Dorothea Siller, 56, is a retired special needs teacher and is currently studying History at the University of Passau. She has approximately 30 years of professional experience as a special needs teacher and talks in an interview with the counselling centre about strategies for learning success, how to motivate yourself and how to overcome inner resistance.
Counselling centre: ‘Learning to learn’ – what does that mean?
Dorothea Siller: in short, it means learning to learn. In the context of school learning means acceptance and processing of new educational contents and experiences (this aspect also applies to a university education). They should be memorised according to plan and, depending on the need, committed to short or long-term memory, and should be retrievable based on the situation. This requires a couple of learning techniques, a balance between tension and relaxation for regeneration and ‘post-processing’ in the brain. Everyone should therefore become aware of the learning process and reflect on it.
Are there different types of learning and how do they differ?
There are six types of learning in specialist literature, but they rarely exist in their pure form. The six learning types are a pedagogical construct and refer to the acquisition of information in a school environment. They help as a first criterion to become aware of one’s own actions. A distinction is made between these learning types:
- a) the auditory learning type learns his vocabulary more easily when he hears it or speaks it out loud
- b) the visual learning type remembers contents of graphics and mind maps better than from texts or breaks texts down into smaller units
- c) the motor learning type needs more interactive action, e.g. memorise while walking or carry out experiments
- d) the communicative learning type strives through exchange with others, through speaking and listening
- e) the personal learning type needs a good teacher/role model who is there for him throughout the learning process
- f) the media-oriented type of learner can more easily extract virtual content from the media, using learning software and technical devices to monitor knowledge
How do you learn independently, without instructions and teachers?
- Identify your individual learning type and use it appropriately.
- Work as multisensory as possible, i.e. include several senses instead of just looking at your notes (read aloud, make index cards)
- For example, you can try out a few learning strategies for one or two weeks. If it works, keep them and expand them. If not, try another one.
- Accept your own biorhythm. Get away from the idea of 'working hard during the week – partying on the weekend'. The latter causes learning and liver stress. It is better to enjoy social contacts after work during the week and on weekends in a balanced way and to incorporate rest, silence and doing nothing.
- Find a quiet workplace for yourself. If possible, always use the same or similar location (for example, the library). Because the brain likes constants.
- Use your mobile phone moderately. Be conscious about taking some time for social media contacts and running errands, then put it away or switch it to flight mode.
How do you develop your own learning system?
You must learn more about yourself (learning type, biorhythm, duration of the ability to concentrate, etc.) and learning strategies that really benefit you. Different subjects require different strategies (memorising facts, calculations, transfer questions, etc.). Depending on the programme, you will receive good information from your student committee. Find team players who are happy to exchange ideas with you. Ask for a psychological consultation at our university, which also offers questions on the learning organisation. And there is a wealth of literature on learning strategies that you can try out.
How long does it take to learn systematically?
Start with baby steps. Take one to two weeks to try out a new strategy/weekly plan. ‘Mistakes’ are the best lessons because they show you the potential for change. It is generally assumed that the brain needs about six to seven weeks to change behaviour patterns if a person applies it consistently every day in order to develop new structures. Afterwards it is necessary to consolidate them through continued practise.
How do you avoid distractions?
Become increasingly aware of when procrastination or your 'inner couch potato' overwhelmed you again. Make a deal with him. So, envision rewards after the exercise or at the end of the day. Be kind to yourself instead of reprimanding yourself. Stay focused on your goal when you schedule a distraction-free lesson (start with small units and increase them slowly).
How much learning per day/week is healthy or useful?
There is no general answer or formula to this question, as there are individual differences between people. It continues to be important to keep an eye on your mental and physical health on a daily basis. There are people with a stronger urge to move than others, people with more need for communication than others, people with more need for silence than others. Useful here means fulfilling the required scope of services. For me, knowledge is an enormously exciting thing. But allow yourself to also skip a few things here and there. People who always give it a 100% and go above and beyond, inevitably have to make sacrifices in other areas.
You are a trained special needs teacher. Which experiences at school are transferable to the university?
The fact that both are types of schools, just at different levels, says it all. Although the requirement level for learning content and language, whose quality and quantity is considerably higher, although they are for adult students, two constants remain the same: the learning process and the human being as more or less the absorber in all his or her individual abilities. In this respect, many learning strategies that have been booming in our country since the 1990s in terms of continuing professional development and on the book market can certainly be applied or transformed to a university level.
What is the best way to get motivated when you do not feel like studying?
In the best case scenario, hard work is the result of an intrinsic motivation that leads to flow. Manfred Spitzer claims that people are motivated to discover new things. Boredom, unwanted results or failures can dampen motivation. We also generate extrinsic goals like 'I need/want this degree so I can lead a comfortable/good life' that motivate us to learn. But the brain does not feature an on/off function like a machine. It takes time to rework, rethink and relax. Sometimes taking a walk is enough, sometimes half a day away from the desk, a regular sports activity, sometimes a weekend with distant friends. In my experience, I can say that the more disciplined you are about taking breaks throughout the day and a conscious relaxation routine at the end of the day, the less episodes of total exhaustion arise. The latter require a longer recovery and remotivation phase.
Thank you very much for the interview!