How does learning happen?
Effective teaching involves more than just instructing students… It also involves teaching students how to learn, think about, and use the information (Chew, 2014)
No formal training?
In a paper published in June 2021, An Advance Organizer for Student Learning: Choke Points and Pitfalls in Studying (Chew, 2021) argues that teachers and students often hold mistaken beliefs that undermine student learning.
The author presents a graphical representation of how information is processed.
Cognitive load and working memory that impede learning are common traps. Whilst teachers of psychology, as the author rightly points out, are likely to have studied learning as part of their training, “teachers outside of psychology may not have any knowledge of learning or pedagogical research.”
I have taught psychology A-level throughout my teaching career (although no formal training), my interest in cognitive science over the last 20 years has been rather clumsy. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been working slowly (largely through this blog) unpicking the things that interest me the most and what I think will benefit my own teaching and others.
Across the English teaching profession, I do welcome agreed frameworks within teacher education to help teachers get off to a strong start, although I am worried about how these theories translate into subjects outside of maths and science, and in particular, across primary classrooms.
The author highlights that students need to be “instructed in learning effective study skills.” I would add that all teachers need this information too, which the author also recommends, otherwise we fall into the trap where “teachers endorse learning myths, such as learning styles.”
How do we learn?
Chew discusses schema as “an organised framework of long-term knowledge, that, when activated, facilitates the encoding and learning of new, related concepts.” From reading the paper, I was pleased to read the author reference Willingham: “… teachers who have developed an accurate scheme of learning can design and implement pedagogy to fit a particular educational context, diagnose problems and make adjustments.”
The aim of the research paper was to create a graphical advanced organiser based on cognitive research that will help both students and teachers.
Chew hopes that the diagram “assist[s] teachers in creating supportive learning environment. It should provide a coherent schematic framework to help students understand how people learn…”
Ausubel’s research (1960) on graphic organisers is also quoted; I know this framework has been criticised as an outdated model. I’ve seen many colleagues attempt to summarise this complex area into useful diagrams, and whilst this is welcome, one can begin to understand how the information can be misleading. For example, the information is lost as it is pushed through a ‘working memory’ funnel.
I am yet to establish how I would present ‘how learning happens’ in a useful diagram for teachers, but I have attempted something below which I have been trialling on my teacher training travels. One could argue that mine is far too simple and perhaps misses some vital stages/information…
How can we illustrate how learning happens in a graphic?
Whilst it is worth trying, I do wonder if we are setting ourselves up to fail. Chew acknowledges that “the final challenge in designing the advance organiser was creating a graphical illustration using the principles of effective multimedia learning.” I am pleased to read in the research paper that my good friend Tom Sherrington is quoted in the academic paper and does offer a model for the learning process using a non-linear graphical framework.
Chew unpicks working memory and retrieval practice. It’s worth noting on that point, that there is a key difference between retrieval strength and storage strength (Bjork and Bjork, 1992) and is something I will return to in a future blog post.
Choke points and pitfalls…
Chew defines ‘choke points’ as “a limitation or constraint in the cognitive system that students must cope with in order to learn.” A pitfall is defined as “a common error students make when studying. These pitfalls are often due to faulty assumptions and intuitions about how people learn.”
The author has identified the common chokepoints on the advanced organiser above. This is why the graphic (at least on the surface) looks overcomplicated on the first appearance. Chew’s paper discusses each stage of the learning process and explains each choke point in detail.
For teachers who are reading this blog who wish to get a better understanding of how learning happens, particularly working memory and cognitive load, this paper (pages 4 and 5) would be a good place to start
The purpose of this paper is to get the discussion going. It’s a conversation I’ve been having frequently over the last few years and something I should’ve had throughout my teaching career. I know that many of our new teachers to the profession are already being exposed to this information, with government policy emerging; those teachers active on social media already demonstrating a good understanding (or at least enthusiasm, like myself).
This is a debate we all should be having. As ever, whilst I’m no expert on the teenage brain (having recently a short email exchange with Dr Sarah Blackmore), for all of us we will need to work out what the learning process looks like, understand it, and then as ever, translate this back into our settings.
I was particularly interested to read that the author had posted their graphic organiser on several social media sites where it would be seen by teachers of psychology – viewed positively. I will make contact with the author and I will be keen to hear your feedback in the comments below.
More extensive research should be done with the advanced organiser… for testing schema activation. It has the potential to help teachers and students develop a schema of how people learn.
Read the full paper.