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Posts Tagged ‘study’

Doing e-learning – six rules

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

As you may know, I spend a lot of my time working on e-learning materials and tutoring distance learning students. And it strikes me that if you’re going to start an e-learning course, especially a degree course that’s likely to keep you occupied for several years, there are several habits you need to cultivate.

  1. Read compulsively. Unlike students in traditional higher educational institutions, you don’t get the advantage of face-to-face lectures, seminars, the ability to have a conversation with your lecturer after class and so on. You may have a ‘group learning space’ (a bulletin-board type of thing), tutors you can email and occasionally phone, and so on. But believe me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face. Instead, you have access to electronic libraries and (of course) the internet. And second-hand bookshops. And newspapers. Read everything. Try to understand how the world works. No one ever got that from reading a single textbook.
  2. Understand that in everything you read, knowledge has a price and that price is ‘spin’ – newspapers, media sources and everyone else is writing to persuade you of the truth of their views. Develop ways to understand what’s reliable and what’s bullshit. Develop that elusive thing we call ‘critical awareness’ that enables you to sense when you’re only being told half a story, and if you had the other half things would look a little, or a lot, different.
  3. Be compulsively curious. Curiosity is a great habit. If you’re not curious about your chosen topic, why are you even studying it? Being curious and asking questions about what you’re taught, going back to original sources, and searching out information to fill in the gaps is always worthwhile.
  4. You may not have much electronic contact with tutors but you live in the real world, among real people, in a community. That community is a microcosm of the problems in wider society. Pay attention to local issues. Understand your local community.
  5. Write. Develop the habit that says ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’. If you think you have a good explanation, argument, or whatever, write it down. Then leave it a day and re-read it. I’d bet that when you do that, you read what you wrote and then start thinking things like ‘I can express this in a better way’ – and ‘I didn’t explain the logical steps’, and ‘I forgot to mention X, Y and Z which are also important factors’. The way you get better at expressing your thoughts is through writing.
  6. Remember that the aim isn’t just to get a qualification, it’s to get the knowledge that justifies the qualification. And knowledge is a slippery thing, because you really start to understand something, you realise it doesn’t stand still. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s more like a roomful of people, all having conversations about different aspects of some subject. Of course there are certain basic agreed points – until someone comes up with a convincing reason why we shouldn’t rely on those points and rely on something else instead, which might happen once every few decades. Beyond that, there’s a lot of stuff where different views need to be weighed on the basis of evidence, and sometimes on the basis of the ‘best we can do with the evidence that’s available’. In short, by studying a subject you’re not just ‘learning the facts’, you’re engaging in a long, slow, drawn-out conversation with a bunch of strangers.

Just a few thoughts. I hope they’re helpful, but I bet you could add more ‘rules’ (or argue with mine) if you thought about these issues for a couple of minutes. 

‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at safalra.com.

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.

 

The usefulness of useless degrees

May 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve just been reading some news articles about ‘useless’ degrees. They include a two-year foundation degree in heavy metal (the music, that is) at New College Nottingham, a BA in Comedy Studies (though technically it appears to be listed as a BA in ‘Performance’), Enigmatology (i.e. puzzle setting and solving – however only one person ever graduated from the one course offered, by Indiana University in the 1970s), and assorted qualifications in areas such as puppetry, parapsychology and Viking re-enactment.

The thing I’ve been asking myself is this: in the 1980s, Thatcherite policies demanded that degrees should be ‘relevant’ to career choices and employers’ demands for skills. Various degree courses disappeared, for example language degrees in Farsi and some African languages – ironically enough leading to later problems within the intelligence community when groups speaking some of these languages came to be considered as security threats.

