Part Two: How People Learn

We have developed a Prefect Training Program that is guided by theories about learning. Almost all of our training is about putting theory into practice. Here are some theories about learning and some results of research into how people learn deeply through active learning.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (1999), by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., was written because “Science now offers new conceptions of the learning process and the development of competent performance. Recent research provides a deep understanding of complex reasoning and performance on problem-solving tasks and how skill and understanding in key subjects are acquired. This book presents a contemporary account of principles of learning, and this summary provides an overview of the new science of learning.”

Best of all, the entire book is now available online, for free. Given your role as Prefect, we think you’ll find chapter two, How Experts Differ from Novices, particularly valuable. Here’s the introduction to the chapter: “People who have developed expertise in particular areas are, by definition, able to think effectively about problems in those areas. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.”

Two other chapters are also particularly valuable: Learning and Transfer , Mind and Brain, and Effective Teaching: Examples in History, Mathematics, and Science.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom created this taxonomy for categorizing level of abstraction of questions that commonly occur in educational settings. In your work as a prefect, consider ways you might move students’ understanding of course content from the specific to the more abstract.

The cognitive domain involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. This includes the recall or recognition of specific facts, procedural patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of intellectual abilities and skills. There are six major categories, which are listed in order below, starting from the simplest behavior to the most complex. The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulties. That is, the first one must be mastered before the next one can take place.[1]

Competence Skills Demonstrated
  • observation and recall of information
  • knowledge of dates, events, places
  • knowledge of major ideas
  • mastery of subject matter
  • Question Cues:
    list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.
  • understanding information
  • grasp meaning
  • translate knowledge into new context
  • interpret facts, compare, contrast
  • order, group, infer causes
  • predict consequences
  • Question Cues:
    summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend
  • use information
  • use methods, concepts, theories in new situations
  • solve problems using required skills or knowledge
  • Questions Cues:
    apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover
  • seeing patterns
  • organization of parts
  • recognition of hidden meanings
  • identification of components
  • Question Cues:
    analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer
  • use old ideas to create new ones
  • generalize from given facts
  • relate knowledge from several areas
  • predict, draw conclusions
  • Question Cues:
    combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite
  • compare and discriminate between ideas
  • assess value of theories, presentations
  • make choices based on reasoned argument
  • verify value of evidence
  • recognize subjectivity
  • Question Cues
    assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

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Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning

Most of the time, in a typical classroom setting, students are involved only passively in learning, listening to the instructor, looking at the occasional overhead, slide, or PowerPoint, and reading (when required) the textbook. Research shows that such passive involvement generally leads to a limited retention of knowledge by students, as indicated in the “cone of learning.”

The lesson here is to engage students is active learning.

Collaborative Learning

“Those who stay in science tell of small, student-organized study groups. They meet outside of formal classes. They describe enjoying intense and often personal interaction with a good lab instructor. In contrast, those who switch away from the sciences rarely join a study group. They rarely work together with others. They describe class sections and lab instructors as dry, and above all, impersonal.” -- Light, Harvard Assessment Seminars, 1992 (p. 10).

"Tell me, and I forget. Show me, and I remember. Involve me, and I understand."
-- Chinese Proverb

"Key features of cooperative learning are very consistent with the basic tenets of adult learning theory (andragogy), namely: adults learn best through active, experiential techniques involving discussion and problem solving which allows them to draw on their backlog of personal and professional experiences (Knowles, 1984)."--Cuseo, "Cooperative learning," 1992, p. 2.
(Both quotations are from the Review of Successful Practices in Teaching and Learning)

From Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking: The concept of collaborative learning, the grouping and pairing of students for the purpose of achieving an academic goal, has been widely researched and advocated throughout the professional literature. The term ‘collaborative learning’ refers to an instruction method in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. The students are responsible for one another's learning as well as their own. Thus, the success of one student helps other students to be successful.

“Proponents of collaborative learning claim that the active exchange of ideas within small groups not only increases interest among the participants but also promotes critical thinking. According to Johnson and Johnson (1986), there is persuasive evidence that cooperative teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals. The shared learning gives students an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers (Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ, 1991).”

