ahead.

Instead of just getting on the road and solving problems as they arise, we hide in training mode, determined to practice so much that we’ll be prepared for any and everything.

Of course, the joke is on us

There is no way we can predict or prepare for everything. Even if that were possible, we would need so much time to get ready for each possibility that we would never get on the road at all.

Think of what we miss out in the process. Life is just passing us by!

To recap:

Once we’ve acquired the basic skills as beginners and moved past that stage, it’s extremely important to start engaging in real life and learn as we go instead of signing up for more and more classes.

The reasons we must do so is that the practical approach allows us to: 

1) turn abstract ideas into concrete, easy-to understand reality.

2) determine how we should allocate our limited time and resources in spite of the fact that knowledge is really limitless and we can never stop learning.

3) become great problem solvers by applying our knowledge to troubleshoot the issues we encounter along the way.

You must be eager to know if I have learned to drive after all

I’m embarrassed to say that the answer is not yet, but on the bright side: I’m taking my own advice and working on it.

Truly, the only way to become a better driver is to drive. I need to start trading in those memorized tips in exchange for real life experiences that may one day become my instincts. I need to be patient with myself and only learn what I need in the moment instead of sitting in a chair, trying to hoard information without taking action.

Finally: I need to take on the problems one at a time, and really try to solve them instead of doing exercises in a book or in a video game (unbelievably, I justified playing Real Racing 3 for a while as a way to work on my driving… as ridiculous as that sounds, don’t you think many of us also try to become fluent in English in a similar way?)

Next Step

I recognize that it’s scary to learn as you go. Even though you may agree with what I’ve presented here, you may still have trouble taking that next step and diving into real life. You are certainly not alone. I know how that feels… my heart races and my palms get sweaty just at the thought of getting behind the wheels.

But you know what? I created English Ever After, a membership community for intermediate to advanced English learners precisely to help you learn as you go. Consider joining us! You will learn the skills you need to be independent, but I’m going to warn you ahead of time: you may like the community so much that you end up staying for a while!

Share This