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Unit 3: Exploring Learning

3 Introduction

This unit is the second step in using learning to help you achieve your goals for change and development. This second step involves building on the evidence you gathered about yourself in Unit 2. In particular, you will be required to consider how other people can help you change.

There are two main aspects to this. The first is about involving other people so that you can get feedback and increase the depth of your self-understanding. The second aspect involves people who you meet only through what they have written. These people are academic writers who have suggested ways of thinking about learning that we hope you will find useful when thinking about your own skills and personal development.

Unit 3 Learning Outcomes

By the time you have reached the end of Unit 3, you should be able to:

  • Use feedback from others to explore your qualities, skills, and knowledge from another perspective.
  • Use academic theory to increase your understanding of your learning experiences and personal development.
  • Reflect on the academic skills you have used and the knowledge that you have gained.

Related Challenges

Studying Unit 3 will prepare you for the following Learning to Learn challenges:

You should familiarize yourself with the requirements of the challenge now. (Just click on the link above to visit the challenge page.)

Unit 3 also contains activities that are elements of:

  • Challenge 7: The Qualities, Skills, and Knowledge Audit Challenge (Part 2).
  • Challenge 8: The Reflection Challenge.

3.1 Getting Feedback from Other People

Have you ever been told something about yourself that you didn’t know, resulting in your gaining confidence in your abilities? The chances are that the answer is yes.

Getting feedback from another person can be incredibly useful in confidence-building and in highlighting areas for personal development. However, it can also be difficult and, at times, stressful. In this section of Unit 3 we’ll explore the different ways in which feedback may be useful, as well as looking at what difficulties it may cause and ways of dealing with these possible difficulties. Later in this unit, we will look at how other people may be involved in helping you achieve personal change. First though, we’ll explore how other people can help you to gather information about your current qualities, knowledge, and skills.

3.1.1 Why Can Feedback be Useful?

In Unit 2 you gathered evidence about your qualities, knowledge, and skills. Hopefully, you now have a clearer idea about your learning. However, it is important to recognize that all these activities have asked you to reflect on yourself rather than gaining information from other people. The advantage of gathering evidence from other people is that they will have a different view of you from the one you have of yourself. Drawing on this perspective can help enrich how you think about yourself.

There are many different theories that suggest there are aspects of ourselves of which we are only dimly aware. You may have heard of Sigmund Freud’s idea that our minds are made up of both conscious and unconscious elements. Freud argued that the working of the unconscious part of the mind is almost impossible to access. However, these hidden aspects might contain useful information valuable for personal development. The idea of using feedback builds on the notion that other people, because they have a different perspective, can help us with information that would be difficult to gather if we worked alone. This idea has been extended and is the basis of what is called 360-degree feedback. This can be used at work to give someone as wide a picture as possible about how well he or she is doing. It involves having feedback from everyone whose views are seen as helpful and relevant.

Activity 3.1: Identifying Feedback

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

Watch the animated film below. It features two characters who will appear at various points in this unit—Tina and Sophie. As you watch the film, think about:

  • What feedback Tina has received, and from whom.
  • What feedback you might give Tina to help in her job-hunting.
Download this video clip.Video player: joharifb_b.mp4
Skip transcript


Location: Tina and Sophie, sitting in the coffee shop.

Hey, Sophie, it’s great to catch up with you.
It’s good to see you too Tina. How are you?
I’m really good! And I’ve got some great news.
What news is that Tina? You certainly look happy.
You know that job interview I had last Saturday?
Yes, Alberto told me about it.
Well, I was really nervous but … wait for it … I got the job!
Wow! That’s brilliant news Tina. Was the interview difficult?
It was actually quite enjoyable Sophie. I had prepared a presentation and that seemed to go well.
But then they said “Now we are going to do a role play where we see how you handle conflict.”
Yes. Yes. Were you expecting that?
That’s the thing. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I had forgotten to look at all of the interview instructions so I hadn’t prepared anything.
Oh dear.
But that didn’t matter in the end.
No! I did this role play where one of the interview panel played a difficult customer complaining about the service he had got in a restaurant and I played the restaurant manager.
Yes. What happened?
I seemed to know just how to handle it. They said I was a natural at handling difficult situations. I’ve never ever thought about whether I’d be any good at dealing with conflict.
We know who to call on if there is ever any trouble at college. But seriously, I’m not actually surprised that you handled the situation so well. You’re always so very calm. Even when the rest of us are really stressed you’re cool, calm and collected.
Sometimes I don’t feel that way so it’s good to know that’s how I look.
End transcript
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How did you feel about working from an animation? Hopefully you found you could focus on the characters and the interaction between them. You’ll meet Tina and Sophie again later in the unit.

In this film we see and hear about Tina receiving two types of feedback. First, we hear Tina telling Sophie about the feedback she got from the interview panel. They told her that she was “a natural” at handling conflict. Then, later in the film Sophie gives Tina some feedback when she tells her that she finds Tina is “always so very calm, even when the rest of us are stressed.”

Did you think of any feedback you might give Tina to help in her job-hunting? Maybe you thought Tina should be told about the importance of reading interview preparation instructions. Whatever your views about areas in which Tina might benefit from feedback you have now made a start on thinking about how feedback might be useful.

3.1.2 What Problems Might You Have with Getting Feedback?

Tina is very lucky to have two sources of feedback—her friend Sophie and the interview panel. However, getting feedback is not always easy and only you know what problems you might have with finding someone to be a mentor and give you feedback about your own qualities, knowledge, or skills. There may be all kinds of reasons for this. You might not feel that you know anyone whom you would trust to give you feedback in a way in which you would find helpful. Acting as a feedback-giver can put someone in such a powerful position that you might feel uncomfortable. You might feel that you do not know anyone who has the right qualities and skills to help you. Also, other people’s opinions can make you feel less confident about yourself and may get in the way of creating a clear picture of your strengths. It is therefore important to choose someone whom you trust to have your best interests at heart.

Activity 3.2: Problems with Getting Feedback

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity

This is a required activity for Challenge 8: The Reflection Challenge.

Take a few minutes to think about who you could ask for feedback on the three main skills areas that are the focus of this course: communication skills, problem solving skills, and organizational skills. Then, make an entry in your Learning Journal  with the title “Activity 3.2: Who Could I Ask for Feedback?” and note your thoughts about which people you might ask for feedback. If you can’t think of anyone to ask, then make a note of this instead.


Every student of Learning to Learn will have written something different in their Learning Journal as a response to this activity. If you struggled to think of anyone you would be comfortable with asking for feedback, don’t worry—the next section of the course will offer some alternatives to gaining feedback from real human beings.

3.1.3 How it Might Be Possible to Get Another Perspective

When setting out on a process of personal change, it is important that you take good care of yourself. Part of this might be a decision that it would be unwise or unhelpful to approach anyone that you know for feedback. If you think that this will be your decision, then you will be happy to know that there are alternative ways to learn from the perspectives that other people can provide.

There are a number of well-established approaches intended to find out what other people might have to say about us. Perhaps the best known is the “empty chair” technique. This involves choosing someone to sit in the “empty chair” and imagining what he or she would have to say to us if present. In therapy, this is intended to make up for things that were not discussed in the past, but which should have been.

In the context of Learning to Learn, you could adapt the empty chair technique to imagine what feedback on your skills and qualities someone you trust would give you. As you are imagining what someone might say, you have unlimited scope to decide whom your mentor might be. You could, for example, take one of the case study subjects, or one of the animation characters, and imagine that he or she is giving you feedback. Alternatively, you could choose someone for whom you have great respect or affection—even if you do not know him or her.

Of course, this “imagined” feedback may be very different from what Shehnaz, or even someone like Nelson Mandela, might actually say to you. The point is that the empty chair technique can help you explore ideas from a perspective that will be different from perspectives you may usually use. If the idea of imagining what people would say to you sounds second best to actually getting feedback from someone, remember that students who do get this type of feedback still have to decide how to interpret and make sense of it.

3.1.4 The Johari Window

In this section you will be introduced to a tool for thinking about the impact of feedback—namely, the “Johari Window.”

The Johari window is named after its originators, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram (for some reason there is only ever one “r” in “Johari”). It consists of four areas, shown in Figure 3.1, and looks like the separate panes of a window.

Figure 3.1 Basic four-pane Johari Window
Figure 3.1 Basic four-pane Johari Window

The open area covers what you know about yourself. You know about this aspect and are happy to share it with others. An example might be if you are happy to tell someone about the strengths that you bring to your job.

The blind area covers what other people know about you but of which you are not aware. You might, for instance, be unaware of always using a particular phrase that irritates everyone with whom you come into contact.

The hidden area is what you know about yourself but would prefer other people not to know. For example, this could include opinions that you do not want to share with others as well as any weaknesses that you feel you have.

The final area is unknown both to you and to others. This might include hidden talents, unconscious feelings, or abilities and qualities that have never been brought to the surface. In other words, it may represent resources that could help your learning. Getting involved in new activities with new groups of people increases the chances of your finding out about these, as yet unknown, resources.

