active learning

Why the learning experience is greater than end results

A friend of mine struggled with tests as a child.  Any time an assessment was coming up, his mind would go blank and he’d panic.  The pressure of passing weighed down on him to such an extent that no manner of revision or study took him any further.

original photo by sashamd

original photo by sashamd

A couple of days before another test, the worry became too much and he asked his Dad for help.  His Dad, being a schoolteacher (and his Dad!), was a pretty good person to talk to.

Dad said, “You don’t need to worry about tests if you always try your best.  There’s more to life than getting full marks.”

The father went on to say that an interest in learning is far more important than focusing on a test result.  If you can honestly tell yourself that you worked with a view toward learning and discovery, the results should follow.  Get 0% or 100%, the mark doesn’t matter if you work hard in the process.  The results will come naturally.

My friend continued his preparation for the test.  This time, the learning was more fun.  He felt less stress and more connection with the learning materials.

On the day of the next test, he turned up at school with a totally different perspective.  There was a sense of peace. Terror didn’t pin him down.  Despite feeling nervous, he was confident.

And (surprise, surprise) he passed without difficulty and with high marks.  This success came about from one small change of focus.  Instead of concentrating on the end result, the focus was on the learning experience as a whole.

My friend has taken his Dad’s advice with him ever since and loved his time at university, while getting solid grades along the way.  He teaches other children now and I hope he’s able to pass on what he discovered to his pupils.

Unfortunately, schools are under so much pressure that many teachers are used to talking at their pupils rather than engaging in active conversation.  This doesn’t allow students to “perform at their optimum”.  At a time when pupils should be encouraged the way my friend was, they’re in real danger of being let down.

An Institute of Education (IoE) study on learning recently found that the advice my friend was given is effective in helping students achieve much better grades than those who are focused on results:

“In one study, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn.

“Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students’ learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils’ exam results.

“A further study, of 4,203 students, showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.”
[Guardian]

At university, you are far more responsible for your own learning.  Luckily, that means you don’t have quite the same pressures with teachers focusing on your grades in the same way.  However, you need to make decisions over what you’re going to focus on.

So what will it be?  Focus on the result, or focus on the learning?  A focus on the learning allows the end result to develop favourably, whereas a focus on the result clouds the process.

Chris Watkins, the author of the IoE report says, “passing tests is not the goal of education, but a by-product of effective learning”.

Perhaps it’s time to give learning a fresh approach.  Involve yourself in the research.  Get interested in the material on offer and actively seek out more information.

Learning is key.  The focus on a First or 2:1 shouldn’t be necessary when you’re in it for the learning.

10 Steps to Active Learning

I was looking through Stella Cottrell’sThe Study Skills Handbook” the other day and came across a piece on ‘Active Learning’. I believe this is one of the most important factors in studying at university. After going through GCSE and A-Level experiences, there is too much emphasis on passive learning.

With passive learning, the student waits to be given what is supposedly important. It’s more a case of take the information that’s put in front of them and try to remember it, or copy it down without really knowing what the overall picture is.

Active learning, on the other hand, is about engaging with the subject and taking on the bigger picture. The student gets involved with the information and seeks out further ideas for development.

Another kind of active learning! (photo by EUSKALANATO)

If you’ve ever heard a student say, “I couldn’t answer the question because the teacher didn’t teach us that,” then you’ve seen an effect of passive learning. Maybe you’ve said that yourself in the past. The learning tends to be in isolation.

When you get to university, you’re propelled into a setting that relies strongly on doing your own work, conducting your own research, using your own initiative. This is why active learning plays such a strong part in studying toward any degree in Higher Education.

So I’d like to share with you 10 strategies that Cottrell suggests to take your learning further and my thoughts and agreements with the suggestions:

1. “Prepare for lectures” – While many turn up for lectures, possibly without even knowing the title of it, let alone the subject matter, you can walk in with a 20-minute basic understanding of the topic of discussion for that day. When you hear the lecturer speak, the words will make sense and you will sense the direction in which the talk is going. The content may be more focused and technical in manner, but your initial search on Google, a brief read of the main Wikipedia page, and flicking through the topic in your textbooks will be worth it’s weight, because you can get on with processing the information and asking questions as you go along, while others will be writing down whatever they hear, because they haven’t had the basic insight that you have.

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