Cycles of learning - Building on Success

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Cycles of learning
Building on Success

This final chapter pulls together threads from previous chapters and introduces ideas and activities that will help you develop your writing within your learning overall. Every assignment represents a turn of a cycle of learning (sometimes several turns) and is an opportunity - often the best opportunity - to improve.

12.1 Cycles of learning

For several decades now, those with a particular interest in the processes of learning have developed various models for how people learn from experience. Many are variations on a theme based on the work of Kolb (1984), who likened learning from experience to the way scientists learn when they carry out experiments. Seen this way, each assignment you write is an experiment. Indeed, each assignment can be a series of smaller experiments.

At several points in this book I have suggested that you reflect on how well you have carried out a task. I offered three prompt questions:

1What went well?

2What went less well?

3What might you do differently next time?

In the wider scheme, such questions fit in well with an experiential cycle of learning (Figure 12.1).

Imagine that you have been set an essay. You check that you’ve understood the task and (hopefully) you plan what you need to do to complete it (step 1). You carry out a literature search, do the required reading, plan a structure for your essay, write a draft, gradually improving it through reviewing and editing, and then you finalise your work and submit it (step 2). However, what have you done along the way to consciously improve your practice? If you are very results-focused you may be driven to produce the best work you can in the time you have, but how much have you learnt from the experience that you can apply next time?

Each time you carry out a task for your degree programme, it is an opportunity not only to complete the task well and gain good grades but to maximise your learning from the experience, which you can apply in the future.


Figure 12.1 A model for learning from experience (developed from Kolb, 1984, and Gibbs, 1988)

This is not so difficult to do, but it does require awareness at times when you might rather be getting on with something else. For example, having just finished your assignment you might wish to watch a streamed movie on your tablet, or go out and do some shopping. If you’re just about to start a task, you might want to just get on with it. However, the point at which you start or finish a task is an excellent place to reflect on your practice (step 3), to help apply your learning next time (step 4). And it only takes a few minutes. You can maximise your learning by applying this model to the different stages in completing a task, as well as to the task overall.

A learning log

In some disciplines, students are expected to keep a logbook in which they write notes recording details about practical investigations. They might jot down observations about any difficulties they encountered (and what they did in response). They might record experimental conditions and the raw data they gathered, or their reaction to a piece of art or an historical artefact, along with any questions that sprang to mind about what they were doing. Such information is invaluable for their development within the discipline.

You too can create a log - whether in a notebook or in an electronic form - about what you have learnt, what you might need to do to improve, and any questions that spring to mind. Each time you submit an assignment, or receive feedback on one, you can reflect and make a note of:

1What went well?

2What went less well?

3What might I do differently next time?

By applying what you have learnt to future assignments, you will be maximising your opportunities to learn and develop within your discipline.

Becoming a better writer in your discipline

The horror writer Stephen King famously said, ’If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’ (King, 2000, 2012, p. 164). In relation to academic writing I would add, ’get quality feedback’.