Now that you know more about how people learn, you want to think about how to apply it to your own learning. How do you learn best? How can you use that information to be a more successful student?
To learn more about your strengths and weaknesses as a learner, you can complete various inventories related to learning styles, attitudes, and motivations. For some of us, it’s even harder to recognize our strengths than to recognize our weaknesses. Maybe we don’t want to brag. Maybe we’re attached to a poor self-image. The reasons don’t matter. Part of becoming a successful student means telling the truth about our positive qualities, too.
Remember that weaknesses are often strengths taken to an extreme. The student who carefully revises her writing can make significant improvements in a term paper. If she revises too much and hands in the paper late, though, her grade might suffer. Any success strategy carried too far can backfire.
Figuring out how you learn and how to use that information is an important step in becoming a master student. You explored the various learning theories, and during this module, you will learn more about how to develop strategies to enhance your learning.
Planning for Success: Taking the First Steps
To succeed in school, tell the truth about what kind of student you are and what kind of student you want to become. Success starts with telling the truth about what is working—and what is not working—in our lives right now. When we acknowledge our strengths, we gain an accurate picture of what we can accomplish. When we admit that we have a problem, we are free to find a solution. Ignoring the truth, on the other hand, can lead to problems that stick around for decades.
Let’s be truthful: It’s not fun to admit our weaknesses. Many of us would approach a frank evaluation of ourselves about as enthusiastically as we would greet a phone call from the bank about an overdrawn account.
There is another way to think about self-evaluations. If we could see them as opportunities to solve problems and take charge of our lives, we might welcome them. Believe it or not, we can begin working with our list of weaknesses by celebrating them.
Whether written or verbal, the ways that we express our self-analysis are more powerful when they are specific. For example, if you want to improve your note-taking skills, you might write, “I am an awful note taker,” but it would be more effective to write, “I can’t read 80 percent of the notes I took in Introduction to Psychology last week, and I have no idea what was important in that class.”
Be just as specific about what you plan to achieve. You might declare, “I want to take legible notes that help me predict what questions will be on the final exam.”
As you use the results of your self-analysis, you might feel surprised at what you discover. Just tell the truth about it. The truth has power.
It is important for you to discover and acknowledge your own strengths as well as your areas for improvement. For many students, this is difficult to do. Some people suggest that looking at areas for improvement means focusing on personal weaknesses. They view it as a negative approach that runs counter to positive thinking. Positive thinking is a great technique. So is telling the truth, especially when we see the whole picture—the negative aspects as well as the positive ones.
To start your self-analysis, use the following suggestions as a guideline.
Be specific. It is not effective to write, “I can improve my communication skills.” Of course you can. Instead, write down precisely what you can do to improve your communication skills. For example, “I can spend more time really listening while the other person is talking, instead of thinking about what I’m going to say next.”
Be self-aware. Look beyond the classroom. What goes on outside school often has the greatest impact on your ability to be an effective student. Consider your strengths and weaknesses that you may think have nothing to do with school.
Be courageous. Self-analysis calls for an important master student quality—courage. It is a waste of time to do this if this is done half-heartedly. Be willing to take risks. You might open a door that reveals a part of yourself that you didn’t want to admit was there.
Examine your strengths by thinking about the following:
- One area where I show strong skills is ...
- Another area of strength is ...
Think about the areas you need to improve and make them your goals:
- The area in which I most want to improve is ...
- It is also important for me to get better at ...
- I want to concentrate on improving these areas because ...
- To meet my goals for improvement, I intend to ...
Planning for Success: Self-Analysis Using Discovery Statements
One way of thinking about success or failure is to focus on habits. Behaviors such as ignoring reading assignments or skipping class might be habits that lead to outcomes that could not be avoided—including dropping out of school. In the same way, behaviors such as completing assignments and attending class might lead to the outcome of getting an A.
When you confront a behavior that undermines your goals or creates a circumstance that you don’t want, consider a new attitude: That behavior is just a habit. And it can be changed.
