What is Learning?

Pre-Course Survey: What did you say?

Thank you to the 105 people who have completed your Pre-Course Survey. This is 35% of people in our course.

I am having a great time reading what you had to say.

The first question I asked you was: What do you think learning is?

I greatly enjoyed reading your responses to this question.

Over a cup of coffee, I categorised each of your responses to six ways we can conceive, or think about, what learning is:

1 Learning is a quantitative increase in knowledge

2 Learning is memorising and reproducing

3 Learning is the acquisition of facts and methods which can be retained and/or used in practice

4 Learning is the abstraction of meaning

5 Learning is an interpretative process aimed at understanding reality (i.e. the real world around us)

6 Learning is changing as a person

These six categories of learning are in order of increasing complexity. They are cumulative, which means each way of conceiving learning includes those at the previous levels.

For example, if we conceive learning as ‘3 Learning is the acquisition of facts and methods which can be retained and/or used in practice’ we would also include 1 and 2 (a quantitative increase in knowledge and memorising) as part of what we think learning is; and if we conceive learning as ‘6 Learning is changing as a person’ we would also include each of 1-5 in our view of what learning is.

1 Learning is a quantitative increase in knowledge

“Learning is expanding or developing your knowledge”

“Gaining new knowledge that you previously did not know”

This view of learning is all about quantity – getting as many ‘clear-cut’ facts as efficiently and quickly as possible.

A principal feature of this way of thinking about learning is its vagueness: there is little idea about what we would actually do with what we are learning.

Also, the nature of learning is taken for granted and is something which is external to us; as if it is something done to us, rather than something we actually do ourselves and take charge of.

In this view of learning, we also see learning as consisting mainly of acquiring knowledge as separate pieces of information. There is very little recognition of a need to relate elements of the knowledge acquired.

55% of people in our course see learning this way.

2 Learning is memorising and reproducing

“Learning is being able to take something in and after a period of time being able to recall that information”

With this view, we see learning as acquiring and memorising knowledge with the intention of reproducing it (for example, for assessment purposes). It incorporates learning by repetition and, while it is still quantitative and impersonal in nature, it is distinguished from the previous way of viewing what learning is in that the acquisition of knowledge has gained a purpose: reproduction, for example in an assessment.

4% of people in our course see learning as this.

3 Learning is the acquisition of facts and methods which can be retained and/or used in practice

“[Learning is] the process of acquiring and using new information”

“Not only remembering but also being able to apply the knowledge into the realistic world”

The major feature of this way of viewing learning is the emphasis placed on applying (or potentially applying) knowledge acquired, for example to a future job. The application of knowledge involves retrieving and adapting what has been learnt and using it in a wide variety of circumstances. Unlike ‘2 Learning is memorising and reproducing’, applying the knowledge is not confined to simply reproducing (for example, for assessment purposes).

25% of people in our course see learning as this.

4 Learning is the abstraction of meaning

“Hearing new concepts/theories/ideas, and developing an understanding of them, as well as having your own complementary or contradictory opinions about them”

With this view, we take a more holistic view of learning. We think of learning as centring on the abstraction of meaning or understanding. We are focused on seeking to understand the concepts for ourselves and to make our own sense of what they mean. Also, we internalize learning (we see it as a part of us) and view it as a personal experience. For this reason, we actively engage in the learning process and see the importance of integrating newly-acquired knowledge with our prior learning and personal experiences. However, we see learning as being limited to the ‘classroom’ and to the study situation.

14% of people in our course see learning as this.

5 Learning as an interpretative process aimed at understanding reality (i.e. the real world around us)

“For me learning is about taking in and absorbing new information, and combined with my past experiences, contributing to a lifelong body of knowledge which forms my personal view of the world”

This way of viewing learning extends the previous one, in that abstracting meaning helps us to interpret the world around us and change our perspectives and how we view aspects of the world. In addition, this view of learning embraces an emotional aspect and learning is located firmly in the real world. We see learning as an individualistic, self-determined process.

1% of people in our course see learning as this.

6 Learning is changing as a person

“Developing intellectually”

“Improve yourself in a way that allows you to reach the full potential you are capable of”  [student from a previous course]

This way of viewing learning adds an existential aspect to learning (i.e. relates to our human existence). By developing new insights into phenomena and seeing the world differently, we find we change as a person. Learning is not bound by time or content; it is a voyage of personal discovery.

1% of people in course see learning as this.

Why are we looking at what we think learning is? Why did I ask you this question in our Pre-Course Survey? Can’t we just ‘get on’ with learning?

Well, the reason we are looking at this at the beginning of our subject, and at the beginning of university study for many of us, is because the way we view what learning is has a big impact on how we approach our learning at university … and what we actually end up learning in our degree.

The first three ways of viewing learning (seeing learning as reproductive, impersonal and as something external to ourselves; and involving being able to reproduce clear-cut, black-and-white facts from experts) are strongly related to a ‘passive’, surface approach to our learning.

The last three ways of viewing learning (where learning is seen as constructive, personal and being more engaged with and reflective about our learning; and involving searching for understanding and personal meaning while we organise the content into a coherent and meaningful whole) are related to an ‘active’, deep approach to learning.

And most importantly, there is strong evidence that if we conceive learning as the first three ways (low-level conceptions of learning) we will not engage in a deep approach to learning. In other words, it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition that we are able to conceive learning as one of the last three ways of viewing learning (high-level conceptions of learning) for us to be able to experience a deep approach to our learning.

It is not so easy to change the way we view what learning is. However, we can be supported to change our conception of learning as a result of explicit instruction, particularly where instruction on conception of learning is in a context where it is integrated with the content matter that we are primarily involved in studying.

So we are ‘giving it a go’ here in our course; to support you to change the way we view what learning is and then to change the way we experience how we learn: to learn in a personally ‘real’, active, deep way. And in a way that can change our lives.

Watch out! Studying accounting can change your life. 🙂

And what is surface and deep learning? Surface learning is reproducing ‘clear cut’ facts from experts. Deep learning is learning for understanding and developing personal meaning.

But more about this later.

Regards,
Martin

15 March 2016

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