Developing students’ learning philosophies



Last year the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta ran a pilot study to consider the efficacy of using e-portfolios to deepen students’ learning. We were interested in developing a structure that would enable us to determine how well our students were learning Augustana’s core skill requirements (writing, speaking, critical thinking, and information literacy).

As a faculty reader of these e-portfolios, I quickly came to the realization that these student writers were considering how and why they learn for the first time. That started me thinking. I wondered why we, as instructors, often discuss our teaching philosophies but rarely consider our learning philosophies and those of our students. I believe that a learning philosophy is different from a learning style, which is often described as an innate student quality. In contrast, a learning philosophy is something that students can develop themselves; they may be constrained by a particular learning style (though some experts now dispute the existence of learning styles), but they can certainly create for themselves their own learning philosophy.

A couple of recent Teaching Professor Blog posts offer some ways we could help students develop their learning philosophies. The November 13, 2013 post suggests writing learning autobiographies, articulating a best learning experience, and becoming metacognitively aware. Then there was the post [January 22, 2014] that identified some positive learner characteristics: good learners are curious; they pursue understanding diligently; good learners know that a lot of learning isn’t fun; failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial; good learners make knowledge their own; good learners never run out of questions; and they share what they’ve learned. Students could use these characteristics to think about how they approach learning.

I keep thinking that if students better understood why they are putting time and energy into being successful with their studies, they would become more engaged and active in their own learning. Our concern at Augustana has been that our students have had difficulty in expressing their learned skills to potential employers after they have graduated. We suspected that their inability to articulate their skills resulted from not diving sufficiently deep into their educational experiences.

This was part of the reason for Augustana’s e-portfolio pilot—to help students articulate the transferable skills they master while at the university. We instructed them to select and include in the portfolio the examples of their best writing, speaking, thinking, and researching and then to write short entries that reflected on their choices. As I reviewed the e-portfolios, I found myself writing the same questions in my feedback to the students. They were questions that responded to the lack of metacognitive awareness I was seeing in those entries.

As a result of that experience, I have started discussing learning philosophies with students in my courses. When I’ve asked them to consider what might be included in their learning philosophies, it’s apparent that this is not a question they’ve thought about at all. To help them, I generated a set of questions that I suggest they ask themselves after any learning experience:

  • How did you learn this?
  • What did you learn?
  • Why did you spend time learning this?
  • Will what you’ve just learned be useful to you in the future? Why? How?
  • Are you different now after learning this than you were before? How?
  • How did learning this make you feel? Why did it make you feel that way?
  • If you were going to learn this again, how would you learn it differently or learn it better?
  • Did you get any feedback, say from your instructor or a classmate, as you were learning this? Was it helpful? Did you agree with it? Did you act on it?

And here are a few questions I encourage them to ask about their courses and college careers in general:

  • Is the only reason you’re taking this course is that it’s required?
  • Why would the university require a course like this?
  • Is this (or any course you’re taking) helping you become the person you want to be?
  • What do you need to be doing now to make yourself the kind of person you want to be when you leave the university?

I intend to continue introducing these questions to students early on in my courses to help them consider how they learn and how they might make their own learning processes more efficient, enjoyable, and, perhaps, directed toward their own educational goals. Unless students develop a learning philosophy, I suspect they will not understand why they are enrolled in particular courses and will thus view them simply as hoops to jump through during their life journey.

Author Bio: Neil Haave is an associate professor of biology at the University of Alberta.