HOW AM I LEARNING? :A guide to interpreting your Learning Profile
How am I learning?
A guide to interpreting your Learning Profile
J H F Meyer
Many first-year students have never really consciously thought about how they engage the content and the context of learning; that is, the subject matter of what they learn, the environment in which they learn it, and particularly what they think the assessment requirements within the environment may demand of them in terms of learning outcomes. This lack of conscious thought and reflection about learning is somewhat strange given the fact that, by the time they enter university, most students will have come through twelve or more years of formal schooling in classroom environments and probably learned even more outside those environments. It is likely that how they have gone about learning will not have been an everyday topic for conversation, either with friends, family members, teachers, or professionals in a counselling or study skills context. In school (and in many universities as well) students are seldom invited to talk openly about, and reflect on, how they go about learning as a normal and integral part of their learning development. So when we feel a need to start talking about how we learn, what our learning intentions are, and why we sometimes go about learning in particular ways that we might or might not feel comfortable with, there is for many students an immediate problem in finding the right words and concepts to describe their experiences.
Why would you want to become more aware about your own learning processes? There are at least three good answers to this question.
Becoming more conscious of how you are going about learning now, at Monash University, is an important first step in helping you to take control over your learning in the future. This ability is an important lifelong skill in learning to acquire because it can help you to become a better learner in terms of being more versatile in adapting to the often conflicting demands of different learning situations. Some students are limited in such adaptive ability by set patterns of habitual or preferential learning behaviour acquired during their school years, and which worked well for them in gaining entrance to university. The risk in being complacent about what has worked well in the past lies in the fact that school and university learning environments tend to differ in many respects; for example, at university you are expected to plan and regulate your own learning activities more so than at school. Part of this regulation refers to knowing how particular learning tasks should be approached in relation to course demands and assessment requirements. Many students in their first year of university study respond inappropriately, in varying degrees, to the demands of university study simply because they are unaware of themselves as learners in relation to what is required of them, and are accordingly unsure how they should adapt themselves.
Being aware of your own learning helps you to recognise potential learning problems when you encounter them, and it helps others (like your lecturers and tutors) to help you when such problems occur. Potential problems often become real learning problems simply because they are not recognised early enough. Also, potential or real problems do not occur in a vacuum; they occur at least in relation to (a) your prior knowledge and previous learning experiences (what you bring to particular learning tasks in terms of what you already know and previous experience), (b) the content of what is being learned (which is not always the same as the content of what is being formally taught), (c) the learning environment; perceptions (often distorted) about that environment and, (d) personal circumstances. When you do experience difficulties, it helps enormously if you can think about how they may have arisen in terms of what you think and do about learning.
· You might be able to help other students. The most natural thing to do at university when challenges arise is to seek advice and assistance, especially from people who you know and trust. So don’t be surprised if your friends approach you and ask you how you are dealing with difficult learning issues that they might be experiencing. Helping others in this manner is a very rewarding experience that will also help you in terms of personal growth. Also remember that learning (viewed as the personal transformation of knowledge) is, to some extent, also a function of social construction; your construction of knowledge is often helped by considering the views of others and reflecting on views that differ from your own.
A first step in thinking about how you learn
There are many factors, that influence how you go about learning and ultimately these factors also influence the quality of your learning outcomes; what knowledge you end up with in your head, how it has been remembered, how it is organised, how it can be applied to solving problems, understanding new ideas and concepts, and in answering examination questions. The fact is that we have all experienced the phenomenon of learning something at one time or another. But what does ‘learning’ mean, and why is it that differences usually emerge when we compare our own views or knowledge about something with the views of others? Even two students who have worked together through the same course unit or learning task might differ markedly in terms of their initial mindset about where to start, and what to do. For you to begin to think about your own learning you basically need to recognise that learning is mainly a purposeful activity; when you engage learning you have an aim or intended outcome in mind ¾ somewhere you want to get to. This idea of purpose and direction in learning can be thought of as a journey to be undertaken; the idea is that you should know where you are going and for what reasons, by what means you are going to get there, and how you are going to regulate your progress. You should also be aware that obstacles may be encountered along the way that can slow you down, or even prevent you from completing your journey.
