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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.3: How You Learn

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand and make effective use of the four steps of the learning process.
    2. Describe the different learning styles of different college students and recognize your own learning preferences.
    3. Know how to benefit from your own learning style and how to expand your learning skills with the techniques of other styles.
    4. Take action to learn effectively when your learning style differs from your instructor’s teaching style.

    One of the first steps for becoming a successful student is to understand the learning process itself. Certain characteristics of effective learning, including the four-step learning cycle, are true of all people. At the same time, people have different learning styles. Understanding these processes is important for maximizing your own learning while in college.

    The Learning Cycle: Four Steps to Learning

    Adult learning is different from learning in primary and secondary school. In high school, teachers often take much of the responsibility for how students learn—encouraging learning with class discussions, repeating key material, creating study guides, and looking over students’ shoulders to make sure no one falls behind. In college, most of the responsibility for learning falls on the student. You’re free to fail—or succeed—as you choose. This applies as well to how well you learn.

    Learning an academic subject means really understanding it, being able to think about it in meaningful ways and to apply that understanding in new situations. This is very different from simply memorizing something and repeating it back on a test. Academic learning occurs most effectively in a cycle of four steps:

    1. Preparing
    2. Absorbing
    3. Capturing
    4. Reviewing

    Think first about the different situations in which you learn. Obviously you learn during class, whether by listening to the instructor speak or in class discussions in which you participate. But you also learn while reading your textbooks and other materials outside of class. You learn when you talk with an instructor during office hours. You learn by talking with other students informally in study groups. You learn when you study your class notes before an exam. All of these different learning situations involve the same four-step process.

    Figure 1.4 The Learning Cycle



    One student rolls out of bed a few minutes before class and dashes across campus and grabs the last seat in the hall just as the instructor begins a lecture; it takes him a few minutes to find the right notebook in his backpack, and then he can’t find a pencil. He’s thinking about how he should’ve set his alarm a little earlier so he’d have had time to grab a cup of coffee, since he’s having trouble waking up. Finally he settles in his seat and starts listening, but now he can’t figure out what the instructor is talking about. He starts jotting down phrases in his notes anyway, thinking he’ll figure it out later.

    Another student looks over his notes from the previous class and quickly glances back at passages he’d highlighted in the textbook reading. He arrives at class a few minutes early, sits up front where he can hear well, and has his notebook open and pencil out. While waiting for the instructor to arrive, he talks to another student about her ideas for the paper due next week in this class.

    It’s obvious which of these students will learn more during today’s class lecture. One has prepared and the other has not, and they will experience a huge difference in their understanding of today’s topic. Preparing to learn is the first step for learning. The same is true when you sit down to read your textbook, to study for an exam, or to work on an out-of-class project. Partly you are putting yourself in the right mind-set to learn. But when you review yesterday’s notes to prepare for today’s class, you are also solidifying yesterday’s learning.


    “Absorbing” refers to the actual taking in of new ideas, information, or experience. This is what happens at the moment a student listens to a class lecture or reads a textbook. In high school, this is sometimes the only learning step taken by some students. They listened to what the instructor said and “regurgitated” it back on the test. But this won’t work in college because learning now requires understanding the topic, not just repeating facts or information. In coming chapters you’ll get tips for improving in this step.


    “Capturing” refers to taking notes. No matter how good your memory, you need to take good notes in college simply because there is so much to learn. Just hearing something once is seldom enough. You have to go back over the material again, sometimes several times again, thinking about it and seeing how it all fits together.

    The more effective your note-taking skills, the better your learning abilities. Take notes also when reading your textbooks. You’ll learn methods for taking good notes in later chapters.


    The step of reviewing—your class notes, your textbook reading and notes, and any other course materials possibly including recordings, online media, podcasts, and so on—is the next step for solidifying your learning and reaching a real understanding of the topic. Reviewing is also a way to prepare for new information and ideas. That’s why this is a learning cycle: the end of the process loops back to the beginning as you prepare for additional learning.

    Reviewing is also the step in which you discover whether you really understand the material. If you do not understand something fully, you may need to reread a section of the book, talk it over with a friend in the class, or go see your instructor.