Thinking about ourselves as creatures of habit actually gives us power. In that way, we are not faced with the monumental task of changing our very nature. Rather, we can take on the doable job of changing our habits. One consistent change in behavior that seems insignificant at first can have effects that ripple throughout your life. Following are ways to test this idea for yourself.
One way to put your self-analysis into action is by journaling about your behaviors and habits and then creating discovery and intention statements.
Through discovery statements, you gain awareness of “where you are.” These statements are a record of what you are learning about yourself as a student—both your strengths and your weaknesses. Discovery statements can also be declarations of your goals, descriptions of your attitudes, statements of your feelings, transcripts of your thoughts, and chronicles of your behaviors.
Sometimes, discovery statements chronicle an a-ha! moment—a flash of insight that results when you connect a new idea with your previous experiences, preferred styles of learning, or both. Perhaps a solution to a long-standing problem suddenly occurs to you. Or a life-changing insight wells up from the deepest recesses of your mind. Don’t let such moments disappear. Capture them in discovery statements.
Record the specifics about your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Notice your thoughts, observe your actions, and record them accurately. Get the facts. If you spent 90 minutes to checking your social media feed instead of reading your anatomy text, write about it. Include details.
Use discomfort as a signal. When you approach a daunting task, such as a difficult math problem, notice your physical sensations. Feeling uncomfortable, bored, or tired might be a signal that you’re about to do valuable work. Stick with it. Write about it. Tell yourself you can handle the discomfort just a little bit longer. You will be rewarded with a new insight.
Suspend judgment. When you are discovering yourself, be gentle. Suspend self-judgment. If you continually judge your behaviors as “bad” or “stupid,” your mind will quit making discoveries. For your own benefit, be kind to yourself.
Tell the truth. Suspending judgment helps you tell the truth about yourself. “The truth will set you free” is a saying that endures for a reason. The closer you get to the truth, the more powerful your discovery statements. If you notice that you are avoiding the truth, don’t blame yourself. Just tell the truth about it.
Planning for Success: Taking Actions Using Intention Statements
Intention statements can be used to alter your course. These statements are about your commitment to take action based on increased awareness. An intention arises out of your choice to direct your energy toward a specific task and to aim at a particular goal. The processes of discovery and intention reinforce each other.
Even simple changes in behavior can produce results. If you feel like procrastinating, then tackle just one small, specific task related to your intention. Find something you can complete in minutes or less, and do it now. For example, access just one website related to the topic of your next assigned paper. Spend just 3 minutes previewing a reading assignment. Taking baby steps like these can move you into action with grace and ease.
Make intentions positive. The purpose of writing intention statements is to focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want. Instead of writing, “I will not fall asleep while studying chemistry,” write, “I intend to stay awake when studying chemistry.” Also, avoid the word try. Trying is not doing. When we hedge our bets with try, we can always tell ourselves, “Well,
I tried to stay awake.”
Make intentions observable. Rather than writing, “I intend to work harder on my history assignments,” write, “I intend to review my class notes, and I intend to make summary sheets of my reading.”
Make intentions small and achievable. Break large goals into small, specific tasks that can be accomplished quickly. Small and simple changes in behavior—when practiced consistently over time—can have large and lasting effects.
When setting your goals, anticipate self-sabotage. Be aware of what you might do, consciously or unconsciously, to undermine your best intentions. Also, be careful with intentions that depend on other people. If you intend for your study group to complete an assignment by Monday, then your success depends on the students in the group. Likewise, you can support your group’s success by following through on your stated intentions.
Set time lines. For example, if you are assigned a paper to write, break the assignment into small tasks and set a precise due date for each one: “I intend to select a topic for my paper by 9:00 A.M. Wednesday.”
Move from intention to action. Intention statements are of little use until you act on them. If you want new results in your life, then take action. Life responds to what you do.
Planning for Success: Identifying and Changing Habits
Discovery leads to awareness. Intention leads to commitment, which naturally leads to focused action.
The processes of discovery, intention, and action create a dynamic and efficient cycle. First, you write discovery statements about where you are now. Second, you write intention statements about where you want to be and the specific steps you will take to get there. Finally, follow up with action—the sooner, the better. Then, start the cycle again. Write discovery statements about whether or how you act on your intention statements—and what you learn in the process. Follow up with more intention statements about what you will do differently in the future. Then, move into action and describe what happens next.
