Learning techniques

The theories and techniques on how to train our memory, and my take on them. The basic working of our memory: short term and long term memory and their subdivisions.

As we saw in the first instalment, Kolb came up with the four-stage learning cycle. From this he derived his learning theory, which describes four distinct learning styles directly related to those 4 stages.

He states that every individual prefers a certain learning style. Which one is influenced by factors like social environment, previous educational experiences and upbringing. Of course the basic cognitive structure (how your brain works physically) of the individual also is a strong factor. That means even genetics come into play.

Two variables

The learning style itself is the product of two pairs of variables which Kolb presented as lines of axis. Those 2 separate choices we make have conflicting modes at either end of those axis.

In his iconic presentation of this system the horizontal axis is called de Processing Continuum, or how we approach a task? The Vertical axis represents our emotional response and is called the Perception Continuum.

Kolb believes, somewhat controversially we cannon perform both variables on a single axis at the same time. Which would mean we can't think and feel at the same time. However later clarifications did mean we can alternate them very fast so we perceive them happening at the same time.

Anyway, our learning style is the product of the decision we make in those 2 choices.

This circle is also presented at times in a two by two matrix.

If you know a person (or your own) preferred learning style you can orient your study process around this style. At the same time you still need to pass all 4 phases of the circle to effectively learn something.

Your preferred learning style indicates the ideal starting point in the learning circle. If you start there, your studying will almost always yield the best possible results.

We will briefly explain the four styles:


People who prefer this style are able to use a lot of different perspectives. They are sensitive and prefer watching over doing. They want to gather information first and use their imagination to solve problems. They are very good in evaluating concrete situations from several different viewpoints.

People with a diverging learning style are good at brainstorming and usually have broad cultural interests. They like to gather information, are interested in people. They have a lively imagination and can get emotional. They are artistic and like to work in group, are open minded and like to receive personal feedback.


Assimilating as a learning style stands for a logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. A person with this style needs a good clear explanation instead of a practical opportunity. They organize all information in a clear logical format and are very good in understanding a wide range of information ... and lots of it.

They focus on ideas and abstract concepts and prefer logically sound theories over practical use. It is an effective learning style for people who seek information and science careers. They like to study using a lot of reading, attending lectures and using analytical models. They want and need time to think things through.


If you are someone who can solve problems and wants to learn to find solutions for very practical situations, you probably prefer the converging learning style. Folks like that prefer technical tasks and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects. They excel in finding practical uses for theories and ideas. They are problem solvers by nature and good at making decisions by finding solutions to problems and questions.

They are attracted to technical tasks. The style enables specialist and technology abilities. They like to experiment a lot with new ideas and always look for the practical use of things.


Accommodating people are the one who push all the buttons on the remote before checking the manual. They have a hands-on style and prefer intuition to logic. They will use other people's analysis and go for a more practical approach using a lot of experimentation. They thrive on new challenges and experiences and love it when a plan comes together.

They go a lot with their gut instinct and will rely on others for more abstract information. This is the most used style by what Kolb calls the 'general population'.

Importance of style and situation

Now it is important to know almost no one strictly prefers one style for 100%. In fact, while some work more for us then others, we do tend to use all four of them. And depending on the situation one might be better then the other, and even feel more natural and more effective than the one we normally prefer. Also, people with a high IQ tend to be able to switch a lot through them just to make sure they don't get bored too fast.

It pays to use a test to determine which your most natural style is. Use that info mainly to think about your study methods, especially if you feel what you do right now is not working for you as it should.

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Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development on amazon uk


The first thing I learned about studying techniques when I was getting my teacher’s degree was Kolb’s learning circle. The concept really opened my eyes to the problems I had in the past and drew me into the matter of learning techniques. It helped me identify my base style and how to use that to study more effectively.

Who is David Kolb?

Kolb is an American specialized in Educational theory. In 1984 he published his learning styles model which revolutionized the way we look at learning and education.

His theory works on two levels: a four stage cycle of learning and 4 learning styles. Those 2 are much related to each other and focus on the learner’s internal cognitive processes. Which is academic speak for brain processes.

Wat is learning according to Kolb?

Kolb states learning involves acquiring abstract concepts. Which we can use in a flexible range of situations. Those abstract concepts are triggered by new experiences. Experiences come to us through all of our senses.

His theory is explained by a four stage learning cycle. The learner would touch all the bases of this cycle.

The circle explained.

