Tips for College learning : Learning to learn

Author : Wirth & Perkins


How many of you have spent time trying to understand the meaning of learning, or how it occurs? Although many of us have a general sense of what it means to learn, there are often many assumptions involved. Teachers often assume that, because they are “teaching,” students must be learning. Students assume that, because they have read their text and memorized facts, they have learned something.


It’s not that it isn’t important to learn some facts while in college; these will likely be necessary for future employment. More important though is having the skill to learn on one’s own after leaving college. This single most-important skill will empower you for a lifetime and should be one of your highest priorities for attending college.

Intentional learners are integrative thinkers who “see connections in seemingly disparate information” to inform their decisions. Self-directed learners are highly motivated, independent, and strive toward self-direction and autonomy. They “take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select an implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes”

Different kinds of thinking and learning: THE COGNITIVE DOMAIN

Bloom and colleagues identified three learning domains:

  • the cognitive domain
  • the affective domain
  • Includes feelings, emotions, attitudes, values and motivations
  • the psychomotor domain
  • includes physical movement, coordination, motor and sensory skills


Bloom and colleagues identified six levels within the cognitive domain. Subsequently, Anderson et al. (2001) pointed out that there are four categories of knowledge within the cognitive domain, each requiring different kinds of learning. They identified four principal kinds of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive. Factual knowledge consists of isolated and discrete content elements. Conceptual knowledge is more complex and organized, including such things as knowledge of classifications, categories, principles, theories, models, and structures. Knowledge of “how to do something” such as techniques, methods and skills is termed procedural knowledge. Metacognitive knowledge is “knowledge about cognition and awareness of and knowledge about one’s own cognition.“ Anderson et al. (2001) revised Bloom’s taxonomy and showed that each of their four kinds of knowledge can be mapped across all six of Bloom’s levels of understanding. So, there are 24 distinct combinations of knowledge type and level of understanding. In Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives, Donald points out that different disciplines involve different and specific kinds of thinking and information. This, according to Donald explains why students gravitate toward one field or another. It is also the single most important predictor for success in a given field.

Different kinds of thinking and learning: THE AFFECTIVE DOMAIN


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In fact, a recent study by Dweck and others demonstrates that student views of learning often have significant effects on student grades.

Perhaps the most important consideration of the affective domain occurs when you assess your own learning. You can consider and evaluate motives, attitudes, and other things in a way that your teacher cannot. You can identify and deal with affective roadblocks to learning that can neither be recognized nor solved when using a purely cognitive approach.



This taxonomy was developed to emphasize that learning involves changes in the learner. Significant learning is characterized by “some kind of lasting change that is important in terms of the learner’s life”.

When a learning experience has a profound effect on a student, it can result in a greater sense of caring for the subject, for themselves, others, or learning in general. Greater caring can lead to new interests, energy for learning, or a change in values. Finally, it is also important to learn how to learn. This includes learning how to diagnose one’s own need for learning and how to be a self-learner. This type of learning enables students to continue learning with greater effectiveness and is a particularly important skill with the recent explosion of knowledge and technology.

The bottom line is this: there is a lot more to learning than memorizing, recalling, or even understanding, facts. Stated another way: there is much more to learning than content. The successful student must also know how to apply knowledge to new areas; integrate knowledge with other aspects of life; understand the implications of knowledge for self and others; care about learning; and learn how to learn.


Atkinson et al. (1993) describe learning as “a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practice.” Others (e.g., Simon 1996) have pointed out that the purpose of learning has recently shifted from being able to recall information (surface learning) to being able to find and use it (deep learning).

Modern cognitive psychology tells us that learning is a constructive, not receptive, process (Glaser 1991). This theory of learning (constructivism) holds that understanding comes through experiences and interaction with the environment, and that the learner uses a foundation of previous knowledge to construct new understanding. Consequently, the learner has primary responsibility for constructing knowledge and understanding, not the teacher. In a constructivist classroom, the teacher is no longer the “authority” but instead is a guide or facilitator who assists students in learning.

Within the brain, knowledge is organized and structured in networks of related concepts. Accordingly, new knowledge must connect to, or build upon a framework of existing knowledge (Zull 2002). Put simply, learning involves building mental models (schema) consisting of new and existing information. The richer the links between new and existing information, the deeper the knowledge and the more readily it can be retrieved and applied in new situations. Building rich links involves an iterative process of building, testing, and refining schema that organizes knowledge into conceptual frameworks. If existing knowledge serves as a foundation for new learning, then it is also essential that existing misconceptions, preconceptions, and naive conceptions are acknowledged and corrected during the learning process.


There are both ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ approaches to learning (Savin-Baden and Major 2004). Surface approaches to learning concentrate on memorization (Bloom’s lowest level: knowledge). In surface learning, the learner’s goal is often to complete required learning tasks by memorizing information needed for assessments. Surface learners mostly focus on facts without integration, they are generally unreflective, and they see learning tasks as external impositions. In contrast, students with deep approaches to learning have an intention to understand. They generally engage in vigorous interaction with content, relate new ideas to old ones, relate concepts to everyday experience, relate evidence to conclusions, and examine the logic of arguments.

The single best measure of mastery in a subject is time spent intellectually engaged with that particular subject.


The human brain has a fundamental need to solve problems and understand its surroundings. Can be verified by the increasing interest in sudoku players.

Studies of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, learning science, and neuroscience have converged on a new understanding of the workings of the brain (NRC 2000). Key findings include: 1) learning changes the physical structure of the brain2) learning organizes and reorganizes the brain, and 3) different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different stages of development.

