• There is more pressure to learn than ever before
  • Many students do not receive advice on how to learn
  • It is good practice to consider how your personal circumstances may affect your learning
  • Your current learning behaviours may not be the most effective
  • There are tools and techniques available to help you become a successful and effective learner


In this post we explore the learning paradox, and help you identify your personal learning profile and your current learning behaviours.

learning effectively

The need for a considered approach to learning is more pressing than ever before. Figure 1.1 illustrates the paradox between the importance attached to learning versus the lack of knowledge about learning strategies and tools. Perhaps the biggest paradox is that students are often advised to ‘do what works’, without any guidance on how to identify what that means for them.


The UK government is committed to increasing the number of undergraduates to 50 per cent of 18-year-old school leavers. Yet the UK non-completion rate for full-time students commencing in 2000–1 was 15 per cent and a greater proportion of mature students than younger discontinued (HEFCE 2003).

Frequently expressed hopes and fears

I hope thatI fear that
• The course is interesting and stimulating
• My learning will be useful for the future
• I understand everything
• The course will challenge me
• The course is up to date
• I will be successful/I will pass the exams/course
• I will stay to the end
• The tutors are helpful and knowledgeable
• The other students are friendly and supportive
• I can find enough time after work
• The course is too difficult
• I will find it boring
• I will be unsuccessful
• There will be too much to do
• I won’t get on with tutors
• I won’t get on with the other students
• I’ve made the wrong decision


Take time to consider your current personal situation. The questions here are designed to help you do this, although feel free to add others that seem appropriate. Then, write your answers on to the blank mindmap opposite and consider the whole picture. What does your learning profile show? How can you enhance the aspects likely to assist learning and lessen those likely to hinder? Write your observations and intentions in the white boxes.

1.Why did I choose this course?

Subject interest?
My employer’s decision?
I didn’t know what else to do?
Parental pressure?
I followed friends?
Future career planning?

How might my reasons affect my learning?

2. What other time commitments do I have at present?

Family commitments?
Other study commitments?
Employment commitments?
Leisure/hobby commitments?

How can I best combine these commitments with my study?

3. Are there any potential barriers to effective learning?

Am I physically and mentally well?
Do I have recent study experience?
Is my partner/family supportive?
Financial issues?

To what extent will these barriers reduce my likelihood of success?

4. What do I want to achieve?

A qualification?
Top marks?
Parental approval?
Improved career prospects?
Personal fulfilment?
Time out of the office?

How might my goal(s) affect my motivation?

5. What learning experiences do I bring?

What have I previously studied?
What level have I studied at?
What mode of learning – attendance, on-line, distance, blended?
How successful was I?

What are the implications of this program?

6. What are my beliefs about learning?

It is hard work?
It is enjoyable?
I am no good at it?
Does it require self-discipline?
It is a chore?
It is time well spent?

How will such beliefs influence my learning behaviour?


Any aspect of your profile can change over time. Our suggestion is to complete a learning profile at the beginning of each new programme of study, when it is always useful to evaluate ‘where you are’. Similarly, you might review your profile during a longer programme of study, to see if your profile is still valid or whether there are new considerations.


If you feel that your personal circumstances are working against you, try to share this with your tutor or programme leaders sooner rather than later. They may be able to help, by offering extensions on course work, or information on bursaries, for example. Battling on alone usually makes it harder to alleviate problems.


As an adult learner you bring many years of experience to any new learning programme. Some of the learning ‘habits’ collected along the way may be more constructive than others! We’ll begin to appraise these habits here and explore them. Now take a look at table 1.2 on page 8. To what extent do you agree with each statement? How did you find these questions? Were they easy to answer? Have you ever thought about the issues before? Let’s consider what your answers mean.

Are you an effective learner?

‘I usually pass exams through last minute cramming’

Did you agree strongly? Although this may have been an effective strategy in the past, you are likely to find that it does not guarantee success at more advanced levels of study. Few graduate level exams, for example, seek rote learning only. Instead, you are expected to show your knowledge and your understanding, and so you need to have thought through your stance on controversial theories or research before entering the examination room.

‘I look at all the recommended reading methodically and in depth’

You may have thought ‘agree strongly’ was the desirable answer here, yet this is not the case. Many people believe that reading all the recommended reading is the sign of a conscientious student. Yet there is no need to work through an entire reading list once you know and understand the material. Not all reading needs to be in depth and the trick is to focus your efforts where they are needed most. There is no need to read everything in the same way, and you can learn to adapt your reading strategy to fit your purpose.

‘I usually pass exams through last minute cramming’

Well done if you strongly disagreed! Just as ‘more’ reading need not equal ‘better’, so the same applies to note-taking. The notes that you make should be clear and concise, rather than lengthy. This helps to avoid plagiarism and increases the likelihood that you will read through your notes in the future.

‘My memory always seems to let me down’

If you ‘strongly disagree’ you’ve probably already acquired a number of tools to help you remember effectively.

There you will see that memorisation involves focus, encoding and retrieval and there are many tools to make this process more efficient.

‘I try to move on as soon as a topic is completed’

If you strongly agreed then our advice is to try slowing down and taking stock. Can you make links between the completed topic and those still to come? Making associations between topics should lead to additional understanding. And reflecting on the learning process itself means you can adopt even more successful strategies for the future.

‘I find group-work difficult – I never feel my voice is heard’

It can be difficult to make your voice heard in group-work. If you rated this statement ‘strongly agree’ (working with others) for hints on how to make group-work a success, both now as a learner and in the future.

‘I use the same study skills that I used at school’

Schools tend to emphasise verbal and logical learning. Why not learn about a whole range of approaches and give yourself a chance to use different learning preferences?

‘I like to play hard and work hard. Sometimes after a long study day, I’ll party all night’

If you rated this ‘strongly agree’ then don’t worry! We are certainly not advocating ceaseless study; however, you do need a certain amount of sleep to consolidate your learning after a day of study. Why not take a look at the section on sleep (page 24).

‘I wish I could make my essays more original – I tend to regurgitate what I have read’

We hope you rated this ‘strongly disagree’. The best essays are not about regurgitation, they are about presenting an original argument in your own words. If you showed more agreement then you might benefit from ideas on how to think about a topic in a new way or approach essay writing.

‘I sometimes become so engrossed in studying I don’t move for hours’

This sounds a wonderful state to be in – perhaps an example of flow (see page 29). But it’s worth remembering your physical needs too, by making sure that you drink, eat and move!

‘People say “play to your strengths” but I’m never certain what mine are!’

Whether you agree or disagree it is work on multiple intelligences, which provides the opportunity to look at yourself in new ways. Which of your intelligence are natural strengths? And where is there room for improvement?

‘I find out about the best ways to learn’

Well, as you’re reading this post, we suspect you ‘agree’ with this statement and hope you want to find out more!


We hope this blog-post has whetted your appetite. The main points to remember are:
• Learners are not always well equipped to learn the masses of information available to them
• Your personal circumstances can also affect your learning effectiveness
• You may already have acquired some poor or counterproductive learning habits
• There are tools and techniques available to help you become an effective learner.

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