How do you learn?

While I was in the beautiful Croatian town of Dubrovnik for the IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group Conference last November, I made some notes on a very interesting workshop I attended:

The class is your resource

Learners give too much responsibility to the teacher

Fall back on what they´ve experienced before while learning

Think about how they learn to do other things, e.g. building flat-pack furniture

I would happily give credit to the person from whom I gleaned these insights, but I honestly can´t remember who it was! The weekend passed in a blur of sea, sunsets and syntax.  Whoever it was though, I am grateful to them for reminding me that although the fifty-year old factory superviser in my English course may feel like a fish out of water because he has been obliged to start learning English again after more than three decades, this is not the first time that he has learned something and learned something successfully. English learning is not so special or different that it exists in vacuum separate from the learning of anything else. There´s no reason why strategies you use to successfully build flat-pack furniture–perhaps follow the instructions carefully, trust your instincts, make use of the insights you´ve gained on the previous occasions you have built furniture–shouldn´t serve you well as you embark upon learning English at work.

Starting afresh with a new group this week, I decided to create a worksheet to get them to reflect on how they learn and ultimately get them to consider how they can learn better. Their first task was to write a list of ten things they have learned during their lifetimes. I made it clear to them that this could include absolutely anything from learning to walk to learning to operate the  pieces of machinery they work with. Once everyone had their lists, I asked them to reflect on what their experiences of learning these things had been and to compare with each other by answering some questions I´d included in the second section of the worksheet. The participants then discussed these responses with a partner before sharing what they´d found out with the rest of the group.

This discussion gave me some clear indications of what elements I would need to incorporate into the course in order for them to learn English successfully:

They like learning-by-doing, so why don´t we go down into the laboratories and R&D facilities where they work and they can show me how they create prototypes and do their plastic injection moulding? We agreed to do this in the coming weeks.

Having fun while they learn is important to them: let´s include some games and more light-hearted activities so that they enjoy themselves.

They said they thought “doing it again and again” was a good learning strategy, which means I can give them lots of opportunities to practise what they have learnt and do review activities without worrying that they´ll get bored!

Getting tips from experts: so they won´t be afraid to take advice from me, but this got me thinking about what other “experts” they could go to. They could spend more time on communication with their native English speaker colleagues, of course, but they can also get tips from each other. I plan to encourage them to listen to and learn from their colleagues in the course.

Use a range of media: as the majority of the group are male and in their twenties, it´s not surprising that video and internet resources are an integral part of learning as far as they´re concerned. I will, therefore, aim to include these resources in our lessons.

Asking Business English course participants:  “how do you learn?” is just as valuable, if not even more valuable, than asking them what they want to learn (emailing, meetings, telephoning, etc.), which is what I seem to have spent all of my time on up to now.


Filed under From the training room

9 responses to “How do you learn?

  1. Julie Raikou

    Claire, a really great post! How a Student learns is such an integral part of the course

    If you’ve not already seen Mark Andrews’ videos of students out on location in Barnstaple, take a look!

    Look forward to seeing you down in the lab or in the R&D!

    • Thanks Julie. Yes, I will take a look at Mark´s video. I found out a lot about the work he does for SOL last September in Brno and it sounds brilliant.
      That´s where I´ll be, yes, down in the lab or the R&D! This week I´ve spent a lot of time looking at formwork and scaffolding with four different groups in fact. I want to blog about this next week.
      Hope you´re keeping well.

  2. Sev

    Great article, just perfect for today 🙂

  3. Hi Claire
    It’s my first time reading your blog which I have to say contains some impressive thought provoking stuff. Your blog was introduced to me by my colleague at Siemens ‘Charles Rei’ (I believe you have exchanged comments).
    I have a new class and I would certainly like to include some of your ideas from this post and your previous ones too (about using post-it-notes as part of the needs analysis). I am pretty engaged in the ‘unplugged teaching’ approach at the moment which is not always easy to promote with structure obsessed Germans, but surprisingly they very often come around to the idea and enjoy it. I will probably modify your ‘how do you learn’ method a little by getting the Ss to think about how they can go about building their awareness and then get them to create their own questions in order to accomplish this. This then gives me some produced languaged (question forms) to assess and work on.
    Until the next time…

    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks for your comments and for your positive feedback on my blog. I decided to incorporate your suggestion about asking the participants to ask each other questions in order to bring in more language production and that worked very well. I also asked my participants to consider whether or not they thought they were successful at the things they had learned to do, and what criteria would they use to measure that success? Should we use different criteria to measure success for different activities? And then, finally, how can you measure your success at learning English? This led to some interesting discussion.

      While we were talking about what had been the most difficult thing for them to learn, one participant said “For me learning to learn is the most difficult thing.” This lead to some discussion about learning to learn and what strategies we can employ in order to learn to learn. The activity has also led onto some exploration of learning styles and preferences, which has been very useful.

      Look forward to reading more of your blog posts. I also live in Bavaria (about 90 km to the south of Nuremberg) and used to teach at Siemens until last year, so we´re practically neighbours and practically colleagues!

      Best wishes,

  4. Hi new neighbour

    Sorry for the looooong delay in responding to your comment. Time flies when you have to work! I don’t really have much to add except that I really like how you took my suggestion that 1 or 2 steps further. Asking about if they felt they were successful at whatever they learnt, learning how to learn. This certainly goes deep. I would be interested in hearing what feedback and comment arouse from that discussion / lesson. I certainly think if you can get the learners Ss to connect emotionally with something, then things begin to look that little bit rosier and all the better! Glad my suggestion worked for you. I have just posted a new post on my blog. Check it out

  5. Pingback: How do you learn? | CERT IBET Resources |

  6. Hi Claire,

    Even though I have little experience with BE, I could certainly relate to your post. A sentence you wrote that stuck to me was “English learning is not so special or different that it exists in vacuum separate from the learning of anything else.” And yet, many times people treat it that way, don’t they? At least my students do.

    I really enjoyed the reading, the comments and the learning strategies activity. Thanks for that!

    • Hi Cecilia,

      Thanks for your comment. I´m really pleased to hear you enjoyed the post. I also enjoy reading your blog posts 🙂

      My learners do also have a tendency to see English learning as existing in a vacuum, and it´s exactly this misconception that I want to try and break down. The people I teach have a lot of experience of learning (all sorts of things) and most of them have been to university and some of them even have PhDs, so they´re clearly good at learning, but they might find learning English difficult. Then it´s important to ask them to reflect on those previous learning experiences and make use of the things that have worked for them in other areas while they´re learning English both in and out of the classroom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s