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4 Ways You are Sabotaging your Learning... and How to Change it!

Learning how to learn is just as important as learning facts, figures, concepts and theories.  Take a look at the 4 common pitfalls for learners below and find out how they can be avoided.

You are Building up ‘Learning Debt’

No, I’m not referring to university tuition here (thankfully).

I lovingly coined the term ‘Learning Debt’ in 4th year of my undergraduate studies in 2012. It was a month before final exams, it was Summer, it was hot and the library was filled with anxious looking students fuelled, almost entirely, by coffee and protein bars.

I was sitting at a table in the common room area (the place you wouldn’t get shouted at for breathing too loudly) and I was attempting to revise for a German grammar exam on the use of the passive voice (or something equally as exciting). As I looked around I could see my friends frantically googling things like ‘what does this mean’ and ‘ imperfect rule easily explained’ and it occurred to me - we weren’t revising, we were studying.

‘Does it really matter?’ you might ask. Well, when you have high-pressure exams looming, which will decide your future life choices the answer is ‘Yes, it matters a lot!’

We had all fallen into the trap of not following up class time with effective study to really learn the nitty-gritty of the subject. Turning up to classes and participating was not enough. Instead of building up knowledge, we ‘banked’ it as something we had covered and moved onto the next class.  This was all well and good until exam time came and we realised that although we knew we had touched upon subjects, we weren’t actually confident enough in our knowledge and understanding to actually be tested on it (and it only took 4 years of university to figure it out!) Revision time, which was supposed to be a time of  confirming knowledge already absorbed and building confidence, became a frantic dash to cram information into our heads and make the hazy, clear.

The Solution: Don’t fall victim to Learning Debt by clearly knowing the difference between studying and revising.

  • Studying is the purposeful act of processing information so that it makes complete sense to you and moving it into your Long Term Memory (LTM).
  • Revising is the process of re-stimulating your long term memory. In other words, you are testing whether you can retrieve the information form you Long Term Memory in full.

The only way to set yourself up for success is to study effectively throughout the year and keep revision time for, well, revising.

This brings me nicely to my next point:

You are Confusing Recognition with Recall

Recognition and recall are not the same thing.

It is not difficult to confuse the two which, unfortunately, leaves even the most studious of learners disappointed with unexpected low grades.

  • Recognition is having an awareness that you have come across something before.
  • Recall is when you have truly learned a piece of information and so have moved it into your long term memory.

The Solution: A great way to check you know something well enough or not is if you can explain it to someone else so that it makes complete sense. Being able to put it into your own word, make links to other aspects of learning and present it to someone else means you know it and you know it well.

This is a great check as it forces you to identify the areas of your learning that you know (recall) as opposed to areas that you know of (recognition). This also gives you the opportunity to ensure you are not just skipping over the parts which are not so clear in favour of the part you do know.

You Not Asking Good Enough Questions

The saying it true ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question’ - but there is such thing as a poorly thought out question.

In order to become an effective learner you have to take responsibility for identifying exactly the aspect of your learning you’re having trouble with.

Have you ever found yourself saying: ‘Oh, I just don't get any of this!’ (often when I do it’s rather dramatic and there is a lot of arm waving)? As a level 3 learner, if you go to your tutor and say ‘I just don’t get it, can you help?’, the first question they’re going to ask you is: ‘Well, what exactly didn’t you get?’

Being able to identify exactly the point at which you stopped properly understanding something is a learning skill. Before you approach others for help, your task is to work through the steps of understanding one by one and formulate specific questions, which will help you get the answers you need to better understand.

The Solution: Rather than saying: ‘I just don’t get it, can you help?’ You could say: ‘I understood it to this point, but I’m not sure why X has been mentioned here because I was expecting Y’.  Now you have bumped yourself up to using a useful study skill and both you and your tutor can spend quality time focusing on what is causing you difficulties.

 You Think that Learning is just a Memory Game

Learning is all about having a good memory, right? Well, strictly speaking, no. Of course the ability to memorise information  is an important part of learning, but it is not the only part you need to concern yourself with.

At level 3 and above, your tutors are just (if not more!) interested in how you engage with the learning content, as they are with your ability to remember it all. This means you are expected to develop skills such as critical thinking, evaluation skills and synthesis etc. In order to develop and evidence these skills you need to be able to approach learning in a slightly different, more aware, way.

The Solution: Each time you engage with a piece of information ask yourself the following two questions:

  1. What is the purpose of engaging with this?
  2. What am I specifically looking to get out of it?

It might be as straightforward as having to memorise key vocabulary so that you can label a technical diagram, in which case you will put your focus on choosing the best study skill to do exactly that (spaced repetition anyone?).

Other times, you might have to think a little more before you start. Imagine that you have been tasked with reading a 40 page article before your class. Without clearly acknowledging why you are reading it (being told to by your tutor doesn’t count) you will be missing out on a key learning opportunity.

Once you have identified the specific purpose - then you’re in business. For example, you decide that you’re reading it because you want to gather evidence to support a specific academic argument for your assignment. Great! You will read it with a laser focus on contextualising it for your specific purpose. If you are simply reading it because you have been told to, you might have a perfectly highlighted article by the time you have finished, but you won’t have gained a whole lot. However, if you are reading it with an understanding as to why -  you’ll save time and gain a whole lot more. Highlighting optional.

As you develop in your studies, you will be bombarded with information and so having the skills to help you make sense of everything becomes increasingly important.

Open Awards have developed packages of learning specifically designed to help you do just that. Get in touch with me on and let’s discuss how we can set you up for learning success!

Rebecca O’Hare is an Instructional Designer at Open Awards developing high-quality, interactive packages of learning to support Access to Higher Education learners. Completed developmental packages include: Academic Essay Writing, Presentation Skills, Referencing and Plagiarism and Study Skills (Time Management, Note Taking, Memory Hacking, Motivation and Goal Setting).

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