Learn process and legal study skills

Many students would likely cite a desire to learn as the primary reason for committing four
years to a college education. But what do we really mean when we use the word “learn”? It is
something we all do from the moment of birth, so most of us likely take this very complex
process for granted. How many of you have spent time trying to understand the meaning of
learning, or how it occurs? Although many of us have a general sense of what it means to learn,
there are often many assumptions involved. Teachers often assume that, because they are
“teaching,” students must be learning. Students assume that, because they have read their text
and memorized facts, they have learned something. What should we expect to learn from a
college education? What are the roles of students and teachers in the learning process? Are
certain kinds of learning and thinking more valuable than others? What does sophisticated
thinking look like and what are the developmental stages for getting there? What kinds of skills
and knowledge do employers desire in their perspective employees? How do grades reflect a
student’s thinking and learning? What role does higher education play in modern society?

 These are but a few questions to consider while reflecting on the purpose of a college education.
The past few decades have seen considerable advances in understanding the brain and
learning. These new findings have significant implications for what instructors teach and how
students learn, and I have changed the way I approach teaching. As I began to revise my courses
to include new instructional methods, I realized the need to add some readings and classroom
discussions to help students understand their vital role in the learning process. I initially sought
to find an existing document that would provide a concise summary about learning. After not
finding a suitable overview, I decided to write one myself. So, the purpose of this document is to
provide a brief overview of learning, how people learn, and the importance of learning as a
lifelong objective. This summary is distilled from a number of books, papers, and web pages
related to learning, thinking, and educational practices. Although intended for students, the
document might also be useful to instructors as they consider what they teach and how to teach
Karl R. Wirth Dexter Perkins
Macalester College University of North Dakota
2 Wirth & Perkins -

 Learning to Learn
it. Feedback, both positive and negative, is welcomed to help guide future revisions of this
“work in progress.” A review by J. Serie greatly improved this document. However, any errors
are the sole responsibility of the authors.
The American education system is considered among the best in the world. More than 50%
of our nation’s high school graduates continue on to college and each year our universities and
colleges enroll thousands of students from other countries. Despite these statistics, several recent
studies have shown that many college seniors have neither good general knowledge nor the
necessary skills for reasoning in today’s society (Fink 2003). As an example, Saunders (1980)
compared U.S. students who had completed a yearlong economics course with those who had
never taken a course in economics. At the end of the course, the test scores of those students
who had completed the economics course were only 20% better than those who had not taken the
course, and this difference dropped to less than 10% seven years after completion of the course.
Equally shocking are the results of a study of critical thinking and college faculty in California.
Although most of the faculty (75%) claimed to value critical thinking and to promote it in the
classroom, less than 19% were able to provide a clear explanation of critical thinking, and less
than 10% were able to identify criteria for evaluating the quality of students’ thinking (Paul et al.
1997). The results of these studies, and many others, strongly suggest that our current
instructional practices are not working and that many students are not learning, or retaining what
they do learn (Fink 2003).
There have been calls for new kinds of learning from many different parts of society (Fink
2003). College teachers have expressed frustration about attendance in class, uncompleted
reading assignments, 

and student focus on grades rather than learning. Student surveys indicate
that courses are not interesting, that students fail to recognize the value of what they are learning,
Bud Blake
Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn 3
Unless you try to do something beyond what
you have already mastered, you will never
Ralph Waldo Emerson
and that many faculty rely too heavily on
lectures for transmitting information.
Recognizing the need for greater accountability
by our public schools systems, a significant
number of state legislatures have begun to link
appropriations to performance. A number of national organizations have also called for change.
An Association of American Colleges report in 1985 recommended that the central theme of any
curriculum should be to teach students “how to learn.” Surveys of professional organizations
indicate that besides specific competencies and skills, today’s employers seek workers with
people skills (e.g., teamwork, communication, leadership) along with a desire and ability for
lifelong learning. The 1996 National Science Foundation report on Shaping the Future (of
science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education) urges faculty to promote new
kinds of learning that include developing skills in communication, teamwork, and lifelong
learning. Gardiner (1994) compiled a list of “critical competencies” for citizens and workers
from leaders in business, industry and government: 

• personal responsibility,
• ability to act in principled, ethical fashion,
• skill in oral and written communication,
• interpersonal and team skills,
• skills in critical thinking and problem-solving,
• respect for people different from oneself,
• ability to change,
• ability and desire for lifelong learning.
Fink (2003) summarized Dolence and Norris’ 1995 report on Transforming Higher Education in
the information age as follows: “Society and individual learners now have different needs, both
in terms of what people need to learn and how they can and should learn.”
For all the reasons given above, and for many others, the focus of education is shifting from
“teaching” to “learning” today. Faculty roles are changing from lecturing to being primarily
“designers of learning methods and environments” (Barr and Tagg 1995, cited in Fink 2003).
Brookfield (1985) argues that the role of teachers is to “facilitate” the acquisition of knowledge,
not “transmit” it, and the NRC (2000) recommends that the goal of education shift from an
emphasis on comprehensive coverage of subject matter to helping students develop their own
intellectual tools and learning strategies.
If you ask most college teachers what is the greatest gift that they could give their students,
you will rarely hear an answer that includes mention of specific discipline-related content. Most
will answer “the desire and skills for lifelong learning.” 

It’s not that it isn’t important to learn
some facts while in college; these will likely be necessary for future employment. More
important though is having the skill to learn on one’s own after leaving college. This single,
4 Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn
most-important skill will empower you for a
lifetime and should be one of your highest
priorities for attending college.
The 2002 panel report by the Association
of American Colleges and Universities (Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a
Nation Goes to College) defines student-learning needs for the 21st century. To prepare students
for “emerging challenges in the workplace, in a diverse democracy, and in an interconnected
world” colleges and universities should place new emphasis on educating students to be
“intentional learners” who are purposeful and self-directed, empowered through intellectual and
practical skills, informed by knowledge and ways of knowing, and responsible for personal
actions and civic values (AACU, 2002). Becoming an intentional learner means “developing
self-awareness about the reason for study, the learning process itself, and how education is

” Intentional learners are integrative thinkers who “see connections in seemingly disparate
information” to inform their decisions. Self-directed learners are highly motivated, independent,
and strive toward self-direction and autonomy. They “take the initiative to diagnose their
learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select an implement
learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes” (Savin-Baden and Major 2004).
Specifically, the AACU report recommends that students should learn to:
• effectively communicate orally, visually, in writing, and in a second language
• understand and employ quantitative and qualitative analysis to solve problems
• interpret and evaluate information from a variety of sources
• understand and work within complex systems and with diverse groups
• demonstrate intellectual agility and the ability to manage change
• transform information into knowledge and knowledge into judgment and action

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