Improving college learning:

A professional approach


Books and resources on study skills and student success for college students abound.  Most of them, however, take a narrow approach.  This doesn't mean that the advice is incorrect.  It simply means that it is limited.  It fails to take into account all the complex ways in which scholars have come to understand learning.

The most comprehensive approach for understanding student learning is a systems approach.  Certainly learning takes place in a learner's head, so cognitive research is relevant.  So is an individual's history as a learner.  Also, college learning takes place in an institutional context and, more specifically, within discipline-specific contexts.  Just as individuals have different strengths as learners, disciplines vary as to the ways of learning they require.  This can be seen in the very different ways in which each discipline approaches a problem and in the ways they express their ideas in writing.  The best approach to improve learning takes into account not only the learner but the learning context and the interactions between the two. 

Learning is complex.  What are the learner's preferences and strengths?  What previous knowledge, attitudes, and habits does the learner bring to a new learning context?  (Sometimes old ways of learning can serve as obstacles to learning in a new context.)  What is the learner's intention?  What epistemological assumptions does the learner hold?  What strategies are chosen? 

What characterizes the learning context?  How does the instructor's view of the learning demands differ from those of learners?  What level of prior knowledge is assumed?  What are the ways of knowing required?  What are the tacit expectations?  What epistemological assumptions does the instructor hold?   What are the modes of inquiry typical of the discipline?  What are the rhetorical genres of the discipline?  Of the classroom?

These are the kinds of questions professionals consider when they examine student learning.  Activity theory, genre theory and research, sociocultural and phenomenological research on learning as well as knowledge of cognition and epistemological development all assist in understanding student learning.  If generic study tips work for you, by all means adopt them.  But be prepared to change your strategies as you encounter new learning contexts.  If you want to learn but you're struggling, if you're frustrated, consult with a professional who can help you better understand yourself as a learner and help you analyze your learning context.   A good professional draws on a wide-ranging repertoire of knowledge, then simplifies it to help you clearly understand the learning problem and solutions.