July 1 2008

Ken Barger
Indiana University Indianapolis


College is considered "higher education," with good reason. Not only is the level of learning much more comprehensive than previously experienced, but the depth of understandings is much greater. Criticisms of standardized tests commonly used in pre-college education challente conformity in thinking and that there is only one correct answer to questions. Deeper learning takes much more effort, and calls for motivation, commitment, time management, and good learning skills. Most important, college students are considered adults and are expected to be responsible for their own learning... no one else can learn for you, but they will hold you accountable for what you do and do not learn. In Western culture, success in college is highly correlated with later economic and social success in life... and success in college involves being a good learner.

There are a number of things involved in being a good learner. Some people argue that a primary direction in human evolution has been selection for good learners. We often think learning is what we know, but further reflection reveals that it is actually how we learn that makes the biggest difference. When we are faced with a new challenge to which we have no sure answer, existing knowledge in itself is not enough. Rather, it is our ability to understand what factors are influencing the situation, what the alternative responses are, and what the consequences of different responses might be... this process provides the best solutions in life. For example, when we apply for a job, we are on an equal level with other applicants who have the same level of knowledge, and what makes us stand out is our ability to learn to do this work in this organization in this and changing situations.

Howi> to learn is the general mission of an institution of higher education. (See IUPUI Mission and Values.

What learning abilities does the university expect youi> to have developed by the time you graduate? Look at IUPUI Principles of Undergraduate Learning.

What is involved in being a good learner? This involves a number of different factors, including levels of critical thinking and problem solving, personal orientations in learning, and learning habits.

In over thirty years of university teaching, I have tried to understand the learning process better in order to help my students succeed in their college experience. As I have told all my classes, I was trained to be an Anthropologist, not a teacher. Much of what I have learned about teaching has come from students themselves, who have helped me develop my own teaching skills. After a number of years, I received a fellowship to study educational pedagogy, so I could make my own teaching more effective with a wider range of students. The following materials are to share what I have learned about learning over the years. I hope this is of help to you as you seek to learn more effectively.


Critical thinking and problem solving are major emphases in contemporary higher education (see IUPUI Principles of Undergraduate Learning at http://www.universitycollege.iupui.edu//UL/Principles.htm; also see http://www.gsu.edu/~dschjb/wwwcrit.html).

The most common scheme used in educational pedagogy to assess how much someone has developed their thinking process is Bloom's Taxonomy (see http://faculty.washington.edu/krumme/guides/bloom.html, and http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html). While perhaps not prefect, this scheme provides a useful devise as we seek to evaluatae how much we have developed our abilities to understand those forces that affect us and our society in life. (Some tests have been developed to assess how much people have developed their critical thinking, such as the California Critical Thinking Skills Test, described at http://www.calpress.com/skill.html.) Use the following scheme to evaluate how much you have developed your own different levels of learning:

Where do you stand on each of these levels of learning?

Although there is some progression in learning abilities across these levels, they are certainly not mutually exclusive or absolutely ordered. (For example, we all know of cases where someone may do an excellent job of analysis, but in the absence of grounded knowledge!) People are not totally one level or another, of course. We all reflect all of these levels in different life circumstances. But how much have we developed our learning abilities influences not only how we do in university education but in many life situations.

The value of a college education is not knowledge in itself, but rather developing your abilities on how to learn a wide variety of things. In anthropology, math, history, biology, and other subjects, you are asked to broaden alli> of your learning abilities. In the larger context, we are seeking to develop our abilities to learn, for then we can learn anything we wish or need to understand. Development of your abilities to learn is what makes a college education worth so much in our society, and being an effective learner is what prepares you to be successful in your careers and personal life, and to be a contributing member of society.


In evaluating personal orientations that influence learning, several schemes have been developed to help assess the approaches people take in learning.