None of these areas is fixed. We can increase the size of the open area by asking other people to tell us what they know about us—in other words, by asking them for feedback. We can also increase this area by revealing hidden aspects of ourselves to other people. We can reduce the size of the unknown area by looking into ourselves (self-discovery) or by finding out about ourselves with the help of others (shared discovery).

These possibilities for movement are explained in the short video below. You should watch this now.

Download this video clip.Video player: Johari Window
Skip transcript: Johari Window

Transcript: Johari Window

The Johari Window provides a framework for organizing your notes about yourself. This makes the notes much more useful as the picture this provides can be the basis for helping to decide what you want to do next.

There are two factors at work in a Johari Window. The first factor is what you know about yourself. The second factor is what other people know about you.

Anything that you know about yourself is part of your open area if you are happy that others know about it too, as in: “I have a positive attitude about change.”

Any aspect that you do not know about is in your blind area if other people have become aware of it without telling you, such as: “They are nervous about speaking in front of large groups.”

There are also things that you know about yourself that you do not want other people to find out about—these are in your hidden area, for example: I am scared of making decisions in case I get it wrong.”

This leaves just one area. This is the area that is unknown to you or to anyone else: your unknown area.

You can change the balance between these areas. You might decide to tell someone about some aspect of your life that you had previously kept hidden, for example: “I am embarrassed about being a slow reader.” This would increase your open area and decrease your hidden area.

It is also possible to increase your open area by asking for feedback from people. This can reduce the size of your blind area. For example, they might tell you how well you communicate with them. It is also possible to work with another person to discover things that neither of you had appreciated before. For example, your contact with your tutor might help you both to have a clearer understanding of the effect that your experiences at school have had on your learning. This would reduce the size of your unknown area.

So, the place to get started is your open area—by being as clear as possible about what you know about yourself already. The next step is about involving other people—asking them for feedback to reduce the size of your blind area.

Now that you have watched this part of the DVD you should return to complete the activities that involve Johari Windows.

End transcript: Johari Window
Johari Window
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Activity 3.3: The Johari Window

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

The Johari Window quiz  should help you to assess your understanding of the differences between the four areas featured in the Johari Window. The quiz features Tina and Sophie, the animated characters you met earlier in this unit, together with some of their friends.


Don’t worry if it took you several tries to get the correct answers for this quiz. Every attempt will have contributed to strengthening your learning, prompting you to really think deeply about the ways in which Tina’s Johari Window areas are covered in the four films. Hopefully you now feel more knowledgeable about the four areas of the Johari Window and how they relate to the process of giving and receiving feedback.

3.1.5 Responding to Feedback

Earlier in the unit you saw an animated film where Tina discussed her recent job interview with her friend Sophie. The next activity requires you to watch a video showing a continuation of their conversation where Sophie gives Tina some more feedback.

Activity 3.4: Responding to Feedback

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

Watch the video below, in which Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie. While you watch, take some notes about the feedback that Tina is getting from Sophie, and about Tina’s response to that feedback.

Download this video clip.Video player: Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie
Skip transcript: Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie

Transcript: Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie

Location: Tina and Sophie in the kitchen

Tina, I’ve been thinking about your interview.  You were quite lucky that the interview panel chose an activity you were really good at.
Lucky? Why’s that?
Well, you said you didn’t read the interview instructions properly. What if they’d been expecting you to have prepared for a particular task?
Oh, I don’t know. I’d have probably got by.
Not necessarily. I know you’re keen on improving your career …
Yes, I really am.
Well, there’s a danger that your relaxed approach to things like interviews will stop you achieving your goals, especially if other candidates are very well-prepared.
Yes! I’ve noticed that sometimes you overlook the fine detail and don’t plan things properly, especially when you’re nervous.
Yes. And if you haven’t prepared well, or haven’t read the interview instructions properly, you could come across as complacent. An interview panel might think you’re not taking their job seriously.
I take your point Sophie. I’d not really realised that my nerves can lead to me not planning properly.
No. In future I’ll look really closely at the instructions I’m given for any job interviews.
Yes, you could make a checklist of all the things you need to do beforehand.
That’s a good idea. Then I’ll know there will be no nasty surprises.  I’ll probably feel more confident that way too.
End transcript: Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie
Tina receives some more feedback from Sophie
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In this video we see Sophie warning Tina that when she is nervous she sometimes doesn’t pay attention to details such as interview instructions. Tina seems surprised at this feedback as she hadn’t realized that this was one of her characteristics. The feedback from Sophie allows her to increase the size of the open area in her Johari Window, while decreasing the size of her blind area, as she learns something new about herself.

In the next activity you will be asked to think about feedback you have received in the past, and the impact that it had on you.

Activity 3.5: Feedback You Have Had

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

Think back and choose a time when you have received feedback that has had a marked and positive effect on your learning. For example, you might have had a math teacher who gave you confidence in your ability with numbers. As a result, you still enjoy working with figures and use them in daily activities, such as planning your household budget.

Write down the main aspects of the feedback you received. Did this feedback increase what you knew about yourself?


Again, your response to this activity will be very personal. For this activity you were asked to recall receiving feedback that had a positive impact on your life and hopefully you were able think of a time when you receieved useful and helpful feedback from someone else. Sometimes, though, feedback can be negative or even undermine confidence in our own abilities and it is likely that you will have received this sort of feedback at some point in your life. On the whole, though, it is clear that we need feedback in order to build a picture of what we are good at and what we could improve on. The best way to avoid getting negative, confidence-damaging feedback is to choose as your feedback-givers people that you can trust and who have no “axe to grind.”

3.1.6 Developing Your Own Johari Window

As you have seen already, your Johari Window areas are not fixed. Their contents change and the window areas change in size as we learn new things about ourselves and when we get feedback from others. In the next section of Learning to Learn you will draw your own Johari Window, based on your responses to the acitivties you have done earlier in the course.

Activity 3.6: Drawing Your Own Johari Window

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

Take a look back over your responses to the activities in Unit 2 where you identified your qualities, skills, and knowledge. If you have completed Challenge 2: The Qualities, Skills, and Knowledge Audit Challenge (Part 1), you should review your saved audit now.

Use a large sheet of paper to draw yourself a Johari Window diagram. It should look like Figure 3.2.

Enter your identified qualities, skills, and knowledge into the open and hidden areas of your Johari Window diagram, as appropriate. (Remember that the hidden area contains information that you are aware of, but which you keep from others, for example a lack of confidence in job interviews.)

Figure 3.2 Personal Johari Window
Figure 3.2 Personal Johari Window

You should now put your initial Johari Window aside. However, if you think of any additional skills or qualities, you should add them to your Window.

3.1.7 Changing your Johari Window by Getting Feedback

The Johari window is a good way to think about the role of other people and our relationships with them. The window shows that other people are significant in two ways:

  1. We can share aspects of ourselves in order to increase our open area by decreasing the size of the area that is unknown to others. This means that other people are then in a better, more informed position to give us accurate (and more helpful) feedback. In other words, there is an assumption that people have to know something about us to provide us with information we can use.
  2. We can learn from others in order to increase our open area and decrease our blind area.

There are many ways in which we can get feedback from others. Perhaps the most obvious is to get feedback in person, from someone you trust. However, you’ve also learned that it is possible to get “imagined” feedback via the “empty chair” technique. In the next activity you will try to expand the size of your Johari Window open area, and decrease the size of your blind area, by getting feedback from someone else.

Activity 3.7: Getting Feedback from Someone and Changing Your Johari Window

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity

This activity has two options:

  1. Option 1 involves getting feedback from someone you know.
  2. Option 2 involves getting some “imagined feedback.”

You should choose just one of these options:

  • Option 1: Show the open area of your completed Johari Window to someone that you trust. Ask them whether they can add any information about your qualities, skills, and/or knowledge, or offer a new perspective on the information that you have provided. Add any new information to your Johari Window diagram.
  • Option 2: Choose an imagined feedback-giver to sit in your “empty chair.” Think about what they might say in response to your current Johari Window open area. Might they add any additional qualities, skills, or knowledge, or offer a new perspective? If so, add this additional information to your diagram.

Has the feedback you received, whether real or imaginary, increased the size of your Johari Window open area? If so, did it also decrease the size of your blind area? If so, you could change the sizes on your your existing Johari Window diagram. Perhaps you decided to reveal something from your hidden area in order to get more useful feedback. If so, then you could change the size of your hidden area too.

Whenever you get additional feedback while studying Learning to Learn you should revisit your Johari Window diagram and amend it accordingly, to reflect the new information about your skills, qualies and knowledge. By the end of the course you will have a valuable resource to use in your future personal development. You will also be able to use your Johari Window when you work on Challenge 7: The Qualities, Skills, and Knowledge Audit Challenge (Part 2).

3.2 Your Learning—What Does “Theory” Offer?

Figure 3.3 Theory isn’t just found in books—it stems from real life experiences
Figure 3.3 Theory isn’t just found in books—it stems from real life experiences

The previous section of this unit focused on using feedback to enhance what you already know about your qualities, skills, and knowledge. This section explores how you might draw on theory in the same way.

