What is learning?

Navajo_students_learning_penmanship_in_day_school_-_NARA_-_295150What is learning? If you have learned something be it factual, semantic, episodic, or procedural — you can see where I’m going with this right? — then you will be able to recall it when you need it and more importantly to the degree you need it. If something has been learned, you should be able to recall it. If something is learned, you should be able to recall it when it is needed. And if something is learned, you should be able to recall it when it is needed and in as much detail that is required.

A simple common example is remembering the names of acquaintances. On the first day of classes this year, I was standing outside the door to my classroom as students and teachers walked by. I greeted many of them as they passed by calling some by name. I looked down the passageway and saw a very striking tall young woman. I recognized her immediately. Her appearance is not one that you easily forget: tall, slim, fashionably dressed. She had been in the school as long as I had: four years. I had seen her nearly every day during those four years, but I had never had her in a class. But, she had been on a week-long adventure learning trip with me the previous year — a mere four months previous. Of course, I couldn’t recall her name.

I wanted to. I tried to. I could get the first letter, J. I could get that it had two or three syllables. I could tell you it wasn’t Jackie or Jacqueline or Jessica. I knew she was a gifted athlete and champion runner. I could recall specific conversations with her about the “lovely” nature of camels (our trip was the infamous camel safari) and the dress she had worn to the prom the previous year. But, I could not for the life of me recall her name in the seconds it would take her to traverse the distance between us.

This is a facet of learning. Compare my experience with this young woman with that of unexpectedly seeing my brother-in-law, let’s say in Constantinople International Airport. If I had a long layover in Constantinople International Airport and as I wondered the concourses awaiting the eventual departure of my next flight, and I passed my brother-in-law, I would know his name instantly even though I only see him every other year or so because I know his name and face so well. I know his name and face so well that I do not need environmental cues to help me recall his name.

We can say, then, that I know my brother-in-law’s name well, and the student’s, not so well. My brother-in-law’s name I can recall at anytime I need and in it’s entirety. The student’s I could recall — the facets of her name show that I recalled suggest that I know her name — but not to the degree I needed it.

The same holds true for critical thinking or reasoning skills. These skills would constitute procedural memory in that you have to “remember” to do them even if we rarely have the experience of consciously remembering that we need to apply them. For example, a student should be able to link the repetitive exercises given as homework in the course of REBT or CBT psychotherapy to brain plasticity, but few students do. In my IB Psychology course, the two topics are covered approximately a year apart. And, we haven’t had any priming of brain plasticity when we cover psychotherapy. To link the two would be evidence of critical thinking, but to make that leap requires practice in linking disparate ideas together.

How is that learning? Searching for something similar or related to a new item that we are learning is a habit or a procedure. And just like any other habit or procedure, the more often you do it, the more likely you will do it the next time the situation warrants. And just like any other habit or procedure, the more often you do it, the easier, smoother, more efficient it becomes. The more automatic it becomes. All of these are features of procedural memory.

imagesLearning is inextricably linked with memory. The better we understand memory, the better we can take advantage of it when learning. What are some of these factors? From this post and in the Educational Approach post, we can distill several factors that have been well-researched in cognitive psychology that improve or strengthen memory:


We have evolved to be associative machines in which we associate an environmental cue to a reaction or event. For example, every time Pavlov rang his bell, the dogs were fed. Soon, the bell was associated with food, and the dogs salivated in anticipation. The bell was an environmental cue signaling the arrival of food. But, these associations can be more subtle and sophisticated.

When my students learn the parts of the neuron, I ask them to list them in the same order every time because the elements of the list will begin to become associated with each other and the recall of the first element on the list will lead to the next. We also draw and label the neuron so often that it becomes automatic. By having a clear understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the neuron, we can relate subsequent events like manipulating serotonin to treat depression back to this material making it easier to learn, i.e. recall when needed to the degree needed.

Similarly, if I ask my students to consistently link new information with previously learned information, this too will become habit and be performed automatically when new information is encountered.

 Depth of Processing

DiverSilhouette2As Craik and Lockhart demonstrated quite convincingly in 1972, the way information is processed has a tremendous effect on the strength of the memory that is formed. They recognized three-levels of processing:

  • Shallow processing focuses on the structure of the information for example the typeface or other appearance of the information. Little understanding of the information is present in the interaction between the learner and information.
  • Phonemic processing focuses on the sounds of the information, i.e. when spoken. This ties into the importance of language in processing information. All language is based on audition. Reading is an auditory process. The parts of the brain used in processing the reading are the same as those used when hearing someone speak. It also ties to the structures in working memory using the phonological loop (phonological store and articulatory control) to process information and maintenance rehearsal.
  • Semantic processing focuses on the meaning of the information and relate it to similar information. It extends phonemic processing from sound to the meaning. It also sounds like association a LOT! These associations between pieces of information is called elaboration rehearsal. But, it also relates directly to the benefits of storytelling or conversation to learning. When you must explain information to someone else, you enter into a depth of processing in which information must be organized into a narrative that will be understandable. When speaking how often do you have insights that you hadn’t had previously? Encouraging students to explain to one another information that we’ve covered in class helps them take advantage of this aspect of depth of processing.

 Retrieval Practice

RetreiverAny recall of a memory strengthens that memory. So, any exercise that causes a memory to be retrieved will strengthen that memory including those that require the use of a procedure. The act of retrieval causes the memory to reconsolidate. Consolidation is the process of encoding a memory which includes time for the processes that take place below the level conscious awareness.

But there is a caveat here, there is solid evidence that the harder you work to recall concepts, facts, or events, the stronger the memory. If you think of memory as a web of interconnected concepts, words, qualities, facts, events, and procedures, and we add to this design, the rule that the more times we traverse a route between two nodes in that network, then the more times we activate that route, the stronger it becomes. It is almost like the more times you drive between two places, not only do you know the route better making it less likely that you’ll get lost, but that the road becomes wider, straighter, smoother, and less congested with traffic! And, to continue the analogy, it is as if you could move two points along the route closer together!

The next idea to be aware of in retrieval practice is that the practice should be spaced out. The distance between the present act of recall and the last act of recall will require more effort to be successful. Cumulative summative assessments supported by frequent cumulative formative assessments have strong empirical support for its effectiveness in forming strong enduring memories.

Learning is the ability to recall information and procedures when you need them to the degree that you need them. The more we can support the development of strong memories for the information and procedures we want them to know, the better our students will have learned.

Educational Approach

BeachArchI am not so much concerned about an educational philosophy as I am an approach to education. My BELIEF is that human beings evolved to do several things:

  1. Learn. We learn best through association. As has been oft repeated, we are associative machines. Associating danger with environmental cues equaled survival on the vast savannahs of East Africa where human kind first arose.
  2. Brain plasticity. Given focus and repetition and our brains change to make doing that thing whatever it is more efficient and automatic.
  3. Storytelling. As language developed, we began to tell each other stories. Our brains had evolved to use language, and our language caused our brains to change and eventually evolve. Not a Lamarckian inheritance, but those whose brains could manage the sophistication of the language had a greater chance of reproduction.
  4. Succeed. Everyone wants to succeed; no one wants to fail, but we live in a cruel world that has taught many of us that failure — especially at certain tasks — is inevitable.
  5. Play. It has been well demonstrated that play is one of our strongest motivators and reinforcers.

My APPROACH to education is take advantage of these tendencies in the classroom.