In this module we will cover learning strategies that will help you in working smarter, not harder. Up to this point in your academic career you may have tried a number of different strategies, tips, and/or tricks to succeed. You may have seen some success here or there, but nothing that led to sustained success in your academic pursuits. That’s ok. It will all be ok.

In this module, we will cover evidence-based strategies (that means research has been done and backs up the effectiveness of these strategies) that I believe will lead to that success you have been seeking, but it will take dedication and commitment to sticking with it.

The Power to Learn

Questions to consider:

  • What actually happens to me when I learn something?
  • Am I aware of different types of learning?
  • Do I approach studying or practicing differently depending on the desired outcome?

In this module we will specifically focus on what is at the core of being a student: the act of learning. We humans have been obsessed with how we learn and understand things since ancient times. Because of this, some of our earliest recorded philosophies have tried to explain how we take in information about the world around us, how we acquire new knowledge, and even how we can be certain what we learn is correct. This obsession has produced a large number of theories, ideas, and research into how we learn. There is a great deal of information out there on the subject—some of it is very good, and some of it, while well intentioned, has been a bit misguided.

Because of this obsession with learning, over the centuries, people have continually come up with new ideas about how we acquire knowledge. The result has been that commonly held “facts” about education have been known to change frequently. Often, what was once thought to be the newest, greatest discovery about learning was debunked later on. One well-known example of this is that of corporal punishment. For most of the time formal education has existed in our society, educators truly believed that causing physical harm to students when they made a mistake actually helped them learn faster. Thankfully, birching (striking someone with a rod made from a birch tree) has fallen out of favor in education circles, and our institutions of learning have adopted different approaches. In this module, not only will you learn about current learning theories that are backed by neuroscience (something we did not have back in the days of birching), but you will also learn other learning theories that did not turn out to be as effective or as thoroughly researched as once thought. That does not mean those ideas about learning are useless. Instead, in these cases you find ways to separate the valuable parts from the myths to make good learning choices.

This material is from College Success – an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 2.

The Nature of Learning

To begin with, it is important to recognize that learning is work. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is difficult, but there is always work involved. For many years people made the error of assuming that learning was a passive activity that involved little more than just absorbing information. Learning was thought to be a lot like copying and pasting words in a document; the student’s mind was blank and ready for an instructor to teach them facts that they could quickly take in. As it turns out, learning is much more than that. In fact, at its most rudimentary level, it is an actual process that physically changes our brains. Even something as simple as learning the meaning of a new word requires the physical alteration of neurons and the creation of new paths to receptors. These new electrochemical pathways are formed and strengthened as we utilize, practice, or remember what we have learned.

If the new skill or knowledge is used in conjunction with other things we have already learned, completely different sections of the brain, our nerves, or our muscles may be tied in as a part of the process. A good example of this would be studying a painting or drawing that depicts a scene from a story or play you are already familiar with. Adding additional connections, memories, and mental associations to things you already know something about expands your knowledge and understanding in a way that cannot be reversed. In essence, it can be said that every time we learn something new we are no longer the same.

In addition to the physical transformation that takes place during learning, there are also a number of other factors that can influence how easy or how difficult learning something can be. While most people would assume that the ease or difficulty would really depend on what is being learned, there are actually several other factors that play a greater role.

This material is from College Success – an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 2.

All Learning is Not the Same

The first fundamental point to understand about learning is that there are several types of learning. Different kinds of knowledge are learned in different ways. Each of these different types of learning can require different processes that may take place in completely different parts of our brain.

For example, simple memorization is a form of learning that does not always require deeper understanding. Children often learn this way when they memorize poems or verses they recite. An interesting example of this can be found in the music industry, where there have been several hit songs sung in English by vocalists who do not speak English. In these cases, the singers did not truly understand what they were singing, but instead they were taught to memorize the sounds of the words in the proper order. Memorizing sounds is a very different type of learning than, say, acquiring a deep understanding of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

This material is from College Success – an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 2.

Bloom's Taxonomy

In order to think about the different levels of learning, we will need to address Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy is an oversimplification of the hierarchy of learning levels in a person. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid we have Remembering – memorizing verbatim definitions or formulas (but can’t put in your own words). The next level up is Understanding – you can paraphrase the material. Climbing further we get to Applying – you can take any concept you’ve learned to solve problems you haven’t seen before. The next level up from there is Analyzing – you can take any concept you’ve learned and break it down into its component parts. We are now really engaging in deep learning with Evaluating – look at two different processes and determine which is likelier to be correct, efficient, or desirable. And at the top of the learning pyramid is Creating – come up with your own ideas for solving a problem.