So, what do we mean by the term “theory?” A dictionary definition of theory is: “a supposition or system of ideas intended to explain something … a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based” (New Oxford Dictionary, 1998, p. 1922). Using a general dictionary can be useful for clarifying the meaning of words used in academic work, but it can also have its drawbacks, especially if the key word is being used in a specialized way. However, in this case, the definition ties in well with what we hope you will do with theory. We hope that you will use theory to guide what you do (your practice). In this unit, the practice that we focus on is your learning.

3.2.1 Why Theory Might be Useful

The main similarity between using academic theory and getting feedback is that both can offer a perspective that may be different from your own. We have already seen how additional perspectives can be valuable in rounding out the understanding you have about yourself. One possible big advantage with academic theory is that this additional perspective can come from someone who is recognized as an expert or authority.

Drawing on theory opens the possibility of building on ideas that have been worked on for many years. The work of Peter Jarvis, which was touched on in Unit 2, is an example of this. Often, academic writers such as Jarvis try to develop frameworks. These frameworks can sometimes help us to organize or structure information or ideas so that we are able to make more sense of them.

As you might guess, there are many, many theories in existence. You might have heard, for example, of Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity. In Learning to Learn, we are focusing on theories about learning. There are a number of these, too. We do not have the time to go into all of them and, in any case, the purpose of introducing theory into the unit is to give you the opportunity to use it to help you better understand your learning and to put you in a stronger position to make decisions related to your personal development.

We have selected just four sets of theories that we feel will be particularly useful for students of Learning to Learn:

  • Learning theories developed by psychology.
  • Theories of formal and informal learning.
  • “Communities of practice” theory, which focuses on the social aspects of learning.
  • Theories focusing on student approaches and strategies, exploring how individual students approach learning.

As you work through the unit you may find that some of the theories you encounter are not relevant to you. Academic theory about learning is unlikely to have considered your own experiences or the story of your life. This may mean that some parts of theory may not seem to apply to you. However, it is important to keep an open mind as you study these theories because connections with your own learning experiences may not immediately be obvious, but instead may emerge over time.

You might also feel that you get along in life perfectly well without having to think about theory. You might even think that having to do this might get in the way of living your life. If this is true for you, then we are going to have to convince you that theory can have practical and even personal uses. We’ll make a start now!

3.2.2 An Overview of Learning Theories

It can be difficult to understand snippets of theory without having an idea of the context that these theories come from. The next activity asks you to read and takes notes on a brief overview of some of the main strands of learning theories. The overview is intended to make it easier to understand the important aspects of two particular theories that are discussed later in more detail.

Study Tip: Note-Taking

Note-taking is an important aspect of study in general, and writing things down in note form is an important way of gathering evidence. In this course you have already used a variety of note-taking approaches to gather evidence about your own learning. You might even have used mind mapping. There are two important aspects about notes. First, they need to be concise. There is little point in just copying most of the material you are basing your notes on. The second aspect is that your notes have to be useful—they have to do what you want them to do. So if you are writing notes in order to write an essay, they are only useful if they help you with your essay. For this activity, your notes are the basis for your reflection on the possible usefulness of the theories.

Before doing the activity you should watch the pencast below, which introduces a method of note-taking that you might like to try.

Click here to view “Using a table to take notes.”

Activity 3.8: Exploring Learning Theories

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes for this activity.

This activity:

  • Provides an overview of some of the main strands of learning theories.
  • Prompts you to consider how these theories may help you to understand your own learning.

Read the overview of learning theories that follows twice. On the first read-through, take notes on what you see as the main points. When you read the overview again, consider and take notes about whether it helps you understand your own learning in any way. You may find it useful to use a table for your notes, formatted as shown in the pencast you have just watched.

An Overview of Learning Theories

Many theories see learning as what happens when an individual animal or human being responds to something that happens. This has been described as the way that a biological organism responds to its environment.

Some theories see these responses as being outside our control; as being automatic. A good example of this is Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. This theory argues that all animals (including humans) have little or no control about what they learn in response to what happens to them. Pavlov tried to show this in famous experiments that caused dogs to learn to salivate when a bell was rung, not just when they were given food. This is known as classical conditioning.

Later theorists such as B.F. Skinner argued that individual human beings, and other animals, played an important part. Different reactions meant that different learning might take place in response to external events that appear to be similar. It is worth noting that both Pavlov and Skinner saw learning simply as the result of responses to events in the environment. There was, according to them, no need to think about the events.

This was challenged by some theorists, including Albert Bandura. He argued that learning did occur as a result of people (or animals) thinking about events and attempting to make sense of them. There is an emphasis in Bandura’s learning theory on the importance of observational learning. As its name suggests, observational learning is “learning through watching the [behavior] of another person” (Gross, 1996, p. 173). This is sometimes referred to as “modeling.” In this form of learning, the observed model is the key aspect of the environment that is required for learning to take place. The focus is still on how an individual learns, but the inclusion of another person into the picture means that learning is no longer seen as a straightforward response by the learner to the environment.

The next type of learning theory is called insight learning. This is associated with Wolfgang Köhler, who argued that the chimpanzees he studied could change how they saw a problem when they were supplied with a previously missing ingredient, such as a stick to reach an object (Gross, 1996, p. 174).

These theories are seen as the basis of learning theories in psychology. Despite their different stances, they all tend to see learning as something that is concerned mainly with what goes on within an individual. With the possible exception of Bandura’s learning theory, they pay little attention to the way that the learning occurs as the result of interaction between people.


It would be interesting to think about which task you found easier. Did you find it easier to extract the main points of the content, or did it seem more straightforward to work out whether it was useful or not?

In terms of content, the overview broadly suggests that there are a number of learning theories that the environment “makes” the individual learn. However, there are some important differences about the way that the theories see individuals. Some (like Pavlov) do not give much of a role to the individual. By contrast, Köhler suggests that a chimpanzee might have the capacity to solve problems. It is true that these problems were in the “environment”—but the chimps’ responses were not determined just by the environment.

It is difficult to guess what you might think about the relevance of these ideas. Perhaps the notion that learning occurs because of the way we interact with our environment is a good place to start. There are important consequences in taking this view. It sidesteps the debate about whether only “intelligent” people can learn—instead, it seems to say that we all have to interact with our environment, so we will all learn. It also seems to imply that these interactions are all different, even unique. This would suggest that our learning is unique to us. That makes it hard to say that some people are better learners than others. You might also accept that if our environment is an important (perhaps central) aspect of our learning, then it is important to create environments in which good learning can occur. If someone’s environment makes him or her feel stupid, then some very unhelpful learning has taken place.

So, these theories may be useful when it comes to how our beliefs about ourselves as learners are shaped. These beliefs are clearly important—if we believe that we are incapable of doing something, it is less likely that we will succeed in doing it. This “self-fulfilling prophecy” can also work to our advantage if we can have confidence in our qualities, skills, and knowledge.

Activity 3.9: Reflecting on Your First Encounter with Learning Theories

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 8: The Reflection Challenge.

Having just read about some of the learning theories that have been developed within psychology, now seems like a good time to reflect on what you felt about Activity 3.8 and how you approached the task. Make a new entry in your Learning Journal with the title “Activity 3.9.” Add the sub-heading “Feelings” and enter some notes about what you felt and thought about being asked to read “An Overview of Learning Theories.” For example, did you think the title suggested that it might be demanding? You might have thought that it was important to try and remember details in case you would need them for an assignment. On the other hand, you might have thought, “This might be interesting;I wonder how it links up with the rest of Learning to Learn?” If so, note this in your Learning Journal entry.

Next, add a second sub-heading—“Approach”—in your Learning Journal entry. Make some notes under this heading about how you went about reading and taking notes on the overview.


Your feelings about reading “An Overview of Learning Theories” will be personal to you. It will be interesting to review them at the end of this unit, once you have had more experience of reading about learning theories.

Your approach to the task will also be personal to you. Perhaps you felt that you had to read in great detail and make notes on just about everything. If your notes on the overview are almost as long as the overview itself, it is possible that you have taken this approach. If you were able to highlight just two or three key points, and connected these to other learning, then your approach to reading the overview may have been different.

One way to approach a reading task is to use techniques of scanning and skimming. You were asked to read the overview twice. Your first reading could have used scanning, where you let your eyes run quickly over the text to see what points seem likely to be important. The second read-through could use skimming. To do this, you return to some of the points you identified in your scan-read and make sure you are clear about them and how they relate to each other.

Activity 3.8 required you to use two different styles of writing—academic writing summarizing the content of “An Overview of Learning Theories,” and reflective writing outlining those theories’ relevance to your own learning. Activity 3.9 also required you to adopt a reflective writing style when making an entry in your Learning Journal. In the next section you’ll explore these two types of writing in more detail.

