John Dewey would say we are struck. Paulo Freire might add that we’re shocked. And William James would call it pure expe­ri­ence.

That’s 2020 through the eyes of edu­ca­tion­al the­o­rists and psy­chol­o­gists. Regard­less of the labels applied to our cur­rent aware­ness, we – stu­dents, edu­ca­tors, par­ents, admin­is­tra­tors and lead­ers – are all being called to learn.

For some, learn­ing means switch­ing to a vir­tu­al class­room from face to face; for oth­ers, it is learn­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy to man­age work from home; still oth­ers are adapt­ing to new cir­cum­stances or strong emo­tions asso­ci­at­ed with change.  And many of us are sur­prised that our typ­i­cal strate­gies for man­ag­ing learn­ing and life are falling short as we adapt to learn­ing alone and online.

What can you do to rise to this chal­lenge? Take charge of your own learn­ing. Here are some strate­gies.

Learn the ideal process of learning.

Most peo­ple believe that learn­ing is a process of think­ing, but that is only one step in the larg­er process of learn­ing from expe­ri­ence. If you asso­ciate online learn­ing with pas­sive­ly receiv­ing infor­ma­tion through read­ing or lis­ten­ing, you’re only using part of the four-step process that David Kolb devel­oped to enhance effec­tive learn­ing. To learn effec­tive­ly, you need to use all four modes of the learn­ing process.

  1. Expe­ri­enc­ing: Awak­en to what is hap­pen­ing in the moment and pay atten­tion to your feel­ings, intu­ition and your five sens­es. This mode is con­crete, present-cen­tered, and com­plete­ly sub­jec­tive. Instead of zon­ing out when online, remain present and aware of what is hap­pen­ing with­in and around you. Remem­ber that you live in a body as well as in your brain(head), so notice your feel­ings. Are you engaged and hap­py, or bored and resis­tant? Ask: What is hap­pen­ing now?
  2. Reflect­ing: Pause to con­nect your feel­ings to your thoughts through reflec­tion. This part requires time and space; it is inter­nal­ly focused and relates to find­ing mean­ing in your obser­va­tions. Watch­ing and lis­ten­ing is impor­tant in online learning.It is also impor­tant to process new infor­ma­tion with­in your exist­ing beliefs and men­tal mod­els. After watch­ing a lec­ture or lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast, allow time to mull over the new infor­ma­tion and check the assump­tions you are mak­ing.  Ask: What oth­er per­spec­tive might I include?
  3. Think­ing: Engage abstract think­ing and gen­er­al­iza­tions to make a deci­sion. Take in infor­ma­tion through a lens of log­ic, facts and analy­sis to reach your own con­clu­sions. This part is imper­son­al, objec­tive and detached.Find a way to mas­ter the con­tent of the top­ic you are learn­ing using online sources such as lec­tures, pod­casts, books and arti­cles. Or, if you are “learn­ing” in a con­ver­sa­tion, inquire about evi­dence to make a sound deci­sion.
  4. Act­ing. Take some action to imple­ment your deci­sion in the real world. Here, by test­ing out your the­o­ries, you receive feed­back that will inform what you do next to improve or under­stand more deeply. This part is applied, prac­ti­cal, and involves some risk since you have to do some­thing to take what you have learned inter­nal­ly to the exter­nal world where there are real con­se­quences. Life is the per­fect learn­ing lab regard­less of whether you are in a for­mal class or learn­ing for the fun of it.

And, the cycle begins again, each time build­ing on the last like a pos­i­tive spi­ral.

Assess if you over-focus on some phases or skip them entirely.

When learn­ing online and alone, it is easy to get lulled into what is com­fort­able and famil­iar.  If you like to reflect and observe, you prob­a­bly lis­ten to pod­casts and watch videos.  If you like to learn by doing, you may use video games or sim­u­la­tions that allow you to try things out or test your per­for­mance.

Yet, most peo­ple find that they pre­fer parts of the cycle and avoid or under­uti­lize oth­ers.  Notice which parts of the cycle you use when you are on auto­mat­ic pilot.  Are you using an either-or approach?  When this hap­pens, you may be skip­ping parts of the cycle that could make you more effec­tive or over-focus­ing on oth­er parts of the cycle that will only take you so far.  Sim­ply put, lis­ten­ers need to do, and do-ers need to lis­ten.  Use a both-and approach to all of the learn­ing modes even though it can be tricky to engage in oppo­site poles (expe­ri­enc­ing and think­ing, reflect­ing and act­ing).  Oth­er­wise, you will lim­it your learn­ing pow­er.

Take Phillip, who pre­ferred the Reflect­ing-Think­ing por­tion of the cycle. He found asyn­chro­nous online learn­ing per­fect for his pref­er­ence for soli­tary, delib­er­ate time to dive in deeply to ideas and research.  As he was learn­ing how to team, he pre­ferred to read about teams rather than to learn by doing.  He did not miss the dis­cus­sion groups or prac­tice ses­sions that face to face time pro­mot­ed.  Maya, on the oth­er hand, pre­ferred the Expe­ri­enc­ing-Reflect­ing poles of the learn­ing cycle. She found the same online learn­ing dif­fi­cult because of the lack of con­nec­tion to an edu­ca­tor or par­tic­i­pa­tion in dis­cus­sion groups. It nev­er dawned on her to set her own learn­ing goals. Instead, she adapt­ed by gath­er­ing oth­ers to dis­cuss ideas and reflect on feel­ings in order to find per­son­al mean­ing and moti­va­tion for learn­ing.