This process never ends. Each time you repeat the cycle, you get new results. It’s all about getting what you want and becoming more effective in everything you do. This is the path of mastery—a path that you can travel for the rest of your life.
Don’t panic when you fail to complete an intended task. Straying off course is normal. Simply make the necessary corrections. Consider the first word in the title of the textbook—becoming. This word implies that mastery is not an end state or final goal. Rather, mastery is a process that never ends.
Miraculous progress might not come immediately. Do not be concerned. Stay with the cycle. Give it time. Use discovery statements to get a clear view of your world. Then, use intention statements to direct your actions. Whenever you notice progress, record it.
It can take the same amount of energy to get what you don’t want in school as it takes to get what you do want. Sometimes getting what you don’t want takes even more effort.
Planning for Success: Thinking About Motivation
Motivation is an important part of being a successful student. There are at least two ways to think about motivation. One is that the terms self-discipline, willpower, and motivation describe something missing in ourselves. We use these words to explain another person’s success—or our own shortcomings: “If I were more motivated, I’d be more successful in school.”
The other approach to thinking about motivation is to stop assuming that motivation is mysterious, determined at birth, or hard to come by. Motivation could be something that you already possess—the ability to do a task even when you don’t feel like it. This is a habit that you can develop with practice.
Promise it. Motivation can come simply from being clear about your goals and acting on them. Say that you want to start a study group. You can commit yourself to inviting people and setting a time and place to meet. Promise your classmates that you’ll do this, and ask them to hold you accountable. Self-discipline, willpower, and motivation—none of these mysterious characteristics has to get in your way. Just make a promise and keep your word.
Befriend your discomfort. Once you’re aware of your discomfort, stay with it a few minutes longer. Don’t judge it as good or bad. Accepting discomfort robs it of power. It might still be there, but in time it can stop being a barrier for you. Discomfort can be a gift—an opportunity to do valuable work on yourself. On the other side of discomfort lies mastery.
Change your mind—and your body. You can also get past discomfort by planting new thoughts in your mind or changing your physical stance. For example, instead of slumping in a chair, sit up straight or stand up. Get physically active by taking a short walk. Notice what happens to your discomfort.
Work with your thoughts. Replace “I can’t stand this” with “I’ll feel great when this is done” or “Doing this will help me get something I want.”
Sweeten the task. Sometimes it’s just one aspect of a task that holds you back. You can stop procrastinating merely by changing that aspect. If distaste for your physical environment keeps you from studying, for example, then change that environment. Reading about social psychology might seem like a yawner when you’re alone in a dark corner of the house. Moving to a cheery, well-lit library can sweeten the task.
Turn up the pressure. Sometimes motivation is a luxury. Pretend that the due date for your project has been moved up 1 month, 1 week, or 1 day. Raising the stress level slightly can spur you into action. In that way, the issue of motivation seems beside the point, and meeting the due date moves to the forefront.
Turn down the pressure. The mere thought of starting a huge task can induce anxiety. To get past this feeling, turn down the pressure by taking baby steps. Divide a large project into small tasks. In 30 minutes or less, you could preview a book, create a rough outline for a paper, or solve two or three math problems. Careful planning can help you discover many such steps to make a big job doable.
Ask for support. Other people can become your allies in overcoming procrastination. For example, form a support group and declare what you intend to accomplish before each meeting. Then, ask members to hold you accountable. If you want to begin exercising regularly, ask another person to walk with you three times per week. People in support groups, ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Weight Watchers, know the power of this strategy.
Compare the payoffs with the costs. Skipping a reading assignment can give you time to go to the movies. However, you might be unprepared for class and have twice as much to read the following week. Maybe there is another way to get the payoff (going to the movies) without paying the cost (skipping the reading assignment). With some thoughtful weekly planning, you might choose to give up a few hours of television and end up with enough time to read the assignment and go to the movies.
