Learning To Learn – The ʺShadow Competenceʺ


For the human being, learning is a natural need, not only a social activity – children learn instinctively, while playing and interacting, and our role as teachers is to feed their need for learning and direct it towards fulfilling their adaptation needs. When it comes to cognitive development and when academic evolution is concerned, a different approach should be considered and our role as teachers should also include development of a vital competence that the students will need along their academic route – learning to learn.A research conducted in Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, observing future teachers and their learning styles, techniques and habits shows that we still need to improve in making learning to learn a shadow competence by its permanent development, doubling instructional goals and routine, and not by keeping it out of the light. The research aims to identify the learning patterns of the future teachers and the most surprising finding of this research is the fact that the teachers of tomorrow do not have, themselves, clearly defined learning strategies, they have never been taught how to learn thus proving the lack of competence in providing their future students the most important of the academic life competences – learning to learn

Keywords: Active readingmetacognitionlearning techniques and routineorganizing learningconscious learning


We are all aware that we are living in the era of change - the fast and sometimes dramatic change

affects our personal lifes as well as the evolution of the society, and we know that adaptating to change is

a vital ability. Still, teaching seems to be a human activity that is showing reluctance in adapting to the

demands of an impredictable future. We are teaching our students according to the same paradigm – they

need information, knowledge and competence. In order to adapt to this impredictable future, our students

need new competencies and learning to learn might prove to be the most important adaptation tool that

school offers to these new generations.

Learning is, indeed, an innate activity for the human being – we learn instinctively and we need

learning activities during our entire life not only in order to adapt to the dynamic progress of the society

but also for our natural well-being. The present paper intends rather to adress some questions, instead of

pretending to answer them – are our students gaining such competencies during school? Are we training

teachers capable of shaping this learning ability in their future students?

Our main concern in training the teachers of tomorrow should be to prepare them for their most

important role in the evolution of their future students – the facilitator that provides not only knowledge

but mainly the ability to independently reach knowledge and continuously improve it. We need the

teachers who are able to help our children in finding the most efficient ways of gaining knowledge and

competence. These teachers need to be aware that they have to constantly improve their own learning

abilities and that their main concern in teaching should be focusing on the learning abilities of their

students – the most important of their tasks should be to identify learning styles of their students, to

provide learning techniques and develop one of the most useful competencies of their students, while

constantly improving their motivation. Motivated students will develop own learning systems and will be

able to constantly improve their learning techniques; being aware of the importance of this ability they

will also gain the ability of adapting to new lerning contexts, to the increasing complexity of the

knowledge they need to acquire.

2.Theoretical Foundation and Related Literature

Efficient learning will never occur without mental and emotional involvement in the process.

Although our capacity to learn is innate, efficient learning is an acquired competence, it needs effort and

techniques meant to improve the natural process. The quality of the learning process depends on each

individual's personality and mental profile – attitude, curiosity, motivation, the combination of

intelligence types, creativity – as well as on the trained capabilities of the individual – active learning and

reading, metacognition, connecting information and organizing knowledge, awareness, conscious creating

and developing of own knowledge. This is why learning to learn should be one of the main priorities of

teachers, a competence that students need to obtain and develop. Not only a desirabile outcome, but also

the need of compliance with the National Qualifications Framework (consistent with the European

Qualifications Framework), providing for the qualification levels aimed by the higher education

transversal competencies such as ʺawareness of the need for continuing training, efficient use of learning

techniques and resources for personal and professional developmentʺ (CNFPA, 2005)- learning to learn

should be a main objective for teaching.

As learning to learn is a desirable competence for the educational system of the present and the

future, literature widely reflects the issues of learning strategies. Learning strategies refer to ʺthe action

involved by the more active students, determining them how to learn and how to use what they learn in

order to be succesfullʺ (Peculea, Bocoș, 2015). The research conducted by the quoted authors and

presented in the article found out that the lack of awareness and regulation meta-cognitive skills generates

difficulties in setting own learning goals, in identifying and adapting learning strategies. So, students

should not only be aware of the way they are building own knowledge, but also try different approaches

in order to identify the most suitable combination of actions for their own learning styles.

