Looking at how you learn

I am pitching this particular tool for about the second month of candidature. By this time, a research student will have had a chance to understand the requirements of their particular research degree and perhaps started to get underway with one or other of the elements of early candidature preparation.

A research degree is a learning experience. It is considered the pinnacle of learning, because in the wider world, research practice and university based research practice are considered elite educational levels. A research degree usually takes place after there have been other levels and forms of higher education, and you would think that these experiences would help a student to recognise how they learn most effectively. Sadly, that is not the case! Nor is it the case that a research student can necessarily recognise that there are different learning pathways to reach completion of a research degree!

In this analysis I am drawing on a readily available model of learning which has been developed by David Kolb and is accessible on http://www.businessballs.com . Kolb is just one of a number of theorists who have proposed ways of understanding learning or learning styles. I have chosen this model because of its simplicity and its reliance on two axis of learning:

  • the Concrete-abstract axis and
  • the Active experimentation-reflective observation axis.

The first axis explores how one approaches or grasps a task and the other explores how one thinks or feels about the task and transforms it into something meaningful and usable.

Start by asking your student to list about ten things that they know they have learned recently. Ask them to identify how they learnt this particular skill or knowledge or how they recall approaching the task.

(Here is the list I generated myself about what I have learned and alongside it how I approached the task.

  1. Skype  – The computer had it in it and I followed the instructions.
  2. Google search  – A fellow student at university showed me on my computer.
  3. Provenance – This was a new idea I thought up. I had taken the idea from antique selling and applied it to my study of practice – that every practice has a provenance.
  4. How to get to uni  – I tried different forms of transport.
  5. Cost of swimming at my uni –  Asked at the swimming pool.
  6. Rules and regulations of doing a PhD at my uni –  This was in a document given to me when I enrolled. I read and reread the document to make sure I understood the rules.
  7. How to make crème caramel – I looked it up in a recipe book and followed the recipe with one variation that I had seen on a TV cooking show.
  8. A new song –  I asked my accompanist to download the music for a new song and I kept practicing it with her until I learned the new song.
  9. How to book a train from Prague to Berlin –  I googled train from Prague to Berlin and tried a couple of sites until I found the cheapest train fare.)

Share with them Kolb’s matrix view and together discuss what learning style is evident in each of the items that your student has identified. Your aim is to move your student to an application of this model by naming their learning style.
I have scaffolded this process by asking two questions:

  • Did you learn this by Doing it or Watching it?
  • Did you embed this learning in your repertoire by Feeling about it or Thinking about it?

My learning Skype was not just a matter of following the instructions but of trial and error until I was able to have a successful conversation. This was embedded for me by thinking about the task. This was analysed as Doing and Thinking which combines to an AC/AE which is converging.

My learning about a google search, also a technological learning, was clearly learnt by observing, but then embedded with delight at having learnt a new technology. This was Watching and Feeling which combines to a CE/RO which is diverging


There are several levels of analysis that can emerge from this exercise.

The first and most obvious is that the student starts to have an understanding about how they have been learning and this also impacts on their valuing what they have learned.

The second is about applying something theoretical to something as practical as what you have learned, and this provides a vehicle to see how well they can apply this theory to their own practice.

The third level of analysis is obtaining an insight into how they have been learning, and I believe that this is the most valuable level, as it can enable each student to identify ways of learning that they would like to continue in their candidature. Together you can map out a number of experiences or opportunities that will advance their candidature. This third type of analysis begs the question about your own innovation as a research supervisor, and your knowledge of the range of ways in which a student can advance their candidature. For example, something as necessary as reading the literature can be varied between finding journal articles and identifying appropriate ones and having discussions with other people about which journals they found useful. This could signify a variation between solo researching and attending seminars at which journal articles are discussed. The first would be appropriate for someone who identified doing and thinking as their preferred learning style (converging). The second would be more reflective observations and thinking (assimilating).

The discussion itself can also provide valuable training ground for future supervisor/student discussions.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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