The concrete experience is either a new experience or a reinterpretation of an existing experience.

The reflective observation is where we think about this experience. We check with what we know already. Important in this phase is if there are inconsistencies between experience and understanding.

The abstract conceptualisation is where we come to conclusions. Our experience and thoughts form a new idea, or adjust an existing one. This is where we really start to learn from an experience.

Active experimentation is where we test those ideas. We confront them with the world as we know it and see what results. Ideally this causes us to get back to phase one.

For learning to have any effect we need to get through all those phases. We need to have experiences, then reflect on them, then form conclusions or ideas and test those ideas.

However, learning is an integrated process. While you do need all phases of this circle, you can pretty much enter in any phase.

The circle illustrated.

I’ll give you an example to illustrate this. Say you have no clue how to drive a car, and you want to learn. You could ask someone who knows to show it to you. That is a concrete experience. As a result you review what you see and reflect on how to operate the car. You form conclusions based on what you saw. “If I turn that wheel the car changes direction”, “If I push that pedal it speeds up” etc. And then you finish by trying what you have concluded...

You could also just sit in the car and start touching stuff. You start by experimenting. Then you experience the result of what you do: the car starts moving when you push the gas pedal or turns when you turn the wheel. You observe the results of those actions you take and conclude that turning the wheel to the left will also turn the car to the left etc. …

So you start at different phases but go through them all. Furthermore you can keep going in circles from now on.

In the next blogpost on this subject we will see that depending on our personality we can pick a preferred learning style: and this will determine the best phase for us to start in that circle.

Before we understand studying and study techniques, we need to understand how our memory works. Which is easier said then done. Science is still much occupied with the mechanics of our brain, and memory obviously plays a vital part in that.

Different Kinds of memory.

The majority of you probably have heard about short-term and long-term memory. But not all get how they actually work. For instance: a lot of people confuse the short time memory with the ‘work memory’. Which isn’t that silly considering a lot of literature does the same. However, most psychologists keep them separate, although they acknowledge they work in unison.

Short time memory in that classification is just that: a short time storage that can handle a few separate items at the same time. Most seem to agree on seven. They can stay there for about 10 seconds or so without much ‘techniques’ as long as their place is not taken by newer items. If we want to remember them for any length we have to transfer them to our long term memory, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Those newer items pretty much can come anytime any of our senses notices something. This is why we sometimes forget things we thought about just moments ago, just because we got distracted.

Now our ‘work memory’ is similar in the way that it also is used on short term. But it is also capable to use that information, to work that information. It is what we use to formulate speech, calculate and think. In a way it is able to grab stuff from short term and long term memory alike to the now and use it.

Our sensory memory is our memory directly linked to our senses. It only lasts a fraction unless we process it, and our brain is very good in selecting which information it considers to be relevant enough to store. For instance: our eyes see a lot more then just the things we focus our attention on. So while in essence our sensory memory is very short term, the results of it can be stored in our long term memory.

The episodic memory is the part where we store personal memories, about stuff we experienced and lived through in the past. This allows us to remember episodes from the past, along with the emotional intensity associated with it. This is the kind of memory that is easily affected by trauma induced memory loss. Its content is localized in time and space.

The semantic memory is the memory reserved for general knowledge. Thinks like vocabulary, concepts and historical facts. It also stores birthdays and names of people. The content here is not localized in time and space.

The procedural memory is where we store our abilities. It’s where we find the ability to ride a bike or drive a car, catch a ball, play an instrument. Its knowledge we obtained by practicing until it became automatic.

The episodic, semantic and procedural memory all are part of our long term memory.

How does memory work?

So how do we remember things? We transfer it from our short term to our long term memory, preferably in a way that makes it easy for us to call upon it when needed. This is a 3 step process consisting of coding, consolidating and recalling.

Coding is the phase where we initially process all information coming in. It can be subconscious or automatic, but also very conscious. And most of the time we have a framework of knowledge we already possess to which we can relate the new information.

Consolidating in essence is studying: making sure the info does not get lost. There are a lot of techniques that can help but they almost always involve making connections. It can be during a short period of time or take years.

Once a memory is stored we also must be able to recall it. How we recall information is directly related to the way we coded it. The context in which we learn something is also important when we try to use the information again: this for instance explains why actors prefer to read out their lines aloud when studying them instead of just reading them in silence.

Studying techniques will always focus on this process, and try to form strong connections so the matter studied would be easier to recall.



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