Reflective Learning

Reflective learning is an important emphasis in the sciences at Carleton College. The process of reflective learning has some resemblance to Bloom’s taxonomy. It can be described in five stages, with reflection taking place primarily in the last three[2]:

Noticing Being observant; you cannot learn something if you do not notice it.
Making Sense Getting to know the material as coherent; fitting the facts together like a jigsaw, but not relating the material to other ideas
Making Meaning The start of relating the new material to other ideas; putting it into context.
Working with Meaning Going beyond the given; linking of the new material to existing ideas, as a result of which the learner’s overall understanding may start to change.
Transformative Learning Ideas and understanding are now restructured and the learner is able to evaluate the processes that lead to this new learning.

A Few Ways to Promote Active Learning in Your Sessions

In order to achieve the highest retention rates in learners, teaching methods need the learner to work actively with the content materials and new concepts. Below are several strategies that, while written to assist instructors in preparing for the classroom, you might want to integrate into your prefect sessions.

Give Practice Quizzes and Problems
A practice quiz is a low-stakes (or no-stakes) way for students to evaluate what they do and do not know. A practice quiz also reduces anxiety and demystifies the test- and quiz-taking situation. Students note in their End-of-Term Surveys that they really appreciate Prefects who give them practice quizzes and problems.

Require Students to Write
Research has shown that stopping a lecture after presenting a main concept for three minutes, allows students to write notes, thoughts and reflections, and learner retention rates improve noticeably over a "just lecturing" method.

One-Minute Informal Writing
These quickly produced papers provide an extremely simple way to collect written feedback on student learning. Stop the session and ask students to respond briefly to some variation on the following two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned during this session?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” Students then write their responses on index cards or half-sheets of scrap paper and hand them in (no names are necessary). The instructor reviews the papers before the next session and clarifies the material as needed.

Think - Pair - Share
After you discuss a concept, stop the session and allow students to collect their thoughts, then have them discuss the concept for 3-5 minutes with the person next to them or in trios. Finally, ask/choose pairs to share with everyone else or report to you for questions about the material, etc.

Brainstorming is a good technique for generating ideas quickly. Make sure everyone understands the ground rules: no response is wrong, and every response is accepted without discussion or argument. Once brainstorming has elicited a sufficient number of responses, guide students to use their analytical and synthesizing skills to determine best ideas.

Concept Mapping
In concept mapping, students create visual representations showing the relationship between concepts. Ask them to draw circles containing concepts and connect them with lines. The lines may have phrases showing the connection between concept circles. Making concept maps can be done in groups or individually, and both inside and outside of the session. The process offers practice with critical thinking skills, such as categorization, and comparing and/or contrasting concept elements.  Professor Trish Ferrett (Chemistry) and Lindsey Madison (prefect) have used this technique and with great success; talk with them for more information.

Demonstrations are effective at visually showing and allowing student interactions with various course concepts. Students can be asked to predict an outcome to a given situation and then assess/evaluate/justify if their prediction was valid based upon the demonstration. In other instances, the demonstration serves to allow students to construct meaning and make connections in their learning based upon their observations and first-hand experience.

Case Studies and Real-World Events and Issues
You might consider bringing in case studies for students to consider and then analyze, applying concepts, data, and theory taught from class. Students can work individually or in groups or do this as a think-pair-share activity. Using case studies in combination with a brief in-class writing assignment adds to the students actively working with the subject content.

Role Play
Role playing is a method of acting out an imaginary, but real-life situation. Helping students better understand what it means to “walk in someone else’s shoes” or to get a handle on how they themselves may respond in certain situations can be greatly enhanced through role playing. This strategy can be extremely effective, but it is important to be sensitive to the fact that some students are very uncomfortable acting out. Be ready to provide alternative activities to anyone needing one. One alternative is to have students write about their assigned role rather than act the role.

Student Debates/Discussion Panels
Debates and discussions can be informal and take place between individuals or groups. They allow students the opportunity to take a position and gather data/logical arguments to support their view, critically. The process also offers experience with verbal presentations. Some prefects may ask students for their personal view and then make them argue for the opposite position.

Games such as “Jeopardy” can be adapted for course material and used in review and for assignments.

[1] Source of this paragraph: Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Emphasis added.

[2] Source: Personal Development Planning, from the Handbook for Economics Lecturers.