The 5 best strategies for learning on the job

If you’ve been searching for a comprehensive, hands-on guide to landing your dream job, then look no further than our handbook. Job Search Success: Tools, Tips & Tactics was created by Challenge Consulting’s team of recruitment experts. Click here to find out more.

It’s day one at a new job. You’ve done the requisite pacing, overnight tossing and turning, morning caffeine overloading  and countless other forms of shaking off the same ‘first day of school’ nerves that have been embedded in your muscle memory since you were six. You look at the clock and stall so you avoid getting to the office before your new manager and awkwardly sitting in the lobby… and then what?

Whether you find yourself in a similar role at a new company or starting out on a brand new career, there will doubtless be a moment on the first day where you ask yourself, ‘How do people do things around here?’ At a large corporation, there are likely to be orientations, HR meetings, and perhaps client introductions; at a startup you’ll be expected to jump right in the deep end and manage your own learning. Regardless, the first few months on the job are often about learning exactly how you fit into the big picture of the organisation – crawling before you can fly.

Trainings or no trainings, it’s really up to you to figure out what you need to do day to day, begging the question: how do people learn on the job? Fundamentally, learning is not always easy. Understanding your own learning style and needs will accelerate the process. Here are our top five strategies:

Shadow those in the know

If you’re starting out at a startup, there’s unlikely to be a training program, so perhaps you’ll need to set up time with a nearby colleague, a new team member or your manager. For visual learners, a quick walkthrough of what you need to do can get you started and comfortable with the process at hand. Take good notes and follow the process, and you may walk away from your first day with enough fuel to power through until you find your stride.

Ask questions

You may never get the chance for a formal introduction to your new job, but asking questions is a great way to learn the ropes while also getting to know your co-workers. With a good support force around you, the ability to look at your new job and enquire about the best application of your skills will be met with both graciousness and hopefully some strong pedagogical moments. Try not to interrupt colleagues with one question after another (they have work to get done, too!), but keep a running list as you dive in, and address a number of queries at once.


If you spent any part of your childhood looking at a machine or toy, muttering the phrase, ‘How does that work?’ and then grabbing a screwdriver to take it apart, this may be the way you learn the best. In tinkering with your new job, responsibilities, applications, or codes, we find ourselves learning by the structure upon which something is built. The value is that you can teach yourself through trial and error. Learning through experimentation, you may build a more comprehensive understanding, and you will be positioned to break down concepts to the fundamentals when it comes to teaching others.

Talk things out

Sherlock Holmes fans, apply here. Some people learn the best by endlessly ranting and talking out the way things work and construct. Similar to the question asker mindset, this method of learning may have to do less with being informed about how things are done and more about the process of walking through a problem in your own time. As you talk out your new roles and challenges you can get feedback or visualise your own way through to the end.

Trial by fire

Being handed a problem and left to our own devices can be scary, especially on day one. Still, sometimes being forced to learn under fire can be just the motivation we need. This is often the way of early stage startups. No one knows how to do the thing, so no one can teach you. You try, you test, you fall (many times). You try again and refine.

The most important thing about learning at a job is how it affects what you are trying to do. Some companies will have infrastructure and processes built in to help you learn; others will trust that you’re able to figure it out. Either way, communicating the ways you learn will expedite your growth in this new role, while also adding to the culture of the environment in which you’ll continue to learn.