Ken Barger
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
Indiana University Indianapolis

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College is considered "higher education," with good reason. Not only is the level of learning much more comprehensive than previously experienced, but the depth of understandings is much greater. Learning calls for critical thinking and problem-solving skills, greater effort, motivation and commitment, and task management. Most important, college students are considered adults and are expected to be responsible for their own learning... no one else can learn for you, but others constantly hold you accountable for what you do and do not learn. For better or worse, in Western culture success in college is highly correlated with later economic and social success in life, and success in college is dependent on being a good learner.

There are a number of abilities involved in being a good learner. Some argue that a primary direction in human evolution has been selection for good learners, and like all potentials the more we develop them the more we are able to do. We often think learning is what we know, but further reflection reveals that it actually how we learn that makes the biggest difference. When we are faced with a challenge to which we have no sure answer, existing knowledge in itself is usually insufficient. Identifying effective solutions in life is rather dependent on our ability to understand what factors influence the situation, what the alternative responses are, and what the consequences of different responses might be. For example, when we apply for a job, we are on an equal level with other applicants who usually have the same level of knowledge, so what is important to the employers is our ability to learn to do this work in this organization in changing situations.

There is no right or wrong way of learning, of course, but the more we can develop our abilities to learn the more adaptive we can be in our own lives and in the directions our society takes. It is amazing that all of the over five billion humans on earth are each different, though we may share many characteristics with others with similar temperaments and cultures and life experiences. Understanding more about ourselves, though, can help us make better decisions about what kinds of circumstances and activities in which we are more likely to be satisfied and successful in life.

The ultimate ability in learning is knowing what we do not know. If we think we already know something, then we are closed to understanding more completely. But once we are aware that we do not fully understand something, we are then open to learning more.

In over thirty years of university teaching, I have tried to understand the learning process better in order to help students succeed in their college experience. As I have told all my classes, I was trained to be an Anthropologist, not a teacher. Much of what I have learned about teaching has come from students themselves, who have helped me develop my own teaching skills. I also received a fellowship to study educational pedagogy, so I could make my teaching more effective with a wider range of students. I hope the following materials help you as you seek to learn more effectively.


Critical thinking and problem solving skills are major emphases in learning. One of the most common schemes to assess the degree of development in a person's thinking process is Bloom's Taxonomy. See Vanderbuilt University, Bloom's Revised Taxonomy, Iowa State University, Bloom's Revised Taxonomy for Teachers (YouTube). We can this model to assess what levels of thinking we are currently using to understand information and events in life, and to develop more in-depth understanding to help resolve the issues that we face individually and as a society.

Initial levels of thinking:

Advanced levels of thinking (emphasized in "critical thinking"):

Note that "science" includes all steps in learning. Whenever any of these processes are missing or ignored, we are left with "opinion" rather than grounded understandings that help us deal effectively with life situations, individually, as a society, and as the human race who share this little spot in the universe.

Where do you stand on each of these levels of learning? Which levels have you developed well? Which levels do you need to develop more in order to be a more effective learner?

Although there is some progression in learning abilities across these levels, they are certainly not mutually exclusive or absolutely ordered. (For example, we all know of cases where someone may do an excellent job of analysis, but in the absence of grounded knowledge!) People are not totally one level or another, of course. We all reflect all of these levels in different life circumstances. But how much have we developed our learning abilities is critical not only in our education but all of our life situations.

The value of a college education is not knowledge in itself, but rather developing your abilities on how to learn a wide variety of things. In anthropology, math, history, biology, and other subjects, you are asked to broaden all of your learning abilities. In the larger context, we are seeking to develop our abilities to learn, for then we can learn anything we wish or need to understand. Development of your abilities to learn is what makes a college education worth so much in our society, and being an effective learner is what prepares you to be successful in your careers and personal life, and to be a contributing member of society.

Basically, learning is a life-long process!


According to many educational specialists, we all use three basic approaches to learning. How much do you use each of the following styles:

We all learn by looking at the world around us and processing this information to expand our understandings. For example, how much do you:

We also learn by listening and hearing what happens around us, and use this information to expand our understandings. For example, how much do you:

And we all learn by doing activities, and use this information to train ourselves and expand our understandings. For example, how much do you:

Which are your strongest methods of learning? Take the test (PDF download file) to find out which methods you use the most and which methods you need to develop more to enhance your learning? (Note that there are different models of learning styles, but they are all handy devices to help us identify what approaches help us learn more effectively.)

