2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 32-36
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.47A2006
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Using Metaphors to Aid Student Meta-Learning: When You’re
Learning at Your Best Your Like What?
Centre for Sport, Dance and Ou t do or Education, Li ve rp oo l Jo hn Moores University, Liverpool, UK
Received May 30th, 2013; revised June 30th, 2013; accepted July 7th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Sarah Nixon. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
Metaphors are widely discussed within educational research and this paper adds to the body of knowledge
in relation to students using these as a tool to support meta-learning. Metaphors free up space for creative
thinking by moving the mind from one place to another and have been found to be an effective cognitive
device for learning. This project focuses on what students are like when they are “learning at their best”
and discusses what knowing this information does for both individual self-awareness and working with
others. Six final year students spent half a day exploring, developing and pictorially representing their
“learning at best” metaphors. All six metaphors were different and showed the internal representations of
the individuals when they were learning at their best. However out of the discourse common themes arose
from the group in relation to what was needed to support learning these included time of day, mood, pace
and environment. All six students were positive that the development of personal learning metaphors was
beneficial and thought that it was important that these were developed systematically over time. The
benefits were highlighted to be both for the individual working on their own and for understanding others
in group work situations.
Keywords: Metaphors; Learning; Models; Meta-Learning; Student
Metaphors are not a new concept within educational research
however this is largely focused on teachers using metaphors
(Alger, 2009; Mahlio, Massengill-Shaw, & Barry, 2010) rather
than in this case students developing and understanding their
own and each other’s. Lakoff and Johnson (1980: p. 5) key au-
thors in the field believe that metaphors are integral to thought
and communicate and are “the understanding and experiencing
of one kind of thing in terms of another”. This paper is not in-
tended to be a theoretical discourse about the role that meta-
phoric thinking can play in learning but an exploration of inten-
tionally using metaphors as a tool to discover unconscious
modes that govern our learning preferences. Crick and Grushka
(2009) believe that using metaphors deliberately can be a strat-
egy to convey meaning and it therefore seems that they should
have an integral place in education discourse (Cameron, 2003).
This paper explores students developing metaphors about
their own learning preferences and how this can be used to both
support themselves and their understanding of others. Cook-
Sather (2003) in her work with metaphors in education identi-
fies that they can give us new meaning to our experiences.
Metaphors can support meta-learning which Biggs (1985) tells
us is the development of an awareness of the person as a learner
and the application of this knowledge toward becoming effec-
tive. There are many different ways of exploring learning and
this paper is offering the metaphor as one way that might have
value for students and may give them a different perspective on
Senge (1990: p. 175) writing about mental models within the
business environment suggests that they “determine not only
how we make sense of the world but how we take action”,
however this is pre-determined by the fact that the individual is
aware of their own patterns or models which may not always be
the case (ibid). Eliciting metaphors as a way of describing
mental models can help create awareness, bringing knowledge
to the fore and presenting it in a way that others may be able to
more easily relate to. “Metaphors give a form to what it is like
to be them” (Lawley & Tompkins, 2000: p. 23). As learning is
not always a solitary activity using metaphors to understand
oneself and others may be a way to develop and enhance men-
tal models and therefore build on capacity and performance
both individually and in a group.
“The discipline of managing mental models—surfacing,
testing and improving our mental models of how the w orl d
works—promises to be a major breakthrough for building
learning organisations” (Senge, 1990: p. 174).
For the past five years within one undergraduate programme
in an English university, metaphors have been used as part of
personal development planning (PDP), to help students to ex-
plore their own patterns of learning. PDP was introduced into
higher education in the UK in 2004/2005 (Clegg & Bradley,
2006) to support students in their personal planning and devel-
opment (Quality Assurance Agency, 2009). The idea for this
work came out of a PDP project where an expert using meta-
phors to elicit meaning (www.trainingattention.co.uk) was b rought
in to develop strategies to support students in their development
and personal understanding of themselves and each other. Ap-
proaches to PDP are varied (Clegg & Bradley, 2006) across the
Higher Education (HE) landscape both in the UK, Europe and
across Australasia but there is consensus around its practices in
helping students structure; plan and reflect on their learning
(Quality Assurance Agency, 2009). To do this in a meaningful
way is enhanced if the individual understands their ways of
thinking and working and their own unique preferences; abili-
ties and attributes. The metaphor is a vessel which can hold this
information in a way that can be developed and changed as the
individual grows and builds on their learning and understanding;
this is known in the field as “emergent knowledge” (Johnson,
The metaphors in this process have been developed through a
set of exercises looking at time; decision making; what’s im-
portant and the one that has been most meaningful has been
around students exploring what they are like when they are
“learning at their best”. As metaphors are known for their abil-
ity to move the mind from one place of understanding to an-
other (Cook-Sather, 2003), this type of creative thinking can
enable students to explore their own mental models. The idea
around this concept is that once the student understands what
they are like when they are “learning at their best” they can
recreate the environment, conditions and attitude whenever they
need to be in learning mode and therefore be at their best more
of the time. If for example a student, when learning at their best
resembles a magpie (which is a bird that has a reputation for
taking and stashing shiny objects), liking to gather everything
and take it back to their nest, this can inform both the students
and tutors how they may go about learning and ways they may
need to be supported (Nixon & Walker, 2009). According to
Saban, Nazli Kocbeker & Saban, (2007) building linkages be-
tween two dissimilar ideas, in this example learning at best
which is the abstract concept and the magpie the concrete, makes
a metaphor an effective cognitive device for learning.