However, the current spread of ‘weird’ degrees isn’t all that strange. We live in a knowledge-based economy and in the UK at least, much of our economic output comprises cultural rather than physical goods. So having a supply of graduates with specific expertise in science fiction, horror, comedy, different genres of music and all the rest is very likely a good and useful thing for the economy as a whole, in addition to the ‘generic’ skills they offer in terms of academic research and practice, and the interests they offer for students. Of course these things don’t need to be learned through degree type studies, there are many other forms of learning. But there’s also no reason why they shouldn’t be degree studies if enough people want to learn in that format.

And if that isn’t a good enough argument, bear in mind that the University of Derby’s MA in Horror and Transgression, which covers diverse forms of film and literature alongside the works of writers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault, Kristeva, and Deleuze, and transgressive writers such as Burroughs, Ballard and Burgess, lists a number of possible post degree careers. Among these is public service administration. Which is as clear a sign as I can think of about what the experience of public service administration will actually be like in the future.

[Edited to add: of course there will always be a need for degrees in traditional subjects – medicine, engineering, maths, history, biology, languages, computing and the rest. But consider the needs of, say, a computer gaming company or a movie production company that needs to find a new and credible way to develop a fantasy, scifi or horror conceptual world. Consider the needs of, in fact, almost any company looking for its ‘next big thing’. The people with the design and production skills, etc., are clearly necessary to that process. Some of them may even need to make puppets, re-enact Viking dramas, tell good jokes or write and perform music to get to the point at which a product is made and marketed. But no product does well unless it links with human fantasies. Successful products also need their dreamers. Postmodernity (are we still in a ‘postmodern society’?) has sometimes been described as the society in which the old modernist order of narratives has been corrupted, and that’s a reasonable if overly general assessment. But that makes the ability to weave old narratives and create new ones all the more significant in contemporary society. Hence the need for studies that appear niche, marginal, or just plain odd.]

Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

April 9, 2011 6 comments

This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.

In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.

Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.

The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.

What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.

There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.

One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.

Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.

There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.

So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?

Distance and blended learning – the way forward

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blended learning’ a great deal more of late. Distance learning is where you sit at home and study materials come to you in the post, or these days increasingly by email. Blended learning is the new big thing, and involves a mix of distance learning and some face-to-face contact.

My principal conclusion is this: the difference between on-site learning and distance learning is really a question of access to the library and to labs, and these are things that can be fixed in a blended learning model with a little ingenuity and institutional collaboration.

This is my reasoning:

In the dim, distant past I was a student. At the beginning of a ‘term’ (like a semester except there were three of them in a year) I’d turn up at the first lecture for each of my ‘courses’ (this was pre-modularisation). I’d get a reading list and details of tutorial and seminar groups. However, in the humanities and social sciences there weren’t a whole lot of lectures, seminars and tutorials – the amount of time I was supposed to attend some place at a given time typically averaged around six hours a week. The rest of the time I spent in the library, reading or investigating what else might be there that was more interesting. Or I was drinking coffee and debating stuff with other people on the course.

This is the thing about being a ‘full time’ student on a campus: what’s full time about it isn’t the number of contact hours but the fact that you have the opportunity to read a lot and debate a lot. The library is the critical part of the process.

If the lectures had been available as videos or podcasts I could have listened to them when I felt the need, and maybe gone back to them later on as well – it would have been a great asset. Tutorials and seminars were generally more interesting if I’d had a chance to read papers in advance and make notes for discussion, but if we’d had the internet in those days it would have been as good, or even better, to have used a discussion board. Some of my best learning experiences were actually casual one-on-one discussions with lecturers, and though I valued the face-time, emails and phone calls would have worked pretty much as effectively. If e-learning had been available when I was a student, apart from wanting to live independently from my parents (and find a way not to have a job!) I could happily have commuted between working via the internet at home and exploring the university library for stuff that piqued by curiosity and interest – mostly, though not exclusively, course related. That’s the beauty of libraries, I find – those opportunistic, haphazard stumbling across books you’d never have found through an internet search but somehow turn out to be crucial to your learning.

