The Learning Journey: Marking Milestones
By Coquina Restrepo
The process of learning is a journey of a thousand miles and our mission as tutors is to guide
learners along the way. It is a long, arduous path that can feel like an uphill battle; but it is also one
of the most significant journeys a person can ever take.
Just like any trail, our learning journey may seem unguided and without any clear directions. That’s
why tutors help learners follow the path with milestone markers or what we’re gonna call “learning
milestones”. A learning milestone is a point where we learn that how we’ve been thinking about a
problem or an issue is holding us back from going forward. It’s both an obstacle and an opportunity
to practice what we’ve been learning along the trail.
Many learning milestones look like issues that make us frustrated and want to turn back. They can
be issues with expressing our thoughts clearly, not understanding the next step to getting into a
higher education program or finding that the next reading level is far above what we can
comprehend. They are humbling moments that need patience and recognition before transforming
into authentic learning opportunities. Tutors help guide learners through these obstacles and turn
them into milestones, helping learners progress through their learning journey by finding ways to
resolve these issues together.
We want to help our tutors understand why learning milestones can be difficult to navigate and how
we can support our learners to accept these uncomfortable moments as a sign that they are going
down the correct path. In here we will give a short survey of how to notice milestones, why they are
important and how to work through them instead of avoiding them.
How we think is how we learn.
Just like how everyone completes a trail at different times, everyone learns at a slightly different
pace. Learning involves taking in new information, practicing using it, focusing on training your
brain to recall that information at select times and being able to use it in real life. It takes time,
dedication and a lot of hard work to train someone to learn, especially when they’re adults because
adults learn differently from children.
Adult learning is complex because we’re not “teaching” them new information, we’re adapting their
current information to change to a new perspective. When adults go to college or start on a
foundational learning course, we are building on previous knowledge and adapting it to new
What makes an adult learner’s learning journey different?
There are a few mindset factors that make adult learners different from child learners. This effects
how they stay motivated through obstacles and what goals drive them to do better after each
In general, an adult learner is:
+Self motivated - Adults who embark on their learning journey WANT to be there.
+Goal oriented - There will be a clear goal of why adult learners are starting their journey and they
want a clear outcome.
+Structure oriented - Because adult learners have different time constraints and commitments,
they will need structured practice with expected study topics and deadlines.
+Focused on a single set of material - Adult learners have clear goals and their practice sessions
and materials need to reflect what they need to do in order to accomplish them.
When we start a learning journey as an adult we have a clear goal in mind that we follow, and we
try to follow it without getting distracted. This can create dedicated learners who strive to improve
their lives through learning, yet it can also create fixed mindsets that can cause learners to struggle
with confusing materials and feel discouraged if they can’t “learn fast enough”.
We often then perceive our goals and learning journey as something simple with a very easy to
follow path. This narrow focus of learning can help us determine how we will structure our lessons
and practice, but it can also create more problems if the issues around the learning structure aren’t
Example 1: If your learner is trying to practice their business English skills in order to earn better
job prospects, they may want to only focus on accent reduction and conversational skills. But they
could have underlying issues with listening skills or grasping cultural metaphors that they can’t
recognize in regular conversations.
Example 2: There could be a learner who’s trying to develop better reading skills so they can read
young adult literature with their children. But throughout your lessons you could find that their
attentional focus could flux from page to page at certain reading levels, which effects their
comprehension skills and memory.
In each example, our learner has a clear goal and motivation to learn but they are struggling to
overcome an obstacle that keeps them from progressing. This is an incredibly frustrating process
that every learner meets along their journey, and every tutor needs to be prepared to face. Tutors
also need to take the time then to ask themselves during these lessons: Is the material I’m using
an issue or is my learner struggling with something else?
What works in the classroom for adult learners?
General childhood education has a very easy formula to remember:
Lecture ->Worksheets ->Reading ->Worksheets ->Group Work -> Homework -> Test.
The idea for children is to expose them to the same information multiple times and in different
formats. That way they can commit to memory the necessary facts and skills in the shortest
amount of time possible. Children are taught to memorize new information as the basis of
learning. This might work for hands on working that happens in a classroom, but does it work well
for tutoring adults?\
For adults, we have to rethink how they learn through two processes: memory and information
integration. Learning and memory has an even simpler formula to use to help our brains remember
Encode information (sensory) ->Store new information (Short term memory) ->Retrieve over and
over again(Long term memory)
How we use our memory to learn is broken down into what we keep for a short term period and
what we integrate into our long term memory. Short term memory is good for quick, rehearsed
tasks but longterm memory is what we want to use to rewrite our language and communication
skills. We are constantly learning and relearning new information in our adulthood, but it is more
difficult to change our structured knowledge. This is why the adult learning formula is different from
the child learning formula.
