1.6 Building on strengths
A self-review exercise for your learning file
The aim of this activity is to encourage you to take a problem-solving approach to your own learning, and to be proactive. The first part asks you to reflect on your reasons for studying this course and the second part to reflect on prior learning experiences and issues.
Think back over the aims of this course that you read in the learning outcomes section. If you need to, go back to the start of this course and refresh your memory of what these are. Now, put these to one side and think about what you personally want out of studying this course. Try completing the unfinished sentence below in your learning file, adding your own reasons for studying the course:
I am studying this course because:
Using the tabular format set out below in your learning file, list some relevant prior experiences and issues in the first column and then note your strengths and weaknesses in that area in the next two columns.
Table 1 Self review of relevant prior learning experiences and issues
|Prior experiences or issues||Strengths||Weaknesses|
|Personal qualities, e.g. determination, being organised, etc.|
|Study skills, e.g. essay writing, effective reading, etc.|
|Motivation, e.g. interest in subject, strong, weak, etc.|
|Circumstances, e.g. lack of space to study, access to a computer, etc., and how you handled them|
Having recorded your reasons for studying, you need to reflect on what factors might help or hinder your achieving your goals. First there is the subject itself. There may be some areas of study, or some of the course aims, which you know you will find difficult or challenging. You are more likely to meet the challenge by thinking ahead and looking for ways and means of helping yourself through that aspect of the course. Then there is the range of teaching resources available, some print-based, some audio-visual and some computer-based. Which do you prefer to use? Which are most difficult to use?
Second there is the experience you bring to the course. Reflection on prior learning experiences is important not only to review past achievements, but in order to plan new learning goals and to think ahead about how to avoid familiar or predictable problems. Having read this far, you should have some idea of what this course is about and what it will require of you. Think of your existing experience of study and note where you think your strengths and weaknesses lie in Table 1 . It might help to think about a concrete example, such as a course you studied recently, rather than study in general. If you find the tabular format a constraint, list your strengths and weaknesses in any way that suits you.
My guess is that a few minutes spent reviewing your prior experience of study will bring to mind learning strengths and weaknesses which will be relevant for this course. In Tables 2 and 3 are two examples from other Open University students who have tried this exercise. In spite of their strengths – being organised, well motivated, determined and so on – they also found weaknesses that would be likely to affect them during this course. The first student (Table 2) noted her concentration span was short, and that her interest levels varied from block to block. But even factors such as concentration can be affected by action we take ourselves.
|Column one||Column two strengths||Column three weaknesses|
|Personal qualities, e.g. determination, being organised, etc.||Well organised.||Easily distracted Concentration span short.|
|Study skills, e.g. essay writing, effective reading, etc.||Writing OK.||Reading patchy.|
|Motivation, e.g. interest in subject, strong, weak, etc.||Interest varied from block to subject matter. block.||Fairly strong interest in most|
|Circumstances, e.g. positive or negative and how you handled them||Support from partner.||Time a problem.|
|Column one||Column two strengths||Column three weaknesses|
|Personal qualities, e.g. determination, being organised, etc.||Determination – commitment and self-discipline to give up things I like doing to get the job done.||Inability to rise early to allow more time for study.|
|Study skills, e.g. essay writing, effective reading, etc.||Will work harder early in course to be ahead in case unforeseen circumstances cause distraction.||Cannot LEARN under pressure or against the clock. Take too many unnecessary notes.|
|Motivation, e.g. interest in subject, strong, weak, etc.||Enjoy tackling a subject and overcoming difficulties in learning.||Unsure that I have overcome the difficulties despite good marks.|
|Circumstances, e.g. positive or negative and how you handled them||Can prioritise when my job/family/friends require more of my time.||Sometimes forget to enjoy myself.|
People lose concentration often when their interest in what they are studying wanes, or when they are not really clear about why they are studying something. Reading without wanting to find out is very likely to slip into a passive routine from which you learn nothing. Both concentration and interest levels are high if you have some questions in your mind which the text should answer. One way round the concentration problem, therefore, could be to set yourself a question or two to answer – perhaps even skimming the text to find answers before you read it from beginning to end.
It is also helpful to set specific goals for yourself – with time limits – so that study tasks do not stretch endlessly into the future. You might decide, for example, to study only the conclusions and summaries of something you know is of little direct interest to you, thus cutting down on study time for that part of the course. This is not a strategy to use frequently, of course. Often it is not possible to achieve what is required within set time limits, but it can be a useful strategy to help you focus on achievable targets. It should at least enable you to learn the key ideas and thus avoid the kind of study where you feel the ideas are just washing over you.
