How To Be A Successful College Student By Mastering The Learning Cycle

Mastering a new course, whether it is online or attending a full-time college course, involves students becoming familiar and confident with the learning process. While every student will have different learning styles and preferences, becoming a successful college student is ultimately achieved through mastering the four-stage learning cycle.

To get the best out of your course and maximise learning, students should develop an understanding of the process of learning. While this may not have seemed important before, taking an online course, or attending a college program, places a lot more responsibility on the student for their own learning.

Early learning, pre-college studies such as primary and secondary school, students were largely guided in the right direction by their teachers and parents. Teachers, especially, guided their students and their learning by encouraging discussions in class, projects, teamwork, reading out loud etc. The teacher assumed the responsibility for your learning and ensured that no one fell behind.

However, post-school learning can often be very different. While professors and course providers are there for guidance, the learning is largely left up to the student.

It is your responsibility to succeed.

So how can you prepare to succeed and not feel overwhelmed by such a jump in responsibility?

The key to learning is developing an understanding for what you are studying. Rather than just memorising information on your chosen subject, you will understand the topic and the key concepts, while being able to think about it in meaningful ways. The successful learning of a subject really involves understanding the subject and being able to apply that understanding in new and real-life situations.

While memorising and repeating information can certainly be important too, especially at exam time, real learning involves more than this.

Understanding and application are key to effective learning.

How do you learn effectively?

Effective learning can be achieved through a cycle of four steps:

  1. Preparing
  2. Absorbing
  3. Capturing
  4. Reviewing

Every learning situation that you find yourself in involves these for stages. From attending classes, watching your course online, engaging in group discussions with other class members or reading textbooks and articles, for example, these all involve the same four-step cycle.

1) Preparing

The first step in the learning cycle is preparing. This involves the preparation that you do before you start learning. For each student, it can be quite different, but it essentially involves getting yourself set up so that when you begin your studying you are ready and have all that you need.

This preparation beforehand helps you focus better during your class or study period which in turn enhances your learning. When you decide to sit down to read your textbook, it is important that you clear your desk, have somewhere you can relax and be free of distractions, as well as ensuring that you have all that you need to complete the task. By preparing in advance, you eliminate any unnecessary distractions or obstacles and place yourself in the best possible frame of mind to learn.

Let’s look at some examples so you fully understand the importance of preparation and how it can help you become a successful student.

One student rolls out of bed a few minutes before class and dashes across campus and grabs the last seat in the hall just as the instructor begins a lecture; it takes him a few minutes to find the right notebook in his backpack, and then he can’t find a pencil. He’s thinking about how he should’ve set his alarm a little earlier so he’d have had time to grab a cup of coffee, since he’s having trouble waking up. Finally, he settles in his seat and starts listening, but now he can’t figure out what the instructor is talking about. He starts jotting down phrases in his notes anyway, thinking he’ll figure it out later.

Another student looks over his notes from the previous class and quickly glances back at passages he’d highlighted in the textbook while reading. He arrives at class a few minutes early, sits up front where he can hear well and has his notebook open and pencil out. While waiting for the instructor to arrive, he talks to another student about her ideas for the paper due next week in this class.


From the above examples, it is quite clear which student is going to leave that class having learnt the most. The differences in their preparation will impact both their abilities to develop an understanding during the class.

The student who has put in the extra effort to come to class prepared has set himself/herself up with the best opportunity to understand what is being thought by the lecturer because their mind is in the right place allowing them the ability to focus clearly.

Differences in preparation will lead to students experiencing a huge difference in their understanding of the topic taught in the class. Additionally, students who review previous notes or notes from the last class before attending the current class, are building on what they have already learnt and solidified the previous class’s learning.

These scenarios highlight just how important preparation is to your learning, and how some simple tweaks to your preparing could lead to a massive improvement in your studies and overall goals.

Your mindset will play a fundamental role in your achievements, and preparing to learn is a must if you want to achieve effective learning and become a successful student in your chosen studies. By taking a few extra steps before you begin, you can help set yourself up with the right mindset to learn and fully utilise all stages and parts of learning in your course.

2) Absorbing

The absorbing stage of the learning cycle is where you take in or absorb new ideas and information relating to a new topic. This usually occurs during the class while you are listening to the lecturer speak, or while watching online. Here you are taking in the experience. Even when you are reading your textbook, you are obtaining information and absorbing the concepts.

Previously in high school, you would have listened to your teacher tell you all about a particular topic and then for the exam you may have simply regurgitated that information. While this may have been the only learning step you have done during this stage of your education, college or further education will require more than this.

Post-school learning really involves developing an understanding of the topics and subjects and then been able to apply them during the exam, not just repeating facts or information.

3) Capturing

In the capturing stage of the cycle, you take notes. Effective note-taking is one of the keys to successful learning. No matter how well you listen during a class, it is very hard to remember everything that the lecturer has said. This is why it is important to take notes as the lecturer explains key concepts.

The importance of note-taking is even more vital if you have a few different classes a day, spread across an array of different subjects. By the end of that day, no matter how good your memory is, it will be difficult to recall everything you were taught, as there was so much to learn.

By preparing for the class, being in the right mindset to focus and learn, and taking effective notes, you will simply be able to go back over your notes to refresh your memory. You can then use these notes to further develop your understanding of each subject by going over them several times, thinking the concepts through, and trying to identify how it all fits together.

When you read your textbooks or academic articles, take notes and then combine these with the notes from your class. By combining other examples and methods of teaching with your class notes it will really enhance your understanding of the topic.

The more effective your note-taking skills, the better your learning abilities.

4) Reviewing

The reviewing stage of the learning cycle is where you really try to develop an understanding of the topic. This is usually achieved by you reading over your class notes, as well as any notes you have taking while reading your textbook, and other course material that you may have been told to read.

Both college and online courses will often require you to do external reading and learning. This may include reading academic journals and articles on the subject matter, or watching online media, or listening to podcasts etc.

Most of this external learning really builds on the key concepts that you are being taught in the actual classes or course. This stage is really about solidifying your learning and reaching a real understanding of the topic.

The review stage can be quite an important stage of the cycle because it essentially highlights whether you understand the topic. If you reach this stage but feel you don’t yet quite fully understand the concepts and information, re-read your notes or the textbook.

Sometimes even asking a friend to explain it to you can really help. Often times other classmates can explain concepts in a way that we understand more easily. It can really help you think it through more clearly and enable you to develop a better understanding.

Additionally, you can approach your lecturer, either in person or by email, whichever you find easier. This is a good way to let them know that you haven’t fully grasped the topic yet and allow them the opportunity of explaining the concepts via new and alternative examples.

The review stage also provides you with the opportunity to prepare for new information and ideas. In this way, the end of the process loops back to the beginning as you prepare for additional learning.


Saylor Academy