Learning strategies are clearly related to personality, the mix of the intelligence types, the cerebral

structure, motivation, consciousness, all of these defining the cognitive style, which is the individual's

preferred way of gathering, processing and evaluating data (Allinson, Hayes, 2012). The authors identify

29 dimensions defining the cognitive style, including convergence-divergence, reflection-impulsivity,

serialism-holism, and rationality-intuition. Even if further research has extended the range of cognitive

and learning style dimension up to 71 such measures, the main idea remains – the human diversity can

cover a wide range of models when learning activities are involved. The model of Continuum of

Cognitive Styles proposed by the authors identifies the traits for the intuition-analysis continuum, ranging

from the intuitive style (synthesis, simultaneous, assessment of whole), to the analytic style (logic, linear,

focus on detail).

As far as the cognitive structures are concerned, Ricky Linksman refers to the preferred use of the

brain hemispheres as a determinant of the learning style (Linksman, 2000). He also states that individuals

are able to consciously improve their brain activity by learning to process information using not only the

preferred range of mental activities, but also by improving their neglected mental activities. He proposes

ways of improving learning for the four different learning style categories – the visual students, the

listeners, the tactile students, and the kinesthetic students. He also relates understanding and learning,

showing that understanding is not an innate capability, but a technique that needs to be learned.

Understanding is determined by the preferred brain activity, but it can be improved by learning

techniques, such as connecting information to pre-existent knowledge, defining new terms, training

memory by consciously addressing the long-term memory, the use of mnemonics, the use of note-taking

techniques and the mind-mapping. The efficient learning process involves study techniques, organizing of

the material to be studied, permanent checking on the understanding of terms, practical activities intended

to exercise procedures, time management, exam preparing, obtaining the right attitude and mental state

and last but not least, using the knowledge acquired – the main purpose of learning.

Still, learning does not occur only by exposing ourselves to information which we stock by using

the preferred brain hemisphere, or only by choosing the most performant learning technique and

following its instructions. Learning is determined by attitude, motivation, involvement in each stage of

the process. The quality of knowledge also depends on the ability of gathering information and data, as a

pre-condition of developing competencies. Listening and reading thus become important abilities that

also need to be learned and developed. A good learner is patient and attentive, he does not rush his

judgement and is never passive, always trying to state his own answer when questions arise. The quality

of reading and/or listening allows not only extracting the maximum of information, but also allows,

according to the creative potential of each individual, own elaboration, creative ideas (Andron, 2011).

This is why metacognition is essential in learning; how do we think about own thinking helps

improving self-reflection, which allows establishing future goals and contours learning activities and

strategies. Thus, the benefit of developing metacognition will reach the improvement of the application of

knowledge, skills and character qualities. Awarness of the thinking process allows students own

interpretation of tasks and choice of different solving strategies, thus leading to optimization of the whole

process of achieving learning goals. When long-term learning is intended, marking the text, notes-taking,

scheduling may not prove effective enough. The higher-level thinking also allows the capability to persist

in spite of the difficulties leading to valuable, long-term learning. Research shows that metacognition

refers to three levels, as follows: verbalisation of verbal-state knowledge, verbalisation of non-verbal

knowledge and verbalisation of explanations for either verbal or non-verbal knowledge; the higher level

is responsible for improving routines in problem-solving (Fadel, Trieling and Bialik, 2015). According to

the same authors, the purpose of education should be defining the 21st Century learner by overlapping

four major areas: knowledge (defined as what we learn and understand), skills (referring to how we use

what we know), character (revealing how we behave and engage in the world) and meta-learning which

determines the three areas and which shapes our way of reflecting and adapting.


A research was conducted in the Teachers' Training Department of Lucian Blaga University of

Sibiu, in order to look at the learning patterns of students. The research was conducted during the

university years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, on grups of students of the Teachers' Training Department,

reaching a total of 171 students. All of these students were attending the psycho-pedagogical training

required to become certified teachers in the economical and technical domain of their university degree.

The specialization of these students was not considered differently but their age was relevant for certain

directions of discussion, so the research group age configuration is to be mentioned; most of them are in

the 20-30 years age range (82%), some are over 31 (17%) and 2% are over 40 years old.

