One of the first steps for becoming a good student is to understand the learning process itself. Certain characteristics of effective learning, including the four (4) learning cycles, are true of all people. At the same time, students in college have different learning styles. Understanding these processes is important for maximizing your own learning while in college.

In high school, teachers often take much of the responsibility for how students learn—encouraging learning with class discussions, repeating key material, creating study guides, and looking over students shoulders to make sure no one falls behind. In college, most of the responsibility for learning falls on the student. You’re free to fail—or succeed—as you choose. This applies as well to how well you learn.

Learning an academic subject means really understanding it, being able to think about it in meaningful ways and applying that understanding in new situations. This is very different from simply memorizing something and repeating it back on a test. Academic learning occurs most effectively in a four-step learning cycle.


The learning cycle consists of what four steps?

  • Preparing
  • Absorbing
  • Capturing
  • Reviewing



Preparing to learn is the first step for learning. The same is true when you sit down to read your textbook, study for an exam, or work on an out-of-class project. Partly you are putting yourself in the right mindset to learn. But when you review yesterday’s notes to prepare for today’s class, you are also solidifying yesterday’s learning.


The second step in the learning cycle is Absorbing. This simply means the actual taking in of information, experience or new ideas. This is what happens at the moment a student listens to a class lecture or reads a textbook. In high school, this is sometimes the only learning step taken by some students. They listened to what the instructor said and “regurgitated” it back on the test. But this won’t work in college because learning now requires understanding the topic, not just repeating facts or information.


The third step in the learning cycle is Capturing. This means taking notes. No matter how good your memory is, you need to take good notes in college simply because there is so much to learn. Just hearing something once is seldom enough. You have to go back over the material again, sometimes several times again, thinking about it and seeing how it all fits together. The more effective your note-taking skills, the better your learning abilities.


The fourth step in the learning cycle is Review. To solidify your learning and reaching a real understanding of the topic, there is a need to review your class notes, your textbook reading and notes, and any other course materials possibly including recordings, online media, podcasts, and so on. Reviewing is also a way to prepare for new information and ideas. That’s why this is a learning cycle: the end of the process loops back to the beginning as you prepare for additional learning.

Reviewing is also the step in which you discover whether you really understand the material. If you do not understand something fully, you may need to reread a section of the book, talk it over with a friend in the class, or go see your instructor.

What is your Learning Style?
Think first about the different situations in which you learn. Obviously, you learn during class, whether by listening to the instructor speaks or in class discussions in which you participate. But you also learn while reading your textbooks and other materials outside of class.

You learn when you talk with an instructor during office hours. You learn by talking with other students informally in study groups. You learn when you study your class notes before an exam. All of these different learning situations involve the same learning cycle.

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