Adult learner formula: Integrative Learning Model
Take in new information —>Evaluate old information with new information —> Practice new
information until it re-writes old information —> Use new information in regular conversation
Adults are continuously reflecting on their memories and experience to create knowledge, when we
adapt that process we engage in integrative learning. Integrative learning is how we change how
we think and remember information to adapt to new perspectives. Adults are taught to
summarize their new information and use it through constant conversation and reflection in
order to rewrite their old information.
This is obvious in language learning when we teach a person new vocabulary in their target
language. We are constantly pushing our learners to use their new information, their language and
grammatical structures, to talk about their past and their future planners. We are essentially asking
them to rewrite how they think in order to help them learn. In literacy skills development, we’re also
retraining their foundational knowledge but through a problem-centered basis. At first, it will be
awkward and hard to remember the words you need to use, but the more you adapt your thinking,
the easier it will be to recall your new information.
What do the learning obstacles look like?
You’ll know you’ve run into a learning obstacle when you see your learner is becoming frustrated
with their progress, they can’t seem to remember what they’re trying to learn or they can’t
understand how they make the same mistakes repeatedly. There are a few simple reasons why we
run into these milestones and what they mean:
Learning is inherently based in uncertainty and our brains don’t like it. We naturally crave routine
and confirming our old information because it makes us less uncomfortable. Adult learning is very
hard because you’re dealing with new information that’s trying to rewrite old information, and you’re
going to constantly be making mistakes. To overcome uncertainty in our lessons, we have to be
patient and show that we understand why our learners are frustrated.
2. Closed Mindsets
We believe that once we’re adults we can’t change our minds. Our opinions and beliefs are set so
there’s no going back; except that’s a false belief. When we believe our minds are closed and
there’s no way to change it, then we also close off our potential for learning. Adult minds aren’t set
in a fixed mindset, they’re just harder to change. This is why tutors are essential to the learning
process: You are helping them stay disciplined as well as feeling supported.
Adult learners are trying to develop new skills to solve new challenges, this is adapting their current
skills to new environments and is structurally changing how they think. To adapt old skills they have
to change their mindset, which is why another part of a tutors’ job is coaching their learners into
becoming more open minded and less critical of themselves.
Learners who are suffering from closed mindsets need to be motivated by having their primary goal
in mind and have their tutor supporting their growth.
3. Isolated in the ‘Comfort Zone’
During our time as adult learners, we tend to think we can’t engage with others until we’ve
perfected our new skills. This leads us to becoming closed off from our surrounding communities,
limiting our opportunities to interact with others in order to practice and enforce our new learning.
When we close ourselves off, we stunt our growth which is central for mastering any new skill or
language. This is the “comfort zone”, where learners refuse to try new things because they’re
unsure of themselves.
Tutors are the first step for learners to connect with their wider community, and we’re also the ones
who will push them out of their comfort zone. Take your learner out of their comfort zone, out of
their home and the library, and outside to practice directly with others. When they go out of their
comfort zone and practice what they learn, even if they’re nervous or uncertain, this is when they
start making real mental changes.
Marking Milestones: How to help learners understand their journey
Helping your learner notice milestones and overcoming their difficulties can be hard on your own.
That’s why we can use simple tools that help us keep track of our progress together and can be
used for self reflection any time! Some simple solutions include:
Keep a learning journal
Classroom journals help learners learn how to summarize their learning and reflect on how their
mindsets have changed overtime. This serves as an important tool for reinforcing our learning
because summarization and mental recall are important for learning!
Social Media Posts: Today in class…
Social Media can be a great tool for motivation and reflecting on what you learnt in class. If your
learner has something like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, try ending every lesson with a picture
and a short caption about what you practiced. Even better, since social media is all about quick
sound bites, this will really help your learners’ summarization skills!
Vlogs and video diaries
If you find that dealing with constant uncertainty is holding you back in your lessons, it’s time to re-
examine how you’ve been teaching and provide supplementary study skills to help your learner
reorganize their thoughts. Start by recording your conversations together and playing them back,
taking notes together on what mistakes you’ve both made and try to see how they happen.
Keeping transcripts of short conversations with notes can help your learner review what speaking
or reading challenges they have and work out what they need to pay attention to and work on.
The Journey Makes All The Difference
We all set out on learning journeys for different reasons but they all encourage us to make
impactful changes in our everyday lives that will benefit us for years. Adult learners are arguably
more impacted by their learning journey because it’s changing how they think and opening them up
to more opportunities through practice and socialization. How we learn and what we’re exposed to
creates our mindset and influences our lives and the opportunities presented.
Blue Ridge Literacy is one of the best resources for embarking on a learning journey because it’s
filled with great tutors and learning opportunities! If you are a new tutor or you’re looking to
recommend someone to join Blue Ridge Literacy, we have a built in learning community ready to
help you along every step of the way. Join Blue Ridge Literacy for tutor training, community
learning events and diversity celebrations throughout the year.
-meaning structures are understood and developed through reflection
-reflection is similar to problem solving
Transformative learning focuses on adapting new knowledge and perspectives to challenging
About the Author: Coquina Healy Restrepo
Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.”