Moreover, in a strange reversal, in the institutions I’m working with, it seems full-time students are availing themselves of exactly the same VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) that are accessible to the distance learning students, and find them very convenient ways of learning. These days, your average VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) has downloadable course content, announcements, a calendar of events, some system for chat/discussion boards/email, lists of useful URLs, and stuff related to assessment (e.g. arrangements to submit coursework via Turnitin).

The only parts of the ‘student learning experience’ that a VLE can’t re-create, and I’d suggest the only part that distance learning misses out on, is the physicality of going to a library and investigating what’s on the shelves, skim-reading and checking a wide range of stuff to determine what’s going to be useful.

The nearest you’re likely to get to that is a library pass to your local university library, reading articles online via ATHENS or browsing books via Google Books, usually with critical bits missing.

Science subjects are different, I know, because of the commitment to hours working in labs etc. Some universities have developed fully-equipped experimental labs in Second Life primarily for distance learning students (though I’d wager full-time students use them as well) but again, I don’t imagine you get the same level of physicality you’d get in a real lab. I don’t, for example, imagine it would replicate a lot of the feelings, emotions and muscle-based sense of the tedious processes of creating an experiment, or building a device of some kind, in real time and with other people you converse with while you’re doing it.

The library and the lab experiences are, though, things that can be somewhat fixed in a blended learning model. University libraries have reciprocal reading (though not lending) facilities and lab sessions may need to be organised say at weekends to complement what can be done in Second Life. So my bottom line on this is: blended learning is going to be the big way forward.

For universities, I think, the major issue is going to be capturing teaching in forms that enable it to be available on the web, whether as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or short videos (think of the amount of stuff available now on Ted.com, for example).

Finally, here are some useful reference materials:

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration – I was particularly struck by the article ‘Where’s Walter?’ by Maryann Lamer, about student retention. I’m writing this from memory but the key point seems to be that these days people have an expectation that any query they have will be answered really quickly, so in distance learning, regular communication and speedy replies to queries are a must.

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning

International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning – I was particularly taken by ‘Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education’ by Rui-Ting Huang (May 2007) – not because of the main argument but its attempt to describe different distance learning structures.

Electronic Journal of e-Learning – there’s a very useful article in Vol 6 issue 3, ‘Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context’ by Mandia Mentis. Also in Vol 6 issue 2, Apr 2008, there’s ‘Engaging the YouTube Google-Eyed Generation: Strategies for Using Web 2.0 in Teaching and Learning’ by Peter Duffy – when I first read this I thought it posed challenging ideas for future development of distance learning, but a lot of them have come to pass already.

That’s enough educative stuff for now. I’ll do a few more light-hearted posts before hitting you with any serious stuff again.

Effective study techniques

December 5, 2010 2 comments

Acronyms for effective learning

This post is about effective learning. How can you learn stuff more effectively?

I’ve never been keen on acronyms and jargon-based abbreviations. Maybe I just don’t remember them very well. Maybe a lot of them just wrap up the latest management technique in some flash nonense word. But here are some acronyms I do remember, because they’re about how to learn effectively.

Effective learning is learning that involves, and supports, critical thinking: questioning evidence, assessing its strength, comparing and contrasting arguments to identify strengths and weaknesses, etc. The methods below are intended to help you think critically. If you’re read my previous post about learning styles, bear in mind that the strategies below will work with all learning styles and most kinds of material.

The strategies were developed for studying written material but should work with anything – if you’re looking at a DVD or PowerPoint presentation, remember DVDs usually have chapters in the menu (and if not, use the fast-forward button) while PowerPoint enables you to scroll through, scroll back, look at all the pages on one screen, etc. to get a sense of the material as a whole.