An important value to college education is that students are required to take a wide variety of courses, and in doing so we develop a range of abilities in becoming well-rounded and balanced learners. Understanding more about how we learn can help us make better decisions about what kinds of circumstances and activities in which we are more likely to be satisfied and successful in life.

We generally use all these means to learn in academic studies and in our daily lives, though people tend to emphasize some approaches more than others. There is no right or wrong way to learn, of course. Different approaches to learning have both their strengths and their weaknesses. So strengthening all of our learning abilities maximizes our potentials for successfully dealing with life challenges. Most important is our abilities to process and integrate learning on an ongoing basis in developting our understandings.


For years I have studied my own classes to identify what makes the biggest difference in the development of levels of learning, analyzing many different variables. And year after year the most dominant factor has been simply doing the work! In college, students are expected to be responsible for their own learning. This takes motivation, commitment, active engagement, and keeping on task. Study habits are not necessarily related to "intelligence". We all know "smart" people who don't make an effort and get poor grades, and of people with "average" intelligence who study efficiently and effectively and get excellent grades!

Do you know that the standard formula for studying is at least three hours out of class for every one hour in class? For a three-credit course, this means nine hours a week of studying outside class. How much time to do you put into your studies? This is a gross indicator of your approach to learning.


Every university has resources to help students develop their learning abilities and skills. At IUPUI, the BEPKO LEARNING CENTER (317-274-4818) has developed a rich variety of such resources to help students be successful in their college training, including:

No matter what our level of learning abilities, we can always develop them more... for the rest of our lives!

Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in exploring your interests and abilities in learning. I always enjoy developing our learning abilities!


In my experience of university teaching for over thirty years, "intelligence" is not the most important factor is success in college (or life), but rather good learning habits. Some good practices that make a difference in effective learning include:

Am I an active learner?
This means taking charge of your own learning and development.

What can I do before class?
Coming to class ready to learn the materials that will be covered puts you at a distinct advantage. This means preparing for class, knowing in advance what will be covered, and having some initial understanding of the materials.

What can I do during class?
Here is where you make sure you understand the ideas and materials.

What can I do after class?
Review! This is where you can consolidate your learning.

The contents of any particular course you take may have little specific value in your long-term life and career challenges, though the concepts, principles, and individual skills may provide important perspectives for addressing personal and professional issues. However, all courses provide an opportunity to develop your learning abilities, and help you become a better learner throughout life.

Remember, you are the one who is responsible for your own learning. Your motivation, determination, and discipline will make the greatest difference in how effectively you learn, no matter how well developed your intellectual abilities are. These learning behaviors will also make the greatest difference as you continue to learn after college in your job, personal life, and as a responsible citizen of society long after college. Development of your abilities to learn is what makes a college education worth so much in our society, and being an effective learner is what prepares you to be successful in your careers and personal life, and to be a contributing member of society.


This can actually be a good sign! Educational psychologists say that frustration can mean that we recognize that we are about to cross a threshold to a new degree of learning. This can be frightening, because we realize that we face an unknown new way of perceiving and experiencing life. We will not be able to fall back on simple, comfortable explanations.

Yes, it does mean that we will not be the same. We will see life in a new way. We will be able to see more ideas illustrated in daily life, new relationships and influences, new insights into alternatives and solutions, and make more sound judgments. Our understandings will be more comprehensive, deeper, and more balanced. We will be more open to what life has to offer.

Life will not be easier, but we will be better prepared to understand and deal with life challenges. We are always facing a new opportunity to learn and grow!

We have the rest of our lives to keep learning!

Expanding our understandings of our own and others' human behavior involves applying these principles of learning. For more guidelines on this process, see:

I hope that this discussion is useful to you as you seek to be a good learner in life.
Ken Barger

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  • © Ken Barger, 2020.
    These materials may be used in your own personal research and learning, though I'd appreciate your giving me credit where appropriate.