How we learn


Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m a reflective person. And among all the things that have fascinated me about the field of education is how we learn, and to some extent, how this body of growing knowledge may contradict classroom practices.

I remember well thinking I had “how to learn” mastered by the time I got to college. I’m not saying I didn’t have some skill in this area, but my self-assessment was probably too high to reflect reality. Despite the way it made my hand hurt to write out answers in blue books for exams, I so enjoyed those experiences in hindsight. The ability to cogently and effortlessly provide an answer with a number of cited examples was, well, it was a performance! The relish to all of this were the professor’s comments, typically written, scrawled maybe, in red ink. All those scratches weren’t praise, of course.

My method, for those curious, I’d learned in a study skills class offered by my high school’s guidance counselor, who himself, was a little nerdy. You could tell he enjoyed teaching the class, which was called LTAP. They taught us note taking skills and when I got to college, I wanted to do well. It was the only skills I had, honestly, about how to take on this new challenge of college.

I used notebook paper and took decent notes in class lectures. Then I’d re-copy those notes, summarizing where possible, or paraphrasing. It was my way of dealing with the material in my own way, processing it. Then the final study session would be me reviewing those “secondary” notes I’d made, on the back sides of my notebook paper. I’d use a colored pencil or marker to underline, circle, or highlight important terms.

It helped me on exams but after all of that? All those details went into the ether. It wasn’t stored in longterm memory.

Prensky’s List

As I started my research into gamification, I came across the 2001 book by Mark Prensky, Digital Game-Based Learning. Inside, he produces a fabulous list of the myriad of ways we learn. This is not a neurological explanation, or even philosophical. It was just… a list. A glorious list.

Learning happens when one is engaged in hard and challenging activities.

This one resonated because it seemed to capture what I knew about flow and Papert’s concept of hard fun

I wrote this in reflection of the discovery:

I don’t know if you might have offered an answer like that, but I found it profound in its simplicity, and it resonated with my own thinking about my own formal and informal learning journeys. I was a music student growing up, and I found mastering a piece at the piano hard. And challenging, although probably to the seven year old version of myself, I’d just have said “hard.” Most pieces I’d tackle would start hard and get easier over time. But doing “hard work” sounds awful, though, doesn’t it? Hard work sounds like what we’d do if we’d been sentenced to a prison camp (or maybe a high-stress job?). Which reminds me of what one of my music education professors once told me, later in life. “Don’t ask students to practice. Practice,” he said, “sounds like work, and we are dispositioned to not want to work. So ask them to play, instead. Play has a positive connotation.” He smiled and walked away, after dropping that bit of wisdom upon us.

There are of course authors who prefer to be on the more scientific side of learning.

Hattie and Yates (2014, p. 113) present to us five factors that contribute to learning:

  • Time,
  • Goal-orientation,
  • Supportive feedback,
  • Accumulated successful practice, and
  • Frequent review.

Probably my mistake in college was not taking more frequent reviews of material. And never using office hours to get feedback from professors. (Not true, but those were very infrequent, due probably to some social anxiety.)

Finally, here’s a few more from Prensky:

  • You can’t learn unless you fail.
  • People learn in context. People learn when elements are abstracted from context.
  • Learning should be fun. Learning should be hard work.
  • People learn just in time, only when they need to.
  • People learn through feedback.
  • People learn through reflection.
  • People learn from stories and parables.
  • People learn by playing.
  • People learn through games.
  • People learn when they are having fun

This list I think is an apt reminder that learning comes to us in a bounty of structured, formal, and too many informal, casual means. And there’s nothing wrong, I might add, in our efforts to make learning fun.