PQ4R

PQ4R summarises the steps people typically take in learning effectively. It comes from Thomas and Robinson (1972). It stands for:

  • Preview – with any learning materials, start with the highest-level headings and any text that is emphasised – e.g. bullet points or bold text. These should give you an idea of structure and key topics or concepts. They might be chapter headings, introductory material, lists of key points, executive summaries, etc. People who start this way understand the structure and organisation of what they’re reading and tend to have better recall of it later.
  • Question – the preview will (or should) raise questions in your mind. These might be technical (‘how did they define this concept?’ or ‘what is the difference between a Type 212 valve and a Type 312 valve?’), or more general (‘how do EU fishing policies affect the price of fish?’). Or maybe you’re reading something because you already have questions in your mind. A random example of a question might be this: a book on my desk has a section headed ‘Rough sleepers and the hidden homeless’. What do these terms mean? Do ‘rough sleepers’ and the ‘hidden homeless’ between them include all types of homelesness? You get the idea. In general terms, reading with questions in mind is claimed to roughly double the amount of material you will be able to recall after reading a report, book or other text. Useful questions tend to be ones that ask who, what, why, how, where.
  • Read – when you read,  look for answers to your questions. Also make notes of anything you regard as key points, concepts, phrases, quotes etc. Writing notes improves the amount of information you retain. More notes does not equal better notes – try to capture what you see as the essential details in as clear a way as possible.
  • Reflect – spend time thinking about the material. Does it relate to other knowledge you have? Transform the way you think about a topic? Can you use the information in a practical way?
  • Recite – try to put key points and arguments in your own words. Writing about what you’ve read, or discussing it with others, will make you do that.
  • Review – this is a form of self-testing. Invent questions and try to answer them. Have other people ask you questions about the topic you’ve been reading about and see if you can remember points that answer their questions.

Reference:

Thomas, E. L. and Robinson, H. A. (1972) Improving Reading in Every Class: A sourcebook for teachers.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon

More info:

Susan Bovair at Mindspring

SQ3R

You can think of SQ3R as the forerunner to PQ4R. It was developed in 1946 by Francis Pleasant Robinson and based on earlier, 1930s, research on school students. His book, Effective Study, went through four editions of which the last was in 1970.

The difference between PQ4R and SQ3R is that while the four Rs in the former are ‘read, reflect, recite, review’, there were only three Rs in SQ3R – ‘read, recite, review’, though the ‘recite’ stage arguably covers more ground.

  • Survey (or Skim) – look at major topics and structure of the material through headings, sub-headings and any other outstanding features in the text. The same as ‘Preview’ in PQ4R.
  • Question – this is a little more content-focused than PQ4R since the questions Robinson suggests are along the lines of ‘What is chapter X about?’ and ‘What question does this chapter answer?’, though he also mentions questions that relate the material to your personal experience – e.g. ‘How can this material help me?’ Again, this stage includes the technique of turning headings and other emphasised material into questions as discussed above with PQ4R.
  • Read – reading is done only once you have acquainted yourself with the major topics and organisation of the material and identified questions (S and Q above).
  • Recite (also wRite and/or Recall) – identify answers to the questions raised in the Q step above. Again, note-taking and discussion is important to aid recall.
  • Review – self-test in relation to the questions and notes from earlier stages. Recalling key phrases and revising any that have been forgotten is highly recommended.

Reference:

Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th edition). New York: Harper & Row.

PQRST

Perhaps the easiest acronym to remember, because the letters are sequential in the alphabet, this method varies slightly from the others in that it is designed to be used as a revision aid when the material studied will be examined in a test. If the test concerns a number of large topics – which would be the case in, say, criminology where many exams address quite large and wide-ranging topics or policy issues – you may need to repeat the sequence over several times, once for each of the topic areas.