3.2.3 Integrating Theory and Personal Understanding: The Difference Between Academic Writing and Reflective Writing

One of the aims of Unit 3 is to help you to bring academic theory and personal understanding together in interesting and enriching ways. This, in turn, will require you to produce different types of writing. To do this, you will need to draw on a skill that you probably already have. This is the skill of adapting communication (in this case your written communication) so that it achieves its purpose. You have already made a start on doing this in Activities 3.8 and 3.9, which required you to bring together academic theory and personal experience. The first part of Activity 3.8 required you use an academic writing style when outlining the main points in “An Overview of Learning Theories,” discussing something external to yourself (the learning theories). The second part of Activity 3.8, together with Activity 3.9, required you to adopt a more personal style, sometimes known as “reflective writing.”

Academic Writing

Learning theories are often found in books or journal articles that are read by other academics. These books, articles, and journals can be written in an unfamiliar academic style of writing with particular “rules,” and this can sometimes be offputting at first. The rules include using referencing to say where the information in the article comes from. Other rules can be less obvious, but they often include the need to avoid personal comments. For example, it would be seen as strange if an academic author were to say (in the middle of an article): “I don’t think I have explained that very well. It was because I was worried about my pet hamster.” This would be seen as being outside the usual style of academic writing for two reasons:

  1. Personal issues and concerns are supposed to be separate from academic thinking, which is supposed to represent a sifting and filtering of the relevant information in a balanced and unbiased way.
  2. It would be unusual to own up to personal issues and then blame these for some problem with the writing.

Reflective Writing

The difference between academic writing and reflective writing can be summed up by thinking about “I.” When you are asked to use an academic approach, it is likely that using “I” in your writing will be less appropriate. However, it is acceptable to use “I” when you engage in personal reflection. Indeed, it is almost impossible to reflect without using “I.”

You may think that whether or not you use “I” is only a small point. By itself, that would be true, but there are some wider effects. Using “I” gives your writing a very personal “voice.” It also is likely to suggest that you are focusing on your own thoughts, feelings, or actions. For example, you might write: “I felt confident about asking Joanna for feedback.” By contrast, academic writing aims to develop a more detached view of what is being discussed. So you might write: “This assignment considers different ideas about learning.” To put it simply, if you use “I” in this context, it can make it harder to sound “academic.”

3.2.4 Evaluating Learning Theories

When encountering any form of theory it is important not to accept its accuracy uncritically. In fact, academic progress depends on people challenging and questioning key beliefs and theories, and suggesting alternatives.

We’ll do just this with the theories of Pavlov, Skinner, Bandura, and Köhler that you read about earlier in the unit, in “An Overview of Learning Theories.” Arguably, there are problems with the way these theories view the individual and with their focus on the environmental factors involved in learning.

The theories in the overview give different roles to the individual—compare the role of Pavlov’s dogs and Köhler’s chimps, for example. Within each theory, each individual is assumed to be much the same. So neither Pavlov nor Köhler suggests that there may be dogs (or chimps) that react differently. Even Köhler suggests that all chimps that have reached a particular stage in their development and find themselves in the same situation (with bananas that can be reached by sticks) will act in much the same way. If this is applied to human beings (as done by Skinner), the assumption would have to be that all human beings in similar situations will experience similar learning.

The second important problem stems from the focus on the role of the environment. Some of the theories suggest that our environments need to provide particular things at just the right time in order to be able to take our learning forward. For example, Köhler developed the idea of “ripeness” to describe when the chimps were ready to use a stick to reach the object. If they were not ready, the stick would go unused and the object would stay out of reach. This means that for useful learning to take place, the environment needs to fit in with our ever-changing learning. There are some special environments that aim to be especially tuned in to changing learning needs. These include schools, colleges, and other situations. Similarly, on-the-job training attempts to provide learning that suits those to whom it is given.

The mention of schools and other providers of education should also remind us that the environment includes other people. Indeed, it is possible to argue that other people are the most important aspect of any environment. This is certainly true of learning environments. It is not a coincidence that the outcomes of school and college evaluations are mainly decided on the basis of the quality of the work done by the teachers. However, it may have occurred to you that “other people” are absent from the theories we have been discussing. These theories do not seem to say much about the importance of other people in our learning. As you may have realized from the previous unit of this course, other people are important because we can learn from, and with, other people. Other people may even learn from us. Other people are also important because they get together and form groups. These groups may be quite small or local—for example, a local dance or salsa club.

So there are areas that do not seem to be covered in the theories we have looked at so far. It is therefore possible to say that the scope of these theories is limited. This is an important way to think about theory. It is often useful to ask yourself what the theory covers and what it does not. Once you have worked out the scope of a theory, it becomes much easier to see whether you need to look elsewhere for a theory that covers some of the aspects that are important to you.

Let’s move on to think about the gaps in the first set of theories that you have studied. These can be summarized as:

  • The lack of attention paid to the differences between individuals in how they learn.
  • The importance of other people in our immediate social and learning environments.

We have noted the importance of other people in Unit 2, but this “everyday” evidence does not seem to figure in the theory we have looked at so far. Later in this unit, you will come across theoretical attempts to account for this aspect of learning.

3.2.5 An Alternative Perspective: The Importance of Other People in Our Immediate Social and Learning Environments

In Section 3.2.2 you learned about Bandura’s theory of learning through observation, or by “modeling.” Other people can affect our learning in many ways, both positive and negative. In the video below, Levene acknowledges the positive role his family have played in his personal development.

Download this video clip.Video player: Levene (his own words are spoken by an actor)
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Transcript: Levene (his own words are spoken by an actor)

Yes, I had a lot of support from my family. You know, I suppose you could say you take that for granted but, yes, I did have a lot of support from my family.

End transcript: Levene (his own words are spoken by an actor)
Levene (his own words are spoken by an actor)
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Activity 3.10: Learning from Other People

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

In the animated films below we return to the story of Tina and her friends Alberto, Mike, and Sophie. In the first film we see Sophie handling a difficult situation in the restaurant, watched by Alberto, who is dining at the restaurant with his girlfriend. In the second film we see Alberto tackling a different difficult situation.

Watch the two films now and make some notes about what Alberto has learned, how, and from whom.

Download this video clip.Video player: Film 1: Tina in the restaurant
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Transcript: Film 1: Tina in the restaurant

Location: Ellen and Alberto are dining in the restaurant where Tina now works. Eric, a fellow diner, is sitting at the next table.

Alberto! It’s really lovely in this restaurant!
I’m glad you like it Ellen. My friend Tina’s got a new job here and she recommended it.
Hey! Hey! Get me the manager! The service in this place is awful!
Hello Sir. I’m the restaurant supervisor. How can I help you?
I ordered fish and salad but your stupid waiter has brought me steak and fries. I don’t eat meat so I can’t eat my meal. If I wait for my fish to be cooked I’ll miss my train.
I’m sorry, sir. Let me get this right. You ordered the fish and salad?
But the waiter brought you the steak?  Is that right?
Yes. Yes!
And you don’t eat meat so you can’t eat your meal?
Yes, that’s right.
And finally ... You can’t wait for the right meal to be cooked for you as you will miss your train?
Yes, that’s it. My train is in 25 minutes. I had just enough time to eat but now I haven’t the time to wait for a new meal to be cooked and then eat it.
I’m really sorry, sir. I can understand how you feel. What would make this OK for you?
Well ... Could you get me a fish burger and fries to go, so I can eat it on the train? And maybe take some money off my meal?
Of course! That’s not a problem sir!
Thank you!
I’ll get your fish burger and fries myself, right away, and reduce your check by 50%!
Thank you, that’s great!
End transcript: Film 1: Tina in the restaurant
Film 1: Tina in the restaurant
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Download this video clip.Video player: Film 2: Alberto in the subway
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Transcript: Film 2: Alberto in the subway

Location: Mike and Alberto are on the subway train when Alberto bumps into another passenger.

Hey! Mister! Watch where you’re going! You’ve spilled my drink! you idiot! 
I’m really sorry!
Sorry? Sorry? You’re asking for trouble! I’ve got an important meeting but my shoes are a mess now and I’ve no time to go home and change!
I’m sorry sir. Did I hear you right? I spilled your drink when I bumped into you and it’s gone on your shoes?
Yeah, that’s right!
And you’re going straight to a meeting and won’t have time to go home and change them?
No time at all, dumbo!
What would make things OK for you sir?
Well, I don’t know. You could buy me a fresh drink at the next station and get me a shoeshine there.
OK! That’s a deal.
Thank you!
Alberto. You handled that really well. I thought that guy was going to hit you.
So did I, for a while. But I tried to do what Tina did with a complaining customer in her restaurant last evening.
What’s that?
A customer was shouting for the manager because he’d been brought the wrong meal and couldn’t wait for the right meal as he’d miss his train.
What happened?
Tina handled the situation brilliantly. First she repeated his complaint, I suppose to show she was listening to what he had to say.
Yes, then what?
He seemed to calm down a bit. Then she asked him what it would take for things to be OK.  The customer seemed pleased to be asked and said he’d like a meal to go, so he could eat on the train.
Ah, right. I see!
And Tina said that was cool, and said he wouldn’t have to pay for it. The guy seemed happy with that.
That’s our Tina! I knew she’d be perfect in that job!
End transcript: Film 2: Alberto in the subway
Film 2: Alberto in the subway
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In Film 1 we see Alberto learning from Tina how to handle conflict when he watches her negotiating with a complaining customer in the restaurant in which she works. In Film 2 we see Alberto putting his learning into action when he applies the things he has learned from Tina in a new situation—a subway train. Alberto has learned from Tina two techniques for handling conflict:

  • Repeating what the other person says in order to make them feel their feelings are being taken seriously.
  • Asking the other person what it would take for the situation to be OK for them.

