Take control of your own learning


In the six years I’ve worked in education, I’ve had the opportunity to work amongst different cultures. I started my career (and fell in love with it) in Thailand. Then, as an international school teacher in Germany, I had the pleasure of teaching students from Germany, the US, Canada, the UK, Denmark, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, and Georgia, to name just a few! And now, here I am in Australia working in a predominantly Chinese environment.

So far, the experience has been a real eye-opener to the different educational backgrounds my students have come from -  learning theories and approaches to teaching vary greatly! In many cultures, the focus is still very teacher-centered. The teacher is the ‘expert’ and you, as the student, are the receiver of their expert knowledge. It’s not your job to question the teacher. The teacher delivers all the answers, which you must remember and reproduce in an exam. Providing definitions and descriptions is a demonstration of your knowledge.

This approach dramatically contrasts Australian education, which is much more student-centered. By nature, people are inquisitive and as students, you are encouraged to ask questions and seek your own answers. Education isn’t simply about the ‘experts’ delivering information and knowledge to you. Teachers are facilitators of learning, and as a student, rather than simply absorbing knowledge that is transmitted to you, you should actively engage in your own learning process - learn how to enquire and gather information, critically evaluate ideas and opinions, develop your own ‘voice’, and formulate arguments. This way of learning isn’t unique to Higher education. If you were to walk into any kindergarten or Primary School (although don’t actually do this for security reasons), you would most likely find children asking questions, exploring their environment and searching for their own answers. And this is exactly what you’re also expected to do - explore the academic and professional environment you’re in. Ask questions, examine alternatives and search for your own answers.

In other words, take more control. Learn how to construct your own knowledge and cultivate your own understanding. It’s okay to speak out (albeit, politely and with respect) and question what you are told. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and ideas, you just want to make sure, particularly in an academic environment, that you can support them. A clearly supported argument involves gathering and analysing information and data to form a point of view, then presenting this position with a logical line of reasoning. Whether you are sitting an exam, writing an assignment or participating in a tutorial discussion, you are expected to demonstrate analytical and critical thinking.

However, this questioning approach does not come easily to everyone. Those who have, in the past, been expected to accept everything they read or are told, have not been given the chance to develop the skill of questioning. If you come from such a background, you may feel that you have no right to question the ‘experts’ and explore other perspectives. You may feel insecure about not having the ‘right’ answer. It takes practice to develop a questioning approach to learning. Get into the habit of questioning what you read or hear, taking notes and searching for answers yourself. Don’t take everything at face value. Think about where the information is coming from and how current it is. Are there alternative opinions? What are the arguments for each perspective? What are their limitations? How does it all fit into what you already know?

For more on how to develop your questioning skills and improve your academic success and employability, please see the following:

Skills you need - Questioning

Critical thinking in everyday life

The University of Edinburgh - critical thinking

Caroline Thornton

English Language and Academic Skills Coordinator