  • Preview – look at the selected topic; the major heads and subheads in your materials, bullet point lists, etc.
  • Question – identify the ‘key’ question areas, debates and issues within the topic. Develop questions based on these.
  • Read – read through reference materials, study guides, your notes etc. on the topic and identify what information best relates to each question you have chosen.
  • Summary – summarize the available information. Preferably this is done through developing your own summary methods. These might be bullet point lists, perhaps using a mnemonic that aids memory; for example functionalist approaches in sociology can often be reduced to GAIL – Goal setting, Adaptation, Integration, Latency). Equally importantly information can be summarised in diagrams (spider, flowchart, matrix, pyramid, Venn…). Some sources suggest saying the summaries out loud, maybe to another person. Some people find audio helpful, e.g. recording summaries for later playback.
  • Test – answer the questions from the question step above as fully as possible, perhaps in the form of a self-set mock exam that can be reviewed later. This can also help avoid diversions, irrelevant material, inadvertent changes of subject, ‘blind alleys’ etc.

KWL

This is a simple table that enables you to identify where you are and what next steps you need to take in learning. It is often useful for brainstorming in small groups, or to address specific problems. It is also useful when starting a new reading, usually at the point that you have completed the P stage of PQ4R or the S stage of SQ3R, when it becomes an aid to developing questions in the Q stage of either model. It was first developed by Donna Ogle (1986).

  • Know – what do you know? Just list keywords, tags, topic areas, questions that have been answered. This is intended to cerate some engagement with the topic and develop ideas about how the new material might be relevant to prior learning, motivations etc.
  • What (or Want) – what do you want to know? Based on the K part of the cycle, what are the next steps to tackle? This set of points is essentially an agenda for what questions to tackle next.
  • Learned – what have you learned? Complete this step to summarise what you found out from working through the questions in the W stage.

Teachers, trainers and tutors can use this model to drive how they tackle each stage of a training course or educational programme and modify their approach to address questions students want to cover.

Reference:

Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570

WTF

An abbreviation you might see in your notes – often with a question mark or exclamation mark after it – against material you haven’t understood. Following the PQ4R, SQ3R, PQRST or KWL strategies will minimise the likelihood of you writing WTF in your notes!

More info on all strategies discussed is at the Study Guides and Strategies website.

Learning styles – what works best for you?

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment
Learning style header image

What's your learning style?

I’ve noticed people coming to this blog through searches about learning styles, so I thought it would be worth writing specifically about them.

The comments below can be applied to situations as diverse as planning a new diet or slimming, learning rock climbing, starting a new job, studying for a degree or writing a novel.

How you learn best is influenced by different factors. Some are specific to the situation. If you want to learn rock climbing, the best way to do it is to climb a rockface, as part of a group, with an instructor – there isn’t really any other way. Some, however, are specific to you. These might include your personality, strengths, resources, prior skills and so on, but also your motivations and aspirations.

In addition, you’re likely to find that learning is a process and you learn different parts of a new skill, technique, job, etc. in different ways.

There are half a dozen ways to describe learning styles and I’ll mention two below. Don’t think of them as worlds apart, because they’re not. They’re just two out of several more or less similar ways to describe the same basic issues and processes. If you want to see a longer list, have a look at the Rapidbi website, or this article on Wikispaces. It’s important, though, to appreciate that what descriptions of learning styles generally do is identify two things at the same time:

  • the learning style you as a learner may be most comfortable with, and
  • the ‘learning cycle’ as a whole, which usually involves more than one style as the nature of learning changes from initial interest to figuring out specific problems and mastering different sets of skills as you work through a new topic.

Honey and Mumford

The best known description of learning styles is by Honey and Mumford. They point out that learning takes place in a cycle, but most people prefer one part of the cycle to others and work best when they’re at that point. The cycle looks like this:

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

No one learns exclusively in one style but depending on which part of the cycle you find easiest to handle, you may be:

  • Activist – oriented to immediate tasks, works flexibly but may not think about future consequences and may be self-centred. Probably learns best by practical experimentation and experience, e.g. as an assistant or apprentice.
  • Reflector – observes and collects information before acting, acts cautiously and keeps the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Probably learns best through individual research.
  • Theorist – works logically, in an ordered sequence, builds information into a theoretical or rational structure. Works best on the basis of principles, models and systems. Probably learns best through structured interaction, e.g. a training course.
  • Pragmatist – deals with immediate issues, is ‘hands on’ and wants to experiment. Enjoys applying theory to practice. Probably learns best by doing the job, but with a mentor.

