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Three main causes of learning
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
Most work on new ways of teaching or boosting learning fails to control for
really basic causes. In one way this doesn't matter: from the practical
viewpoint of helping learners and increasing learning it doesn't matter
whether you fool yourself or even fool the learners. But from the viewpoint
of improving theory we would like to know what the real underlying causes are.
Three keep recurring. The point is that so very many "new" ideas and methods
cause one of these to increase. And very, very few tests or evaluations of
ideas control for these.
- Time on task, the amount of time spent by the learner on learning.
Perhaps that should be refined to time on actual mental processing
(not just time in the classroom, or time spent moving the eyes over text
without thinking, or time spent taking dictation).
- Mental reprocessing: more particularly, the number of different
types of reprocessing. I.e. of using the "knowledge" in a different way than
the one it was first received in. E.g. if teacher told you, then re-telling
it (to a peer, in an essay) or using it to do a textbook problem.
- Recognising that you (the learner) are wrong and/or don't know this
point. Getting the learner to commit to a false view, and then to confront
the fact they got it wrong or didn't know the answer. These may really all be
aspects of the "metacognition" point that realising you don't know something
is an important cause of learning. What is deadly (suppresses learning) is
the feeling that you knew that, already know that. So part of this is getting
the learner to commit to something, preferably in front of others but
certainly in a way they have to admit to themselves e.g. writing down an
A major aspect of this, is "brain teasers": of skilled teachers (or
textbook authors) coming up with questions that are NOT difficult, but tempt
many learners into overt error. The issue here is connecting the new
knowledge to old ways of thinking that are in fact partly wrong, and must be
worked over actively by the learner. Telling people just to forget something
never works: erasing takes much more work than simply taking something new.
The best theoretical label for this recurrent theme may be
"accommodation" (as opposed to assimilation); or "prior misconceptions"; or
"phenomenography" which is the name of a technique and research approach for
discovering how learners experience, think about, and misunderstand topics.
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