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September 2021

It’s not the teaching, it’s the learning

  • Education

One required class in my online degree program is CSS106, Succeeding in College. It’s a single credit hour, and the course is a very straightforward series of modules designed to help students discover enough about themselves to develop a tailored toolkit for learning, both in and outside a school setting. A couple weeks ago, I submitted an essay (reproduced below in lightly edited form) and then promptly crashed through several layers of mental exhaustion. I find myself scrambling to catch up on coursework and struggling to maintain focus at all. It wasn’t my intention to foretell my own academic doom, but it’s also sort of right there in the text. I suppose the assignment was an object lesson in advance. Here’s hoping I learned something!

I was excited to sign up for online courses, even though it’s been a long time since I attended college in any format. I was a full-time university student in the early 1990s, but never completed a degree. About 10 years later, I took Russian language courses—not as part of a degree program, only the 101/102 and 201/202 classes—to enhance my communication skills. At the time, I had a full-time job and many of my coworkers were Russian or Ukrainian immigrants; taking those classes was an attempt to meet them halfway when it came to our common language barrier. I did well and was able to improve workplace communications. All my previous college experience was in-person, including occasional adult Continuing Education classes over the last several years.

All my life I have been a visual learner. This includes watching someone perform the steps of a new task or activity before attempting it myself or reading an instruction manual as I try it myself. Taking online classes seemed like a perfect fit for that preferred learning style. My early assumptions about the coursework were quickly proven wrong, and I was not prepared for the rigorous demands of time and attention that would be placed on me. I also found the frequent use of online discussion and multimedia learning modules to be jarring. (In short, it seems that I had completely forgotten what school was like.)

As we conclude our second week of classes, I’ve developed concerns about my ability to stay focused and set aside the necessary time for all my coursework. I find myself having to re-learn the basics of time management and note taking so that I can blend class time into my work and home life. Understanding my preferred learning style is only the beginning; I must also provide a stable learning environment for myself. This is worrisome because I can be easily distracted, whether at home or a local café, which is where I’ve done most of my coursework so far.

In her YouTube video “What Learning Style Are You? And Why It Doesn’t Matter!” Elise Williams of The Pocket Mentor provides a short quiz to help students determine their preferred learning style. That quiz, along with the “Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) Questionnaire” offered by VARK Learn, Ltd., gave me a better understanding of learning styles in context.

Having a preferred style of learning doesn’t mean that I am deficient in other modalities. As Williams notes, the reason “it doesn’t matter” is that multiple learning styles can be employed together for a more robust and successful learning experience. Having a preference simply gives me an idea of where to start. Williams suggests that by incorporating different learning styles into their study habits, students can improve their chances of retaining knowledge gained in class. One example would be for me to read a study text aloud and replay the recording to myself. There are also opportunities for aural learning when watching videos for class; this requires listening attentively and taking notes. For visual learners, Williams proposes using multicolored writing to more easily organize key concepts, and to include diagrams to provide visual prompts for recall.

Another way to improve learning skills is to further refine one’s preferred learning style. The Open University, a distance learning institution based in the United Kingdom, offers some insight into developing core learning skills. One useful skill is active reading, which involves directly engaging with something to “understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs.” Examples include highlighting key words and phrases and making annotations using my own summaries, questions, or challenges to the material. These are contained within the well-known technique called SQ3R, which stands for “skim, question, read, remember, review.” More about SQ3R is available from Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center: SQ3R Improving Reading Comprehension.

I believe the most important strategies for addressing my concerns are to identify one or two dependably quiet study spaces, create a consistent study schedule, and expand my active reading techniques. VARK Learning does note that “going against your preferences is not likely to be motivating.” It wouldn’t be productive to try improving my use of my least-preferred learning styles. However, my wife and I love to discuss our interests and hobbies. By talking to her about my school studies, I could develop an auditory method to reinforce what I’ve learned visually. Cultivating a multimodal learning style—while still honoring my preference—could be a major key to success.