Research in educational psychology has shown that there are several ways in which people in Western culture think when they are learning. The larger challenges in learning include a need to organize information, to adjust mental schemes in accommodating new information, to create new ideas, and to use understandings to solve problems, and the process of education is to stimulate students to extend their abilities beyond their current levels. While a basic model, the following scheme provides a useful devise to evaluate how far along you are in developing your cognitive styles in learning:

1. Dualistic Thinking: This is the style of thinking many students demonstrate when they enter college.

At this stage, people often see life as linear and try to learn by rote acquisition of basic facts and definitions, tend to look at pieces of knowledge but cannot really see how these pieces are related nor see the need to support views. They may be frustrated or even hostile when they encounter multiple "answers" or no "right" answer. They often want an instructor to be authoritarian and precise, don't want to hear conflicting views or interpretations, and see themselves as passive recipients of knowledge... and may resent being asked to assume an active role in their own learning.

2. Relativistic Thinking This is the level students should develop by the time they are ready to graduate (See IUPUI Principles for Undergraduate Education)

At this stage, people recognize life involves complex systems, and look for relationships and different viewpoints in their learning, evaluate information and sources, conclude and support interpretations, modify and expand concepts, generate their own questions for further learning, and relate learning in one context to learning in another context.


People have different approaches in how they learn. One of the most common means to identify the different approaches in which people learn is Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory (LSI). The LSI places learning along two intersecting dimensions:

From these dimensions, Kolb devised and normed four styles of learning. Use the following model to help evaluate your own strenghts and limitations in different approaches to learning:

While we want to utilize our strengths in our approaches to learning, to be a more balanced learner we also want to develop our limmitations.

It should be noted that there are also different modes of learning, where we can utilize our strengths and develop our limitations to be better learners:

How do you approach learning? We generally use all these means to learn in academic studies and in our daily lives, though people tend to rely on some approaches more than others. There is no right or wrong way to learn, of course. Different approaches to learning have both their strengths and their weaknesses. Particular learning means may function more productively in different life settings and circumstances, and so strengthening all of our learning abilities maximizes our potentials for successfully dealing with life challenges. A value to college education is that students are required to take a wide variety of courses, and in doing so we develop a range of abilities in becoming well-rounded and balanced learners. Understanding more about how we learn can help us make better decisions about what kinds of circumstances and activities in which we are more likely to be satisfied and successful in life.


Learning styles and the levels to which we have developed our learning abilities are all important in college education and in life. But we all know people who are "intelligent" and yet are poor learners or make poor grades. On the other hand, we all know people who may not be brilliant but study hard, are high achievers, and make excellent grades. A very basic factor in learning is "motivation" and "personality." Some people are less interested in learning and are less inclined to make an effort to learn than others. Some folks are more passive in life, and others are more active in seeking life goals. Some are more oriented to "rules" while others are more "easy-going.." All these life orientations influence how we approach learning.

People approach life situations and challenges differently, and this includes learning. One of the most commonly used means to identify such basic orientations is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This can be taken at the IUPUI Career Center (274-2010) and the Testing Center (274-2620) for a small fee. A less normed and so perhaps less reliable Kiersey version is available online at http://keirsey.com/cgi-bin/newkts.cgi.

Use the following model to help evaluate how your temperment influences your own approaches to learning:

Where do you prefer to focus your attention? Extraversion-Inversion: This scale describes preferences for where you like to focus your attention, from the outer to the inner world.

How do you acquire information? Sensing-Intuition: This scale describes ways that you perceive or acquire information, how you go about finding out about things.

How do you make decisions? Thinking-Feeling: Once you have acquired information through one of the perceiving functions, you must do something with that information. Information is used to reach conclusions, make decisions, or form opinions. This scale describes a continuum in making decisions or judgments about something.

How are you oriented toward the outer world? Judgement-Perception This scale describes the lifestyles you adopt in dealing with outer world or how you orient yourself in relation to it. The range here refers the previous two scales, where you may either take a judging attitude (thinking or feeling) or a perceptive attitude (sensing or intuition) toward the world.

What combination of these traits best describes you? It is rare that someone may be totally one way or the other. Most people are somewhat one way, but also have some characteristics in the other directions. These characteristics are influenced by particular settings and situations, and we all act in various ways in different circumstances, such as a wedding ceremony and at a sports game. Still, our tendencies do influence how we approach academic learning, and for this reason it is useful to know our starting points when we enter college and a particular course. Do we more want the teacher to tell us what we "must" know, or do we more want to understand things for ourselves? Do we more include what we learn in one class with our life experience, or do we more keep it separated in its own area? and so on?