Student in high school may have done well with simply using Remember and Understanding. And some college students may think they can get by with staying at those levels, not going higher up the hierarchical learning pyramid. But in fact, as a college student you are expected to traverse this learning pyramid quite regularly. In a given class you may only address Understanding or Applying for one of the class periods, but then in a subsequent class period you incorporate Applying and/or Evaluating. For some assignments you may be asked to generate something new (i.e., a prototype or conduct an experiment), which is at the level of Creating. Being mindful that you are expected to freely move between these levels for your college classes will help to set the framework for how you approach your academics. That means in college your study strategies are no longer going to entail rote memorization – memorization of information for repetition (and in some instances excessive repetition). But rather deep learning to you retain over time.

Setting Up an Effective Study Strategy

Now that you are aware of the hierarchy of learning levels presented in the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid, it is important to develop effective (and efficient) study strategies so you are an engaged learner (traversing the different levels of the pyramid) that retains the information for future recall. Each time you engage with new material – via class sessions, readings, videos, or other mediums in which you receive information – your neural networks expand. When these neural networks are frequently activated/visited – such as when you study materials or practice skills – these new networks have the potential to become long-term memories. Repetitive activation of these networks strengthens connections and recall of this information (for a test or exam for instance) is increasingly easier. Here we will discuss the 5 stages of the Study Cycle –  a cyclical approach to your learning that will enhance your engagement with the course material and promote deeper learning.

Study Cycle infographic

To begin, you must Preview the content ahead of time. This preview step does not have to be a huge time commitment. Within the reading you can flip/scroll throughout the pages and notice terms, concepts, headings, etc. If the instructor posts materials before class (i.e., Powerpoint slides), then look through the slides and familiarize yourself with what topics or concepts are going to be addressed in that class session. Generate your own questions concerning what you believe you would be able to answer by the end of the reading and/or class attendance. If you are in a class where you are assigned practice problems/homework, you should peruse the practice problems/homework prior to attending class. If you are in a class where there is no textbook, then what other material may be provided by the instructor? At a minimum you can look over the material from the previous class session to refresh your knowledge about what was covered and why that important to the overall course. This Preview step can be as short as 10-15 minutes, where you are priming your brain for what you will address in the subsequent class session.

This brings us to the second step in the Study Cycle – Classroom Engagement. It has to be more than just attending class. Just sitting there is not going to be as productive and useful as you may hope. You need to be engaged in the learning experience. Think about where you sit, who you sit next to, do you come prepared for class, are you on time for class, do you have a set of questions you are ready to have answered on that respective subject you will cover in that class session? All of these questions (and likely many, many more) should come to mind as you evaluate how you are an engaged learner in each and every class session. For large “lecture” style classes, you can still be engaged and an active participant in the learning experience. For medium and smaller classes, it may be harder to fade into the “background” of the class. Whatever the class size, type, or structure you can be engaged in the learning process. Some instructors may be very clear about classroom engagement practices, and others may not be. So think about how much you want (and need) to get out of each and every class session so you maximum what you gain in that learning environment.

The third step of the cycle is Review / Synthesize. Here you are encouraged to look back over your notes or course materials after that class session and recognize what was covered and why was it covered. This “what and why” approach to evaluating that classroom experience will let you see what material or concepts you feel comfortable with and what material you are going to need to dedicate extra attention. In this Review/Synthesize step you can take inventory about how much time was dedicated to a particular topic from that class session. If an instructor spent a large portion of a 50 minute class covering one specific topic, then that should prompt you to recognize the importance placed on that material. This step of the Study Cycle also allows you to evaluate those initial questions you had on this subject during the Preview step, and see if clarification was provided from the class session. If your questions were answered, then great! You now see what you have gained in your learning. If some or all of those Preview questions still remain, then you now have some direction in your studies to find the answer – from the course materials, by attending the instructor’s office hours, speaking with a Teaching Assistant, speaking with a study partner or tutor, etc. And like the Preview step, this Review/Synthesize steps does not need to be overly time consuming. This step is actually helping set the stage for the next step in the Study Cycle.

The forth step of the Study Cycle is Independent Engagement. Independent Engagement consists of the academic work you do outside of class – studying, reading, writing, homework, etc. This independent engagement is done on your own time; time that you have now identified from completing the Time Management module (Module 2). If you have worked through the first 3 steps of the Study Cycle, then by the time you get to Independent Engagement you should have a very clear idea of what you need to work on and how you plan to tackle that work. This Independent Engagement step of the Study Cycle can be subdivided into four key steps: Set a Goal, Do the Work, Take a Break, and Return to Review.

