I kept reading over the textbook page again and again for a big test the next day, but everything just seemed to slip away from my mind. This was my first big high school test, and there was so much material I needed to learn on my own! The more I tried to read the notes, the more stressed I became about the test the next day. How do people do it? How do they decide to learn something on their own? How come no one taught me that I needed to do this on my own? This has been the question that has followed me my entire life, and it was not until I became an educator that I truly began to accurately understand the idea of learning.
It starts with the simple question of how do we learn? There are countless videos, people, and techniques that show up when you google this question. Want to know a math equation? There’s sure to be a TikTok dance that’ll teach you just the trick for acing that test tomorrow!
But learning—really learning something—can be a challenge, but one that we can overcome with more knowledge.
In order to understand the process of learning, it’s essential to know how we learn.
Why Learning Theory?
It’s easy to get frustrated when learning a new skill or subject—no one likes feeling like a novice! What happens when a lesson rarely goes beyond a lecture or demonstration, preventing students from experiencing the messy and challenging part of learning by doing and evaluating their own work.
A key thought to have when learning is to avoid the fixed notions of learning that we have about ourselves. It’s so easy to slip into thoughts like, “I am not smart enough,” or “I have never been good at math, so why bother now.” It is crucial that you approach learning with a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is a wonderful way to approach learning—or any important challenges that you’re facing, or will face in the future. So, what does it mean to have a growth mindset? Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean always staying positive, or not giving up, but it means that you’re critical of your learning. It means working towards a goal, implement constructive criticism, and continue towards that goal even when you’re hit with roadblocks.
A growth mindset is step one in self-learning, but a good thought must be accompanied by actions if students want to achieve their learning goals. Learning theory teaches us that students best acquire knowledge by becoming active participants in their own studies—so that they don’t just memorize facts for the next test, but build skills that stay with them. The pyramid helps us visualize where most of the learning occurs, what tools are needed for each step, and how to achieve the maximum level of self-learning.
Step 1: Lecture (5%)
In this passive learning step, the student is learning by listening, and a few visual cues. They are expected to listen to a teacher explain concepts, and be able to understand them without practice, or opportunities to implement the concepts in their own learning. In this process, retention is difficult to achieve because all learning is expected to occur through the process of listening, and not practice. Listening is essential to learning because sometimes we need someone to just tell us things, but lecturing doesn’t provide the space for practice and self-reflection. How do you know you learned something from listening if you never practiced it yourself?
Step 2: Reading (10%)
Another passive step of learning is reading. With reading the student is expected to gain insight through the act of reading the material at hand. Comprehension of reading is crucial, therefore, reading needs to occur so the student can develop those independent skills through practice. Independent reading is heavily stressed in schools with reading challenges and book logs, and it is important to maximize one’s reading. Keep in mind that reading without thinking about your reading is detrimental. Volume matters, but responding to that reading, verbally or through writing, is key. Even though reading is not high in learning percentage, it is an all-encompassing step because reading provides the stepping stone needed to achieve learning.
Step 3: Audio-Visual (20%)
This form of learning is a great tool for students that need a different mode of learning. Visual and audio presentations provide images and videos to accompany the learning, and this form of learning provides a different and creative form of learning that is needed for certain students and topics. Audiovisual learning engages the learners’ engagement through its medium, and it provides a new tool for the learner to tussle with. When the learner is given different options of engagement, they are more inclined to learn on their own. There have been many viral videos and learning challenges that are viewed and created for learners to prove that self-learning is not restricted to the typical classroom. Once again, this form of learning garners higher engagement from students but it lacks in getting students involved in the practice, and leaves a higher responsibility for learning on the student without a lot of support.
Step 4: Demonstration (30%)
In this step, the students are learning by watching a demonstration, and this can be live, through video, image, or audio. The students being able to watch an exhibition of learning is a great way to understanding that concept. This form of learning lets the students be more engaged in the topic of discussion, and it gets the students to want to do it themselves. When the learner sees something occur in front of them, it takes away the fear and apprehension they may feel about the topic. It gives them to try it on their own, and as effective as this method is, it is also barely used in the typical classroom. A demonstration can occur live, through an audio or visual presentation where the effectiveness of the presentation is preserved. To compare, watching someone cook a meal can inspire you to try and cook yourself; something that reading a recipe may not do.
Step 5: Discussion (50%)
This is the first step in the pyramid where learning goes from passive to an active form of learning as all steps above this are passive. Students are expected to engage in a group discussion where they can discuss, debate, and engage in analytical discussion with another. This form of learning teaches students to be active and aware of what they are learning and how they are articulating that learning. For instance, if the students are discussing the benefits of competitive sports for teenagers, they must able to provide research, anticipate counterclaims, and defend their perspectives to a group of peers. Discussion not only encourages the students to research and learn about their own topic, but creates an opportunity to listen and respond to what their peers are saying. It brings in the listening step discussed earlier, but now they are listening to respond to another peer—a key ingredient that is missing when they are listening to another lecture.
