The uses of an iterative approach in learning

The verb ‘to iterate’ is one of my favourite in the English language. It describes a series of successive operations or cycles, with each one advancing an overall process another step towards a final objective. For example, a scientist may solve a research problem through a series of hypotheses and associated experiments, where each new hypothesis and experiment evolves from the last result. The inspiration for this post is the use of iteration in business start-up culture, where cycles of product testing involving test-feedback-redesign-test are a long-standing feature. I think this iterative approach has many applications in language learning and general study, and I’d like to explore some of these today.

Iteration in essay writing for university students

For me, one of the most important lessons to learn in essay writing is the importance of drafting. Every essay should go through several drafts, on a journey of stages from simple to complex. The first draft might be just a sketched plan, including the main arguments for each paragraph, and some possible supporting examples or sources of evidence. The second will transform the plan into written paragraphs, perhaps with too many main argument paragraphs, enabling the writer to select the strongest for the third draft. The focus of drafts 3, 4 and so on would depend on the ability of the writer, the complexity of the essay question and the need to show critical thinking. For international students, I find that it’s important to include at least one language draft, where the writer investigates each verb, noun and adjective, and substitutes in academic alternatives to the language used in earlier drafts.

Improving general study using an iterative approach

The timescale of improvement for international students during year 1 often involves a period of adjustment during the first term, followed by growing engagement and learning in term 2. For many this is too long so it’s common for students to reach their end-of-year assessment period with insufficient understanding of the first half of their modular courses.

One way to address this problem is to use the principle of iteration. For example, conducting a learning review at the end of every two weeks transforms each fortnight into successive stages of an improvement process. One useful area of review is the weekly reading for each module. It’s likely that students will find some courses easier than others, and so adjusting the allocated study time every two weeks to allow more time for difficult modules makes sense. Another application could be to review personal organization every two weeks. This might include punctual attendance at lectures and seminars, how well the student is following their self-study plan, as well as how much the student enjoys their leisure time. The point is that conducting a regular review encourages a systematic approach to identifying problems and generating solutions, resulting in measurable improvement in months rather than terms.

Equally, another possible application of an iterative approach here is for assessed coursework. A student could examine each component of their written coursework, such as using published research, critical analysis, Harvard referencing and use of argument, and try to improve in these areas from one assignment to the next. I hope it’s clear that iteration creates a rigorous strategy for identifying and improving weaknesses over short timescales. In a high-stakes university course, where results can make real differences to life outcomes, using an iterative strategy can be invaluable.

Wider uses of an iterative approach

Another reason for a student to experiment with iterative approaches is their common application in the workplace. For example, agile testing is used in software development, which involves iterative testing of the software as the product is developed. This means that problems are not allowed to accumulate, and that the end stage of product development is not dominated by lengthy testing and cost overruns. I would say that almost any process of construction will have a better outcome if an iterative approach is used. This could apply to writing reports, making presentations or developing business plans. It encourages an individual or a team to think through the stages of a project before it starts, as well as consider potential problems to mark as areas for regular review. So why not try incorporating an iterative approach into your studies for the next few months? You might find that enduring problems are solved, and your grades improve.

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