There are three important questions related to such purposeful learning endeavour and its accomplishment; ‘what are you trying to do?’ (your intended accomplishment), ‘why are you getting involved in this process?’ (the motivation or reason behind your intention), and ‘how are you going to go about it, what are you going to do?’ (the process or actions involved). When students are asked to talk about their answers to questions such as these in a given learning context, we often see differences revealed in what students’ think ‘learning’ means in that same context, and in how they think learning accomplishment is going to be assessed in examinations. In other words, we often observe differences in students conceptions of learning and we know from students’ own experiences that such conceptions are influenced by impressions that are formed about the content of learning (for example, how much they already know about what is to be learned in topic x, say), as well as the context of learning topic x (especially assessment requirements). So we have here the beginnings of a conceptual model; a set of ideas (or ‘observables’; things we can observe), plus an understanding of how they fit together in reality in order to explain how and why students’ differ in their learning engagement and with what likely consequences. Note that we are essentially concerned here with what students do (which is variable and can therefore be improved where necessary), rather than with who students are (for example, in terms of personality traits which are less variable)
An analogy from the physical sciences
If you studied physics or applied mathematics at school you should be familiar with Newton's laws of motion. Now you might wonder what Newton’s laws have to do with student learning. The answer is that they provide us with a simple, yet powerful, analogy to draw on.
If you want to predict the behaviour (or dynamics) of a body about to be put in motion, (a marble say, that is at rest on a flat surface), what you need to know are the forces that will be acting on it and some way of explaining what resultant effect these forces will have. In this case Newton's laws of motion can be used for explanatory purposes. So, in essence, two things are required: a knowledge of the properties of the forces acting on the marble (in terms of their magnitude and direction), and a physical model that will explain what will happen in reasonable accordance with observation. In personal learning terms: what are the forces, acting on you internally or externally, that are ‘driving you around’ as a learner on a journey, and how might a conceptual model of student learning help you to make sense of your experiences?
In some respects students are a lot like marbles. Some of them roll about all over the place in a seemingly haphazard fashion; the behaviour of the odd few may be more like the erratic dynamics of a marble being knocked about inside a pinball machine. Others appear to maintain constant progress in a set and required direction with all the forces acting on them in a seemingly harmonious balance. Others become motionless; they get stuck. Common to all these observed conditions are the internal or external forces that explain (or predict) observable behaviour with a sufficient degree of accuracy. Students, just like marbles on a flat surface, will accelerate in different directions depending on the magnitude and direction of the resultant forces acting on them or simply maintain a constant velocity in some fixed direction.
To understand the power of the marble analogy we need to consider some basic common sense explanations of human behaviour. Most of the outstanding and praiseworthy feats of human endeavour are rooted in the driving forces represented by intention and motivation. (This observation applies equally well to the most despicable acts of human endeavour. Ask any police officer.) These forces apply equally well to your learning behaviour. They translate into questions like: What are you trying to accomplish by learning? Why have you chosen such an intended outcome? How are you going to reach your intended outcome; what are you going to do?
Answers to the ‘what’ question might be something like: ‘I am trying to make sense of this’ or ‘I am trying to cram this into my head for an exam next week’; in learning terms these answers refer to intentions. In either case these responses may also be filtered by conceptions of what ‘learning’ is, and we will come to these further on. Answers to the ‘why’ question might correspondingly be: ‘Because I find this very interesting’ or ‘Because I am scared of failing’; in learning terms these answers refer to motivations. However, it is the answers to the ‘how’ question that are particularly important because they influence the quality of learning outcomes directly: ‘By relating things to what I already know’ or ‘By writing things out over and over’. These latter two answers refer to contrasting learning processes.
There is also a need to address the fact that, as part of the natural process of maturation, students gradually develop more personal conceptions of what ‘learning’ is, and of what ‘knowledge’ is and how it is constructed. These conceptions also shape the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of learning. For example, some students conceive of ‘learning’ in terms that emphasise the transformation of knowledge, while others see it more in terms of the accumulation of knowledge. These two views are not necessarily incompatible, but they do emphasise two quite different aspects of how an intention ‘to learn’ may be carried out in correspondingly different process terms. Here are two composite examples of what students actually say about their learning that are likely to lead to quite qualitatively different learning outcomes:
Learning is getting down what the lecturer says. You’ve got to try to remember it. I just concentrated on memorising the definitions without paying too much attention to what they really meant. If an exam requires proofs I will have to learn them by heart. I make sure I have a complete set of legible, fully annotated lecture notes then make revision notes from these, leaving out ideas I know already…then I learn my revision notes by reading through and rewriting parts until they are known off by heart.
I see learning as an ongoing process. It is a change in the way I see things, change of worldview, change of understanding. It involves experience and reflection … I know that I often alter my opinion about something after I have been exposed to another perspective. I was thinking what did it really mean, what was it really about and how did it relate to what I knew. If you understand something you’re able to explain it to other people in a way that they’ll be able to understand. You understand the actual meaning rather than the words themselves.
It also needs to be pointed out that, just like parallel forces acting together in the same direction, an intention to do something is more likely to be realised if it is supported by a congruent motive. It follows that the processes involved must also support, and not work against, the realisation of the intention. Stated differently, an intention can be interfered with if it is at variance with the motivation and the processes involved. In learning terms it does not make much sense, for example, to say that a fear of failing is driving you to try and ‘understand’ a difficult concept by way of repeated rehearsal. It also does not make much sense to declare an intention and a motivation without any supporting processes. There are also other interference conditions or obstacles that can slow you down and some of them are discussed further on.