Heed the message. Sometimes lack of motivation carries a message that’s worth heeding. An example is the student who majors in accounting but seizes every chance to be with children. His chronic reluctance to read accounting textbooks might not be a problem. Instead, it might reveal his desire to major in elementary education. His original career choice might have come from the belief that “real men don’t teach kindergarten.” In such cases, an apparent lack of motivation signals a deeper wisdom trying to get through.
Planning for Success: Maintaining a Positive Attitude
Visible measures of success—such as top grades and résumés filled with accomplishments— start with invisible assets called attitudes. Some attitudes will help you benefit from all the money and time you invest in higher education. Consider these examples: “Every course is worthwhile.” “I learn something from any instructor.” “The most important factors in the quality of my education are my own choices.”
Other attitudes will render your investment worthless: “This required class is a total waste of time.” “You can’t learn anything from some instructors.” “Success depends on luck more than anything else.” “I’ve never been good at school.”
You can change your attitudes through regular practice with affirmations and visualizations.
An affirmation is a statement describing what you want. The most effective affirmations are personal, positive, and written in the present tense.
To use affirmations, first determine what you want, and then describe yourself as if you already have it. To get what you want from your education, you could write, “I, Malika Jones, am a master student. I take full responsibility for my education. I learn with joy, and I use my experiences in each course to create the life that I want.”
If you decide that you want a wonderful job, you might write, “I, Peter Webster, have a wonderful job. I respect and love my colleagues, and they feel the same way about me. I look forward to going to work each day.”
Effective affirmations include detail. Use brand names, people’s names, and your own name. Involve all of your senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Take a positive approach. Instead of saying, “I am not fat,” say, “I am slender.”
Once you have written an affirmation, repeat it. Practice saying it out loud several times a day.
Here’s one way to begin. Choose what you want to improve. Then, describe in writing what it would look like, sound like, and feel like to have that improvement in your life. If you are learning to play the piano, write down briefly what you would see, hear, and feel if you were playing skillfully. If you want to improve your relationships with your children, write down what you would see, hear, and feel if you were communicating with them successfully.
Once you have a sketch of what it would be like to be successful, practice seeing it in your mind’s eye. Whenever you toss the basketball, it swishes through the net. Every time you invite someone out on a date, the person says “yes.” Each test the teacher hands back to you is graded an A. Practice at least once a day. Then, wait for the results to unfold in your life.
Be clear about what you want, and then practice it.
Developing the Modes of Learning
As you have learned, one of the ways to think about your own learning process is to examine how you perceive and process information—your preferred learning mode. Each mode of learning represents a unique way of perceiving and processing:
- Concrete experience (feeling)
- Reflective observation (watching)
- Abstract conceptualization (thinking)
- Active experimentation (doing)
Although you may tend to favor one of the modes, developing all four modes offers many potential benefits. For example, you can excel in many types of courses and find more opportunities to learn outside the classroom. You can expand your options for declaring a major and choosing a career. You can also work more effectively with people who learn differently from you.
In addition, you’ll be able to learn from instructors no matter how they teach. Let go of statements such as “My teachers don’t get me” and “The instructor doesn’t teach to my learning style.” Replace those negative statements with more positive attitudes: “I am responsible for what I learn” and “I will master this subject by using several modes of learning.”
No matter which of these you’ve tended to prefer, you can develop the ability to use all four modes. You can explore new learning styles simply by adopting new habits related to each of these activities. Consider the following suggestions as places to start.
To Gain Concrete Experience (Feeling)
- See a live demonstration or performance related to your course content.
- Engage your emotions by reading a novel or seeing a video related to your course.
- Interview an expert in the subject you’re learning or a master practitioner of a skill you want to gain.
- Conduct role-plays, exercises, or games based on your courses.
- Conduct an informational interview with someone in your chosen career or “shadow” that person for a day on the job.
- Look for a part-time job, internship, or volunteer experience that complements what you do in class.
- Deepen your understanding of another culture and extend your foreign language skills by studying abroad.
To Gain More Reflective Observation (Watching)
- Keep a personal journal, and write about connections among your courses.
- Form a study group to discuss and debate topics related to your courses.
- Set up a website, blog, email listserv, or online chat room related to your major.