In the next activity, you’ll begin thinking about the people who have been involved in your own learning.

Activity 3.11: Who’s Been Involved in Your Learning and Where Did It Happen?

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

The aim of this activity is to encourage you to think about who you have come into contact with while learning. To complete the activity you should do the following:

  1. Draw a table similar to the example in Figure 3.4, with the headings “Example of my significant learning,” “Who was involved?,” and “Where did the learning take place?”
  2. Choose three examples of your own learning and make notes on each example under the headings you have created, as shown in Figure 3.4.
Figure 3.4 Table showing who has been involved in my learning
Figure 3.4 Table showing who has been involved in my learning

You should focus on examples of your learning where you feel you have gained new qualities, skills, or knowledge. For example, you may have learned a new skill when your older sister showed you how to change a tire. If you have learned to drive, you may feel that you have learned a skill. You might also feel you have gained knowledge of what a particular road sign means, for example, and certain qualities, such as being a patient and careful driver.

When you have completed your table, make notes in response to these questions:

  1. Did the examples you selected have anything in common? Are they typical of learning that has been important to you?
  2. Did your selected examples involve learning from similar people or were they different?
  3. Did your selected examples share similar locations or were they different?

This activity is similar to what you were asked to do in Unit 2 as part of your evidence gathering. At this point, the focus is different. We are asking you to think about who has been involved with your learning and where this learning took place. The example of learning to drive a car was included because it can have many implications for how people live their lives and even what jobs they can have. But there are different people who may teach us how to do this. We may have lessons from a qualified driving instructor; we might ask a friend or relative to show us. Either way, other people have to be involved—if only because we cannot drive a car alone before passing the driving test.

In the next section you will learn about some learning theories that have acknowledged the role of other people in the learning process.

3.2.6 Theories of Informal Learning

In Unit 1 of Learning to Learn you were introduced to the difference between formal and informal learning. Look back at your answer for Activity 3.11. Did your examples show a mixture of informal and more formal ways of learning? The informal ways would include those where you involved people without a formal certification to teach you what you learned. These informal examples of learning would also be more likely to happen in a variety of situations where learning is not the main purpose. In contrast, formal learning tends to take place when people with special qualifications provide learning at places such as schools or colleges whose main business is teaching and learning.

Coombs and Ahmed describe informal learning as:

… the lifelong process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes, and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment—at home, at work, at play: from the example and attitude of families and friends; from travel, reading newspapers, and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television. Generally informal education is unorganized, unsystematic, and even unintentional at times, yet accounts for the great bulk of any person’s total lifetime learning—including that of a highly “schooled” person.

(Coombs and Ahmed, 1974, p. 8)

The nature of informal learning is that it can happen almost anywhere and involve the widest range of people. For example, a huge amount of informal learning goes on at work. Boud and Middleton point out that:

There is a diverse range of people that we learn from at work, very few of whom are [recognized] by the employing [organization] as people with a role in promoting learning …

(Boud and Middleton, 2003, p. 201)

By contrast, formal learning includes the structured, authorized courses and workshops that take place in dedicated educational institutions such as schools, colleges, and training departments. These units and workshops often include assessments, such as exams, and lead to certificates, degrees, or qualifications. (So studying Learning to Learn is actually an example of formal learning.) You will probably find that when you are involved with formal learning, other, more informal learning takes place. Coombs and Ahmed (1974) suggest that we are continually learning. They also suggest that the distinction between formal and informal learning is not the only difference. They suggest that we sometimes deliberately set out to learn new things. This is referred to as deliberate learning. In contrast, other learning may be accidental, occurring as a result of something that has happened. For example, if your house is burglarized, you will learn a lot about how the local police force works. Each experience will be a different mixture of these different aspects—each will lead to a different form of learning. A Celebrity Informal Learner

Figure 3.5 Madhur Jaffrey
Figure 3.5 Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey is a good example of someone who has successfully combined learning experiences. Madhur is a best-selling cookbook writer and television presenter. She has been awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for her contributions to drama, culture, and cuisine, but as a child, she never learned to cook.

Madhur traveled to London at age 19 to study drama. As a student, she desperately missed home-cooked food and wrote letters to her mother back in India, asking her how to cook different dishes.

Madhur’s formal learning was focused on her drama course. However, at the same time, she was informally learning how to cook. As things turned out, Madhur’s rather unusual style of informal learning was far more important in her life than the formal learning in her drama course. Madhur has been liberated by her learning. This could be a real contrast with many women whose learning about cooking can be viewed as formal. Can you see how some aspects of Madhur’s learning can be seen as individual, others as social? Some of her learning seems to have been accidental—a result of needing to cook for herself in a new country. More about Formal and Informal Learning

Karen, one of the Learning to Learn case studies, seems to show her own combination of deliberate and accidental learning in this video clip:

Download this video clip.Video player: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
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Transcript: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)

I left school when I was 18 and I started work the day after. I had no high school diploma. I got a job as an office assistant making minimum wage. My first assignment was filing documents, and I realized that I didn’t even know my alphabet, so I found a copy of the alphabet and I stuck it to the wall. My manager asked me about it and I admitted that keeping a copy of the alphabet stuck to the wall helped me. And he said, “OK. That’s a good idea.” I would rather have the files be in the correct order rather than have them wrong!

End transcript: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
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Activity 3.12: What Type of Learning?
Timing: You should allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

This formal and informal learning quiz will help you to develop your understanding of the difference between formal and informal learning and the possible advantages and disadvantages of each type of learning. Once again, it features an animated film featuring Tina and her friends.

When you’ve completed the quiz, return to this section of Unit 3.


Hopefully you were able to identify the different types of learning mentioned by Tina, Alberto, Mike, and Ellen when they explained to their friends how they had learned to dance. Don’t worry if it took you several attempts to complete the quiz. As you already know, repeating a quiz can help to strengthen your learning, prompting you to think more deeply about the quiz content.

In the next activity you will be required to think about informal and formal learning in the context of your own learning experiences. You will also learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of different types of learning.

Activity 3.13: Your Learning—Informal or Formal?
Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

To help you see how your learning has involved both formal and informal learning, use the matrix that follows to sort the examples of learning you identified in Activity 3.11. Feel free to add more examples. The matrix has two axes—informal/formal is the horizontal axis, running left to right, and the vertical axis represents alone/with others, running from top to bottom. This creates four quadrants or boxes:

  • Top left: learning informally and alone.
  • Top right: learning formally and alone.
  • Bottom left: learning informally with others.
  • Bottom right: learning formally with others.

Try to find an example of your learning that fits into each quadrant. We have put one example in each box to get you started. As you complete the matrix, try to recall what each experience was like. Did you enjoy the situation and learn well, or not?

Figure 3.6 Types of learning
Figure 3.6 Types of learning

All types of learning have advantages and disadvantages.

Formal learning may have the advantage of offering a structure that can be reassuring to learners. For some people, there is nothing worse than being uncertain what comes next. Other people find this structure stifling and relish the opportunity to explore aspects of a topic in their own way and at their own pace.

It is good to have to have learning opportunities that suit our needs. We may want to get a degree that formal learning might bring. At the same point in our lives, we may enjoy developing a hobby through informal learning. It is often surprising how what we learn informally can help us appreciate aspects of formal learning. The opposite can happen, too.

The next section of this unit explores two further theories. These theories are:

  • Communities of practice.
  • Student approaches and strategies.

3.2.7 Communities of Practice

Figure 3.7 Lev Vygotsky
Figure 3.7 Lev Vygotsky

As you have seen in the overview of learning theories, it is possible to view learning as something that happens on a purely individual basis. There are other types of theories that question this individual focus. There are psychological theories that suggest learning is an activity that occurs in a particular social context. A good example of this is the theory put forward by Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

According to Vygotsky (1978), learning occurs when human beings take part in activities that are provided by the society in which they live. You may detect some similarities with Köhler’s theories. However, Köhler tended to focus on an animal’s readiness to use particular objects to carry out particular tasks. Vygotsky’s ideas are useful because they extend the scope of thinking about what is used by people as they learn. Although Vygotsky focused on what children need to learn as they grow up, here we are applying this thinking to the needs of adult learners.

Vygotsky argued that it is impossible to understand learning without taking into account the effect of living in a particular society at a particular time. One example of this would be the learning that occurred on the Scottish island of St Kilda. The people who used to live on this island needed to collect eggs and catch some of the birds that nested on the island. These were an important source of food for a population that could be cut off from the mainland by bad weather for many weeks. However, the cliffs where the birds nest often reach more than 1,000 feet above sea level.