The specific objectives of the research follow the provisions of the National Qualifications

Framework referring to the transversal competences required for the qualification level these subjects aim

reaching, thus the research intended to identify a)whether the subjects prove the self-control of their

learning process and b)whether they are able to diagnose own training needs (CNFPA, 2005). The

hypotheses follow the main ideas presented by literature: I) active involvement in study allows better

understanding of material; II) organizing own learning leads to deeper approaches of the learning

material; III) conscious learning involves strategies for understanding and better use of new information,

allowing more accurate self-assessment and satisfactory results

The research addressed a questionnaire consisting of 15 questions, aiming to provide data related

to the research objectives, stated according to the theoretical approach previously discussed in the paper.

Questions have been addressed according to a random order thus trying to avoid automatic answering.

The subjects were asked to choose the most suitable answer, from the five options provided and results

were thus considered by attributing different weight (1=never, 2=sometimes, 0=no answer/do not know,

4=often and 5=always).

4.Results and Discussion

The research intends to find out to what extent the theoretical assumption can be found in the learning

patterns of the investigated group, the results being discussed for each objective/hypothesis:

4.1.Active Reading and Listening

Active reading and listening should be an important prerequisite of learning – better learning

occurs when individuals understand information, they have a certain representation of the information

received, when they are able to estimate the extent of this understanding. The subjects were asked to

appreciate to what extent they are able to represent mental images of the material/text they read (question

10) and most of the students have answered that they generally do, but with a surprising 11% of non

answering or ʺdo not knowʺ answers, and 2% of ʺneverʺ answers the awareness of reading in the learning

process seems not to be always considered a condition for learning. In such situations, memory is

probably intended to be used, not understanding. Weighting the values, an average of 3.58 out of the

maximum 5 is reached, with a different weight for each age group, indicating a more conscious reading of

material as age increases, as follows:

Table 1 -
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For the next step, the subjects had to identify whether they are able to assess how much they

understand written information found either in texts or on display, blackboard, and presentations. As

meta-cognition can't be reached without a certain personal involvement in reaching knowledge, the

answers for this question (question 13) have been put into relation with the previous item related to

representing new material. Results confirm the assumption, as those who are able to represent mental

images of the new information show better scores for assessing own understanding of new material.

Table 2 -
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4.2.Learning Routines

The second direction of the survey focused on learning routines and organizing the learning

process. The most common learning habit is marking the text. Most of the subjects are marking material

to be studied (underlining, highlighting the most important parts of the study material) while scouring it

(the average score for the survey group being 4.27, out of a 5 maximum possible), as shown in Figure

1.Marking or underlining text is not enough for efficient learning, so the next questions referring to

dispersing learning activities over time (question 2), being able to re-read the material (question 6) or

covering important volumes of information over a short time (question 11) were considered within each group of answers, as follows:

Table 3 -
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Those who never or sometimes mark the text tend to reach lower scores in dispersing material over

time and re-reading material; they also seem to have a more superficial approach in covering material.

The failure in organizing material leads to a superficial approach of learning activities. The subjects that

have no opinion or simply do not know how they usually organize learning activities are also failing to

disperse learning activities over time, re-read material or cover great amount of information while

learning. For those who use marking the material as a first stage of their learning process, dispersion of

learning activities over time is better, and re-reading allows the benefit of smaller amount of information

to be covered during their learning activities.

4.3.Conscious Learning

However, the most important issue of the learning process analysis is the conscious learning. The

subjects were asked to consider the situation that during study they find a certain piece of information that

they have previously heard about (question 14). In such a situation, 72% of the subjects declared that they

make sure to verify their knowledge on the matter, later, while 20% of the subjects declared that they go

on with their study, focusing on new issues (fig.2).

Figure 1: Marking the text while reading (question 7).
Marking the text while reading (question 7).
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Figure 2: Deepening previous knowledge.
Deepening previous knowledge.
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For the next questions referring to the conscious learning, analysis intended to search for

differences between these three groups. Question 1 inquired on the habit of checking on covered learning

material, by means of using chapter quizzes, exam themes, problems, cards or any other supporting

material. Those who usually deepen their learning by clarifying superficial knowledge have shown higher

scores than those who speed on covering study material.Question 3 inquired on whether participants do

combine materials or types of problems during their study sessions. Once again, those who show

disposition for a slower pace of learning seem to score higher than the faster learners, but this practice of

combining materials and/or problems is less usual than the checking on materials during study.The

routine of self-explaining new information, concepts and relations during study was addressed by

question 4 (explaining new concepts) and question 5 (explaining relations between new information and

previous knowledge). Explaining seems to be an important learning routine for all the subjects. Even the

more rapid learners have understood that explaining relations and concepts is a key-factor in learning.