In the other student's comments (in Table 3) there are also potential weaknesses that could be tackled in advance of their becoming a problem. Taking too many unnecessary notes for example. Why does that happen? It could be because the student does not find it easy to sort out what are the key ideas in a chapter or block of learning material. One difficulty students find, for instance, is separating the arguments in a text from the examples and from illustrative material which is less important for note taking. It might help to try out an exercise doing just this with one section, choosing one which is obviously essential for the course's aims. There are many guides on note taking, such as those in The Sciences Good Study Guide, and these could be looked at before studying the section and taking minimal notes. These notes could be reduced to no more than, say, one side of A4.
Study strategies such as these will not transform difficulties overnight, but they do offer the chance of improvement and a gradual accumulation of more confident and effective approaches to learning. They can help make good practice (such as reading with some questions in mind) a matter of routine. They can help build confidence, for example in your ability to make judgements about what is important and needs noting, versus what is not. Learning is a skill, and, like all skills, practice with feedback is key to improving on performance.
On a course with computer conferencing, there are even more possibilities for finding ways round study problems. Many students enjoy finding out what causes problems for other students and are happy to explain how they tackle things. Messages posted to a relevant course conference could ask for ideas about familiar study problems, or for comments on notes (which could also be posted). These are likely to generate a raft of ideas, one or two of which may be really useful for you. You could take responsibility perhaps for initiating topics which keep the issue of study 'hints and tips' alive, even summarising some of the themes if that seems useful.
It is appropriate that the last words on 'learning and reflection' should go to you. I've reproduced in Boxes 3 and 4 below two very different reactions to a course – not in this case an Open University undergraduate course but one taught completely online. One student found the experience very positive and rewarding, the other did not. Would it have helped both these students if they had spent a little time in advance to reflect on:
their learning goals,
how to use their strengths and weaknesses as a learner?
Consider both these questions as you read through their comments, and take a minute or two to reflect on your answer. My own thoughts conclude this reading.
Box 3 Alan – A positive experience
I have learned an enormous amount over the past three months and am extremely grateful to the team for setting up such an excellent learning environment. Thanks also to my peers on the course. Without them I don't think I would have come this far.
I began the course sceptical about the ability to provide genuine interaction using computers. I was proved wrong. I have developed some excellent online friendships over the past three months and have felt very close to all my colleagues on this course.
I began this course wondering if true collaborative learning could take place online. I have been shown it can with the right mix of people. This particular group appears to have worked very well together. We have supported each other and this has greatly aided the learning process. Is this typical of all courses? Have you ever moderated a course where the mix of people was wrong and therefore the interaction not successful? This must have a huge effect on the learning and enjoyment of the course.
I began this course wondering if I had anything to contribute, and finish happy in the knowledge that no matter what your background or expertise everybody has something to contribute in conference. At times I had no idea what was being discussed but by expressing my ignorance I hope I helped others who may have felt the same and I also hope I helped those who were in the know to express themselves in layman's terms. This certainly happened to me when I got too involved in my own specialist area. I was asked to explain again, a most useful exercise !!
I began this course wondering how I would fit it in with my other work and family commitments but found the medium provided great motivation and interest. I was always keen to log in and interested to read the messages. I had to put a lot of time in the early stages but this was to my own advantage and as I have said to you earlier, the more I put in the more I got out. To my great regret I have not been able to contribute as much over the past few weeks and this has been to my distinct disadvantage. I have been logging in regularly and reading the messages posted but I just have not had the time to reflect and to post my own comments. I realise I am not alone in this but I do get frustrated when I cannot put my all into something !!
I began this course disliking writing and I finish this course a better communicator by text. I have always preferred communicating orally and face to face. This course has shown me it is possible to communicate via text, and that writing can be enjoyable.
Box 4 Janet – not so happy
The medium is not as asynchronous as it seems. If a bit of time is missed it is hard to catch up. You feel an observer of someone else's conversation. Before making a point you wonder if it has already been made and so have to read back – by the time you are ready the debate has moved on. It is therefore necessary to log on regularly – perhaps every day. This is especially true of collaborative work where your time and the other participants' time have to mesh together.
It is a cold medium. Unlike face to face communication you get no instant feedback. You don't know how people responded to your comments; they just go out into silence. This feels isolating and unnerving. It is not warm and supportive. Perhaps smaller groups would have helped.
Writing does not come easily to me. I don't enjoy it. I find it easier to speak. And reading on screen is difficult; it is harder to get the real point than for printed text.
This course requires self-discipline. It is too easy to drop out. If you don't log on you lose contact and get no reminders. Perhaps another form of communication is needed as well.
We could have benefited from a longer familiarisation period. Perhaps the first exercise could have been something not too serious. Perhaps a conference discussing how to conference, when to do it, how to deal with the amount of data etc.
Special learning skills are needed for conferencing. For example: how to filter the vast amount of contributions. Perhaps these special conferencing skills should be taught.