Employ strategies to manage the process.

Typ­i­cal­ly, peo­ple say they don’t use all of the strate­gies because they just don’t like to. If you find that you over-focus on one stage, just notice and build your self-aware­ness.  By keep­ing the learn­ing cycle as a men­tal mod­el, you can always fig­ure out how you are using the cycle and what might be miss­ing.  You can begin by sim­ply damp­en­ing your pref­er­ence, even momen­tar­i­ly, to allow the oth­er stages to emerge.

If you are skip­ping a stage, try these strate­gies to engage all of the steps when online and alone:

Expe­ri­enc­ing-Reflect­ing:  Bring the top­ic to life for you!  Facil­i­tate mean­ing and make it per­son­al by dis­cussing the top­ic with oth­ers, con­nect­ing to an edu­ca­tor or to col­leagues, or writ­ing in a jour­nal to spark emo­tions. Ask your­self lots of ques­tions and assume that you do not have the answers.  Won­der what might hap­pen as a result of learn­ing and imag­ine what might be dif­fer­ent and new with this knowl­edge.  Con­nect with the top­ic and oth­ers who are study­ing it to make it per­son­al.

Reflect­ing-Think­ing: Mas­ter the con­tent by talk­ing to experts, read­ing blogs, arti­cles and books about what it is you are learn­ing.  When learn­ing online, be a bit skep­ti­cal of the source: make sure that the infor­ma­tion that you take in are research-based and the­o­ry dri­ven. Align with a trust­ed expert source or an instruc­tor that will curate the con­tent, sep­a­rat­ing the wheat from the chaff. Ques­tion your­self in order to orga­nize the con­tent in a way that will allow you to reach your own con­clu­sions and form your own opin­ions. Learn to think like an expert in the sub­ject domain.

Think­ing-Act­ing: To meet the stan­dard, know what is expect­ed from begin­ning and be able to accom­plish the require­ments. Prac­tice in con­trolled con­di­tions and seek feed­back on your per­for­mance.  Turn in assign­ments and respond to feed­back, take quizzes to test your knowl­edge, and sub­mit videos to an expert who can judge your per­for­mance.

Act­ing-Expe­ri­enc­ing: After set­ting your goals, imple­ment what you have learned by try­ing it in the real world. Inno­va­tors instruct, fail ear­ly and often so that you can recov­er and try again. Apply what you have learned in real life. Demon­strate that you can apply what you learned.  Join a team to prac­tice. No team?  Prac­tice with your fam­i­ly or work group. No fam­i­ly or work group? Try teach­ing back the con­cepts as you record your­self and watch it from the per­spec­tive of a team mem­ber. Prac­tice lis­ten­ing and giv­ing feed­back to others—essential indi­vid­ual skills of team members—in the course of dai­ly life.

Leverage the tension to reach your potential.

“Learn­ing is a ten­sion-filled process,” says David Kolb.  As a learn­er in charge of your learn­ing process, you can become more effec­tive if you stretch from your com­fort zone. Use both feel­ings and thoughts, reflec­tions and actions.  This way you will engage the nat­ur­al ener­gy of the oppo­site and inter­de­pen­dent forces at play in learning—energy that will pro­pel you to increase skill and gen­er­ate a more sophis­ti­cat­ed under­stand­ing of the top­ic.  Imag­ine the impact of cre­at­ing ten­sion on a rub­ber band and let­ting it fly.  With­out ten­sion, it would nev­er have moved!

When you’re feel­ing resis­tance from not want­i­ng to stretch from your com­fort zone, zoom out to see where you’re lin­ger­ing on the learn­ing cycle, and where you may need to stretch. Notice the rewards you gain from sim­ply mov­ing through the dis­com­fort to engage oth­er parts of the cycle, and oth­er parts of you.

Consider your space. 

Learn­ing requires a mix of spaces that pro­mote con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers, focused think­ing, prac­ticed per­for­mance, and exper­i­men­tal appli­ca­tion in real world set­tings. You may want to engage in online chats, vir­tu­al dis­cus­sion groups, and attend vir­tu­al office hours with edu­ca­tors in order to focus on you and the mean­ing of what you’re learn­ing. For this, you need space that allows for con­ver­sa­tion and inter­ac­tion.

Cre­ate qui­et, focused space to lis­ten to lec­tures or pod­casts, read blogs, arti­cles and books, and then absorb the ideas into your own mean­ing-mak­ing sys­tem.

Find con­trolled prac­tice space—like you might find in a struc­tured learn­ing sit­u­a­tion or lab—so that you can receive action­able feed­back that allows you to know what is work­ing and how to improve. Here you may turn in assign­ments, sub­mit projects, or cre­ate videos that show you in the process of doing what you have learned.

Final­ly, you will need “space” in real life to prac­tice improv­ing.  Life is always offer­ing feed­back if you choose to lis­ten; there­fore, your life space can become a place of prac­tice to build exper­tise in any­thing that you learn. By tak­ing charge of your learn­ing, you will be cre­at­ing your life.

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Learn more about how to take charge of your own learn­ing by sign­ing up for Kay Peterson’s online pro­gram How You Learn is How You Live to take advan­tage of the new mod­ule Learn­ing Online Alone.