The Learning Process

Teacher’s Perspectives on Learning

For teachers, learning usually refers to things that happen in schools or classrooms, even though every teacher can, of course, describe examples of learning that happens outside of these places. Learning has a more specific meaning than for many people less involved in schools. In particular, teachers’ perspectives on learning often emphasize three ideas, and sometimes even take them for granted: (1) curriculum content and academic achievement, (2) sequencing and readiness, and (3) the importance of transferring learning to new or future situations.

Viewing Learning as Dependent on Curriculum

When teachers speak of learning, they tend to emphasize whatever is taught in schools deliberately, including both the official curriculum and the various behaviors and routines that make classrooms run smoothly. In practice, defining learning in this way often means that teachers equate learning with the major forms of academic achievement—especially language and mathematics—and to a lesser extent musical skill, physical coordination, or social sensitivity (Gardner, 1999, 2006). The imbalance occurs not because the goals of public education make teachers responsible for certain content and activities (like books and reading) and the skills which these activities require (like answering teachers’ questions and writing essays). It does happen not (thankfully!) because teachers are biased, insensitive, or unaware that students often learn a lot outside of school.

A side effect of thinking of learning as related only to curriculum or academics is that classroom social interactions and behaviors become issues for teachers—become things that they need to manage. In particular, having dozens of students in one room makes it more likely that I, as a teacher, think of “learning” as something that either takes concentration (to avoid being distracted by others) or that benefits from collaboration (to take advantage of their presence). In the small space of a classroom, no other viewpoint about social interaction makes sense. Yet in the wider world outside of school, learning often does happen incidentally, “accidentally” and without conscious interference or input from others: I “learn” what a friend’s personality is like, for example, without either of us deliberately trying to make this happen. As teachers, we sometimes see incidental learning in classrooms as well, and often welcome it; but our responsibility for curriculum goals more often focuses our efforts on what students can learn through conscious, deliberate effort. In a classroom, unlike in many other human settings, it is always necessary to ask whether classmates are helping or hindering individual students’ learning.

Focusing learning on changes in classrooms has several other effects. One, for example, is that it can tempt teachers to think that what is taught is equivalent to what is learned—even though most teachers know that doing so is a mistake, and that teaching and learning can be quite different. If a teacher assigns a reading to students about the Russian Revolution, it would be nice to assume not only that they have read the same words, but also learned the same content. But that assumption is not usually the reality. Some students may have read and learned all of what was assigned; others may have read everything but misunderstood the material or remembered only some of it; and still others, unfortunately, may have neither read nor learned much of anything. Chances are that the students would confirm this picture, if asked confidentially. There are ways, of course, to deal helpfully with such a diversity of outcomes. But whatever instructional strategies we adopt, they cannot include assuming that what we teach is the same as what students understand or retain.

Viewing Learning as Dependent on Sequencing and Readiness

The distinction between teaching and learning creates a secondary issue for teachers, that of educational readiness. Traditionally the concept referred to students’ preparedness to cope with or profit from the activities and expectations of school. A kindergarten child was “ready” to start school, for example, if he or she was in good health, showed moderately good social skills, could take care of personal physical needs (like eating lunch or going to the bathroom unsupervised), could use a pencil to make simple drawings, and so on. The table below shows a similar set of criteria for determining whether a child is “ready” to learn to read (Copple & Bredekamp, 2006). At older ages (such as in high school or university), the term readiness is often replaced by a more specific term, prerequisites. To take a course in physics, for example, a student must first have certain prerequisite experiences, such as studying advanced algebra or calculus. To begin work as a public school teacher, a person must first engage in practice teaching for a period of time (not to mention also studying educational psychology!).

Table 4.1.1. Reading readiness in students vs in teachers
Signs of readiness in the child or student Signs of readiness to teach reading
productive (speaking) vocabulary of 5,000- 8,000 words teacher answers children’s questions when possible
child understands and uses complete sentences teacher encourages child to find out more through other means in addition to asking teacher
child’s questions tend to be relevant to the task at hand teacher asks questions designed to elaborate or expand child’s thinking
child’s correctly using most common grammatical constructions teacher highlights letters and sounds in the classroom
child can match some letters to some sounds teacher provides lots of paper and marking tools
child can string a few letters together to make a few simple words teacher assists child with initial writing of letters
child can tell and retell stories, poems, and songs teacher encourages children to enact stories, poems, and songs
Source: Copple & Bredekamp, 2006.

Note that this traditional meaning, of readiness as preparedness, focuses attention on students’ adjustment to school and away from the reverse: the possibility that schools and teachers also have a responsibility for adjusting to students. But the latter idea is, in fact, a legitimate, second meaning for readiness: If 5-year-old children normally need to play a lot and keep active, then it is fair to say that their kindergarten teacher needs to be “ready” for this behavior by planning for a program that allows a lot of play and physical activity. If she cannot or will not do so (whatever the reason may be), then in a very real sense this failure is not the children’s responsibility. Among older students, the second, teacher-oriented meaning of readiness makes sense as well. If a teacher has a student with a disability (for example, the student is visually impaired), then the teacher has to adjust her approach in appropriate ways—not simply expect a visually impaired child to “sink or swim.” As you might expect, this sense of readiness is very important for special education, but the issue of readiness also figures importantly whenever students are diverse (which is most of the time).

