THINKING ABOUT LEARNING

 

Alex H Johnstone

University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

alexj@chem.gla.ac.uk

 

We have developed a model to help us think about the processes of learning. It is, however, just a model and not a comprehensive description of all aspects of learning.It comes in three parts: perception, working space and long term store.It is analogous to a computer in which perception = input (keyboard etc), working space = Random access memory (RAM) and long term store = hard disc.

 

Perception is a filtration process by which we choose to attend to certain parts of our sensory input and to ignore others.This filtration is controlled by our long term store where we decide on importance, interest and attention, based upon previous experience and knowledge.If something interests us or seems to be important, we pay attention to it.We also add to our perception, ideas and associations borrowed from previous experience.

This means that no two people will necessarily interpret the same input in the same way because we each have a different set of experiences recorded in our long term store.For example, a common word used in an uncommon way, may be understood differently by different students. A word such as "volatile" can have a set of meanings such as "unstable", "flammable", "explosive" and "easily vaporised".In a group of senior chemistry students, all of these meanings were offered in response to the word "volatile".The teacher had the chemical meaning in mind, while only ONE of the students perceived the same meaning!!

 

Working Space is where the filtered input goes for processing.This space has two functions: to hold information and to process it into an understandable form.It compares the input with material stored in long term store looking for connections which will make sense of the input.If a fit is found, the student says, "That makes sense".If, however, a fit is not found, the information may be rejected and forgotten or it may be "bent" to make it fit.This is where wrong ideas and misconceptions have their origin.The wrong chemistry we see in exam papers probably begins here.

There is one further complication about Working Space; it is of limited capacity.There is a limit to how much informationwe can store and process at a given time.There is also a trade-off to be done.If we have to hold a lot of information, we have little or no space left for processing it.Similarly, if we have a lot of processing to do, we cannot hold much.This is obvious in a lecture in which information is coming so fast that there is no chance to process it at the time.The Working Space is totally occupied with sending messages from the senses to the studentís pen.This is why studentís notes are often inaccurate, because they cannot process the incoming information and so fail to see mistakes.

 

Long-term store or Long-term memory is a vast store of information inter-linked in huge association networks.The store contains information of two kinds; Semantic knowledge which is shared by most people, and is usually second-hand. Examples would be "Rome is the capital of Italy", "The boiling point of water is 100įC".The other material which is stored is Episodic and is made up of personal knowledge and experience.It is personal and may differ widely from person to person.It contains likes and dislikes, beliefs and prejudices, interests and aversions.

 

When new information seeks to enter this store it can find an attachment in several ways:

 

(a) It can connect into the existing network correctly and increase and enrich the complexity of it.

(b) It can make a misconnection, often originating in language.

A student who understands Physical Equilibrium, may use this understanding to comprehend Chemical Equilibrium and, in so doing, make wrong assumptions.He may think that a chemical equilibrium is established when the concentration of reactants and products is equal, because he knows that physical equilibrium has equal masses (or moments) on both sides.

(c) It may find no point of attachment, but the student "parks" it in a space where it is difficult to retrieve it.It is not in his "filing system" and so gets lost easily.This is rote learning which students use before examinations to hold undigested information for an hour or so before it is lost again.

 

We have now come full cycle because what is learnt (or not learnt) controls the perception process of new incoming material.

 

The Model leads to a number of principles for teaching and learning which are set out below. If we want to improve our teaching and student learning we must pay attention to them.

 

Ten Educational Commandments

1.†††††† What you learn is controlled by what you already know and understand.

 

2.†††††† How you learn is controlled byhow you have learned successfully in the past.

 

3.†††††† If learning is to be meaningful it has to link on to existing skills and knowledge, enriching and extending both.

 

4.†††††† The amount of material to be processed in unit time is limited.

 

5.†††††† Feedback and reassurance are necessary for good learning.

 

6.†††††† Assessment should be humane.

 

7.†††††† Students should have opportunity to consolidate their learning by being shown linkages and associations.

 

8.†††††† There should be room for Problem Solving of all kinds to consolidate linkages.

 

9.†††††† There should be room to create, defend, try out and hypothesise.

 

10.†††† Students should have the opportunity to teach.