Figure 3.8 Catching birds and eggs for food was a dangerous but important occupation
Figure 3.8 Catching birds and eggs for food was a dangerous but important occupation

In order to collect the eggs, St Kildans had to learn how to climb the cliffs. This learning would not have been encouraged in other societies with other needs. As a young St Kildan grew up, there would come a point where he or she might be taken out onto the cliffs by a more experienced climber.

Perhaps they would start with parts of the cliffs that were not quite as dangerous as others and gradually progress to the trickiest climbs. The point is that St Kildan society provided a framework to enable people to develop important skills and knowledge. This knowledge was held by the society and made available to people as they became ready for it. More About Learning Communities

Figure 3.9 Members of a photography club form a “community of practice”
Figure 3.9 Members of a photography club form a “community of practice”

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) suggest that when you learn, you become involved in what they called a “community of practice.” There are two key words in this term. Community is used to suggest a group of people with a common interest. This common interest might be because they share a hobby, it might be because they work for the same organization, or it might be because they live in the same place. The word practice highlights that these people do something together. For example, the St Kildans shared the practice of collecting eggs in a very dangerous place.

So the concept of a community of practice refers to the learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem work together to share ideas and find solutions. Because people are working together, a community of practice can provide opportunities to learn how to do something or to improve and do it better. Communities of practice can also act as a kind of collective store of wisdom and experience. It is not difficult to imagine the St Kildans telling each other stories that would be full of useful information about, for example, which cliffs were more dangerous after heavy rain.

The features of communities of practice can be summarized as:

  • A common or shared interest in something.
  • A group or community of members who interact and learn together.
  • Shared or collective resources that members have developed over time.

Lave and Wenger point out that communities of practice are widespread. Often, people are involved with more than one. Communities of practice can be found at home, at work, or in connection with leisure interests. In the example from St Kilda, you may have noticed that there seemed to be different positions within the community of practice. The experienced “old hands” were the people who had developed the essential knowledge and skills. They were the people who passed on what they knew to the younger St Kildans, who were just beginning to learn about the difficulties and dangers of working on the cliffs. Lave and Wenger suggest that the people who act as the store of knowledge are central to a community of practice. They are “core” members. There are likely to be others who are on the edge of a community of practice. These will include those who have only just become involved with the community of practice, such as the younger St Kildans. But those on the margin of a community of practice could also include those who are moving out of the community, perhaps through age or ill health. What Lave and Wenger call the “periphery” would also include those with only a slight or passing interest in the community of practice.

Many sports teams would meet the criteria for being a community of practice, as would local gardening groups. You can probably think of other examples that also meet the three criteria. Exploring Learning Communities

Do you think that our case study subjects are involved in communities of practice? This comment from Karen suggests that she, at least, may have found one while she was studying:

Download this video clip.Video player: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Skip transcript: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)

Transcript: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)

There’s lots and lots of support. There is support on the computer. There’s always someone at the end of the telephone if you are having a problem. There’s your fellow students. There’s lots and lots of support there, and there is always someone there to help you through it…

End transcript: Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Karen (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Activity 3.14: Identifying Learning Communities
Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

This quiz about communities of practice  will help you to develop your understanding of the ways in which communities of practice work. Once again, it features an animated film featuring Tina and her friends.

You should return to this section of Unit 3 when you have completed the quiz.


In the animated film, you saw professional photographer and ill-tempered diner Eric recalling how he learned about photography and made this his career. Clearly the photography club has been a major influence on his learning throughout his adult life. However, it’s likely that other groups of people, and other individuals, have had an impact on his learning. These people may include his work colleagues at the newspaper and other professional photographers with whom he has come into contact over the years. Each of these groups of people could be functioning as a community of practice.

The next activity is a good opportunity to reflect on how the groups in your own life influence your learning and studying. By doing this, you are also evaluating the relevance and usefulness of communities of practice as a theory.

Activity 3.15: Your Groups—Are They Communities of Practice?
Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

Lave and Wenger suggest that being a member of a group is a key part of learning in general. Such membership might also be important for your study in Learning to Learn. Have you told people that you have started this course? Have you tried to involve them as a result of doing some of the activities? If you have, think about their responses. Were they positive or were they indifferent? The people might even have made negative comments about your studies.

Use a table such as that shown in Figure 3.10. In the first column, list the groups to which you belong. In the second column, comment on how these groups support your learning. For example, you might say that your family members have done household chores to give you time to work on Learning to Learn. If they do not know you are studying, you could put in what you imagine their reaction would be. In the third column, make some notes about whether the groups seem to have any of the three features of a community of practice. For example, you might note that your family members know about three or four easy-to-cook meals that they can produce when you are not able to cook for them.

Figure 3.10 Communities of practice, or not
Figure 3.10 Communities of practice, or not

This activity might have made you realize (or, possibly, realize again) that friends and family can have a big impact on you. They may already have had an impact on how you see yourself as a learner. This can have an ongoing effect on any subsequent study and on any plans for change. It might even affect how you view this course. This is fine if you feel supported by the groups to which you belong. But what if you feel that none of these groups is on your side? Well, we hope that you see Learning to Learn as a support that helps build your confidence and belief in yourself. By taking this course, you not only have the course materials, but access to the forum to share your thoughts with other learners. There is likely to be a range of community groups and associations if you want to develop a particular interest.

The other result of the last activity is to give you a clearer idea about communities of practice and to make you think about the extent to which this concept applies to you at the moment. By seeing how it might apply, you are exploring its relevance and usefulness. Even if you decided that few or none of your current groups have features of communities of practice, you will have given yourself the chance to see how these key features may be applied. A “Health Warning” About Groups

It can be great to belong to a group, especially if you are a highly respected core member. Other people can look up to you and ask you to share your expertise. The process of moving from being a peripheral member to being a core member can also be very satisfying. However, groups are sometimes defined as much by whom they exclude. Groups may not just have insiders; they have outsiders who are not seen as part of the group. Often, this may not matter. No one can be a member of every group. However, being a member of some groups means that there is access to privileges that are denied to outsiders, who may be viewed as inferior or undesirable.

Figure 3.11 bell hooks
Figure 3.11 bell hooks

American author bell hooks (she prefers her name to be given without capital letters) describes the effect of coming from a class and having an ethnicity that can lead to exclusion:

It was assumed that any student coming from a poor or working class background would willingly surrender all values and habits of being associated with this background. Those of us from diverse ethnic/racial backgrounds learned that no aspect of our … culture could be voiced …

I see many students from “undesirable” class backgrounds become unable to complete their studies because [of] the contradictions between the behaviour necessary to “make it” … and those that allowed them to be comfortable at home with their families and friends …

(hooks, 1994, p. 182)
Activity 3.16: Considering Possible Problems with Group Mobility
Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 8: The Reflection Challenge.

As bell hooks suggests, sometimes moving from one group to another can be problematic. For example, some people find that when they go to college their old school friends do not react well to their joining new groups of people and the old friendship bonds can become weakened. It is also common to find that people have preconceptions about you, based on your identity (for example, your class, race, religion, gender, profession, town of origin, etc.), and for these preconceptions to make it difficult for you to fit in with a new group of people.

However, it is possible to better cope with these possible hurdles by preparing for them well in advance. This group mobility activity  will help you to do so. It involves both reflecting backwards and reflecting forwards.


Hopefully this activity will have prompted you to further consider the possible impact of belonging to any type of group, and of moving from one group to another. You may have had few problems in doing so yourself. Indeed, some people are very happy to leave their old groups behind, for example when they leave home to find work or to go to college. Also, some people are better than others at fitting in with new groups. Whatever your experiences it would be worth going through the steps in this activity any time you anticipate joining a new group, or moving from one group to another, in order to better prepare for that move.

So far in this unit, you have looked at learning theories from psychology and at communities of practice. The next section introduces a third set of ideas—Entwistle’s theory of student approaches to learning.

3.2.8 Entwistle’s Theory of Student Approaches to Learning

Figure 3.12 Learning to cook can be achieved at many different levels
Figure 3.12 Learning to cook can be achieved at many different levels

Noel Entwistle’s ideas are concerned with the ways in which individuals approach learning. They focus on how people go about learning a body of knowledge. This contrasts with community of practice theory, which is more interested in how groups of people together create knowledge or understanding, as the St Kildans did about “high-rise” egg collecting.

This might suggest that we are going back to where we started on this unit. You may recall that this starting point involved thinking about yourself as an individual learner. However, here we are encouraging you to think about how reflecting on a theory can help you understand your learning. We ask you to begin to assess its usefulness and personal relevance.

You may have heard of the term “learning styles.” Although learning styles are widely used in both education and at work, some approaches which use them have been criticized. If you want to find out more about this criticism, see the report Should We Be Using Learning Styles? (Coffield, et al., 2004). Reports like these argue that there is little evidence to back some of the claims made for learning styles. We have selected Entwistle’s theory, which has not been criticized in this way, because it is based on evidence that has been gathered over a number of years. We hope you will find it interesting and useful in extending your thinking about how you might use learning to achieve change.

