What do we really know about Learning?!

Brain Image for Blog Post EDUC 6115

As I began my search to find interesting articles about learning theories and cognitive processes and learning; I came across two very different yet similar articles that I chose to dissect for the purpose of my blog.

The first article entitled Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology takes a closer look at 10 learning techniques and how they could be adopted by students, some were chosen because they were already being used by most students and others were chosen because of the ease in utilization.

Each of the 10 techniques were evaluated and scrutinized based off four different categories.

  1. Learning conditions
  2. Student character
  3. Materials & criterion tasks
  4. Mode in which student studies alone or in a group, age, ability & prior knowledge

The authors began by looking closer at Elaborative Interrogation, better known as the why question that many educators ask students; for example the sentence A hungry man got into his car was presented to each student, when questions dissecting the sentence were asked like the who was in the car? And so on, students performed well in part because of the varying questions but this benefit also showed to vary dependent upon the student’s prior knowledge of the subject matter. Therefore the authors spoke to the benefit of the technique along with prior student knowledge.

The second technique was Self Explanation in which students would take a closer look at the subject matter being presented, interestingly enough this technique appeared to be more successful when paired with direct instruction or discovery learning. Unfortunately this technique showed moderate results; perhaps because when used individually as a technique it proves to be lacking but when accompanied with other modes of learning techniques it proves to be somewhat beneficial to the learner.

The third technique that was evaluated and scrutinized was Summarization; in short this is a technique that is generally utilized when learning large amounts of information in which the learner has to pinpoint relevant information versus unimportant information; in an experiment of high school juniors and seniors each group was instructed to study a 2,000 word text about fictious tribe people; each student was then assigned to one of the five learning conditions, given 30 minutes to study the text. The summarization group was instructed to write three lines of text-summarizing the main points from the page; the authors found that if this particular technique is utilized with that of note taking this proves to be a fairly beneficial technique; which brings me to the fourth technique.

Highlighting text, we are guilty of utilizing this technique, however the results of said technique might surprise you; this particular technique loved by so many, has not proven to be successful as learning techniques go; due to the variability in what students mark, some may mark nothing at all while others mark everything on the page which results in a reduction of distinguishing the text, the very reason you highlight it to begin with, in fact it has been shown that the memory of the highlighted information is actually less because there is no longer any distinction between what is highlighted and what is not; it has also been shown that it actually takes less processing to mark a lot of text and that there is no overall benefit shown by this technique.

The fifth technique that was evaluated was one that I remember as a student learning a foreign language; interestingly enough that is one of the reasons this technique was invented to begin with. Keyword or the use of imagery has been shown as successful in enhancing learning and comprehension. Interestingly enough however this technique has only shown to be a beneficial one if what is being learned has a very short lapse of time between initial time learning material and being tested over the material learned. When the Keyword imagery is utilized after a great lapse of time, it has been shown to be less effective as a learning technique if not utilized the right way; but when used the right way this has proven to be quite successful as learning techniques go.

The sixth learning technique to be examined further was the imagery technique, interestingly enough when students would read a passage from the book or reading materials there was disconnect in what was read versus what was imagined or visualized; when the same passage was read aloud,  to the students, there was no longer any disruption in what was being said and the image from the student.

Re-reading, another frequently used technique by students, was examined and scrutinized; once again the results were quite surprising in that those that read something and then re-read it or mass read proved to be less likely to remember the information than those that read the material, took a break (4-days) and re-read the material.

Practice Testing has also proven to be a successful technique as long as it is being used correctly. Practice testing can be as simple as flash card review, electronic supplementation, practice tests; if these methods are utilized along with the materials often there is great success, but if used infrequently success rates seem to dwindle.

Distributed Practice or the presentation of materials over a period of time has also shown to be a successful learning technique; when spacing the learning sessions and reviewing previous materials this technique has proven to be successful; unfortunately most textbooks do not follow this technique in that they often “lump” all the relevant information together, because this is common practice of most learning materials and courses students may need training and convincing that this is a beneficial way to learn.

Lastly Interleaved Practice was evaluated this technique is an interesting one in that many of us do not quite understand just what it is, let alone the benefits. It is another way to present material in which the instructor interweaves the material being presented into the actual student understanding. This technique has been shown to be quite successful when used correctly; the first step to being able to benefit from the technique is to have a better understanding for what it is and how our students can benefit from it.

Lastly the following article Information Processing and Theory sets the standard for which all other theories were presented. George Miller, provided in this article two definitions of two very separate theories or concepts of cognitive psychology and information processing.

The first concept that Miller provides us is that of “Chunking” and the capacity of our short-term memories. In 1956, Miller presented the idea of “Chunking” in which the short-term memory is able to hold 6-9 “chunks” of information at a time; this information could include numbers, words, chess moves and people’s faces.  This idea became the basis for which all subsequent theories for memory began.

The second concept was discovered by Miller, Galanter & Pribram in 1960; this concept can simply be termed TOTE (Test, Operate, Test, Exit) the concept TOTE is one in which a goal is tested to see if there has been satisfactory achievement, if not an operation is then performed to achieve the goal, this cycle is repeated until the end result is an achieved goal or an abandonment of the goal altogether. A great example of this is when using a hammer to hit a nail you must first make certain that nail is flush with the nail and that the hammer is raised up in order to “hit” or make contact with the nail.

Both of these concept in my opinion favor the ideas that were just expressed in my initial article about the 10 learning theories and their success. A learning concept (goal) is tested in each of these theories or concepts to create the ultimate result of the goal either being achieved or the goal being abandoned.


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