During development, the “wiring of the brain” is created through the formation of synapses, which are the junctions between neurons through which information passes. At birth, the human brain contains all the neurons it will ever have, but has a relatively small portion of the large number of synapses that it will eventually develop. New synaptic connections are added to the brain after birth in two ways: 1) by overproduction and loss, and 2) by synapse addition.

Overproduction of synapses occurs in different parts of the brain at different rates during childhood and early adolescence. Those synapses that are unused through experience are “pruned” during later stages. In other words, brains initially have an extensive neural network, but only those parts that are used are retained. The second method of synapse addition occurs throughout life and is “driven” by experience. In other words, activity in the nervous system associated with learning experiences somehow results in the formation of new synapses and “re-wiring” of the brain. The increasing complexity of neural networks that results from sensory experiences is the physical explanation for the theory of constructivism

Studies of memory and brain processes indicate that people’s memories of images are far superior compared with people’s memories of words (NRC 2000). This has implications for how we teach and learn. Research also indicates that the brain does not simply record information as it arrives. Instead, the brain reorganizes information for more efficient recall and later use. In fact, the structure of information in the brain is one of the primary features that distinguishes “novices” from “experts.”

A number of studies have shown that even moderate amounts of alcohol cause significant cellular damage (even after the effects of alcohol have worn off) to the forebrain and hippocampus regions of the brain. These structures are crucial for learning that involves integrative processing (e.g., decision-making, questioning, discrimination, and goal- setting) and memory


Intellectual growth has been characterized as the progression from ignorant certainty to intelligent confusion


A classic study of intellectual development was conducted by William Perry (1970). He concluded that intellectual growth occurs in a series of stages, starting with blind acceptance of authority (which Perry termed dualism), and moving on to gradual acceptance of uncertainty (multiplicity) and the idea that all opinions have merit. The next stage recognizes that perspectives are important and that competing ideas may be evaluated in that light (relativism). Relativists learn how to think and act in specific contexts. The final stage involves making choices and decisions (commitments)



Paul and Elder (2004) suggest the following elements of critical thinking:

  • All reasoning has a purpose
  • All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem
  • All reasoning is based on assumptions
  • All reasoning is done from some point of view
  • All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence
  • All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas
  • All reasoning contains inferences by which we draw conclusions and give meaning
  • All reasoning leads somewhere, has implications and consequences

It is important to regularly monitor your thinking for flawed intellectual standards such as “it must be true because:” “I believe it;” “we believe it;” “I want to believe it;” “I have always believed it;” “it is easier to believe it than to understand it;” “or because it is in my vested interest to believe it” (see It should be clear from the above discussion, and the guidelines in Table 4, that questioning is the key to sound reasoning. Questions define the path of our thinking, they determine the evidence that we seek, and they lead us to new levels of understanding. Never stop asking questions!



Studies show “experts” constantly monitor their understanding and progress during problem solving. Critically, their metacognitive skills allow them to decide when their current level of understanding is not adequate. This type of planning, self- monitoring, self-regulation, and self assessment not only includes general knowledge about cognitive processes and strategies, but also appropriate conditions for use of those strategies, and general self-knowledge. Research suggests that metacognitive skills cannot be taught out of context. In other words, one can’t just take a course on metacognition. You need to learn it and apply it within the context of disciplinary content. As you are learn, you should engage in constant questioning (e.g., What am I trying to accomplish? What is the best strategy for learning? How is my progress? Did I succeed?). This sort of self-monitoring and reflection not only leads to deeper and more effective learning, but also lays the groundwork for being a self-directing learner.


A classic study by the National Training Board found that students retained only 5% of the information they received in lecture, twenty-four hours later. Retention rates increased to 75-90% when active learning involving peer teaching was used instead of lectures.


In a recent review of the effectiveness of active learning, Prince (2004) found extensive, widespread support for active learning approaches, especially when activities were designed around important learning outcomes and promoted thoughtful engagement. Many instructors recognize that active learning results in significant improvements in student knowledge retention, conceptual understanding, engagement, and attitudes about learning. A commonly used approach in active learning is cooperative learning.

Learning styles:

  1. VARK
  2. multiple intelligences inventory

In summary, there are many different ways of modeling the ways of learning. No one model provides a complete description of learning, and no single learning style is superior to another. However, it is important to be aware of your own learning style preferences so that you can make the necessary adjustments to maximize your learning


Although a single letter grade does not adequately represent the sum total of a person’s potential or abilities, it is a widely accepted method for summarizing a student’s performance in a particular course Effort alone does not guarantee success. Conversely, the most outstanding student in a classroom is not necessarily the individual with the greatest native ability. Remember, time-on-task is the single variable most highly correlated with learning Lastly, remember that not every professor has the same standards for grading and that it is your responsibility to know which standards are in effect.

Simply stated, what you write, and how you write it, is evidence of your ability to think critically (Paul 2004). When you write vague sentences, or fail to provide detailed examples to make a point, it indicates that your understanding of a topic lacks clarity or detail. When you fail to provide a detailed logical analysis in your writing, it suggests that your conceptual understanding may be weak


Are you Successful or Struggling student ?


Are you Grade ‘A’ or Grade ‘C’ student ?



This post summarised one of the best articles directing students towards successful college learning. I hope that by learning about what learning really is, we would be better equipped to go on our journey of discovering the undiscovered areas of the vast ocean of knowledge that lies before us.

Source: to Learn Wirth.pdf

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