Your learning profile
You are probably wondering what your ‘learning profile’ is, and what you can do with it. When you filled in the online Inventory you basically indicated the degree to which you agreed or disagreed with a number of statements that other students frequently make in relation to how they go about learning. These statements in the Inventory are conceptually grouped into ‘observables’ that approximate, in terms of meaning and interpretation, especially some of the basic processes and interference conditions that are intended to help you to see yourself as a learner.
How is your profile constructed? The degree of agreement or disagreement to each of the statements (indicators of what you say you actually did or thought) that comprise each of the observables is captured numerically as a score. By adding together the scores for the statements that comprise each observable we obtain an overall score for each observable on a scale that allows them to be compared with one another. Next, and in helping you to see observables in relation to your learning journey, the observables are colour coded and you can think of them now as representing traffic lights. Green (go) and red (stop) colours signify elements of learning engagement that are respectively interpreted as supporting or inhibiting progress (in learning) in your particular response context, while amber (caution) signifies an aspect of learning that might be delaying depending on its context-sensitive interpretation.
Your profile can thus convey a spectrum of patterning depending on the ‘mix’ of colours and their conceptual consonance (how well they ‘work’ together in learning terms). Basically the cleaner the separation between the ‘greens’ and ‘reds’ (with the ‘greens’ scored relatively higher than the ‘reds’) the better. In contrast, a journey that starts off severely delayed (relatively high scores on ‘reds’ compared to ‘greens’) may in fact lead to a dead end instead of the intended destination. And some ‘mixed’ patterns of colours may also be generally troublesome in trying to reach the destination. Based on these overall scores the observables are rank ordered in descending order and printed in that order from left to right; that is, the highest scores are on the left of your profile and the lowest are on the right. Your profile simply represents the scoring, colour coding, and rank ordering of the observables. Note that the colour of the observables is not determined by their respective scores; the reds, green and amber colours are fixed in advance. What you should be paying particular attention to is how much green (for go) there is compared to red (for stop). In a very positive sense you can thus improve your profile by asking yourself what you need to do to increase low green scores and decrease high red scores. Generally, the higher the green bars are in your profile, and the lower the red bars, the better. Your profile thus reflects:
· The relative value that you have assigned to each observable (the overall observable scores) and the accompanying likelihood of how certain observables (in terms of high scores) reflect priorities in your learning relative to others.
· The ranked structure of all the observables in terms of colour groupings and/or mixed combinations.
It is important to realise that your responses do not reflect a ‘fixed’ set of personal attributes of you as a learner; they reflect, rather, a first profile of you as a learner in a given context ― how you have self-reported about learning in a given situation that only you were conscious of. The benefits of your profile to you rest on two assumptions:
· You were being truthful with yourself when you responded to the Inventory statements. If you were, then what you see reflected in your profile should resonate with your recollected experiences of learning. Your profile is, in a sense, a ‘learning snapshot’ that you have taken of yourself.
· What you had in mind when responding to the Inventory statements (the response context; what you were focusing on) encapsulated (for you) a meaningful learning task or episode. If this is so, and you were being truthful with yourself, you would obtain a similar profile if you repeated the exercise.
Your profile can thus tell you something worthwhile about yourself at the start of your university studies. It is also important to remember that this profile is a static representation of how you responded to the various statements at one point in time. It is but one reflection of yourself in a particular learning episode.
As you adapt to university study, and as you mature as a student, and as the content and context of learning changes, your profile can change quite dramatically. In fact the expectation is that, for many students, it will change. For some students the changes will be relatively minor, simply because they have already developed relatively stable patterns of learning that are appropriate for meeting the demands of university study. For other students the transition from school to university will be more difficult, and this expectation gives rise to two basic concerns to lecturers and tutors in the School of International Business at the University of South Australia.
There is first and foremost a concern about how the School can respond to the needs of students who experience learning difficulties early on in their first year. Part of that concern is reflected in the perceived need to make you more aware of your learning behaviour and to encourage you to engage in learning conversations with your friends and with your lecturers and tutors. A second concern is how a knowledge of the learning history of first-year students, and the dynamics of subsequent change in learning behaviour attributable to the effects of the first-year experience, can be used to improve your learning experiences.
Your learning profile observables explained in more detail
The GREEN for GO signals
SDI: Seeing things differently
A transformative conception of learning in which there is a change of perspective; a new way of seeing things, seeing things differently to others or to how they looked before, discovering new ways of thinking about or interpreting things.
I believe that learning involves seeing things from a new perspective
KOB: Knowledge objects
An awareness that what has been learned exists as a visual ‘mental object’.