Study Tip: Referencing

You will notice that the next part of the unit contains quite a few references, indicated by brackets containing something like “(Coffield, et al., 2004).” We do not have space to consider referencing in any detail in Learning to Learn. However, it is worth pointing out that the references you will notice within the text are intended to show where specific ideas or quotes have been taken from, in order that these ideas can be followed up in more detail by the reader, should they wish to do so. There are many different ways of formatting references and different institutions have different requirements. The referencing in Learning to Learn conforms to the “Harvard” system of referencing which requires that an in-text reference for a book should contain the following elements:

  • Author’s last name.
  • Date of publication.
  • Page number.

There are some variants to this format, for example where there is more than one author. Whatever the format, an in-text reference is used in conjunction with a list of references or a “bibliography” where the full information about texts referred to is provided. If you wish to learn more about referencing there are many useful websites giving information about the different referencing styles. Background to Entwistle’s theory

Entwistle’s ideas draw on those of Roger Säljö (1979). In what became known as the Gothenburg study, Säljö interviewed 90 people about their approaches to learning. He found that there were important differences in how people saw their own learning. He suggested that some had a “taken for granted” perspective in which learning was seen as a “[memorizing] activity where the task of the learner is seen as that of ’getting all the facts into your head’” (Säljö, 1979, p. 446). This perspective contrasted with one in which people in the study said that they were “becoming aware of the influence of the context of learning on what you should learn and how you should set about it … they started to try to adapt their learning to various kinds of demands (teachers, tests …)” (Säljö, 1979, p. 448). Säljö also points out that learners who use this thematic approach to learning also thought that there was a difference between “learning for life” and “learning in school.” Many saw learning in school “as an activity which to a large extent has become stereotyped and routine … a particular type of learning … that is not perceived of as being … related to anything outside the school situation” (Säljö, 1979, p. 449). These thematic learners also reported that they had started to think about what they learned. As Säljö comments:

As introduced by the people we interviewed, this is a distinction between either learning and real learning or … between learning and understanding … [The] main feature [of “real learning”] is that it in some way involves the abstraction of meaning from learning materials rather than a mere reproduction of them. … the nature of what is learned is seen as more complex and more holistic; it is a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation, a general principle … rather than the plain “facts” which people previously report having perceived as what is to be learned.

(Säljö, 1979, p. 449) Entwistle’s theory

Entwistle (Entwistle et al., 2001) has conducted similar research to the Gothenburg study. On the basis of this, he modified Säljö’s original ideas and suggested that there are three different approaches:

  • Surface learning, which is associated with the idea that learning is about acquiring facts. For example, students may try to pass a course by memorizing what they are told. When engaged in surface learning, students prefer to be told what to read and what notes to take. The ideal exam for someone who has based learning on a surface strategy would be one based only on the information that a course has provided. Such students are also liable to feel that they are drowning in information that contains many separate elements, which seem to have few, if any, connections with each other. They struggle to make sense of these ideas.
  • Strategic learning, which involves those who are trying to get a good grade in a course by organizing their time well, by finding the right conditions for studying, and by putting consistent effort into their studies.
  • Deep learning, which occurs when people are more concerned with their own development—they are interested in what the course is about and are excited by and like sharing new ideas. People engaged in deep learning are looking for meaning in what they study rather than trying to memorize it. They are curious and questioning, and are constantly examining whether what they are told makes sense in the light of their past experience. In fact, by drawing links between different aspects of their learning, they are better able to make sense of it and therefore more likely to pass the course, as well as developing more fully as human beings. Approaches to Learning

The three approaches are summarized in the following table:

Approaches to Learning
Deep approach: seeking meaningSurface approach: reproducingStrategic approach: reflective organizing
Intention—to understand ideas for yourself, by:Intention—to cope with unit requirements, by:Intention—to achieve the highest possible grades, by:
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experienceTreating the unit as unrelated bits of knowledgePutting consistent effort into studying
Looking for patterns and underlying principlesMemorizing facts and carrying out procedures routinelyManaging time and effort effectively
Checking evidence and relating it to conclusionsFinding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presentedFinding the right conditions and materials for studying
Examining logic and argument cautiously and criticallySeeing little value or meaning in either unit or tasks setMonitoring the effectiveness of ways of studying
Being aware of understanding developing while learningStudying without reflecting on either purpose or strategyBeing alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Becoming actively interested in the course contentFeeling undue pressure and worry about workGearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers
(Adapted from Entwistle et al., 2001)
Activity 3.17: Identifying Approaches to Learning
Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

This activity  is intended to consolidate your understanding of Entwistle’s approaches to learning models. The activity features an animated film where Alberto and his girlfriend Ellen, who you’ve encountered in previous activities, discuss their catering course with a classmate, Janet.

You should return to this section when you have completed this activity.


Hopefully you now feel more confident about identifying deep, surface, and strategic approaches to learning.

You were asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to learning. It is clear that Entwistle’s three categories involve value judgments. The way that some of these approaches are described suggests that some of them are “better” than others. It sounds good to be a “deep” or “strategic” learner; it does not sound so good to be a “surface” learner. However, Entwistle’s ideas should not be taken as meaning that people fall into one category or another, nor that a particular approach is inherently good or bad. Indeed, you may have found both advantages and disadvantages for each learning approach.

The key suggestion is that everyone is capable of becoming a strategic, or even a deep, learner. Indeed, we would want you to use these as your approaches to learning. We think that it is important to use learning for personal change. However, it is sometimes important to be able to use your learning to pass a course. When you need to pass a course, get a certification, or understand what others are trying to teach you, strategic learning is useful. If you are primarily interested in getting a certification, deep learning could get in the way. You might get new ideas and be more interested in seeing where they take you. You could get sidetracked by things you are really interested in, rather than concentrating on the job at hand. If, on the other hand, your main interest is personal development, deep learning is very useful. (In this course, we try to achieve a balance and would encourage you to draw on both strategic and deep learning.)

The real value of knowing about these different approaches is that it opens the possibility of using different approaches in different circumstances. Even surface learning may have its uses if you need to learn a lot of new information to pass a test. Entwistle’s research suggests that when students become more aware of their own approaches, they are in a better position to decide what they are trying to achieve from their studying and to understand the implications of adopting deep and surface approaches to learning.

The next activity is a chance to develop your understanding of Entwistle’s theory and to begin to test its personal relevance.

Activity 3.18: Deep, Surface, and Strategic Approaches to Your Own Learning
Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.
  1. Make a table similar to that shown in Figure 3.13.
  2. In the first column, list at least three fairly recent learning experiences you have had. (You could use learning episodes that you have identified for previous Learning to Learn activities, for example Activity 3.13, or you could select some new examples, perhaps linked to your study of this course.)
  3. In the second column, identify the learning approach involved.
  4. Now, think about whether you think you could have used an alternative learning approach. If so, then note this possible approach in the third column.
Figure 3.13 Learning approaches table
Figure 3.13 Learning approaches table

We hope that this activity has given you a real feel for the ideas that Entwistle puts forward. You may even have some criticisms of this approach. For example, you might find it difficult to differentiate between deep and strategic approaches. If this is the case, then you should see this as being appropriate—taking a critical approach is seen as being a good thing in academic study.

It is perhaps also difficult to escape from the idea that the deep and strategic approaches are always the most valued. As we have said, we hope that you will adopt a combination of these two approaches, both as you study this unit and as you begin to think about your own development.

3.2.9 Further Reflection on the Usefulness of Learning Theories

In this section of Unit 3 you will consolidate your study of the learning theories covered in the unit and further consider those theories’ relevance in the context of your own life and experiences.

The next activity is the final required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

Activity 3.19: Learning Theories and Their Relevance

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes for this task.

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

You have encountered four main theories/sets of theory in this unit. These are:

  1. Learning theories developed by psychology (Sections 3.2.2 and 3.2.4).
  2. Ideas about the different contexts of learning, for example, the difference between informal and formal learning (Section 3.2.6).
  3. Communities of practice theory (Section 3.2.7).
  4. Entwistle’s theory of student approaches to learning (Section 3.2.8).

You also learned about the Johari Window, which is closely grounded in learning theory, in Section 3.1.4.

For this activity you are required to complete a quiz  where you identify the main features of the learning theories you have studied and to consider each theory’s possible relevance in the context of your own learning.

You should return to this section when you have completed this activity.


Well done! If you’ve returned to this page having completed the “learning theories and their relevance” activity, and have also completed the other Challenge 3 required activities, you have now completed the Theory Challenge! Your Activity Record should now show Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge as completed.

Activity 3.20: Reflecting on the Theory Challenge

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

Whether or not you completed the Theory Challenge, now would be a good time to further reflect on your feelings about the challenges in Learning to Learn.

Make an entry in your Learning Journal with the title “Reflecting on the Theory Challenge.” Then, make some notes in response to some/all of the following questions:

  • If you completed the Theory Challenge, how did you feel before and after you completed it? For example, were you anxious about completing the challenge or did you feel you could take it in your stride?
  • If you did not complete the Theory Challenge, why was this? Do you think you will return to the challenge later?
  • Whether or not you completed the challenge, how do you now feel about the remaining Learning to Learn challenges?

