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Key skills: making a difference
Key skills: making a difference

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2 Taking charge: redefining learning

2.1 A framework for learning

This section introduces the key skills approach to learning, outlining a three-stage framework to support the development of your skills, and relating this framework to learning tasks you are likely to come across.

All of us use key skills as part of our study and work. Working with others in teams, sharing ideas, solving problems, researching information and writing essays and reports are all activities using key skills. Developing our key skills is not about remembering facts – but about consciously identifying and using skills to help improve and manage our learning and performance.

This course is designed to help you develop selected skills at your own pace, taking into account the opportunities available to you. Each key skills sections focuses on a different key skill area so you can select what you need to work on. Each key skill section helps you to identify how you can improve your skills and apply them to meet new demands in the future, and enables you to benchmark your current capabilities against national standards. These standards are set out on the relevant Bookmark. For each key skill you are invited to think about ways of integrating the framework into your study and work activities.

When you work on a key skill area such as communication or information technology, you will be concentrating on a particular set of skills such as writing essays or interrogating a database. These are skills you personally want to improve or develop. But as you work through the material you are also likely to become more aware of the general skills you use, often unconsciously, as you study and learn. For example, most higher education courses expect you to be able to plan your time so you can meet deadlines, keep track of your own progress and recognise when you need to learn new skills and techniques. These skills are part of knowing yourself as a learner and knowing how to learn.

'My main aim is to develop my reading and note taking skills – these are my weakest link ...'

Getting to know yourself as a learner and ‘learning how to learn’ takes time and you may feel uncertain about what is involved. Being conscious of being a learner means that you are aware of what comes easily to you and what takes you more time. Managing your learning involves acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses and putting in appropriate time and resources to complete your learning task.

Take a moment to think about what distinguishes good learners from poor learners. It is not merely that good learners know more facts or techniques; what is central is a person's ability to monitor what they are doing, how they are doing it and how well they are doing it, and to adapt their approach accordingly. This self-awareness is an important aspect of key skills.

Being aware of how they approach learning is a characteristic of effective learners. People differ in how they think, how they go about handling information, how they solve problems and thus how they approach learning. But the central feature is that the individual is aware of the ways they use to learn. For example, some people like to study on their own in a quiet room at home with no distractions; some prefer to attend a training session or workshop where working with others helps keep them motivated; and some work best in front of a computer screen and joining an e-conference group. There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to learning – it's a question of finding out what works for you. At times you may need to stand back and ask yourself if your way of working is the most effective way for what you want to achieve. Asking yourself questions like this helps you become more critically aware of what you are doing.

As you become more aware of what you need to learn and how best to learn it, you are able to plan, monitor and adapt learning experiences so that you can get the most out of them. A first step in analysing how you learn best might be to try thinking about one learning experience that was very positive for you, and from which you learned a lot, and one learning experience that was not so positive. You don't have to restrict yourself to academic learning. You might want to think about learning to drive or swim, learning how to use a computer or your first few phrases of a foreign language. Jot down a few notes about each learning experience on a piece of paper. You can use the following questions to prompt you.

How do I learn best?

  • What did I learn? Was it what I set out to learn? Did I learn what I intended?

  • What was the purpose of learning? Was my learning leading towards an exam result, for solving a problem in the house, or to get a better position at work? Was it motivated by curiosity, necessity, personal interest or self-improvement?

  • How did I learn? Was it by ‘doing’, or was it through study of books or manuals, magazines or TV? Was I learning on my own or as a member of a group?

  • Where did I learn? Was it at work, in the classroom, in the lab, at a library, or on a train, for example? Was I on my own or were there other people present?

Now look over your notes. What do they tell you about your own preferred learning styles? Sum this up by completing the following statements.

I am the sort of person who learns well when...

I am the sort of person who does not learn well when...

Research shows that most people learn best when they have chosen to learn, when they have set their goals themselves, when they have clear criteria or targets to aim for, when they are in their preferred environment and when they get effective feedback on their performance. In other words, when they have some choice and control over their own learning.

The first step in taking control of your own learning is to become more aware of what is going on as you learn. To help you raise your awareness of this process, this course uses a three-stage framework that emphasises the role of planning your learning (developing a strategy), monitoring your progress and evaluating the strategy and your performance.

Understanding more about your learning and the ways you can improve your performance is sometimes described as a meta-skill. In an attempt to understand how people learn, researchers have developed a variety of explanations or models of the learning process. While these models differ in detail, many of them include the following components:

  • the importance of building on experience by taking account of current skills and knowledge;

  • the role of strategic planning and preparation as part of learning;

  • the need to explore or research aspects of the work;

  • the idea that the individual should pay attention to what they are doing while they are doing it through monitoring their performance, assessing their own work and seeking feedback and support.

For the learner, a number of features characterise more effective learning. These include:

  • consciously making links from one situation to another and being aware of how you are adapting your skills to deal with new situations;

  • setting targets using a framework of key skills based on accurate knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses;

  • using self-directed learning, and reflecting on how you have learned to improve your understanding;

  • tracking and recording your progress to help you reflect on and review your learning methods;

  • integrating theory and practice, such as, learning about how to communicate sensitively and putting that knowledge into practice when you work with different groups of people;

  • using a variety of tasks and activities so you can see how, and to what extent, existing skills can be applied in new and unfamiliar tasks; that is, being consciously aware of how you are using and adapting your skills for new contexts and situations; and

  • seeking and using constructive feedback to get a picture of how you are doing, and making use of the feedback to review the quality of your work.

Developing your key skills, then, is more than just picking up a set of helpful techniques; it is about setting up a flexible approach to your learning that you can continue to develop and use during and after your higher education studies, as well as in the workplace.