A Discussion about Learning in the Classroom

I recently had an important conversation with my students.  It’s probably not a dialogue they’ve had before, and to be honest, it’s not one I’ve had with students before this semester, either.  The questions asked are simple, but the answers are somewhat abstract and require some real thought.  This exercise was quite powerful and will hopefully positively impact how my students think about learning, class, and studying/practicing.

Here are the four questions asked:

What is learning?

How do you learn?

How do you know when learning has occurred?

How do you know when you’ve learned?

Students began by jotting down their answers.  I gave them around 5 minutes to complete this and most took a real stab at completing this, which definitely pleased their teacher.  Also, during discussion, we combined questions 3 and 4.  Below I’d like to give some of the answers my students wrote and then summarize an important part of the discussion that followed.  This, I believe, is a nice sample of how students are all over the place with their understanding of what learning is and how our studying should be shaped by this knowledge.

What is learning?

“Gaining knowledge.”

“Learning is retaining knowledge you didn’t have before.”

“Taking in new information.”

“Making new neural connections.”

How do you learn?

“Being told information.”

“Reading. Listening. Watching demonstrations.”

“Trying new things.”

“I learn by quizzing myself and others.”

How do you know when learning has occurred?

How do you know you’ve learned something?

“You can share the information with others.”

“When I can repeat something someone has taught me.”

“When you can comprehend something and remember it.”

“I know when I’ve learned when I don’t have to think about what it is that I’ve been taught.  I just know it.  It’s permanently in my head and I just know it.”

“When you understand a new concept.”

To be honest, on the whole, I was pleased with their answers as they were much more insightful than I expected…especially for the first day of class when students tend to be more reserved.  While these answers provided a great deal of information, I believe the conversation that followed was even better.  For the most part, students had a fair understanding of what learning is, or at least they all agreed with the first person to volunteer their answer…learning is knowing stuff, acquisition of knowledge, a change in behavior, etc.  Question two was also easily understood.  We learn by via our senses…sensory information in, perceiving of information, etc.  (Did one student say they learn via their learning style ?  Yes.  Did I jump on my soapbox and discuss how there is no evidence to support learning styles?  Yes.)  Questions three and four were met with a bit more confusion, which resulted in more discussion.  In answering how we know we’ve learned, most students responded with a concrete example similar to being able to tell others what they’ve learned…not bad, but I was actually looking for a more abstract and somewhat more widely applicable answer.  

I used an example of baking a cake:

Me – If I watch a Youtube video of someone going through the steps of baking a cake, should I assume I know how to bake a cake because I’ve heard/seen someone bake a cake?

Students – No.

Me – So, when do I know if I know how to bake a cake?

Students – When you bake a cake.

Me– Exactly, so when do you know if you know you’ve learned something in class?

Students – …when I can tell someone about it?

Me – Yes, that’s one way.  But what if you’re studying alone and there’s no one to tell?  Are there other ways of knowing you’ve learned information?

Students – When I can write it down?

Me – Yes.  That’s a great way of knowing what you know and what you don’t.  This is called retrieval practice and is a great way of assessing your learning.  In particular, simply writing down everything you know is sometimes called a brain dump.  If you write everything down that you know about a particular subject, whatever you cannot recall you should not assume you know.  Once you have a good understanding of what material you can retrieve from memory and what you cannot, your studying/practicing can be much more efficient and effective.  Another application of retrieval practice is quizzing…simply answering questions about the material.  Whatever is answered incorrectly hasn’t been learned and, again, this knowledge should drive a more focused studying of material.  

Also me – Very easily put, you know you’ve learned something when you can apply the information…a lot of the time, when studying, this comes in the form of writing down information or quizzing yourself.  Now, should I assume I really know how to bake a cake after only baking one?  Probably not.  The more I bake correctly, the more confident I can be that I really know how to bake a cake.  Learning school material should be viewed similarly.  Answering a question correctly once is great, but maybe you got lucky?  The more you can answer questions correctly about a subject, the more confident you can be that you’ve learned the information.

Still me – So, just like watching a YouTube video doesn’t prove I’ve learned how to bake, simply listening to or reading about Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence doesn’t mean I’ve learned it.  Similarly, assuming I know material because I’ve reread my notes or highlight important terms/concepts doesn’t prove I’ve learned it…there still has been no application or usage of the assumed knowledge.  So, while it may seem that you know more after you’ve reread your notes, that is a false belief that will most likely lead to overconfidence.  A much more effective and efficient use of your study time is to implement some form of retrieval practice.  Make yourself think about and produce the information using only your brain…no notes/textbook or assistance from your friends.  

By using retrieval practice to study/practice, knowing what you’ve learned is a piece of (properly baked) cake. 

Do your students understand when they’ve learned material?

How can you tell your students of retrieval practice for more effective/efficient studying?

4 thoughts on “A Discussion about Learning in the Classroom

Add yours

  1. Thanks, Blake – just reading this.

    Re: the questions: ‘How do you know when learning has occurred?’ ‘How do you know when you’ve learned?’ Aren’t they the same? Wondered whether the last one should be ‘How do you know what you’ve learned?’

    And am wondering about the idea that you know you’ve learned something if you can apply it/reproduce it/explain it to someone else/teach it to someone else a week/a month/six months later.

  2. Hi Blake, Thanks for sharing this snapshot of discussion with your students. Very intriguing questions all educators should ponder with their students for sure!
    This conversation seemed mostly focused on learning content, facts, and information and I wonder about how learning looks and feels when it’s a larger concept or big idea? Concepts like democracy, scientific theories, mathematical relationships, etc. I wonder if learning those big ideas happen over time and may not always culminate in a product. What is the role of how our thinking changes about something while we are learning it?
    Just something to ponder…thanks for getting me thinking!

  3. I like what you did here, and I especially liked the retrieval practice you do with your students (I read the linked post).

    I wonder how this fits. If a non cake baker (like a persin who has no clue) watches a YouTube video about baking a cake, don’t they have a better understanding of how to bake a cake? You’re examples are from AP Psych. I’m sure that your students aren’t training to be psychologists by the end of the course, they are learning as much about psychology as they can to ready themselves for a test. They are not “baking the cake,” so to speak. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, just that cake baking is a skill with a product. As an English teacher I could relate that to writing.

  4. I agree with the whole ‘baking a cake’ thing. But it’s another one of those long list of educational analogies that breaks down once you think about it too much. Or at least isn’t necessarily applied correctly in current practice. If we equate retrieval with learning, then being able to write down the recipe means you know how to bake a cake. I think a performance task fits much better with the ‘bake a cake’ analogy. Works better with certain subjects than others.

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