Learning Really Does Happen.

Sometimes it's refreshing to remind oneself.

I even manage to learn myself sometimes.

Perhaps it's not true of everyone who works in fields where learning is the core activity, but it's true of me:  I love learning new things.
As much as I'm a creature of habit--I drink the same coffee every day, eat the same salad, will drink the same wine night after night, just different vineyards to appreciate the differences--I also like to feel I'm growing.
So when I decided to do a thorough re-design of my distance learning courses (screenwriting, film history, the horror genre), Ireally did some research.

The attrition rate had been high.  And I thought the learning was slow.  Students tended to type something and run--like an email, an IM or a tweet.  I didn't see careful reflection, real grasping of underlying issues and ides.
  • How could I keep students involved, doing the work?
  • How could I allow them to deepen their learning?
So I did some reading.  My two major resources were:
Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) and

National Research Council, How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Expanded Edition, 2000).
In the film history class, for instance:
  • I started by inviting students to discussion an exciting, juicy question, and to bring in their current-day, real-world experiences.
E.g., "Do you have a favorite Youtube video?  What makes it enjoyable to watch?  Why watch an internet video rather than TV or a movie?  What kind of pleasure do you get from each?  How are you similar to or different from your peers in this respect?"
  • Students earned points just for discussing, apart from any evaluation of quality--so as not to instill fear which might inhibit them.
  • The discussion experience has some inherent pleasure, because students are familiar with gossiping online about semi-hot-button topics.
People can start by sharing opinions that are ready-formed, then begin to question their standing ideas, as the discussion assignment asks them to compare and contrast themselves to their peers.
  • There's little possibility of failure.  There's no prerequisite knowledge--no first step of doing any reading.  There's the opportunity to excel.  And there's a social motivation.
  • Simultaneously, study questions and a quiz guided students to relevant facts in the reading and to online screenings, clips, or videos students watch at the library or at home.
  • Factual knowledge is tested not just as sheer facts but as implications.  It's not just "when did Edison invent such-and-such?" but "how was Edison's approach to film exhibition wrong?":  knowing the answer involves connecting the facts in a larger story and complex of related implications.
  • Students then come back later in the week and connect their discussion of current topics to reading about the past.  ("How was watching cinema using Edison's or Lumiere's technologies different or similar from watching a Youtube video?")
The results were generally good.  This quarter is still unfolding, but I'm generally pleased so far--though there is still room to improve the course design.

Recently, when re-shelving my books, I looked at How People Learn again.

I went to the dog-eared pages to see what I had learned.
  • Substantial curiosity-arousing questions can motivate learners more than points or grades (46).
  • Pre-existing knowledge crucially structures what kind of new information and concepts learners will adopt--and what they won't (10-15).
  • Experts have a body of facts and experiences at their fingertips, but this body is not an end in itself, it's an initial step that allows the experts to recognize patterns or gestalts (32-36).
  • Some learners are motivated by a desire to avoid failure, some by a desire to excel, some by a desire to connect socially with others (60-61).
In short, I actually took what I learned and applied it.
By structuring student discussion, study questions, quizzes and assignments along certain lines, I was encouraging the kind of learning I wanted based on what research had shown.
In Bloom's famous taxonymy, learning must 
  • start with listing, organizing, arranging and recalling facts,
  • move on to expressing these facts in their own understanding, grasping inner relationships, abstracting laws and concepts,
  • move then to applying concepts, seeing how similar ideas work in different concepts,
  • ascend to quetioning assumptions, comparing and contrasting ideas, reasoning from assumptions to conclusions, tinkering with arguments,
  • graduate to sythesizing original, personal ideas that could be tested, and 
  • terminate in drawing conclusions and evaluating ideas and arguments based on specific criteria.
So in theory, perhaps one should master all factual matters, then move forward to understanding the relationships among these facts.

But if learners acquire facts within a framework which is inappropriate, which doesn't match the historical circumstances, for instance, then the damage is already done.  

Indeed, it was one of my first learning experiences about teaching that learners can't easily reach back into the past and re-order their perceptions within new frameworks:  they need to get the framework, then practice using it to sort facts and experiences, then practice more.

Perhaps one wants learners to end by drawing conclusions.  
But adult learners habitually draw conclusions--and they arrive with conclusions pre-formed.  You can't reasonably ask an adult to become a tabula rasa, to resist drawing any and all conclusions until they have mastered a new discipline--ten weeks later.
So instead, I decided to elicit prior knowledge and conclusions, then ask students to debate those.
 Once they were prepared to have their assumptions challenged, they had 'loosened up' their cognitive frameworks.

They could sort new information into the existing framework, while also seeing that framework challenged.

And then they could re-order the new information and their existing beliefs at the same time.
This was a much more pleasurable experience for them--and for me.

And more pleasure for them meant higher student retention, more intrinsic involvement in the material, and thus better learning outcomes.

But I may still yet learn more and better in the future.  

--Edward R. O'Neill


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