Chapter 1: Starting Smart

The Learning Process

It’s like riding a bike

Think back to a time you learned something new like riding a bike, learning to drive, or making a meal. How was it the first time you tried? How about the fifth? The fiftieth? What helped you learn? What were your challenges?

Create a visual to describe your learning process. Include the steps you took toward success.

person using MacBook Pro

Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. – George Washington Carver

Now that you’ve developed some strategies for coming to class prepared and getting ready to learn, it’s important to learn how to learn. Although there are many strategies, and although each person learns a bit differently, there are some key stages and styles of learning that are similar for most students. One example is that practice is almost always necessary in order to get better at anything. Certainly any athlete or musician can attest to the importance of regular practice, and that same dedication to practice applies to college learning as well.

The Importance of Practice

Take a moment to watch the following video by Kristos called The Process of Learning. As you watch, consider how painful it can be—literally!—to learn something new, but also how much joy can be experienced after it’s learned.

Stages of the Learning Process

Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggle, it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know yet. This stage happens to everyone when they approach a brand new subject or discover something they’ve never thought about before.
  2. Conscious incompetence: You know what you don’t know. This stage can be the most difficult because you begin to register how much you need to learn. Think about the saying “It’s easier said than done.” In stage 2, you begin to apply new skills that contribute to reaching the learning goal. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice.
  3. Conscious competence: You are feeling some confidence about what you do know, but you can’t fully explain what you have learned to someone else. Even though you may be able to process the information you’re receiving in a lecture, you may not yet be able to fully answer a question about it. Stage 3 requires skill repetition.
  4. Unconscious competence: You can explain what you have learned to someone else. This final stage is mastery; you have successfully practiced and repeated the process you learned so many times that you can recall and use that information in a variety of contexts.

Although you may feel you are a “master” of a particular skill by the time you reach stage 4, constant practice and reevaluation of which stage you are in is necessary so you can keep learning. [1]

The Study Cycle: A Five Step Process

The study cycle, from LSU’s Center for Academic Success, gives the big picture, so you can study more efficiently and have success on your exams.

Preview: Before class look over your notes from the last class and any assigned readings. Note headings, subheadings, pictures, graphics, learning objectives, and summaries. Prepare questions to ask about the content.

Attend: Take notes, answer questions, and ask any new questions.

Review: Review your notes, find answers to any missing information or questions within 24 hours.

Study: Review your notes and ask yourself how? why? and what? to make connections. Repetition will move the material from short-term memory to long-term memory, so create study times throughout the week to review content.

Assess: Test yourself by seeing if you can explain the material to another person without looking at your notes or textbook. Ask yourself if you are spending enough time studying and if your study methods are working.

Watch the following video for an overview of the study cycle.

How Much Should You Study?

Class- and Study-Time Ratios

Time management is challenging for many college students, especially ones with lots of responsibilities outside of school. Unlike high school classes, college classes meet less often, and college students are expected to do more independent learning, homework, and studying. The amount of time students spend on coursework outside of the physical classroom will vary, depending on the course (how rigorous it is and how many credits it’s worth) and on the institution’s expectations. However, a general rule is that the ratio of classroom time to study time is 1:2 or 1:3. That means that for every hour you spend in class, you should plan to spend two to three hours out of class working independently on course assignments. For example, if your composition class meets for one hour, three times a week, you’re expected to devote from six to nine hours each week on reading and writing assignments.

When choosing the best course load for you, remember that for every 1 credit hour in which you enroll, you will need to spend approximately 1 hour in class per week and 2 additional hours studying. Here is what this looks like in reality:

Credit Hours Time Commitment Calculation Total Estimated Weekly Time Commitment
3 (1 course) 3 hours in class + 6 hours study time 9 hours
6 (2 courses) 6 hours in class + 12 hours study time 18 hours
9 (3 courses) 9 hours in class + 18 hours study time 27 hours
12 (4 courses) 12 hours in class + 24 hours study time 36 hours
15 (5 courses) 15 hours in class + 30 hours study time 45 hours
18 (6 courses) 18 hours in class + 36 hours study time 54 hours

If you account for all the classes you’re taking in a given semester, the study time really adds up. The only way to stay on top of the workload is by creating a schedule to help you manage your time, which we’ll explore in the time management chapter.

The learning process

Using content from any course you are taking now, explain the steps in the learning process and how you have applied them to your specific courses. An example is below:

I didn’t know anything about the study time ratio until my COS instructor mentioned it. Even once I knew there was a study time ratio, I still wasn’t sure how many hours I should study based on the credits I was taking. In time, I learned I needed to study twice as many hours outside of class than I spent in class, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that to someone else. Once I saw a chart and we discussed study time in COS class, I could tell other college students that for every one hour they are in class, they need to study two hours outside of class, so they should look at the number of credits they are taking and double that number to know how much they should be studying. Because I’m taking 15 hours of classes, I need to study and do homework for 30 hours on my own outside of class.


  1. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016.


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