So when you study on a distance learning course it is important to ensure that your studying does result in successful learning: to make sure that as well as pursuing knowledge and trying to gain information, you actually do acquire new information and gain knowledge. Jonathan Wood above, made the point that some learning can happen from everyday life and experiences, but when we embark on a programme of study we are thinking more about a concerted effort made in a deliberate act of gaining information and knowledge of a particular subject.
It is useful to think about what features of study materials or study behaviour may help to bring about that gain of knowledge that we call learning. Some methods of learning may be more effective than others. Some methods may result in superficial learning while others result in deeper understanding. Some learning may last for a few hours or days while other learning lasts for years. We may also need to consider the difference between memorization and learning. So it is important to look at what might be the most effective strategies for learning.
Repetition is one time-honoured method of learning. Most of us have been in a class at school where we had to recite something until we learnt it by heart. We might have chanted times tables every morning as a class, until we could automatically give a quick answer to a question about Three Nines or Twelve Twelves. This may be memorization be we also consider it to be a form of learning. We might have been given homework that asked us to memorize a whole poem or a passage from a play, such as the well-known speech opening the play Hamlet by Shakespeare. We might be selected to recite the passage in front of the class in the next lesson. So we recite it repeatedly at home to whoever will listen until we can automatically recite it without the book in front of us. Then we can say we have committed it to memory. In these cases the main strategy we use is repetition. We keep saying the passage over and over until we can reproduce it automatically.
But there are other strategies we can use, which help to deepen our knowledge of the subject. There is a distinction to be made between memorization and learning. Learning implies that we have some kind of deeper understanding or appreciation and that this will remain in memory for a longer time, whereas memorization may be shallow and temporary. While memorization is a useful strategy, it really needs to be backed up by some other strategies, which we might describe as enrichment strategies, to form deeper knowledge that we can call learning.
It is helpful if the material that we want to learn has been presented in a variety of ways, to more than one of our senses. We might have seen the times tables printed in our text books or posted on the classroom wall, thus having a visual image of the information, as well as an auditory experience of having chanted the times tables with the rest of the class. We might have actually seen a Shakespeare play preformed on stage and taken in the visual scene and the emotions displayed on stage as well as having repeated the passage over and over to learn it from the printed page. The more different senses and emotions are involved, the richer and longer-lasting the memory will be, compared with what is superficially learnt using only one sense. A step further would be to study and analyse the play by Shakespeare with a tutor, compare one play with another, learn about the context of the story in which the speech was made, and learn about the context of the historical times in which it was written. In the case of learning times tables, and what Three Times Nine means, we might have acquired further mathematical understanding by playing with objects and rearranging them in groups, or by helping someone selling items in a shop or market place. Then we might also enrich our understanding by acquiring the further idea that multiplication and division are opposites of the same operation.
Educators make use of the various strategies for learning such as using repetition and presenting new information in more than one format, usually to our senses of sight and hearing. Educators also know that the best learning involves the head and the heart as well as the senses. What does this mean? For children, the heart part of this is whatever engages their emotions. For older children it could be a social activity involving a joint game with other children, or the reward given by a teacher for work well done or for good behaviour. For a child, the head part of this could be working on a puzzle or a project where they have to manipulate and rearrange things into a new form. Working on the study materials enhances learning. The teacher may have presented some new information to the class, but it is only when each individual has worked on it that they acquire some real understanding of it and consequently learn it.
To return to the subject of distance learning courses, we can think again about how we can benefit from repetition, different sensory modes, emotion, and working on the study materials. Working on the materials is the great secret to success. Emotional involvement comes through making discoveries in a new subject, from successfully completing assignments, and from achieving good grades and getting encouraging comments from tutors. Repetition is involved if we read and re-read a module or a passage a second and third time. Presentation to different senses is possible when we read a text, watch an online video on the same subject, and participate in a study group where there is a discussion of the text.
Working on the study materials can take a variety of forms. A local discussion group provides a good environment for working on a text, but even when studying alone you can work on it. Reading the text a second time and highlighting areas of particular interest is a form of working on it. Checking the references, looking them up and reading them constitutes another way of working on it. If you read a passage and then summarise it in fewer of your own words, rather than copying the words used by the author, you are also working on the text. And even greater and deeper work takes place when you critically analyse the text and extract the meaning, think about it, examine it critically, think of its relevance to something you have experienced in your own environment, link it with other ideas, and re-formulate it according to your own ideas. The reformulation may be expressed as part of a thread of thought, a viewpoint, or an academic argument running through an assignment you are working on.
Part of the creative process often involves a process of analyzing something into its constituent parts, finding something else that resonates and could potentially link with it, and then synthesizing them: creating something new from the various parts to make a new meaningful whole. Returning to the practical reality of being a distance learning student, you may protest that you were not thinking of creating something new but simply of studying well enough to prove to your tutor that you had digested and learnt the information. Hopefully the new knowledge would have built on your pre-existing knowledge and you could use it rather than simply reproduce it. You may not have to create something new, but the joy of working on the course material analytically can lead to a happy process of discovery when something that didn’t make sense before suddenly becomes meaningful or relevant. You may suddenly see how a theory that seemed quite alien and abstract suddenly throws light on an everyday problem you have experienced in working life.
The joy of studying is that at its best it has elements of creativity and it is not supposed to be a passive experience but a very active one. You can think of creativity as being like baking a cake. The basic ingredients may be similar, but the proportions of the ingredients can vary, the cooking methods may differ, and with individual finishing touches and decorations the final results may look and taste quite different. In a distance learning situation different students answering the same question may produce entirely different answers to the assignment question, yet they may all have answered in a way that earns them good marks. For many assignments there is not one right answer, but many possible answers. To achieve success in answering a question, students should look for local examples of phenomena that have been described in course texts. Well-selected examples show that you have understood what you have studied, and that learning has taken place, because you've worked on it and applied what you have learnt to a new example.
Working on study materials by some of the methods mentioned earlier is the best way to ensure that real learning takes place when you study. When you critically analyse the parts or elements of something, you look at them from various aspects and learn more about them. One technique that can help when studying a topic that you want to learn about and write about in an assignment is the use of a mind map. You can read a course text, extract the main ideas, look for connections, and use them to create a sketch or diagram: a mind map that can guide your study of the topic and the creation of your assignment answer. The visual image produced when you think about the question and create a mind map can help you get to grips with the topic in hand. Your mind will take in an image more easily than a list of points in a straightforward linear text. It can be a flexible work in progress with possibilities of being added to or amended, and can function as a framework to help you structure your assignment.
On a mind map you can show which ideas link to each other, and highlight those on which you need to do further reading. It can become a blueprint for your assignment, facilitating the analysis of the topic and sometimes also lead to the synthesis of ideas. It can be your guide as you embark on your first draft of your assignment and you can use it to record some of the important references that you will need in your write-up.
To sum up, studying can facilitate learning by the use of various techniques such as repeatedly re-visiting the study materials, by accessing them through different sensory modes, by working on the materials to critically examine and analyze them, by finding local examples to illustrate concepts and theories, and by creating links between old and new knowledge.