  • Set a Goal – Setting a goal for each Independent Engagement session will be necessary to staying on track and on target for the work you are wanting/needing to accomplish. This goal (or goals) will be based on the insight you have gained from Previewing, Classroom Engagement, and Review/Synthesizing that material. You now know what you need to learn on a deeper level. Setting a goal will allow you to have something you are working towards, under a defined amount of time.
  • Do the Work – Here is where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak. You now have to put in the time to your academics outside of class, but you have some direction of what you are working on and how you plan to accomplish it with the goal(s) you set. The “Do the Work” step must have a time constant though. You cannot think that you will be super productive sitting in the library for 8 hours of non-stop studying. Scale it back to a very defined target of what you want to accomplish and be sure to stay on task for the duration of the work. If you know that your phone is a big distraction, then turn it to Do Not Disturb and put it out of sight. This may be a struggle for self-control and will power. And what will help in not feeling temped to be on your phone is what is coming in the next step – your break. The duration of work you do during the Do the Work step should be contingent on what the goal(s) you set at the onset. If the goal is very narrowly defined, then 25 – 30 minutes may be sufficient. If your goal is a little more ambitious, then maybe 45 – 60 minutes is more appropriate. But be sure to not go beyond 60 minutes of continuous studying, before you get to your break.
  • Take a Break – Yes, you read that correctly. Have a planned break in your work schedule so that you do no burn out or become to mental drained/exhausted. This planned break is to be just that, a break for your brain to rest and absorb what you just worked on. Don’t take a break from one class to just work on another class. This break could consist of a restroom break, water/food break, and/or technology break. You have probably been wanting to see what you have been missing on your phone, so take some time to get caught up there. Keep in mind though, the duration of this break is dependent on the duration of your work session. If worked diligently for 30 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. If you worked for 60 minutes, then take a 10-15 minute break. But be sure to stick to these time limits, its important to not get too off task here.
  • Return to Review – This is where you will come back to your studies, writing, reading, or homework and take some time to look over what you just accomplished. It may be tempting to pick up right where you left off and continue working, but please take some time to evaluate what work you had done and take inventory if you feel you have truly accomplished the goal(s) you set out to do. If looking over your goal(s) and then the work you have done you may realize that you achieved your goal(s). Wonderful! Now you know what you have learned and are ready to take on the next set of goals in subsequent Independent Engagement sessions. You may find out in this review that you did not achieve the goal(s) you established at the start. That is also ok, since by taking this review time to see what area you need to dedicate additional attention to so that you master that subject before you move on to the next topic.

If you follow these 4 steps to the Independent Engagement work, you will begin to recognize how much learning you are doing. The maximum time of a full Independent Engagement session will be about an hour and a half. But you know that you need to put in more time than that to stay on top of your work. So, the recommendation is two or three Independent Engagement sessions back-to-back before you take a much longer break. These longer breaks may be for a meal, exercise, some social time, or even “me time”. And remember what was discussed in Module 2 – the target of the 8-8-8 rule is 8 hours of Academic Work a day for a full-time student. That means, if you are in class for a total of 3 hours one day, then you have 5 hours of Independent Engagement you will need to do. So, identify when in your daily schedule you will get that work done.

The final step of the Study Cycle is Assess. In this Assess step you need to test your knowledge on all of the material you have covered for the last several days or week. Assessing your knowledge will allow you to see what information you have retained and what needs to be revisited for ease of recall. Potentially for some students, this Assess step is where you begin to introduce time as a factor in your study approach – meaning you set a time limit to how long you take to complete a practice exam question. You may have spent as much time as you need to work on the homework or problem sets for a class, but now you need to incorporate the time constraint that you will have on the assessment. If it is taking you 30 – 40 minutes to solve a homework problem, and you only get on average 6 – 8 minutes per question on an exam, then what steps are you taking to incorporate time into your preparation strategies for that assessment? Assessing your knowledge will allow you to be confident in your knowledge base on that respective topic/subject, before you move onto the next subject and add more to your expected learned material.

What About Your Notes?

Do you feel like your note-taking skills could use some improvement? Does it feel like you are aware of the information in class, but when you look back over your notes it is hard to decipher what you were writing down? Please do not worry, there are some simple steps you can take to improve how you take your notes so they can best serve you in your learning. Effective notes will help in your understanding of the concepts, retention of the information, and potentially reduce stress during exam preparation.


Go explore these strategies on Note-taking, this can be transformative to how you take notes in your classes.

How Are You Doing?

How are you doing? That was a lot to process and take in. Those strategies may be very different from what you may have done in the past. That is ok. This is a moment for you to start reflecting on what strategies you used previously and if you recognize a change is in order. What was covered in this module was meant to present one approach. If you have another approach you use to address your academic commitments and coursework, then please share that with the instructor. Discuss with them what strategies you have used up to this point, or strategies you hope to use, that you feel will ensure your academic success.

In the next section you will have a chance to share about your experiences and get feedback on how you plan to address your academic demands as you return to your courses and the pressure/stress that may bring.

Sleep is Your Superpower

Ok, one more thing – Sleep. Yes, sleep! It is evident from years of research – in academia and in other areas of research (military, NASA, etc.) – that sleep has a direct impact on your cognitive abilities. Take a moment to watch this video on how Sleep is Your Superpower.

Alright, now that you have watched the video, what are you going to change? Are you going to reevaluate how you prioritize your sleep knowing all of the implications it has on your physical and mental wellbeing? I hope that this will be a moment for you to prioritize your sleep – not only for the short-term gains, but for the long-term affects it will have on your life.

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