- Create analogies to make sense of concepts; for instance, see if you can find similarities between career planning and putting together a puzzle.
- Visit your course instructor during office hours to ask questions.
- During social gatherings with friends and relatives, briefly explain to them what your courses are about.
To Develop Abstract Conceptualization (Thinking)
- Take notes on your reading in outline form; consider using word-processing software with an outlining feature.
- Supplement assigned texts with other books, magazine and newspaper articles, and related websites.
- Attend lectures given by your current instructors and others who teach the same subjects.
- Take the ideas presented in text or lectures and translate them into visual form—tables, charts, diagrams, and maps.
- Create visuals and use computer software to recreate them with more complex graphics and animation.
To Gain More Active Experimentation (Doing)
- Conduct laboratory experiments or field observations.
- Go to settings where theories are being applied or tested.
- Make predictions based on theories you learn, and then see if events in your daily life confirm your predictions.
- Try out a new behavior described in a lecture or reading, and observe its consequences in your life.
The following chart identifies some of the natural talents people have, as well as challenges for people who have a strong preference for any one mode of learning. For example, if Mode 2 (Reflective Observation) is most like you, then look at the lower right-hand corner of the following chart to see whether it gives an accurate description of you.
Employing your Multiple Intelligences, Part 1
Gardner’s (1993) theory of multiple intelligences complements the discussion of different learning styles. The main point is that there are many ways to gain knowledge and acquire new behaviors. You can use Gardner’s concepts to explore a range of options for achieving success in school, work, and relationships.
The following list identifies each of the intelligences and describes the strategies you can use to develop more effective learning strategies. As you review each of the first three intelligences below, write down any of the characteristics that describe you. Also, identify learning strategies that you intend to use. Finally, note any of the possible careers that spark your interest.
- You enjoy writing letters, stories, and papers.
- You prefer to write directions rather than draw maps.
- You take excellent notes from textbooks and lectures.
- You enjoy reading, telling stories, and listening to them.
- Learning Strategies
- Highlight, underline, and write notes in your textbooks.
- Recite new ideas in your own words.
- Rewrite and edit your class notes.
- Talk to other people often about what you’re studying.
- Librarian, lawyer, editor, journalist, English teacher, radio or television announcer
- You enjoy solving puzzles.
- You prefer math or science class to English class.
- You want to know how and why things work.
- You make careful, step-by-step plans.
- Learning Strategies
- Analyze tasks so that you can order them in a sequence of steps.
- Group concepts into categories, and look for underlying patterns.
- Convert text into tables, charts, and graphs.
- Look for ways to quantify ideas—express them in numerical terms.
- Accountant, auditor, tax preparer, mathematician, computer programmer, actuary, economist, math or science teacher
- You draw pictures to give an example or clarify an explanation.
- You understand maps and illustrations more readily than text.
- You assemble things from illustrated instructions.
- You especially enjoy books that have a lot of illustrations.
- Learning Strategies
- When taking notes, create concept maps, mind maps, and other visuals.
- Code your notes by using different colors to highlight main topics, major points, and key details.
- When your attention wanders, focus it by sketching or drawing.
- Before you try a new task, visualize yourself doing it well.
- Architect, commercial artist, fine artist, graphic designer, photographer, interior decorator, engineer, cartographer
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Employing your Multiple Intelligences, Part 2
Continue to review the next five multiple intelligences. Which intelligences seem to fit your learning preferences?
- You use a lot of gestures when talking.
- Learning Strategies
- Be active in ways that support concentration; for example, pace as you recite, read while standing up, and create flash cards.
- Carry materials with you, and practice studying in several different locations.
- Create hands-on activities related to key concepts; for example, create a game based on course content.
- Notice the sensations involved with learning something well.
- Physical education teacher, athlete, athletic coach, physical therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist, yoga teacher, dancer, choreographer, actor
- You often sing in the car or shower.
- You easily tap your foot to the beat of a song.
- You play a musical instrument.
- You feel most engaged and productive when music is playing.
- Learning Strategies
- During a study break, play music or dance to restore energy.
- Put on background music that enhances your concentration while studying.
- Relate key concepts to songs you know.
