Learning how to learn

Let’s talk about learning.

As part of an Online Tutoring course I’m doing at work, I’ve been reading an article by a postgraduate student about their experiences of writing a critical review. The article discusses the author’s struggles to figure out what was expected, and how to meet those expectations.

Sometimes, when studying (and elsewhere), it seems that figuring things out by your self is viewed as the most worthy way to do things. I don’t mean literature – I’m not sure that anyone would argue against getting up to date with existing research on a subject before conducting your own experiments. I mean the process of learning.

Learning is a continual process. I don’t think for a moment that learning is something that is done once, and repeated a couple of times to hammer a point home. Learning is constant.

Why on earth don’t we spend more time teaching people how to learn? Not in a strict, dictatorial way. More in a “teach people how to teach themselves” sort of way. I feel that this is something that should be built into any situation where the main objective is to learn (in this case, a PhD). Before we can get on with learning about our subject, we need to learn how to learn.

Certain things just seemed to be assumed knowledge. There isn’t a list of what these are. It’s just knowledge that you are supposed to have gathered at some point. Let’s just think about the processes of reading and writing, and what we’re expected to know, or to develop.

Reading: How to…

  • Search for what you need to find out
  • Get hold of the article or book
  • Take notes
  • Read for maximum efficiency
  • Know whether an article will be relevant
  • Interpret an article critically
  • Understand what reported stastics mean
  • Use what you’ve learned in your own research
  • Use software to keep track of everything you’ve read, and everything you intend to read

Writing: How to…

  • Know where to start
  • Write drafts
  • Develop your own academic style/voice
  • Proof-read
  • Structure your thoughts
  • Structure your thesis!
  • Know which word processing software to use
  • Format your document in accordance with university guidelines
  • Manage your references

That’s nowhere near a comprehensive list, and it only starts to cover reading and writing. There are also less tangible things such as time management, which I’ve talked about in some other posts. Yes, expectations will differ between country, university, and even department, but these are general things that many PhD students will need to know. To put this post in context, I’m a social science student at a UK university. And we do have courses on some of these things.

But I want to think bigger. Perhaps each university could write one, giant, comprehensive list of what students are expected to know. Even the tiny things, like how to logon to the university computers. And how they can learn to do each of these things. These could be tailored by each school, or department. And then each individual student could look at the list, and figure out what they still need to learn.

Then we could all make our own learning plan at the beginning of our PhDs. We could split it down into chunks. There would be a lot of chunks. But it’d be easier to know where you stood. There’d be a template for your learning.

What do you think? Is the process of figuring out “how to learn” integral to the PhD journey? Is the sense of achievement from learning greater if it’s done from scratch (a bit like cooking)?. Does getting support in these areas feel like “cheating”? I’d argue “no”, but I’d love to hear any views on the matter. Let me know in the comments section.


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