Learning at Home Alone and Online? Take Charge

Kay Peterson

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.