Writing short summaries of the studied material while reading it (question 8) and/or using key-terms or

mental images in order to better remember and use new concepts or information (question 9) are also

good techniques for a conscious learning, the short summaries technique being preferred by those who do

not always afford the time for a second reading or a better understanding of the material. Using key-terms

or mental images in order to increase retention of new information is a learning procedure very useful for

all the subjects of the survey (which is understandable, as no learning can occur without the ʺanchorsʺ

that creativity offers to each individual during the process of learning).

Table 4 -
See Full Size >

The same group delimitation has been considered for the concluding question. After having

considered their learning routines, participants were asked to answer question 12 – a statement, in fact,

not a question: ʺMy exam results are usually worst than my expectationsʺ. It is to be noticed that 85% of

the answers of those of the last group (non-answering or ʺdo not knowʺ group) was the same ʺdo not

knowʺ, proving the same lack of interest or involvement in the process of assessing the learning, which

they have shown in the process of learning, while the remaining answers showed that subjects do obtain

results that are lower to their expectations.

The final question (question 15) inquired on whether subjects have ever been taught the learning

techniques they are using or they have developed these learning routines all by themselves. The answer

for this question might be, itself, the reason for the research and a very good starting point for further

teaching strategies as a strong majority of subjects (76%) have never been taught to learn, and an

important 9% are neither aware, nor do not answer. As all of the interviewed students have been enrolled

in an academic program that will provide them access to an eventual teaching career, the situation is even

more dramatic. How should we expect teachers to be able to build a competence that the teachers,

themselves, do not master?


The key-factors for the learning process are memory, the awareness of reading or listening in the

classroom and metacognition as the research showed.Re-reading of material seems to be a rather frequent

learning habit;as the first reading of a new material allows extracting a lot of information, while the

second reading gives the reader the feeling of already knowing the material,mindless re-reading is at least

useless, if not even an unwanted waste of time. Thus, a second reading of any material should be selective

– after reading students should quiz themselves, either using the questions/problems offered by the book

or making up their own questions. Asking questions helps reaching a deeper understanding of the new

material, while trying to explain leads to a better learning, a better use of memory. Anything that creates

active learning, engaging the student in the process is much more retention-effective. Memory enhancing

methods should be aimed in teaching, as well as learning strategies, (dispersion of study by means of

brief revisions, home-works, weekly quizzes) especially when students enrolled in Pre-service Teacher

Training programs are concerned. Since attitude is a good predictor for success, (pro-active attitude

generates the suitable learning strategies, facilitates a better organizing of work, and allows

perseverance), building the proper mindset should be a priority of teaching. The teacher's role in engaging

students and shaping the desirable attitude towards learning is very important but not enough. As the

research shows, learning strategies used by students are mostly the result of their own creativity and not a

competence obtained in the classroom, thus an important area of the didactical training of the future

teachers should focus on learning techniques and strategies.More than that, the University might also

provide courses of Learning to Learn to its students enrolled in various academic programs wishing to

improve such competencies, using the expertise of the Teachers' Training Department academic staff.


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  2. Education Ltd., 2-4
  3. Andron, D. R. (2011). Didactica Științelor Economice în Contextul Ariei Ccurriculare. Psihomedia Sibiu,
  4. Fadel, Ch., & Trieling, B. & Bialik, M. (2015). Four-Dimensional Education: the Competencies Learners.
  5. http://curriculumredesign.org.accessed 10/08/2016http://www.project-predict.eu/, accessed 20.10.2016 Linksman, R. (2000). How to Learn Anything Quickly (Romanian version). Teora Bucharest Peculea, L. & Bocoș, M.(2015)The Role of Learning Strategies in the Development of Learning-to-Learn Competency of-11th Graders from Technical Scools. Procedia-Social and Behavioural Studies,203, 16-21 www.cnfpa.ro, accessed 18,08.2016

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