Step 6: Practice by Doing (75%)
This form of learning is hands-on, and it gets the students involved in the mindset of doing something more than once, and be ok with that process. How can you know you can cook unless you take the step of getting in the kitchen and start? Practicing is as much about beginning the action, as it is about continuing to hone that action. For instance, a musician will practice their instrument, or music piece daily to become better. A dance will rehearse their choreography continuously to improve their movements. This idea of learning by practice doesn’t only apply to sports or music, but practicing one’s writing will improve writing. Reading different types of genres is a practice of improving reading. The act of practice makes the students more self-aware of their strengths, and gives them insight into what they need to improve upon.
Step 7: Teaching Others (90%)
How do you know if you have truly mastered something—you teach it to others! Students who are worried about their understanding of a concept should always try and teach it to someone else. For example, if you’re teaching someone about the plant cell, then you need to know how the cell looks, what are the individual functions, or how do they interact with one another. When a student becomes the teacher, it gives them an active role in mastering the material at hand, and be able to now articulate their learning so others can learn from them. This is the highest form of learning because the student is fully immersed and aware of their learning.
What are you learning, and what are other people saying and writing about it?
Understanding how the topic is widely presented, written about, or discussed in the world is an essential first step. For instance, if you’re researching climate change, you want to read and absorb news articles and scientific articles about the topic. You can watch videos, documentaries, and news segments about the effects of global warming, or read essays about the causes of climate change.
Absorption of material is important to learning because it gets you to question what you’re learning, or prompt you to investigate more. This step leads to acquiring more research skills, reading skills, and even beneficial in how you write about a topic. Another reason it helps the learning process because it gets you to make the connection to real-world topics of discussion. Hence, creating a ripple effect where they are engaged in their learning, and pay attention to current event topics.
This step serves to provide you with a basic understanding of the topic, and gets you to be involved in the learning of the topic.
Question and Compare
Becoming a well-rounded reader and learner means understanding all aspects of your topic. As you gather multiple sources, you want to compare and contrast their arguments, evaluate sources for credibility, and learn to analyze the author’s point of view.
This is an important skill to acquire because it’s important to be able to articulate your opinion in a proper manner—verbally or in writing. Being able to express one’s opinion is a skill that is not only a skill designated for school, but it is the skill needed for virtually all forms of a career that exist in the world. One is expected to express opinions, compare, and question when necessary, and to be able to do this adequately. This skill is multifaced, and provides students with skills that will help them in many different parts of their educational, and professional life.
If you’re working on a math problem, think about other ways in which a single problem can be solved and practice those alternative ways. If you’re studying a period in history, gather primary, secondary, and tertiary sources from a variety of perspectives and learn to critically compare them.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s one thing to learn something, and another thing to practice. You may have memorized all of the guitars and amp systems that are in the world, but that doesn’t mean you can actually play the instrument! That’s where self-learning—dedicated time for practice—comes in.
Now keep in mind, practicing doesn’t mean overdoing it. There must be focused learning in place if you want to effectively practice what you’re learning. For example, a dancer struggling to learn a dance routine will not continue rehearsing the whole choreography over and over again because they know it is ineffective to their overall performance. They will focus on the step they are struggling with, and once they achieve that they will move on to the second. By focusing on your step of practice, you also focus on your learning, thus you improve your learning.
When you decide to practice—math problems, musical instruments, or a form of the witting, be sure to pace yourself in that work. Take breaks, chunk the reading, or break down the math worksheet because this will help you gain the learning without becoming tired. The whole process of practice is to make sure that you’re able to focus on making learning more effective, and by implementing small steps can help you gain control of your own learning.
Active learning comes from taking charge and keeping with it in a focused and effective way. As the learning pyramid summarizes, doing is a key step in self-learning because it is necessary to take stock of one’s strengths and weaknesses.
Assessing Your Learning
There’s a reason this is the last step in self-learning. Self-assessment is challenging! How do you know what you’re doing well and where you need improvement, and what next steps should be followed?
Observable and measurable goals and checklists can help keep you on track. If your goal is to read five books by the end of the month, try keeping a daily or weekly reading log. Be specific with the chapters and your reading minutes, so that if you don’t meet your goal, you know where to look for the next steps.
In this process it is important to keep that growth mindset present because self-assessment will help you grow; it will help you achieve the goal you set for yourself. Don’t forget—a growth mindset is all about working towards that goal, tackling the challenges, and working to achieve them.
Self-assessment doesn’t mean you have to go at it alone—it means finding the proper tools to help you succeed. You can self-create a checklist with key bullets that can help you narrow your goal, or point out your next step. If you have written or creates something that you’re having a hard time assessing, take a break from it! Your mind must get a break, a distraction, or simply have its attention turned to a completely different topic. This will cause you less frustration and have you look at your work with a more critical lens when you return to it.
Learning is a process—the steps of the learning pyramid prove that there is more than one way to do this process, and each step has its benefits, and some are more effective than others. It is important to keep the work going, take small steps in that work, and set goals that will allow you to grow.
Remember, learning doesn’t just happen during the school day or when you’re doing homework. We are all lifelong learners, whether we’re memorizing the alphabet or riding a bike for the first time. It is not a one-time self-check-up at the doctor’s, but it needs constant revision and edits as the goal and task change in front of you. Go with the mindset of evolution. No matter the lesson, these steps can help you foster your own learning, both individually or with a partner.