When I know something it is like having a picture of an object; it might be big or small, or far or near, but it is there
KAL: Knowing about learning
Knowing when learning has occurred through an experience of personal acquisition on meaning, being able to inter-relate further what one already knows, and making sense of what others say.
I know I have learned something when I can link it to other things
RID: Relating ideas
A process of learning new concepts or ideas by talking to others, seeking alternative explanations, or relating them to one another or what is already known.
In learning new concepts or ideas I relate them as far as possible to what I already know
MAU Memorise after understanding
A process of committing to memory material that has already been understood or made sense of, that can be explained to oneself, or that has already been related to what is known.
To commit the details of something to memory I first need to know the idea behind them
MWU: Memorise with understanding
A coincidental process of understanding material and committing to memory in which ‘the meaning’ provides the structure, organisation or content of what is remembered.
The meaning of something provides, at the same time, a structure for remembering it
The AMBER for CAUTION signals
RER: Rereading a text
A process of deriving meaning from texts, adding to that meaning, or gaining a new perspective, through repeated reading of a text.
The meaning of a text emerges through repeated readings of it
RAU: Repetition aids understanding
A process of repletion that aids understanding by creating a deeper impression, or a batter grasp of meaning, and that is also used to check or monitor the process of understanding.
Repetition helps me to remember things by creating a deeper impression
LBE: Learning by example
One’s learning is seen as having been developed from the influences of others, by way of their views or examples.
My learning has developed as a result of the influence of a particular person
DUT: Learning experienced as duty
Learning is experienced as a duty to be discharged or carried out, with elements of being conditioned or made to conform.
When I am learning I feel as if I am being conditioned
The RED for STOP signals
FAC: Learning is fact based
Learning is about collecting, absorbing, filling one’s memory with facts, and reproducing them when required.
Learning means collecting all the facts that need to be remembered
MAR: Memorising as rehearsal
A repetitive process of committing to memory material that does not make sense, or the meaning of which is not clear.
I have to learn over and over those things that don’t make sense to me
MBU: Memorise before understanding
A process of first committing material to memory in order to make sense of it, make meaning out of it, relate it to something else, or explain it to oneself.
In order to make sense of something I first have to commit it to memory
KDF: Knowledge discrete and factual
A belief that knowledge is discrete and factual in nature and consists of bits and pieces of information.
Knowledge really just consists of pieces of information
DRP Detail related process
Difficulty is experienced in explaining details, or fitting them together to get an overall view of something. Details that are focused on turn out to be irrelevant to an argument, conclusion or problem solving.
I have difficulty in explaining the detail of some things that I feel I have a good general grasp of
What has been learned appears to be fragmented, a collection of unrelated facts, and material that does not make much sense.
Much of what I have learned seems to consist of unrelated bits and pieces of information
What does this mean for you?
With the explanations given above, you should now look again at your learning profile printout. Can you identify some of your own reported strengths? Can you ‘see’ anything that could be a weakness? What does your profile tell YOU about your approach to learning? Does it feel right?
There are many possible combinations of learning profiles and it can be very misleading to jump to conclusions about how they should be interpreted. But generally, one of the things to watch out for in your profile would typically be the positioning of the red observables; if these tend to cluster towards the left hand side of the profile they might signify a pattern of learning engagement that you are going to transfer to other learning environments and which might hinder your progress in those contexts. If on the other hand the green observables tend to cluster on the left hand side of your profile it is generally an indication that your learning engagement is unproblematic, at least in conceptual terms. But as the patterns become more complex so does their interpretation, and it is for this reason that you are afforded the opportunity to discuss your profile further with your tutor.
The coming semester
Many first year students adjust to the demands of university learning quite quickly. For others it can be a bit worrying but we hope that this focus on ‘learning to learn’ will prove helpful.
The symptoms of a student trapped by an inability to adjust sufficiently quickly to a rapidly changing learning environment are usually an overwhelming feeling of being swamped by work, and a desperate concern for passing the exams by whatever risky means. This feeling, in turn, induces all sorts of other related problems created by simply leaving out huge sections of work, focussing very narrowly on what has been guessed at as being necessary to pass exams, and using past exam papers as objects of intensive study for revision purposes instead of lecture notes and other sources.
Some students experience a sense of helplessness in adjusting their learning behaviour to the demands of university study; ways of doing things that may have worked very well for them at school will not work as well at university and, in a short space of time, usually within the first six months, they will begin to experience anxiety at their apparent inability to cope with a seemingly ever increasing amount of work. They will work hard, sometimes expending a great deal of time and effort on their studies, and still make no real progress.
We believe that learning about learning provides you with the opportunity to cut through some of these problems. This doesn’t mean it will be easy. But understanding your own approach to learning is a key to knowing your self better and understanding the processes by which YOU learn.
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