Again, it would be difficult to guess your responses to the questions above. If you decided not to complete the Theory Challenge at the moment you will have your own reasons for this and may have recorded them in your Learning Journal. If you completed the challenge you may have said something about how you felt afterwards, or whether it was easier or more difficult than any other challenges you have already completed. Whether or not you completed the Theory Challenge it is a great achievement that you have reached this part of the course.

It is impossible to guess what you think about the theories and ideas you have met so far in Learning to Learn. It is possible to argue that the psychological learning theories are useful. This springs from the fact that they adopt a basic stance toward learning that suggests we all learn because we all interact with our environment. This means that learning is not just something that “smart” people do. This can help place our past learning in context. It can also highlight that some past learning may not have been very useful. So it could underline the need for our plans to include learning that supports our development rather than getting in the way of it.

With the ideas about different contexts of learning, we are getting much closer to the situations in which learning happens. Thinking about the detail of these contexts highlights some important issues. There is the issue of other people being involved in your learning. Sometimes who these other people are, and the role they have, help to establish whether the learning is formal or informal. An awareness of the range of learning contexts seems to be useful in similar ways to the psychological theories. It helps to emphasize that learning goes on in many different contexts and that we are able to respond to many of these contexts. This is really another reminder that we have a tendency to learn in whatever social situation we find ourselves. This raises an interesting question. If we are able to learn freely in some situations, what stops us from learning in others?

You have already begun considering the role of others in the learning process, for example in exploring the communities of practice theory. In Unit 4 you will have the opportunity to extend your learning on this topic to include the study of online learning communities. Social learning online will also be the focus of Challenge 4: The Social Learning Challenge.

In the final sections of Unit 3 you will extend your study of learning theories by exploring the ways in which studying these theories has developed your academic and “real world” skills.

3.3 Preparing to Move On—Connecting Theory with Skills

Unit 3 of this course has been encouraging you to think about using two additional sources to help you prepare for change. The first of these sources has been other people that you know. The second has been a selection of academic theory that can be linked to learning. We hope that these have added to your knowledge and understanding of your learning.

Here, the focus shifts to gauging how your work with these two sources has used and (we hope) developed a number of your skills. As you know from your study of this unit, skills is quite a loaded term. It is important to be clear about what type of skills we are talking about here. Learning to Learn refers to two different but related sets of skills. The first set is academic skills. The second set comprises those which you met in Unit 2—communication skills, problem solving skills, and the skills involved in being organized. Let’s look at how you may have used each set in this unit.

3.3.1 Academic Skills

We hope that one result of studying this unit is that you will feel more confident about using your academic skills. In this unit, these skills include:

  • Reading for meaning.
  • Note-taking.
  • Writing in an academic way that includes different points of view.
  • Selecting and using evidence.
  • Evaluating ideas (including your own plans) and theories, including information found on the Web.
  • Thinking about your own learning (reflection).

However, referring to these skills as “academic” creates the risk that they are only seen as useful for a course of study. In this sense, they might be seen as part of a surface or perhaps a strategic approach to learning. Yet all the academic skills that are listed above can be useful in other situations. For example, when you read something like a cookbook or a newspaper article, it is likely that you are reading to understand the main points about how to cook something or about a topic in the news.

There are also situations in real life where you might have to take notes or summarize key points. This occurs in many occupations, for example, where it is useful to have notes about decisions reached at a meeting. To take these notes, you have to select which parts of the discussion are important. Although you may have to use written communication in many areas of your life, it is probably true that writing in an academic style is perhaps the most specialized of these academic skills. For example, the assignments for a course of study are not the same as other types of writing. They have their own rules which may include, for example, the need for an introductory paragraph in an essay or the need to include references indicating where ideas and quotes have come from. Submitting assignments will give you a clearer understanding of some of these conventions about academic writing, such as the value of using concise and clear sentences. You will not be expected to learn them all at once.

Activity 3.21: Reflecting on How You Have Used Academic Skills

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes for this activity.

This activity is an opportunity to reflect on some of the academic skills that you have used while studying this unit. In order to do this:

  1. Select two activities from this unit for which you developed new skills.
  2. Draw up a table similar to the one below.
  3. For each activity, identify and record the academic skills that you used and any other ways you could use those skills.
My Academic Skills Table
Activity from Unit 3 What academic skills did I use?Are there any other ways I could use this skill?
Activity 3.8: Exploring learning theories“Reading:” I read this a couple of times to really try and understand the key points.My daughter’s school has just been evaluated. I want to read the report to understand why the school did not do very well.
Activity 3.8: Exploring learning theories“Note-taking:” I took notes about what I thought was important in the overview of theories.I might need to take some notes on the report to explain it to my partner.

Hopefully, completing this activity will help reinforce the idea that so-called academic skills can be useful in other situations, too. Developing these skills is not very different from the situation faced by anyone who takes up a new interest. Think back to the discussion of the different ways of learning to dance, earlier in the unit. If you had learned how to dance salsa and then took up the tango, then you would have to learn in what ways the tango is different from salsa and in what ways the same. So, do not be afraid about getting it slightly wrong to start with. After all, trial and error can be a good way to learn, as long as you can see some value in making the errors and have the chance to move on from them. It can also help to have support and feedback from other people, as discussed at various points in this unit. For example, the members of a community of practice may be able to help you in adapting your existing skills for use in a new situation.

Shehnaz, one of our original case studies, also discusses the ways in which academic skills can overlap with real-world skills, as shown in this video clip.

Download this video clip.Video player: Shehnaz (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Skip transcript: Shehnaz (her own words are spoken by an actress)

Transcript: Shehnaz (her own words are spoken by an actress)

Obviously, as my family grew, I had to start to think about how many people were involved in our house and how many people I was cooking for, things like that. And still having money left over to go and enjoy ourselves as well at the end of the month. I had to get into a routine to make sure the food was ready on time. That routine is the same kind of thing that you need to have when you are studying, because you need to set a timetable in order to finish your assignments and get them in on time. Before I went back to school, I thought that my life skills and academic skills were completely different, but when I did go back, I found that what I had learned through life, I could apply to my academic learning to help me succeed in what I was doing.

End transcript: Shehnaz (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Shehnaz (her own words are spoken by an actress)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

You’ll look at “real world” skills again in the next section.

3.3.2 “Real-World” Skills

Although we are describing “real-world” skills as a separate set of skills, we hope that you can see the value of these skills in supporting your learning, as well as being important for many other aspects of your life. In this unit, we have been focusing on:

  • Communication skills.
  • Problem solving (decision making) skills.
  • Organizational (self-management) skills.

The next activity is similar to the one you have just completed, but here the focus is on the skills that we have labeled as everyday or real-world skills.

Activity 3.22: Reflecting on How You Have Used the Three “Real-World” Skills

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes for this activity.

This activity is an opportunity to reflect on how you have used these three skills in this unit. For this activity, select an activity from this unit. Again, you are asked to draw up a table similar to the one below. We have included an example. For this activity, try to include an example of how you have used all three “real-world” skills.

My Real-World Skills
Activity from Unit 3What “real-world” skills did I use?Are there any other ways I could use this skill?
Activity 3.7: Can you change your Johari Window?I used communication skills to ask my friend to give me feedback.I could use the same skills to ask for feedback from someone at work.

We hope that completing this activity will help reinforce the idea that these three skills are transferable—that they can be used in a variety of different situations. These skills act as an important foundation for many aspects of our lives. They can even help with learning. They are also the skills that you will be encouraged to use in the next unit.

The next unit can also be viewed as an opportunity to develop a deep approach to your learning.

3.4 Conclusion

In this unit you have explored two aspects of learning. The first has encouraged you to consider the importance of the views of people you come into contact with. These views can give you additional perspectives. This can be useful, as a new perspective can make you stop and reconsider aspects of your learning in ways that may not have occurred to you. However, these additional views can give you new problems to solve. You have to decide what you are going to do with this information and how, if at all, it affects the way you see yourself as a learner.

You have also been encouraged, over the course of this unit, to think about a range of theories about learning. These form an important aspect of your academic study in Learning to Learn. They give you the chance to practice using academic skills. You have also been invited to use these academic skills to see if these theories demonstrate their value in terms of helping you better understand your own learning.

The next unit aims to bring together the work that you have done in this and previous units. As you work on your personal goals for change and development, we hope that you will draw on your awareness of how you learn, the feedback from others, and your understanding of theory.

Next Steps

Now that you have completed Unit 3 and all the activities, move on to Unit 4: Where Next?


Boud, D. and Middleton, H. (2003) “Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning,” London, Journal of Workplace Learning, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 194–202.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice, London, Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Coombs, P.H. and Ahmed, M. (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty. How Nonformal Education Can Help, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Entwistle, N., McCune, V. and Walker, P. (2001) “Conceptions, styles and approaches within higher education: analytic abstractions and everyday experience” in Sternberg, R.J. and Zhang, L-F. (eds) Perspectives on Thinking, Learning and Cognitive Styles, London, Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gross, R.D. (1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 3rd edition, London, Hodder Arnold H & S.
Hooks, Bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York, Routledge.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Säljö, R. (1979) “Learning about learning,” Higher Education, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 443–51.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.