“I knew from my own lifetime of teaching that many folk learn to play the academic game, find ways to write the papers and spit out at least acceptable answers on tests, but have few skills in turning all this into learning. That is to say, what they have studied does not really change them much. What is more, seminarians increasingly come to us in their thirties and older, having been long years (or decades) out of school. So often what they have indeed learned about formal learning has atrophied. It seemed to me to be an excellent use of two semester hours’ credit to help people discover right off the bat how to make the most out of their seminary experience.” 

The words are those of Robert Glick, professor of church music at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, explaining his part in the decision of Erskine’s faculty to add a new required course to the curriculum.

The course is titled “Learning How to Learn,” and was originally designed for new students in Erskine’s distance education network. Steven Lowe, Erskine’s professor of Christian education and director of distance education, had taught a similar course at Trinity Theological Seminary (a Newburgh, Indiana-based nonresidential school), motivated in part by statistics on the high attrition rate among distance learners. His research on the differences in learning styles between traditional and non-traditional students convinced him that the high motivation many distance students bring to their work needed to be reinforced with explicit attention to learning skills and reassurance that various learning styles can all make for successful learning. “Many students have learned how to be taught,” he said, “but not how to learn.”

How Students Learn

The course’s structure echoes the message that people bring different learning styles to their studies. In the distance version of the course, there are virtually identical audio-taped and written versions of the basic lectures, for example, so students can read, listen, or both in order to find out what works best for them. In addition, a fair amount of course content is focused on helping the student figure out what will help her learn most efficiently. There are eight self-assessments—some quick, some fairly detailed—exploring:

  • competency in self-directed learning skills. 
  • left/right brain orientation. 
  • learning style—concrete/abstract, active/reflective. 
  • aging and learning. 
  • how students organize information (see grouper/stringer inventory at the end of this article). 
  • stress. 
  • social readjustment rating—recent major life changes. 
  • best/worst times of day.

Once the student gains a learning style self-portrait, she is provided with basic information on note-taking, writing skills, and retaining what one reads, then set to putting these tools to work on the rest of the course.

Questions for your board:

Do you know whether your students are prepared for the education you offer?

Do you know how to find out?

How is your school bringing under-prepared or returning students up to speed?

Do your incoming students need the kind of help the “learning to learn” course provides?

“It would never have occurred to me to have a course on such a subject,” said Glick. But when Lowe presented his course at a faculty meeting, there was enough interest generated to put the course on the required list for all students. After all, there is ongoing concern across the board about the readiness of theological students, and some of that concern has precisely to do with the large percentage of students returning to the classroom after a long hiatus. Erskine decided to assume that all students can be helped by explicit attention to tools for learning.

The classroom version of the course has the same lectures, reading and other assignments, and final exam as the distance version, but has its own set of challenges and advantages. “On the one hand, we can pause for a while at places of interest to the students,” said Lowe. “On the other hand, there’s an immediacy of feedback that is not necessarily an advantage for all learners—distance learners can take their time and reflect before responding.”

Schools thinking of instituting such a course may debate whether it should be a regular part of the curriculum or a prerequisite, but student feedback has been enthusiastic. One student’s class evaluation described his previous educational experience as a matter of doing “the absolute minimum possible. I cheated and took the easy road every time. Now I feel confident in my new-found identity as a self-directed learner. My friends and family, wife and children have been surprised to see how well I’m doing. I’m no longer taking the path of least resistance, but the path of most knowledge.” 

For Example
One of the eight self-assessments used by Erskine—the “Are You a Grouper or a Stringer?” inventory—is shown here. The inventory is designed to ascertain whether a student prefers to reason and learn inductively or deductively; or, to use the educational terms, is the student field-dependent or field-independent? A field-dependent learner prefers to learn in a global or in an undifferentiated manner in a social context. A field-independent learner prefers to learn in a more analytical and systematic fashion in isolation.

Are you a Grouper or a Stringer?

Check the phrase in each pair that corresponds more closely to your preferred approach to learning. There are no right or wrong ways to complete these statements; they’re designed simply to distinguish your preferences.

When studying one unfamiliar subject, you
(a) prefer to gather information from diverse topic areas
(b) prefer to focus on one topic

You would rather
(a) know a little about a great many subjects
(b) become an expert on just one subject

When studying from a textbook, you
(a) skip ahead and read chapters of special interest out of sequence
(b) work systematically from one chapter to the next, not moving on until you have understood earlier material

When asking people for information about some subject of interest, you
(a) tend to ask broad questions that call for rather general answers
(b) tend to ask narrow questions that demand specific answers

When browsing in a library or bookstore, you
(a) roam around looking at books on many different subjects
(b) stay more or less in one place, looking at books on just a couple of subjects

You are best at remembering
(a) general principles
(b) specific facts

When performing some tasks, you
(a) like to have background information not strictly related to the work
(b) prefer to concentrate on strictly relevant information

You think that educators should
(a) give students exposure to a wide range of subjects in college
(b) ensure that students mainly acquire in-depth knowledge related to their specialties

When on vacation, you would rather
(a) spend a short amount of time in several places
(b) stay in one place the whole time and get to know it well

When learning something, you would rather
(a) follow general guidelines
(b) work with a detailed plan of action

Do you agree that, in addition to specialized knowledge, a person should know some math, art, physics, literature, psychology, politics, languages, biology, history, and medicine?
(a) Yes
(b) No

Groupers [“a” answers]

  X    Prefer to take a broad view of any subject.

  X    Like to search out general principles.

  X    Are quick to find relationships and relate one topic to another.

  X    Prefer to tackle new topics from the top down, gaining an overall perspective before filling in the details.

Stringers [“b” answers]

  X    Learn best by mastering specific details.

  X    Move through new learning in a systematic methodical manner.

  X    Prefer to learn new material from the bottom up, laying a solid foundation first.


Information on the course and background reading can be found at seminary.erskine.edu.

“The Consequences of Remedial Education,” Trusteeship (September-October, 1999), pages 18-22 (Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, One Dupont Circle, Suite 403, Washington DC 20009) explores whether to provide catch-up courses or to demand that students get up to speed before enrolling.


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