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Three main causes of learning

By Steve Draper,   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.

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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 answer.
    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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