Although you may be able to identify your own ‘style’ from this list, Honey and Mumford have questionnaires you can complete that will tell you with more certainty which style (or sometimes styles, plural) you are most comfortable with.

Knowing your preferred learning style helps you because it gives you self-knowledge of the kinds of situations in which you learn best and most quickly, and you can use that knowledge to get the best out of yourself. For example if you’re not confident with individual research, find someone you can discuss it with; if you learn best with hands-on experience and are on a training course, explain this to the trainers and ask if there are any activities they can build into the course to help you.

While most people prefer one style, remember that your preference may change depending on what you’re learning. For example many people find that legal issues are best dealt with in a structured ‘theorist’ way, but computer work is better if learned in a hands-on ‘activist’ way.

The 4MAT model

Honey and Mumford are popular, but there are other descriptions as well. Bernice McCarthy (the 4MAT model) proposed four learning styles that are slightly different to the Honey/Mumford ones:

  • Type 1: Innovative Learners – need to have reasons for learning that connect with the individual’s motivations and how the learning will be useful. Good methods for learning with this type include workshops, co-operative exercises, brainstorming, and anything that enables the learner to understand how new information fits in with, and can be used in conjuction. with some practical tasks they undertake.
  • Type 2: Analytic Learners – interested in deeper understanding of concepts and processes. Many different learning strategies will work, but preferably a mix of different ones – lectures, independent study, data analysis, seminar type scenarios where they can see experts discuss relevant topics etc.
  • Type 3: Common Sense Learners – interested in how to use information in a practical way. Best approaches are hands-on, learning on the job and learning to resolve issues/problems as they crop up.
  • Type 4: Dynamic Learners – independent and self-directed learning, often based on their own curiosity and instincts. Almost by definition this type of learning is individual and independent, and again a mix of different types of input will be stimulating.

Again, while people have their preferred style, all four parts together form a learning cycle that moves through:

  • Meaning – ‘why’ questions. Understanding the significance of a topic.
  • Concepts – ‘what’ questions. Finding ways to gather and analyse information.
  • Skills – ‘how’ questions. Learning practical ways to work in a situation, influence outcomes etc.
  • Adaptations – ‘what if’ questions. Refining understanding and looking e.g. at how different decisions/factors/resources can impact on a situation.

McCarthy has a good video presentation of this cycle and what the different sections involve.

You’ll note that she orders the sequence a little differently to Honey and Mumford. I’ve never regarded the difference as important, though, because people will want to jump into studying a topic for a variety of reasons: curiosity or academic interest, ‘need to know’ because they’ve just started working in the area, reflecting on being in an area and wanting to develop knowledge of the bigger picture, etc. The reason will influence which part of the cycle you’re likely to start on. Where you start is less important than completing the different stages of the cycle.

As with Honey and Mumford, the 4MAT model implies that while you may have a preferred style, you need to recognise what part of the cycle you are in and find appropriate ways of addressing it. If you’re taking a training course, discussion with the trainer should be a good way to do this. If you’re in a job, you can talk to co-workers, find out what training is available, or start investigating issues independently (online, libraries, etc.). And if you’re just curious, you can get a long way through independent study but at some point will need to connect with others who are also studying it, teaching it or working in a relevant area.

Trainers, meanwhile, should recognise it is their responsibility to take account of students’ learning styles and the type of material they are trying to convey, and use appropriate methods at each stage of the cycle.

Next

The next blog will cover some related but rather cryptic topics – SQ3R and PQ4R.

Reference

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000). The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

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