In other words, why are you taking this course? How does your approach to the contents and requirements of this course reflect your orientations in life? (You can also ask these same questions about yourself in many life circumstances.)

There are all types in temperaments in most classrooms, though there is an understandable tendency for similar types to gravitate towards particular fields and disciplines. This diversity of temperament in classes presents challenges for each individual student. Most of us recognize and respect that others may not deal with life and class activities in the same way we do. We also have the opportunity to develop different aspects of who we are. In college education, students are required to take a wide variety of courses, and in doing so we develop other aspects of who we are in becoming a more well-rounded and balanced person.

There is no right or wrong kind of temperament, of course. It is amazing that all of the over five billion humans on earth are each different, though we may share many characteristics with others with similar temperaments and cultures and life experiences. Understanding more about ourselves, though, can help us make better decisions about what kinds of circumstances and activities in which we are more likely to be satisfied and successful in life.


In my 30 years of university teaching, I have found that study habits are the biggest factor in college-level performance. In college, students are expected to be responsible for their own learning. This takes commitment, active involvement, and keeping on task. For example, in studying my own classes over the years, I have found that simply doing the work and attendance are the most significant influences in grades.

Study habits are not necessarily related to "intelligence". We all know smart people who don't make an effort and get poor grades, and of people with "average" intelligence who study hard and get excellent grades.

Many universities have programs to help students develop their learning habits, like the IUPUI University College online Student Manual (http://www.universitycollege.iupui.edu/Pubs/Manual/Manual.asp; also see the University of Victoria's learning practices program at http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/), which includes:

Do you know that the standard formula for studying is at least three hours out of class for every one hour in class? For a three-credit course, this means nine hours a week of studying outside class. How much time to do you put into your studies? This is probably a gross indicator of your approach to learning.

In my experience of university teaching for over thirty years, "intelligence" is not the most important factor is success in college (or life), but rather good learning habits. Some good practices that make a difference in effective learning include:

Am I an active learner?
This means taking charge of your own learning and development.

What can I do before class?
Coming to class ready to learn the materials that will be covered puts you at a distinct advantage. This means preparing for class, knowing in advance what will be covered, and having some initial understanding of the materials.

What can I do during class?

Here is where you make sure you understand the ideas and materials.

What can I do after class?

Review! This is where you can consolidate your learning.

The contents of any particular course you take may have little specific value in your long-term life and career challenges, though the concepts, principles, and individual skills may provide important perspectives for addressing personal and professional issues. However, all courses provide an opportunity to develop your learning abilities, and help you become a better learner throughout life.

Remember, you are the one who is responsible for your own learning. Your motivation, determination, and discipline will make the greatest difference in how effectively you learn, no matter how well developed your intellectual abilities are. These learning behaviors will also make the greatest difference as you continue to learn after college in your job, personal life, and as a responsible citizen of society long after college. Development of your abilities to learn is what makes a college education worth so much in our society, and being an effective learner is what prepares you to be successful in your careers and personal life, and to be a contributing member of society.


This can actually be a good sign! Educational psychologists say that frustration can mean that we recognize that we are about to cross a threshold to a new degree of learning. This can be frightening, because we realize that we face an unknown new way of perceiving and experiencing life. We will not be able to fall back on simple, comfortable explanations.

Yes, it does mean that we will not be the same. We will see life in a new way. We will be able to see more ideas illustrated in daily life, new relationships and influences, new insights into alternatives and solutions, and make more sound judgements. Our understandings will be more comprehensive, deeper, and more balanced. We will be more open to what life has to offer.

Life will not be easier, but we will be better prepared to understand and deal with life challenges. We are facing a new opportunity!

Expanding our understandings of our own and others' human behavior involves applying these principles of learning. For more guidelines on this process, see:

I hope that this discussion is useful to you as you seek to be a good learner in life.
Ken Barger

* No personal information is collected on this and other course-related pages.

© Ken Barger, 2011