Expansive Learning Is Your Friend

You live and learn. Or so the saying goes.

When you finish a course module, do you put it behind you, or do you keep hold of the ideas, knowledge and possibilities that you built up over that time?

Unlike at school, your degree gives you more opportunity to take a holistic approach to learning. A discovery in one area of work can change your perceptions in other areas.

Make use of multiple connections as you learn (photo by identity chris is)

Make use of multiple connections as you learn (photo by identity chris is)

At university, you must take knowledge as a whole. The bigger picture matters. What you learn in one class may be relevant to another class. What you discovered in the first year is still often relevant in the second year and beyond.

Joelle Fanghanel quoted an academic in her book, Being An Academic, suggesting that compartments of learning are worryingly favoured over the expansion of knowledge as a whole:

“If you ask [students] a question which perhaps involves some knowledge that they have learnt in some other part of the course, they get indignant with us saying ‘well we haven’t done that with you, we have done that with somebody else in a different course’…There is very much this feeling that you do the work, you are tested, and that’s the end of it, you close the door on that piece of work.” [p.56]

Rather than close doors, make your bigger picture even bigger:

  • Use links to your advantage – The academic above stated that students can get annoyed when they find or discuss a link between one course and another. Instead, see it as a gift. Links like this help you not only strengthen the bonds between different strands of knowledge, but also build upon what you already knew in one easy step.
  • Keep your notes and quotes – Over the years, you’re expected to search deeper in your field of study. By ignoring your past work, you risk having to remind yourself further down the line. Worse, you may even be starting from scratch for no reason. I used to resent the need to study Milton’s Paradise Lost on about four occasions at school and uni, because I didn’t enjoy it much. But by the final time I was working on it, I realised how much reading and research I had already done on it. As a consequence, I made much better use of my time and past work than before. It saved me a lot of time and bother.
  • Take your own initiative – So what if you weren’t told about something in class itself? If you’ve stumbled across it in a different tutor’s lecture, let it add to your overall learning. Use your initiative and make the reference where you see fit. It’s no different to doing your own research in books. Treat all your discoveries as equally relevant, however you found them.

There will be times when you spot links that make you shout “Of course!” (not always literally…) and realise that your life has been made so much easier because of it.

Keep your mind open to expansive learning and you should get many more of these “Of course!” moments coming your way.

original photo by farleyj

original photo by farleyj


  1. I’m going to mention the dreaded ‘e’ word too. This approach to learning makes you more employable. It’s the sort of skill that students need to be better in the workplace, in terms of analysing and seeing the bigger picture.

    The issue of employablity, clearly, is becomeing less about whether universities are doing well enough to train skills and more about whether employers actually know what skills are needed for they’re job.

    They don’t. Clearly. Universities need to be much firmer in telling the CBI, as much as possible, that they have no idea what they are gassing on about.

    1. It’s a difficult situation. I don’t think there is a unique way to define what skills/attributes/experiences are necessary for one particular job, let alone a broad selection of them.

      But employers have to try with what they’ve got. Sometimes, they won’t have enough. Other times, decision makers may not use the detail as effectively as they could.

      As with any debate without a clear answer, talk of transferable skills and what makes a person employable will go on forever. We are complicated and diverse in so many ways. That can be a beautiful thing, but this sure makes it hard for us to pin down anything definitive about us!

      As I said, the bigger picture matters. There still has to come a point at which the detail is examined. As an aside, it’s given me an idea to write another post explaining that you can happily start with the detail, providing you use it with the bigger picture. I like to begin with the bigger picture and fill in the detail as I go along. But either route is acceptible as far as I’m concerned. The key is to allow both the bigger picture and the detail to work together in the end.

  2. “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
    Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
    Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
    Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
    And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.”
    David Erdman and Harold Blooms eds., Collected Poetry & Prose of William Blake (Newly revised ed. 1988 p325 [The Four Zoas: Night the Second: page 35 line14])

  3. Very rightly said live and learn. Also, one can earn to learn. One should have the visionary to consider the holistic approach as you just mentioned it. And yes, some way or the other education is an interlinking and never ending process.

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