As part of the PDP process in this programme the students
start to think about the “learning at best” concept at the begin-
ning of their first year they develop their ideas over the first few
weeks and then re-visit it at the beginning of second and final
year. Re-visiting and updating the model yearly have been found
to be an excellent way for the students to reflect on where they
are have come from, where they are now and what they need to
move forward thereby supporting their meta-learning. The m od e l
that they build up becomes more sophisticated over time and on
the whole they become more able to both develop the metaphor
and also make sense of it both for themselves and others. It is
important to note that the staff team working on this pro-
gramme have been involved in development activities using
metaphors to conceptualise ideas in order to help them support
the students. This is not an easy process and takes a certain
level of awareness from both the staff and students to be able to
help facilitate the ideas; thoughts and reflections.
Exploring the Student Metaphors
In this paper, six students from one degree programme who
were coming to the end of their studies were asked to volunteer
to undertake a session where they would explore and develop
their “learning at best” metaphors. The sample was chosen for
convenience and was purposive (Robson, 2002), selected due to
the researcher knowing that this group of students were all fa-
miliar with this way of thinking. This decision was taken in
order that the resulting metaphors would be more easily ob-
tained and developed and therefore detailed, which was impor-
tant so the resulting metaphors could be used as a resource for
other students. All students signed consent forms in which they
agreed to the use of their metaphors being shared with fellow
students and staff and also being used for the research. The
session was videoed and this was used to help support the
analysis to construct the detail behind the metaphor as the use
of videotaping helped ensure that participants’ narratives were
accurately presented (Creswell, 2007).
The six students spent a morning with the expert who devel-
oped the original approach for the programme, to develop their
own metaphor for “learning at best”. The facilitation of the
metaphors in this session was detailed and in-depth to make
them as true a representation of the students ideas as possible. It
is acknowledged that they may not be completely accurate in
relation to the learning patterns of those students, however they
were what those students were thinking at that particular time.
The group then shared their metaphors and asked each other
questions to probe for meaning. When each student had devel-
oped their metaphor, they drew the idea onto paper and then
talked the rest of the group though the image and what it meant
to them. The ideas were drawn as images as Palus and Drath
(2001: p. 29) proposed that this can “provide a vehicle for fos-
tering a ‘mediated dialogue’ by helping bridge the gap between
the different meaning perspectives of the speaker and listener”.
Each metaphor in this paper is described individually with the
key ideas being highlighted in relation to the students percep-
tions of what they needed to learn at their best and their learn-
ing preferences. When all six representations were explored key
themes did arise that were discussed by a number of the group
and these are highlighted in the discussion as they hold valuable
information which could be used to support others thinking
about their own pre fe r e nces.
A limitation to the project was that the students undertook
the work at the very end of their studies and therefore it was not
possible to go back and check with them that the interpretation
was as close to their original idea as possible. As this is to be an
on-going resource for the next set of metaphors, time will be
built in to review the resulting resources with each student to
ensure they are accurate and meaningful. The six student me-
taphors are now shown with the diagrams that they produced
and the analysis of the meaning attached.
1) Learning at best is like being a marathon runner. Male
student who graduated with a top class degree.
“like a marathon runner, once I get started I keep going and
going and then at the end its almost like just forcing myself to
go, pushing myself to keep doing it. I like running metaphorical
marathons, I enjoy it. The longer the race the better.”
The key ideas for this individual, whose metaphor is shown
in Figure 1, were about starting on something and keeping
going until it was finished, hurdles appear and you have to look
beyond them in order to carry on. Hurdles are overcome by
asking others, getting help or sometimes just slogging through
until you are over it and in this case normally that is about
reaching a level of understanding. In the metaphor the sky was
grey, “because I am focused, it’s not all sunny and blue. I am
running under grey skies, it’s not miserable it’s just focused”.
