Have your ever found yourself in a new course or job and wondered how the heck you got yourself into this terrible situation? It could be something you strived for actively for years and sought out for yourself. (Yes, I know that describes many medical students, but also people in new jobs, and students in other graduate programs like the one I’m in at the Faculty of Education).

Often, in a new situation – even one we’ve chosen – we can feel less competent than we did in our previous circumstances, and scramble around to figure out why something we wanted has turned out so poorly right off the bat. Generally, adult learners are used to feeling competent in their lives, work, and previous educational endeavors. New situations can rob (or mask) that previously-developed competence.

Using Taylor’s Model of the Learning Cycle can help with these feelings and ensure you stay focused on moving ahead, rather than getting stuck in the “I’ve made a terrible mistake” self-talk.

First articulated by Marilyn Taylor in 1979, then refined in 1987, this cycle explores learning from the learner’s perspective.

Taylor described the learning cycle as one of Disorientation, followed by Exploration, then Reorientation, culminating in Equilibrium – then, for lifelong learners, a new period of Disorientation as the cycle begins again. Within each of these four stages are other predictable and/or possible stages, opportunities and solutions.

Although Taylor focused on inquiry-based learning, I’ve found the model can apply to any new learning situation for adults including, as mentioned above, starting a new job or new professional role.

Here’s Taylor’s Model of the Learning Cycle in a nutshell, based on a chapter from Dorothy MacKeracher’s Making Sense of Adult Learning (2004) (Disclosure of potential for bias: I was introduced to this model by Dr. MacKeracher during my BEd studies and she was later my supervisor for my master’s degree).

Disorientation

The model begins with the learner entering a new situation, often described as a “disconfirming event or destabilizing experience” which highlights a “major discrepancy between expectations and reality”. The change can be starting a new course or program, starting a new job, new technology being introduced at work, or a change of circumstances related to aging or health.

The disorientation comes about when the new situation isn’t routine. The learner no longer feels competent or capable, which can result in a crisis in self-confidence. (The questions of “why did I sign up for this?” or “who thought I’d be good here?” are common in this phase.)

When a learner experiences confusion, anxiety and rising tension, the learner frequently withdraws from others because of feelings of inadequacy.

As MacKeracher notes: “in formal learning programs, the person most frequently blamed is the facilitator” for things such as not providing enough direction or clear instructions, or “not being helpful”.

Some people get stuck in this phase and focus on immediate – but misguided – solutions. For example, assuming the problem is lack of control, so trying to be more organized, but not really moving forward. (I’ve called this my “rearrange the chairs on the Titanic” mode. It’s not a productive place).

Exploration

The exploration phase begins when the learner “can name the central issue and make contact with others,” MacKeracher explains. “The individual becomes engaged in searching for information or ideas that could assist in resolving the identified problem.” The key here is to look for information or ideas that will make things better, not a superficial quick fix. This could involve exploring new study habits, identifying training gaps and solutions, or considering new points of view or attitudes (depending on the learning situation).

Towards the end of the exploration phase, the learner may withdraw from others somewhat to think things over, but this is not the avoidance of the disorientation phase, rather a time for thoughtful reflection and planning to make a transition.

Reorientation

The transition to the reorientation phase is characterized by “integrat[ing] ideas and experience to provide a new understanding of the issue [or circumstance]” that caused the disorientation in the first place. “The learner consciously acknowledges that learning is a process in which he or she is the agent.”

Equilibrium

As implied by its name, this phase is far more settled than the previous three, or, as MacKeracher writes: “this phase involves a much reduced emotional intensity.” Learners may consolidate, refine, and apply their new perspective and skills and share them with others in different context “or tested out as new behaviour in new settings.”

(And then back to disorientation…)

Sometimes people move through these phases instinctively, but if you’re feeling stuck – disorientated – working through Taylor’s Learning Model consciously can be helpful. Sometimes, it’s just reassuring to know “this is a phase” and you’ll come out the other side stronger, resilient, and competent in your new circumstances.

This is, admittedly, a simplified overview of Taylor’s Learning Cycle Model. Feel free to drop by my office for further discussion or to borrow my copy of MacKeracher’s Making Sense of Adult Learning.