There are lots of hints and tips which can help students develop their academic and study skills but to really get the most out of their learning experience, students should understand how they learn and therefore in this post, we’re going to look at learning theory, learning styles and what this means for anyone finding themselves in a learning environment.
Adults learn differently to children and therefore the way training and teaching is designed and the way we engage with learning is different. Unlike children, adults come to learning with a wealth of knowledge and experience that they can bring to the table. Typically adults learn best through experience; they need to be engaged with their learning and see the relevance of what they are learning. If I’m learning about a new teaching technique, ideally I would want some theory/explanatory input, but I would also look for the opportunity to practice the technique to see how it works in practice, and to reflect to see how it can be improved.
https://www.phoenix.edu/blog/adult-learning-theories-principles.html – This website provides a bit more theoretical explanation if you would like more information.
As adults, we all have our own preferences about how we like to learn – what we like to do and there are also things that we will avoid if we can.
Difference between Learning and Teaching/Training
I’m mainly focusing on learning in this post, but I wanted to briefly explain the difference between learning and teaching/training. Teaching and training are both directed by a teacher/trainer and they are the focus of the activity. They will direct the learners and guide the experiences; but the focus is on them rather than on the learner. By shifting the focus to the learner, it puts them in the driving seat of the experience and recognises the control they have over the learning experience, whether that is self-directed or led by a trainer/teacher – as they say, we can take a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink – so too, we can deliver a lesson in class but the student can control a lot of how much they learn. I urge students and other learners to take responsibility for their own learning and look to see how much of their environment they can control. This is also why I set a lot of group work and research tasks for my own students.
We also learn in a range of formal and informal settings – yes you can attend a structured lesson; or you can decide you wish to find out about something for yourself – you’ll carry out your own research and work at your own pace. This is self-directed learning. To get the most out of your learning experiences (I hope you will develop a passion for learning that will last a lifetime) you should take control of your learning and engage in self–directed learning.
What are Learning Styles
There are a range of different theories which could be explored that explain our different learning preferences but I’m not going to explore the theories here (I’ll leave that for discussion elsewhere or in my YouTube videos) but it is important to recognise that we have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of how we like/dislike to learn and that there is nothing wrong in learning in a different way to your friends. Maybe you like to sit and listen to a lecture/talk, or perhaps prefer to take notes and read books/articles etc – I know this is me; but I also know there are many who would cringe at the idea of being handed a book and told to read – this learner would prefer to go and explore; test theories etc.
Some questions to help you identify your own learning preferences:
- If you are learning about a new topic, do you spend a lot of time investigating it? Carrying out research; doing lots of reading or do you only do enough to find the information to allow you to answer any questions?
- Do you like to be hands on – getting your hands dirty so to speak? Or do you prefer to sit back and watch what’s happening; observe and think about what’s being done?
- Do you like working on case studies and problem-solving?
- Do you like to be involved; perhaps taking the lead with projects and group work or are you happy to sit back and let someone else take the lead, simply contributing to the work of the group?
- Do you like group work/working with others or would you prefer to work on your own?
- Do you like to read, listen, write, watch a video etc?
- Do you like preparing and delivering presentations?
- Exams or assessments?
I’m sure there are more questions I could think of, but hopefully the above is giving you good insight into the type of learner you are. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions; they are simply to encourage you to think about how you might like to learn and what is likely to be most effective for you.
Understanding that we all learn differently helps us to understand different behaviours, and hopefully with a greater appreciation, we can be more tolerant and supportive of people with alternative learning styles
Mindtools.com provides a straightforward explanation of various learning styles. https://www.mindtools.com/mnemlsty.html
Enhancing your learning
Learning styles allow us to identify our preferred learning styles. We will be effective learning in this way as we are in our comfort zone, but to enrich our experience it is worthwhile stretching ourselves and therefore we should seek learning opportunities which are less familiar and less comfortable. If we can push ourselves and experiment with new and different learning approaches we can develop new skills and we should be able to get a more rounded learning experience and should get more out of our learning experiences. Working with others with different learning styles might help us develop new learning strategies too.
Students are frequently uncomfortable delivering presentations which can be part of their studies, however, by pushing ourselves into these uncomfortable situations we not only develop our presentation skills, we will learn more deeply as a good understanding of the topic is necessary in order to deliver the presentation well.
I always feel teaching is as much about learningas teaching as I need to know the subject/topic inside out to deliver in the classroom. Also, recognising adult learners have experiences, I like to tap into those too and bring their knowledge and experience into the lesson and be part of their learning, engaging them.
Reflection in learning
Much adult learning, including some learning styles, and most professional organisations which require CPD (Continuous Professional Development), need elements of reflective practice applied to learning. I’m including this here because it is important to develop reflective thinking skills so you are able to review your learning; think about what worked/didn’t work, what you’ve identified that is a strength etc and the areas you’ve identified for development or additional learning.
For example, if you explore learning styles and decide that you are a hands on learner, you may take the time to reflect after group work about your performance, answering some of the questions above. You may reflect that while the group work was effective, it could have been better with more research/investigation. So you realise through reflection that although you don’t necessarily like research/reading, you see that it would enhance the group performance and therefore next time you may plan in research and reading. This is an example of how reflection can help you.
Other factors impacting learning
While its important to consider how we like to learn so that we get the most out of any learning opportunities; it is also important to bear in mind that there are other elements which can have an impact.
- How we are feeling – if we’re tired, hungry, feeling ill etc – we will not be able to concentrate and our focus will not be on our learning. Irrespective of how interested we are in the subject or how motivated we feel, if these fundamental needs have not been met, we will struggle to learn.
Its probably also sensible to ensure you’ve had a good, wholesome meal prior to study so that you are fuelling your body to provide the energy required for concentration.
- Motivation – if we do not feel motivated or interested in the subject, we will struggle more to learn. In this situation, we need to find something to tap into – why are you learning about this topic; why are you doing this class? It is challenging when you struggle with a topic but it may be that you need the unit to complete your qualification. For me, when I was at university, it was statistics. I really hated this topic but I knew I had to pass the unit assessments and the exam or I would not achieve my degree. I was motivated to seek out aid to help understand the subject so I could pass – which I did. This is also what I mean above about taking control of your learning – I knew I was struggling, so I sought out people who could help me.
- Stress can become an issue for many students, but I would advise you to be organised and plan your time effectively. Students always find that the research required for assessments takes longer than expected, so always make sure you plan out your time effectively. Have a look at my time management post for some related guidance.
Over to you
What type of learner are you? Have you been able to identify your own learning style? What learning difficulties have you encountered? Have you tried reflection as part of your learning journey? What difference have you found when you take control of your own learning?
I’d love to read your answers in the comments section; and if you’d like to receive notifications of future posts about study skills; please subscribe below.