You start work “first thing in the morning and stop when it is
2) Learning at best is like being a cat. Female student who
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 33
graduated with a top class degree.
“I am like a cat that lazes about in the day and doesn’t do
anything but then at night I wake up and pounce on things. I get
great ideas and I use them then whereas in the day I don’t know
where to get started and I am a bit lazy.”
The learning model shown in Figure 2, like marathon man
was time affected, this individual came alive at night and dur-
ing the day was more likely to be resting “when it’s sunny I feel
like I am on holiday that’s when I am most chilled out”. This
has difficulties when learning in a University system that is
based around 9 am - 5 pm and this individual recognised that
she had to adapt sometimes when she needed help or had to
come into university. However she knew that when she needed
to get down to working that it would be in the evening, “I come
alive at night” and she needed all her information around her
and to hand. If the best work was done at this time then check-
ing and asking questions could be done more in the rest period
of the day. To her, mood was crucial “good mood, good marks
(marks the biggest thing) then motivation to work”.
3) Learning at best is like being a canal barge. These were
key forms of industrial transport in the 18th century and now
are used for leisure pursuits and holidays. Female student who
graduated with a reasonable degree.
“Canal barge, bright, quite loud, going through the country,
chilled out, do n’t get stressed, keep going and then I stop when-
ever I want. I want to feel relaxed, stop when I want and then
In the metaphor shown in Figure 3, the time of day did not
matter but what was crucial was that the speed was slow and
even paced to maximise what needed to happen. When this
student understood this about herself she was more able to
work towards deadlines and plan her learning more effectively.
“I need to listen to music. Music means I am not by myself.
Each paragraph needs to be in a different colour to keep atten-
4) Learning at best is like being a chameleon. Male student
who graduated with a good degree.
“Chameleon. I can adapt to the environment when I have to.
I need to keep changing to satisfy myself and survive. Keeps the
learning fresh. If I keep to the same routine it will go down if I
change it goes up again.”
This student, whose metaphor is represented in Figure 4,
was aware that repeating the same thing over and over resulted
Cats come out at night.
in them becoming bored and then less productive “I need to
keep changing…just before boredom sets in and I lose motiva-
tion I have to change environment or ways of learning. Time
period for change varies depends on the mood.” The pattern
here was for the student to change their environment and pat-
terns every couple of weeks to ensure they could keep motiva-
tion levels high. The natural breaks of the academic year w or ked
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
for this student as these gave a natural break.
5) Learning at best is like being a rabbit in the headlights.
Male student who graduated with a good degree.
“As soon as the headlights hit me I am engaged. I like to be
under pressure. If I don’t have the pressure on me I don’t do
much. The big eyes are shocked eyes, I feel fear and then en-
gage and focus. Without the fear I won’t do anything.”
This individual was aware that he did not move into action
until he really had to, hence describing himself as a rabbit in the
headlights as shown in Figure 5. This however upon further
exploration was not supporting him as a learner in many ways.
“To learn I need something to get my attention.” One of the
strategies he had adopted was to change the deadlines and make
himself accountable to somebody else therefore forcing the
headlights to arrive sooner than they might otherwise.
6) Learning at best is like being in a train heading for a wall.
Male student who graduated with a good degree.
“On top of the world. I feel confident and I don’t feel like I
can be beaten. But when I am down I am almost like very inse-
cure and I don’t know my direction. I go from one extreme to
the other which is the fire and the water. When it clicks into
place it continues and continues and then it crashes into a brick
wall—almost like a train it’s going and stopping and going
again. It’s a steam train, loud and messy.”
This student understood what didn’t work so well for him
when it came to supporting his learning. “I need to sleep so I
am ready and willing to learn. If I work at night it means I
cannot sleep as ideas run around in my head and this affects
the next day. I hav e to have silence, noise frustrates me and I
get agitated and have to leave, this is when the train will
crash.” The student was not completely clear on what needed to
happen to move himself from one extreme to the other but
stated, “I need pressure to get the train going and I need to
know what the end point is and what I am working towards”.
This is represented in Figure 6 by the train and the wall.
Rabbit in the headlights.
For each student in this project their “learning at best” model
was different although there are some factors that were high-
lighted across the group that could be drawn upon to help oth-
ers in developing their metaphors. These included time of day;
mood; pace and environment.
The patterns and models we work with are not always helpful,
the student who described himself as a chameleon (Figure 4)
recalls “It wasn’t until I realised that I needed to change my
environment and the ways I was working that I was able to
sustain learning at my best more of the time”. This type of work
has implications and can be beneficial for the student them-
selves for fellow students and developing peer learning groups
across a range of disciplines. The idea can also be extended to
exploring other avenues e.g. when you’re presenting at you best,
when your interviewing at your best. Even just knowing what
works best can help raise awareness and support meta-learning.