Viewing Transfer as a Crucial Outcome of Learning

Still another result of focusing on the concept of learning in classrooms is that it raises issues of usefulness or transfer, which is the ability to use knowledge or skill in situations beyond the ones in which they are acquired. Learning to read and learning to solve arithmetic problems, for example, are major goals of the elementary school curriculum because those skills are meant to be used not only inside the classroom but outside as well. We, teachers, intend, that is, for reading and arithmetic skills to “transfer,” even though we also do our best to make the skills enjoyable while they are still being learned. In the world inhabited by teachers, even more than in other worlds, making learning fun is certainly a good thing to do, but making learning useful as well as fun is even better. Combining enjoyment and usefulness, in fact, is a “gold standard” of teaching: we generally seek it for students, even though we may not succeed at providing it all of the time.

Transfer of learning is usually described as the process and the effective extent to which past experiences (also referred to as the transfer source) affect learning and performance in a new situation (the transfer target) (Ellis, Transfer occurs when people apply information, strategies, and skills they have learned to a new situation or context. It is not a discrete activity, but is rather an integral part of the learning process. Researchers attempt to identify when and how transfer occurs and to offer strategies to improve transfer. 

People store propositions, or basic units of knowledge, in long-term memory. When new information enters the working memory, long-term memory is searched for associations that combine with the new information in working memory. The associations reinforce the new information and help assign meaning to it (Souza, 2016). Learning that takes place in varying contexts can create more links and encourage the generalization of the skill or knowledge (Schunk, 2004). Connections between past learning and new learning can provide a context or framework for the new information, helping students to determine sense and meaning, and encouraging retention of the new information. These connections can build up a framework of associative networks that students can call upon for future problem-solving (Souza, 2016). Information stored in memory is “flexible, interpretive, generically altered, and its recall and transfer are largely context-dependent” (Helfenstein, 2005).

Factors that can affect transfer include (Souza, 2016):

  • Context and degree of original learning: how well the learner acquired the knowledge.
  • Similarity: commonalities between original learning and new, such as environment and other memory cues.
  • Critical attributes: characteristics that make something unique.
  • Association: connections between multiple events, actions, bits of information, and so on; as well as the conditions and emotions connected to it by the learner.

Learners can increase transfer through effective practice and by mindfully abstracting knowledge. Abstraction is the process of examining our experiences for similarities. Methods for abstracting knowledge include seeking the underlying principles in what is learned, creating models, and identifying analogies and metaphors, all of which assist with creating associations and encouraging transfer.

Video 4.1.1. What is ‘Transfer of Learning’ and How Does It Help Students? explains the difference between near (or low-road) transfer and far (or high-road transfer), as well as strategies for helping students transfer.

Transfer Taxonomies

The following table presents different types of transfer (Schhunk, 2004).

Table 4.1.2. Transfer taxonomies
Type Characteristics
Positive Positive transfer occurs when prior learning assists new learning.
Negative Negative transfer occurs when prior learning hinders or interferes with new learning.
Zero Zero transfer occurs when prior learning has no influence on new learning.
Near Near transfer occurs when many elements overlap between the conditions in which the learner obtained the knowledge or skill and the new situation.
Far Far transfer occurs when the new situation is very different from that in which learning occurred.
Literal Literal transfer occurs when performing the skill exactly as learned but in a new situation.
Figural Figural transfer occurs when applying general knowledge to a new situation, often making use of analogies or metaphors.
Low road Low-road transfer occurs when well-established skills transfer spontaneously, even automatically.
High road High-road transfer occurs when the learner consciously and deliberately (“mindfully”) evaluates the new situation and applies previous learning to it.
Forward reaching High-road transfer that is forward reaching occurs when learners think about possible other uses while learning.
Backward reaching High-road transfer that is backward reaching occurs when learners in a new situation think about previous situations that might apply.

Teaching for Transfer

Transfer is less a deliberate activity by the learner than it is a result of the environment at the time of learning. Teachers, being part of the learning environment, can be an instrument of transfer (both positive and negative) (Souza, 2016). Recommendations for teaching for transfer include the hugging and bridging strategies; providing an authentic environment and activities within a conceptual framework; encouraging problem-based learning; community of practice; cognitive apprenticeship; and game-based learning.

Hugging and Bridging

Hugging and bridging as techniques for positive transfer were suggested by the research of Perkins and Salomon. Hugging is when the teacher encourages transfer by incorporating similarities between the learning situation and the future situations in which the learning might be used. Some methods for hugging include simulation games, mental practice, and contingency learning (Souza, 2016).

Bridging is when the teacher encourages transfer by helping students to find connections between learning and to abstract their existing knowledge to new concepts. Some methods for bridging include brainstorming, developing analogies, and metacognition (Souza, 2016).


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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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