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Posted 2.18.11

Angela Passarelli is a PhD candidate in the Organizational Behavior Department at the Weatherhead School of Management. She received a BS in Psychology and Business from James Madison University and an MS in Educational Administration from Texas A&M University. From 2004 to 2007, she worked as the Director of Leadership at Elon University.

Throughout her doctoral program, Passarelli has worked with Professor David A. Kolb, PhD, founder of the Experiential Learning Model and creator of the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, on the following research.

How do adults learn, grow, and develop? What is your personal approach to learning? In sharing results from the Kolb Learning Style Inventory with thousands of people, we have discovered, to our surprise, that most people have never thought about the answers to these questions. Yet the ability to learn from experience is critical in the reality of twenty-first century life. Unprecedented rates of economic, social, and technological change have produced an environment in which individuals are increasingly responsible for directing their learning over the course of a lifetime.

The most important thing in navigating the journey is to learn how to learn. Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) provides a roadmap, helping individuals understand how learning occurs, and the nature of spaces where it occurs, but also helping them know themselves as learners. With this awareness, one can live each successive experience fully—present and mindful in the moment. We callthis approach to lifelong learning "the Learning Way." 

A learning identity lies at the heart of the Learning Way. People who possess this see themselves as learners, seek and engage in experiences with a learning attitude, and believe in their ability to learn. 

But having a learning identity isn't an either/or proposition—it develops over time and is sustained and nurtured through growth-producing relationships in one's life.

Research on the "lay theories" that people hold about themselves differentiates between those who see their abilities as fixed and those who believe they can incrementally change themselves. Those individuals who believe that they can change and develop have a learning identity. They face their challenges with a "mastery response," while the person with a fixed identity is more likely to withdraw or quit. Learners embrace challenge, persist in the face of obstacles, value criticism, and draw inspiration from the success of others. The fixed self avoids challenge, gives up easily, shirks criticism, and feels threatened by others' success.

It is possible to develop a learning identity. Studies conducted in traditional middle school and college environments describe outcomes of learning interventions as increased motivation, higher grades and achievement scores, reduced anxiety, and increased confidence in students' ability to learn. Every success or failure can trigger a reassessment of one’s learning ability; thus, one’s learning identity is continuously reformulated through experience.

Our research suggests there are some ways to overcome fixed-self characteristics and improve learning identity:

1. Trust the process of learning from experience.

A. Honor your experience. Make it the focal point of your choices and decisions. This does not mean that you shouldn't learn from experts or others, since their advice is also part of your experience. The key is to own your choice: take charge of what you learn and validate it in your experience.

B. Trust the learning process. Avoid an excessive focus on immediate performance outcomes and focus instead on the longer-term recursive process of learning by tracking your performance progress over time.

2. Reassess your beliefs about yourself. Be conscious of how you think, how you learn best, and how you define yourself. Often, people are unaware of the way in which they characterize themselves and their abilities.

3. Monitor the messages you send yourself. Pay attention to your selftalk. Thoughts like, "I am stupid" or, "I am no good at…" reinforce a negativefixed identity; just as affirming, "I can do this" reinforces a positive learning identity.

4. Redefine your relationship to failure. Embrace failure as an inevitable part of the learning process. Manage your emotional responses in order to analyze mistakes and plan solutions.

5. Balance your success/failure accounts. Most of us remember our failures more vividly than our successes. We tend to focus on negative remarks and ignore praise. Attend to your successes and learning strengths to "balance your accounts."

These strategies impact learning identity, enhancing how individuals see themselves throughout the challenges of life. Additional strategies for increasing one's ability to live by the learning way are shared in a chapter to be published in the Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning.

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