The student that used the marathon metaphor in Figure 1 said
“using the metaphor does two things, I can ensure I am ready
to start running and put myself in that place and I can also use
it to tell others where I am up to and if they know my metaphor
they will then be able to understand what I need and be able to
support me”. Metaphors as a learning tool have much strength
but also take time to develop for the students as although meta-
phors are used throughout everyday language (Lakoff & John-
son, 1980) moving to think about specific things like learning at
best and matching a metaphoric concept to this does not always
come naturally. There needs to be a developmental process put
onto this where it starts with a light touch, so students may talk
about needing to be organised, to have all the information with
them and to be in a quite space and it may take time for this to
develop into a metaphor such as the magpie. The student who
compared themselves to the cat, as shown in Figure 2, remem-
bers “I didn’t get it at first; I thought it was a bit weird com-
paring yourself to something else, but when I used the words to
explain what I needed to learn at my best the idea for the cat
just came and it fits so well with my ways of working”. The
drawing seems for some students to be a crucial part of the
process, “It wasn’t until I had drawn the rabbit on paper that it
hit home how I was working and what I needed to do to help
me” (Figure 5).
To support individual students, tutors can explore different
elements of the whole metaphor to gain more in-sight and help
the individual come up with strategies to support them as learners.
For example, with the student who had the train metaphor, the
wall can be explored to see what needs to happen so the train
does not hit the wall and that they can be “on top of the world”
more of the time. In groups the same approach works well as
the students can start to ask each other questions and explore
how they might go about working together. To make this hap-
pen each student needs to spend a little time developing their
ideas, prompts from a tutor can help here and then they share
their ideas and ask each other questions. A good question to ask
to highlight differences is “who’s not like that”. The students
who compared themselves to a cat (Figure 2) and the marathon
man (Figure 1), both talked about how they would have to
adapt if they were to work together. Suggestions included split-
ting up the jobs and working on these individually at the best
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 35
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
time for them and then coming together at a time they both
could work with. Just knowing this information can save a lot
of unnecessary tension that might just be caused by a lack of
awareness. The student that was cat (Figure 2), said “I know
that I have to shift my working patterns to fit in with others and
knowing what they need makes working in groups so much
The images developed through this project and future meta-
phors collected can provide the basis for others to start this
work with their students. The first point might be to look at the
images and discuss what the key features of each metaphor are
and what they think these students might have been like. Over
the induction period the students could then start to build up
their metaphor model and this will need to be re-visited and
re-fined over the period of study. Towards the end of the pro-
gramme and with the students permission these could be then
be collected by tutors and made into a resource that was built
from within the programme and as the staff would know these
students more of the story could be used the following year.
Metaphors have been widely used and written about in edu-
cation and this project adds to the body of knowledge as it de-
velops the idea of using them as a systematic tool to enhance
student’s ability as meta-learners. Using metaphors as a tool for
developing meta-learning has been shown to be a positive addi-
tion to the PDP experience for the students on this programme.
All six students felt that knowing their own model for “learning
at best” was of benefit and they all agreed it was a useful way
of learning how to work with each other. There is no one an-
swer to the question when I am learning at my best I am like
what and the beauty of this is the individual nature of the ideas
and their meaning. However there did appear to be some key
elements including time of day; mood; pace and environment
which will be explored further as this research continues.
Alongside this, future research will be undertaken to gather
more qualitative data about the student’s views on the approach
and its impact on their learning.
In relation to this project each picture has been re-drawn by a
student on the same programme who is interested in art and
each has been annotated with text from the students words to
explore some of the meanings that may not be visible diagram-
matically. The work has been enlarged and made into a mural
on one of the corridors next to teaching rooms with the hope
that they will be the start of conversations about learning whilst
students waiting to go into sessions. The ideas have been pre-
sented at an in-house teaching and learning conference and
others were interested in using this idea with their students. The
exercises; drawings and student stories are being made into a
teaching resource which will be available for other staff who
want to integrate this type of thinking into their teaching. It is
hoped that the metaphors and pictures may provide for other
students the start of a conversation, a light bulb moment, or a
chance to explore similarities and differences and in the midst
of this to gain just a little more understanding of themselves
nd how they can learn at their best. a
Thanks go to Caitlin Walker (www.trainingattention.co.uk)
for her ideas and ability to systemically change thinking.
Thanks also to the students who gave up their time and enthu-
siasm to share their ideas to help others learn.
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