A student, by its dictionary definition, means someone who is studying at school, college or university and a learner is someone who learns or takes up knowledge or beliefs; tellingly it is the educator that has precedence in the definition of the student, unlike the case of the learner where the emphasis is on them.
Arguably, people are expected (by law) to go through the education system in order to obtain skills and to acquire knowledge; the reality is more that each stage is a stepping stone to the next stage with the ultimate stage being employment. What this creates is a system that focuses on an education as a means to an end, rather than a period of genuine learning, so in some ways education itself creates students as opposed to learners.
So what is the difference between students and learners? Students are usually conscientious but are so by following rules and instructions that are given to them. They are there to perform tasks, to succeed in tests that will determine whether or not they will pass to the next stage, be it A-Levels, undergraduate degree or masters, and, initially at least anyway, are there under obligation. Their motivation is to pass exams with the ultimate goal of employability; this is what spurs them on, rather than learning. Someone who fits in to the student mould will be able to revise and recount facts for an exam, but may not remember them afterwards.
By contrast, learners are genuinely inquisitive and have a passion for understanding the world around them, or have specific areas of interest such as culture, history, or the sciences. The motivation to learn comes from a sense of passion for the subject or for learning itself, rather than because they have been told to do it. Rather than placing themselves in a competitive situation like a student might, they will want to share this knowledge with others and create an atmosphere of knowledge and of expanding the mind.
For students, the assessment of their learning comes through checking facts that they have learnt whereas someone more genuinely interested in learning will monitor their learning through how they apply it in life. For these reasons it may seem that the education system is somewhat at odds with encouraging genuine learning, and it’s true that it can. The act of learning requires questioning, exploring and taking your own tangents; education sticks to a syllabus that dictates how and when something should be taught. Being a good student is to stick to the requirements and obligations rigidly, and regurgitate facts in the way that is required of them. In some ways this may dampen the natural learner.
It is difficult however to entirely eradicate routines, exams, and curriculums. There is arguably more freedom at university to act in the way of a learner, although this shift may become difficult to achieve if the individuals have been encouraged to act as good students rather than as learners. Although it is possible to use the time at university to explore a chosen subject with a bit more freedom, it is likely that by now that it will be seen as the final stepping stone in walking in to a profession.
This article was written on behalf of OCVC.