Hollywood's vision of learning includes agonizingly dull lectures (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off : the economics teacher intones, "The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which...anyone?....Raised or lowered? ....Did it work?...anyone?") as well as inspiring classrooms where passionate teachers shout, "Stand up! Stand on your desks!" The teacher either numbs or transforms. The students are either stunned by boredom or awestruck. What's missing from many of these fictional versions of school is the students' active role in their own self-transformations.

When the student is ready, the master will appear. - Buddhist ProverbYou will have inspiring, passionate instructors, but don't wait for someone to leap onto a desk and recite poetry. You are your most important teacher. A successful student knows that and knows how to learn. He or she is open to new ideas, engages with and reflects on her experiences, and seeks challenges. In this chapter we'll:

  • provide a brief overview of the learning process
  • give examples of individual learning styles and complementary study strategies
  • discuss the importance of being an active learner and a critical thinker

The Learning Process

What is learning? Definitions of learning abound and sometimes contradict each other. There are theories, charts, seemingly paradoxical explanations ("learning is the act of unlearning"), models and wikis.

We'll keep it simple here and focus on one widely used and referenced definition, and suggest resources if you'd like information about others. Learning is, according to David Kolb, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and an influen-
tial educational theorist, "the process whereby knowledge is created throughthe transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience." Kolb's model of experiential learning involves action and reflection, experience and abstraction. Students may process information differently and prefer one mode over another, but the best learning occurs when students—and instructors—integrate all four modes. Here is an adaptation of the learning construct Kolb describes.

Action - Reflection - Experience - Abstraction

Successful students involve themselves in concrete experiences, reflect on their experiences (reflection), create concepts and theories based on their reflections (abstraction), then test those theories (action). Learning, then, is a process and each step builds on the previous one. People don't necessarily learn in a specific order—some move from abstraction to action, for example—and many students exhibit a preference for one of these modes of learning.

Which category or categories seem like a good match for you? When you bring home a bookshelf from IKEA, are you more likely to take all the pieces out and get right to work (action) or read the directions thoroughly (abstraction) before you even consider picking up that little Allen wrench? After wrestling the new bookshelf into place, will you reflect on the experience? (Hmm, maybe next time I should wait for my roommate to help me!)

Discovering Your Learning Style

If you're interested in identifying and exploring your learning or personality type, there are plenty of resources to assist you. They range from long, detailed inventories to quick questionnaires. These tools can help you articulate your strengths and weaknesses, give you insights into how you relate to other people, and suggest majors and professions that might spark your interest and play to your strengths. However, you should also know that there is much debate in the education community about the validity of categorizing learning styles. That said, we'll share one popular model with you for your information—and leave it up to you to decide how helpful it might be.

One popular model of learning styles proposes that people prefer learning through Visual, Auditory, or Tactile/Kinesthetic modes. For example, a visual learner might be more likely to retain information from class when it is presented with film and images. A visual learner might need to sketch out a concept in order to understand it, and would benefit from using color-coded notes and flash cards. A tactile/kinesthetic learner, on the other hand, might learn more from hands-on activities and labs, and could use rhythm to help him or her memorize information.

You probably already know quite a bit about how you learn and have discovered from experience that what works for you doesn't always work for other people. Take a look at the following table. Which characteristics do you recognize in yourself? Are you more of a visual learner, an auditory learner, a tactile/kines- thetic learner, or are you a combination of learning types? What can you add to the "Learns Best From" column? Which of the recommended learning strategies have you already tried? Which ones work best for you? Which ones will you try?

Learning Styles

Learning Styles & Personality Type Surveys

Active Learning and Critical Thinking

More important than your preferred learning style and your dominate personality traits is whether you are an active learner. Here we mean cogni- tively active rather than jumping-jacks-in-the-lecture-hall active. Do you ask questions, either out loud in class or internally as you read? Do you anticipate outcomes? Do you propose theories? Do you follow your curiosity? Do you reflect on your understanding of a topic and identify gaps in your knowledge? Do you look for biases in your own thinking and in others'? Do you synthesize new information with previous knowledge? The active learner does all of these things all of the time. In fact, the term "active learner" is redundant: A learner does all these things all the time.

The passive learner, by contrast, simply consumes information. To the passive learner, a lecture is like a TV show, and a lab is just a series of actions one must imitate. The term "passive learner," then, is a misnomer, as there is no real learning taking place in these examples.

One of the hallmarks of an active learner is the ability to think critically. According to Edward Glaser, co-author of the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (1941), Critical thinking requires a certain attitude, a body of knowledge, and skills:

Attitude: The critical thinker considers ideas and information in a thoughtful way. The word consider comes from the Latin considerare, meaning "to inspect closely, to observe." A critical thinker's attitude, then, is being observant and ready to inspect.

Knowledge: The critical thinker possesses knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. She or he understands how to approach his or her own or another person's argument systematically and with established criteria.

Skills: The critical thinker knows how and when to apply her or his knowledge and does so skillfully.

The Critical ThinkerNote that when we talk about critical thinking, there are two frequently miscon- strued terms. First, the word critical often connotes "judging harshly," as in "Hannah was so critical of the restaurant that we couldn't even mention it in her presence." But a critical thinker will think critically about everything, whether he or she loves, hates, or feels neutral about it. Second, the word argument often connotes disagree- ment, especially a verbal disagreement. Argument in the academic sense means "a course of reasoning."
College is the place to hone your critical thinking skills and to master the art of active learning, so if some of this is new you're in the right place!

Learning Styles Exercises

  1. Consider each of your classes. What types of action, reflection, experi- ence, and abstraction do they incorporate? What can you do to integrate the four modes of learning in each class?
  2. Do you consider yourself more of a visual, auditory, or tactile/kines- thetic learner? Which learning strategies have you tried that fit your learning style well? What new learning strategies will you try this term?
  3. Take a learning style and/or personality inventory. Your instructor or the college counseling center may recommend one or you can go online and complete one of the inventories mentioned in this chapter.


for more resources and exercises.