- Write your own songs based on course content.
- Professional musician, music teacher, music therapist, choral director, musical instrument sales representative, musical instrument maker, piano tuner
- You enjoy writing in a journal and being alone with your thoughts.
- You think a lot about what you want in the future.
- You prefer to work on individual projects over group projects.
- You take time to think things through before talking or taking action.
- Learning Strategies
- Connect course content to your personal values and goals.
- Study a topic alone before attending a study group.
- Connect readings and lectures to a strong feeling or significant past experience.
- Keep a journal that relates your course work to events in your daily life.
- Minister, priest, rabbi, professor of philosophy or religion, counseling psychologist, creator of a home-based or small business
- You enjoy group work over working alone.
- You have plenty of friends and regularly spend time with them.
- You prefer talking and listening over reading or writing.
- You thrive in positions of leadership.
- Learning Strategies
- Form and conduct study groups early in the term.
- Create flash cards, and use them to quiz study partners.
- Volunteer to give a speech or lead group presentations on course topics.
- Teach the topic you’re studying to someone else.
- Manager, school administrator, salesperson, teacher, counseling psychologist, arbitrator, police officer, nurse, travel agent, public relations specialist, creator of a midsize to large business
- As a child, you enjoyed collecting insects, leaves, or other natural objects.
- You enjoy being outdoors.
- You find that important insights occur during times you spend in nature.
- You read books and magazines on nature-related topics.
- Learning Strategies
- During study breaks, take walks outside.
- Post pictures of outdoor scenes where you study, and play recordings of outdoor sounds while you read.
- Invite classmates to discuss course work while taking a hike or going on a camping trip.
- Focus on careers that hold the potential for working outdoors.
- Environmental activist, park ranger, recreation supervisor, historian, museum curator, biologist, criminologist, mechanic, woodworker, construction worker, construction contractor or estimator
Remember this is not an exhaustive list or a formal inventory. Take what you find merely as a starting point to developing your learning strategies. You can invent strategies of your own to cultivate different intelligences.
Developing Your Learning Through Your Senses
Whether you are a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, you can adjust your study methods to fit your individual learning preference. As you review the following suggestions, think about which study methods you already use. You might consider trying one of these suggestions to support your individual learning preference or try a new method to enhance another learning style.
Enhancing Visual Learning
- Preview reading assignments by looking for elements that are highlighted visually—bold headlines, charts, graphs, illustrations, and photographs.
- When taking notes in class, leave plenty of room to later add your own charts, diagrams, tables, and other visuals.
- Whenever an instructor writes information on a blackboard or overhead display, copy it exactly in your notes.
- Transfer your handwritten notes to your computer. Use word-processing software that allows you to format your notes in lists, add headings in different fonts, and create visuals in color.
- Before you begin an exam, quickly sketch a diagram on scratch paper. Use this diagram to summarize the key formulas or facts you want to remember.
- During tests, see whether you can visualize pages from your handwritten notes or images from your computer-based notes.
Enhancing Auditory Learning
- Reinforce memory of your notes and readings by talking about them. When studying, stop often to recite key points and examples in your own words.
- After reciting several summaries of key points and examples, record your favorite version or write it out.
- Read difficult passages in your textbooks slowly and out loud.
- Join study groups, and create short presentations about course topics.
- Visit your instructors during office hours to ask questions.
Enhancing Kinesthetic Learning
- Look for ways to translate course content into 3D models that you can build. While studying biology, for example, create a model of a human cell using different colors of clay.
- Supplement lectures with trips to museums, field observations, lab sessions, tutorials, and other hands-on activities.
- Recite key concepts from your courses while you walk or exercise.
- Intentionally set up situations in which you can learn by trial and error.
- Create a practice test, and write out the answers in the room where you will actually take the exam.
One variation of the VAK system has been called VARK (Fleming 2012). The R describes a preference for learning by reading and writing. People with this preference might benefit from translating charts and diagrams into statements, taking notes in lists, and converting those lists into possible items on a multiple-choice test.
Fleming, Neil. 2012. “VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles.” Accessed November 8, 2012. www.vark-learn.com/.