How We Learn and Its Importance to Teaching

What Is the most important aspect of being an effective educator? One of the most fundamental things we need to understand when working as educators is knowing how people learn. This may seem obvious but without this knowledge we cannot truly offer ourselves as informed and effective educators.

How We Learn

Learning involves far more than what happens in education. The process of learning is basic to every new habit formed as the result of experience. A child learns to identify its parents, to cry for their attention, to love them, to fear the neighbour’s dog, and so on. Children also learn how to control their bladder, to respond to verbal instructions and to sense people’s meanings from facial expressions. Even talking is learned. Later, we might learn to plan for our future, or to delay immediate gratification in favour of more distant goals. We learn religious attitudes, and learn systems of thought called scientific theories. It is possible for creative individuals to learn new creative ways of doing things, to develop artistic or intellectual abilities, and ways to use them for the benefit of the world.

We learn in a variety of ways, many of which are reliant on the process of memory, and other cognitive processes. We also learn through motor activity, or doing. What we learn and how well we learn, on the other hand, can also depend on our attitude and interest. If we want to learn something, and are willing to put effort into learning it, our learning success is likely to be much greater. Interesting research done in the USA showed that intelligence was actually a minor factor in determining a student’s success and an adult’s later success in life. More important were the person’s attitude and effort, and their willingness to persist in that effort, and change strategies as needed to achieve the desired results.

Basic Ways of Learning

Trial and error – this is the most basic approach to learning, and is used by children, animals and adults. It involves acting on one’s current understanding, and learning from the results.

It can be consciously used to assess one’s understanding and knowledge and to identity areas where more learning or different knowledge are needed to reach the desired conclusion. The problem is that if we rely on this method, we can spend too much time and energy experimenting, or making mistakes. Rather, it would be better to learn by understanding the basic principles first, then trying out the knowledge in a practical situation.
For instance, if you want to learn how to handle criticism, understand why people criticise and why we react as we do, and learn strategies for handling it better. Then, try out the theory in several instances, refining your strategy after each attempt.

Repetition – many facts can be learned in this way, and we also learn to pronounce words correctly this way. Most of us learned how to multiply by this method, where we recited parts of the times table over and over until we memorised them.

Understanding - understanding, rather than just repeating, is the basis for real learning. Without it, we do not have knowledge, but just a collection of information. If I look at the most informative, skilfully compiled chart but do not understand what that chart says about the effectiveness of my project management, I have facts, but not knowledge. Understanding something involves finding where it fits into your current knowledge, and how it is similar or different to similar knowledge. For example, if I understand good listening, I can relate it to may understanding of other communication skills, human nature, and workplace outcomes, such as productivity, efficiency and motivation. Understanding alone, however, does not ensure that we know what to do. A person might understand all the management theory, but not know how to apply it in a real situation.

Understanding and Repetition – here, we first understand the concept or the relevant principles, such as how plants are names, or the series of actions needed to successfully graft a plant, then we repeat the information in order to help us memorise it. The repetition can be verbal, as in reviewing our notes, or re-stating the steps, or it can be behavioural, as in doing the actions over and over until they are properly learned. This method is most effective because it combines two of the most potent learning tools: knowledge and memory.

Our capacity for memory is so vast that even if we fully utilised the brain’s memory for 70 years, its capacity would only be half utilised. In studies of memory, three aspects are considered. They are:

  • Encoding - Information received in the mind is encoded (transformed) in order that it will reside in the memory in a different form from that given by the stimulus.
  • Storage - This depends on whether stimuli received are committed to short or long term memory. Memory based on short transitory media is very short - perhaps a few seconds to a few hours. (eg. trying to recall a telephone number you called earlier in the day). Other memories can live for years or even decades. This type of memory is converted and committed to deeper parts of the brain, mainly by repetition.
  • Retrieval – We assume that short term memory retrieval is usually immediate, whereas we need to work at retrieving longer term memories. This is not always correct. When one desires to recall an item from memory, the brains memory store is scanned. The scanning proceeds by serial scanning, one item at a time, but extremely fast.

No one has bad memory! The memory itself is perfect, unless damaged by an accident or illness. If you tell yourself you cannot remember, your mind tends to block recall. However, if you allow memory to function effortlessly, without trying to block it, the response to recall will then be good.

Below are some simple strategies to improve your memory:

  • Make sure you understand and are interested in that which you wish to later recall. Material that is meaningful is more easily recalled than that which is meaningless, not fully understood or in which interest is lacking.
  • Try to remember by using the positive aspect, "I know".
  • Seek the feature around which the whole is formed. This involves intelligent selection of what one wishes to recall. For instance, if you are trying to recall the name of a particular genus of fish, try to recall the main fish genera and their characteristics. In those circumstances where essential parts go to form the whole, remember the whole and not the parts.
  • When trying to a step in a process, mentally review the whole process. It helps if you remember, for instance, that there are 12 steps in the process, and learned the twelve by repetition. If the item cannot be recalled, sleep on it and let the unconscious do its work. It is surprising how often this works.
  • Frequent repetition of the items will give dominant priority. This is the method of revising and re-revising before examinations.

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