What Kind of Learner Are You?

Two years ago, I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do after it was recommended to me by a colleague at a Lilly Conference, and last summer I re-read the book as a part of a book club on campus. I should clarify…I read the book in one day.

One day.

Not only was it an easy read, but it felt like Bain was speaking to me…telling me that I am not alone. Please don’t read that to mean that I think I’m one of the best college teachers. Rather, it was more confirmation that the types of learning experiences I try to provide within the classroom are congruent with what the best college teachers do…I just need to keep working at it.

The book was so powerful that last fall I decided to read his next book, What the Best College Students Do, with a student who was exploring the process of learning in the classroom. I completed this book feeling a bit disappointed. It felt as if the book was put together quickly, and that the effort to “discover” the best teachers was not the same effort to “discover” the best students (Bain claims otherwise). Instead, it felt more like he asked his friends/people he knew who he thought were good students to share their story about how they became good students. Let’s just say that I kept thinking that Bain and most of his friends/acquaintances have quite a few more resources for their own personal learning than most of the rest of us (certainly more than I have available).

Still, though, there was “good stuff” that could be found, and I’ve been spending time considering some of it at the beginning of this new school year and thought that it might be helpful for other to consider too. Bain discusses how he wasn’t equating being a “good student” with getting straight A’s. Most of the people he discusses in his book did get good grades, but not always. He spoke a bit about a test called the Force Concept Inventory, which demonstrated that those who received A grades were,

“simply better at memorizing formulas, plugging the right number into the equation, and calculating the correct answer on the exam” (p. 4463–kindle).

The A grade the students received had little to do with how well they understood course concepts. I agree with Ken’s critique of the grading system, and wish there was a way that I could avoid assigning grades. Unfortunately, my experience with various students leads me to believe that if grades were not offered not all students would do the work, and in order to help them discover a greater purpose for the course than simply getting an A, I find that I need them to do the work.

Bain also encourages readers to consider what kind of learner they are, and indicates that a person’s approach to learning is often connected to how they approach their work post graduation. Learning for the sake of learning or to become better by gaining new knowledge/understanding/skills/abilities is not how most students have been socialized to be students. Rather, I’ve experienced students who’ve been socialized to receive an A because they completed the homework and repeated back to me whatever it is that the reading assigned for the day said. My sassy response to these students is that I already know what the authors of the readings said because I assigned the readings. My non-sassy response is more…”okay, that’s a place to start. What do you think about the authors claims?” Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “surface” learners.

Bain discusses another kind of student that I’ve encountered. These students believe they can tell,

“right away if they are going to be good at something. If they don’t get it immediately, they throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t do it'” (p. 4463–kindle).

Yet, most of us know that to lastingly learn something it requires time and commitment…progress is slow, and often involves continual struggle. In order to hang in there as one learns to become good at something, it requires internal motivation and knowing how one learns best. Thus, whatever you think right away about your ability to learn something might not be the best indicator of your abilities. Psychologists at Goteborg University label these students as “strategic” learners. These students, “focus almost exclusively on how to find out what the professor wants and how to ace the exam. If they learn something along the way that changes the way they think, act, or feel, that’s largely an accident. They never set out to do that” (p. 4463-kindle).

Bain also discusses characteristics of what he considers to be the “best” students. To Bain these students engage in deeper understanding through reflective questioning of their own mind. They are able to provide empathy to themselves as they acknowledge areas of growth and weakness. They often take it upon themselves to discover connections between their own interests and the assignments they received. “These students tried to comprehend what difference an idea, line of reasoning, or fact made, and how it related to something they had already learned” (p. 4463-kindle). Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “deep” learners.

Perhaps, like me, you were thinking about what category of student you fit in, and you might find that it has changed over time and due to context. I know that is the case for me. Bain discusses how you are not stuck in only being one type of learner for life, but that become a deep learner is often not what students have learned to become. Just spending time now considering how you approach learning has potential to assist you in becoming a deep learner. The choice is yours to make.

“To take a deep approach means to take control of your own education, to decide that you want to understand, to create something new, to search for the meaning that lies behind the text, to realize that words on a page are mere symbols, and that behind those symbols lies a meaning that has a connection with a thousand other aspects of your life and with your own personal development” (p. 4463-kindle).

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Looking Within to See What is Out There

This is the second summer I’ve had the opportunity to help guide a book club with a great colleague, Stacey, for the First Year Experience (FYE) instructors. Last year, we facilitated conversations about Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do. It was a pretty quick, but worthwhile, book…and not just for those teaching FYE courses (really quite a good book for anyone interesting in teaching/learning).

This year, the book we’ve selected is Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. From what I understand it is sort of considered a classic to those that teach (my clue to this realization was the publication of an anniversary edition). I actually have already read it once, but it about 10 years ago, so am excited to be reading it again this summer.

Although the book club hasn’t officially started yet, I have begun to read the book. And in true Palmer style (I’ve read a few of his other books–which I highly recommend!) he’s got me thinking. Sometimes I think that he has some sort of magical power that enables him to speak directly to what I’ve been ruminating on the most. This was at least my experience this week (and has been my experience many times in the past). Since the school year has come to a close, and I’ve actually found myself experiencing a bit more stress free environment, I’ve been spending a lot of time consider how I see myself in relation to others, as well as how it seems that others are seeing me. Unfortunately in my experience these two “selves” aren’t always the same for a myriad of reasons, which can lead to frustration and curiosity. Lately it has led to much more curiosity, which has also been pleasantly accompanied by a calmness. I heard Palmer speak to my recent reflections when he wrote,

“..we cannot see what is ‘out there’ merely by looking around. Everything depends on the lenses through which we view the world. By putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible” (Palmer, 2007, p. 27).

And my response to him would be, “Yes!” However, I still felt just as contemplative after reading his thoughts. His words, though, were helpful in that they reminded me that there are always more ways, “lenses” to look through at our experiences. Sometimes I will admit that it can be quite challenging to kept such a perspective in mind. Full confession…it is terribly hard to keep this in mind when I feel hurt, upset, wronged, etc….synonym in any other negative feeling word because it is in those moments that I want to be right. That I want my way of understanding the experience to be THE way of understanding the experience. My lens to be the correct lens. And so when I consider the differences I notice between how I see and understand myself, and how other others might see and understand me, I cannot help but wonder what other perspectives besides just those two might exist? How I can find even more lenses to try on as I seek to understand my experiences, and how I can recognize my desire to be “right” in such a way that it becomes just one lens through which I am viewing the world?

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