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The three parts of learning a new practice

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Often in learning, you are really only learning how to talk about and reason with a new idea. However when you are learning a new approach to existing habits (e.g. a management course for managers; a slimming course for eaters; a safety course for lab technicians who have already years of experience), then there are 3 parts to the learning: getting the ideas, going over your familiar environment learning how to recognise how the ideas apply to it, going over your familiar behaviour and deciding how and when it must now be different.

Standard impoverished HE teaching really only addresses the learning and teaching of new concepts at the public, general, abstract level. The learner, if good, will be able to recall and use the main terms, and explain what they mean in both formal and paraphrased ways; and perhaps apply them to examples of the kind dealt with in the textbooks. In some cases, this then has no impact: someone may go to such a course, but their managers may be dismayed that it has no effect on how they do their job.

The triad

A triad of phases of learning is what is required (spending approximately equal time on each) for learning to make a direct difference to the learner's life:
  1. Introduce (and exercise) conceptual learning, as in ordinary teaching.
  2. Have each learner then go over concrete situations they have already experienced, and learn to recognise how the taught concepts do or do not apply in each situation.
  3. Have each learner go over their normal routines and decide where, when, how to insert different behaviour into them. Where interactions with other workers are important, then how to change one's own actions in this context will also have to be addressed at length for any practical effects of the course to materialise. Food safety training in supermarkets is difficult to implement where a store is undermanned (so no time to do cleaning) and managers are under pressure to reduce food wastage (throwing away cooked food that is too old). Introducing a new accounting practice is unlikely to be something a single person can do, since accounts are the interface between many different people and unilateral changes will break communications.


  1. Slimming. First teach concepts such as (kilo)calories. Then to recognise snacks as food as much as meals; then that all drinks except water contain calories. Then to go over one's daily eating routines and decide what to change.
  2. Bioethics. First concepts such as utilitarianism. Then go over a set of classic experimental work in biology, reviewing it for ethical issues; and ditto for applied work (in farming, in pharmaceuticals, ...). Then for actions the learner might be involved in, and when they would act e.g. in doing an experiment because the university asked them to, because a funder asked them to, jobs, ...
  3. A health and saftey course for chemistry research students. First the (legal) concepts. Then perhaps photographs of various scenes in labs, with the task of spotting what aspects of these typically very cluttered pictures violate which safety principle, if any. Then reviewing each student's actual or planned procedure for their own experiments with a view to modifying them as necessary.


This triad may be least applicable to learning undergraduate subjects where the student has no existing practical experience e.g. elementary particle physics, classical literature. It will have the most applicability where the subject is practical AND the learner has already developed habits. E.g. health and safety in the lab for chemistry students, bioethics for biology students, new accountancy practices for experienced administrators, hygene (food safety) for experienced family cooks now moving into a catering job, continuing professional development (CPD) courses for teachers with years of experience, slimming or addiction personal retraining, cognitive behavioural therapy.

The point is that for any activity where we are already reasonably experienced and practised, we do not think out what we do from first principles, but rely on "habits" and practised ways of acting. Merely learning new concepts does not itself touch our behaviour nor perception. If we want the new concepts to touch our behaviour or perception, then we need to specifically exercise these in connection to the new ideas.

An alternative triad

The above triad is what someone designing a training course needs: three aspects, all of which need substantial time and effort from both teacher and learners. More theoretically, we might say (as Laurillard does) that all (good) teaching and learning has both abstract, general aspects and personal, practical ones; but that there are in fact three different major kinds of the latter:

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