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How Much Learning Is Enough?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
993

In the case of missed opportunities, she suggests that over learning something might cause us to mindlessly accept something without thinking about why it might be so. My favorite story about such mindless acceptance of behavior involves a young bride who was having her mother-in-law over for dinner for the first time. She was baking a ham and before putting itt in the oven, she cut off the two ends. Her mother-in-law asked her why she was doing that, to which she replied that's what her mother had always done that. Intrigued, the bride called her grandmother, who said "Well, when your mother was young, we didn't have much money for fancy pans, so I had to use the same old small pan for everything. A ham didn't quite fit in it, so I always had to cut it down to fit my pan before I could put it in the oven." A very reasonable explanation, but one that fit only her circumstances. The bride and her mother were doing something automatic rather than questioning the process. 

 

Folks:

 

The posting below looks at the "problem" of over learning in some situations.  It is from Chapter 5 Helping Students Retain and Use What They've Learned in Other Settings, in the book: Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom by Marilla D. Svinicki, University of Texas-Austin. Published by Anker Publishing Company, Inc, now part of Josey-Bass an Imprint of John Wiley & Sons Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Josey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [www.joseybass.com].  Copyright© 2004 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.. Reprinted with permission.

 

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Reaching the Unreachable: Improving the Teaching of Poor Teachers

 

                                                                  Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

                --------------------------------------------- 1,437 words --------------------------------------------

                                                                      How Much Learning Is Enough?

 

I noted above that it is important for transfer that the initial skill be learned well, but that may be an oversimplification. Early in this chapter I talked about the controversy surrounding the assertion that a skill learned too well can actually hinder further learning. This particular area of discussion revolves around the opposing concepts of automaticity and mindful learning. Automaticity refers to a level of learning in which a response is so well learned that it requires very little effort on the part of the learners; it is automatic. those who argue in favor of automaticity say that it is good to have a lot of mundane tasks learned to that level in order to free up working memory capacity for things that really require attention. That makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? For example, for most people signing their name is a skill that has reached the level of automaticity; we can do it without thinking about it---in fact, while we are thinking about something else entirely, while talking to someone, and so on. The fact that signing is automatic means there's plenty of working memory capacity available for other tasks. But what happens when our

automatic response is disrupted? I once broke my right wrist in a tennis accident, and I'm right-handed. All the automatic skills that I could do so easily and without thinking had to be done with my left hand. All of them required that I think about what I was doing, thereby taking up working memory capacity. My behavior became much slower, I had to concentrate much more, my activity would be disrupted if people talked to me while I was signing my name because I couldn't talk unless I stopped writing, and so on. It was obvious that the level of automaticity I had reached with my right hand was saving me a lot of effort and time. So proponents of automaticity have a good argument; we need to have some skills so automatic that they don't require attention.

 

On the other hand, Judith Langer (1997) argues in her series on mindful learning that automaticity may be too much of a good thing.

 

She asserts that responding automatically can cause real problems in some situations and in others can cause us to miss opportunities. As an example, she cites the difficulty one has driving in a country where the traffic flows in the direction opposite to the one in your country; a whole series of skills that we have learned to automaticity now become lethal, as we turn into the traffic or look the wrong way first. In the case of missed opportunities, she suggests that over learning something might cause us to mindlessly accept something without thinking about why it might be so. My favorite story about such mindless acceptance of behavior involves a young bride who was having her mother-in-law over for dinner for the first time. She was baking a ham and before putting it in the oven, she cut off the two ends. Her mother-in-law asked her why she was doing that, to which she replied that's what her mother had always done that. Intrigued, the bride called her grandmother, who said "Well, when your mother was young, we didn't have much money for fancy pans, so I had to use the same old small pan for everything. A ham didn't quite fit in it, so I always had to cut it down to fit my pan before I could put it in the oven." A very reasonable explanation, but one that fit only her circumstances. The bride and her mother were doing something automatic rather than questioning the process.

 

Langer suggests that we should be careful what our students learn to automaticity. rather, she suggests that they be encouraged to be mindful learners, who understand what they are doing and why and they should be encouraged to question rather than accept things blindly. In this way, she asserts, they will be better able to see when things should transfer and when they shouldn't. I agree with Langer for the most part, although I also recognize that there are things that need to be at an automatic level, like vocabulary, in order not to slow down processing. The question every instructor is determining exactly which information or tasks should be automatic. Are we looking in the wrong places?

 

A final area of thinking about transfer has been proposed by two of the leading researchers in cognitive theory, John Bransford and Daniel Schwartz (1999). They propose that we have been looking in the wrong places for transfer, and as a result researchers have been disappointed in the degree to which evidence of transfer is seen in the literature. They suggest that different measures of transfer result in different interpretations about whether transfer has occurred. Most of the research on transfer uses direct applications of learning in the transfer tasks--that is, the tests are based on the same rules as the learning. But Bransford and Schwartz suggest that a better measure of transfer is preparation for future learning. In this instance, we would have to look at a much broader and longer time frame to see whether initial learning has produced an effect. What transfers in preparation for future learning is not so much the content itself but an ability to think differently based on past experiences. For example, they describe the learning of new word processing programs. Individuals who have already learned one program in general have an easier time of learning a second program, even if the programs are not similar, because learning the first facilitates

learning the second. We can ask better questions and pick up on cues more rapidly because we have gone through the first learning. However, the actual improvement in learning takes a while to manifest itself, and we have to look at the learning process (not just the results) to see the benefit. Another benefit of the prior learning may not be quick assimilation of new information but more critical examination of the learner's existing beliefs. Preparation for future learning helps learners to let go of old beliefs more readily,

 

What does this mean for us? First, these researchers have demonstrated that students who are initially allowed to generate their own ideas about a problem before they receive a lecture on it better understand the concepts behind the problem than students who are simply told what those concepts are. It isn't the experience of working on the problem that transfers; it is the appreciation for what variables are important to consider. So, for example, if I'm teaching students about IQ tests and their problems, I might start the lesson by having them generate ideas for different types of tests that we might use. Then

when I lecture on the current state of the IQ assessment, students will be able to understand the subtleties of how IQ assessments have evolved. Another recommendation from this interpretation of the literature is that being exposed to and working with contrasting cases initially is better preparation for future learning than a straight summarizing of the main ideas, even when the students do the summarizing for themselves.

 

An outcome of much of this new thinking is that transfer has been shown to be a much more dynamic process than originally thought. In transfer situations, learners actually transform the problem they are given based on what they already know. Being able to recognize or create a clearer picture of the problem is one of the first steps to better use of prior knowledge. As we will see in the chapter on meta-cognition and learning to learn, students who learn to monitor their own understanding and take steps to modify their thinking in light of that monitoring become much better problem solvers in the long run.

 

One of the most interesting discussions about the preparation for future learning concept is the support it lends to life experiences as a valuable aid in becoming a thinking person. Studying the humanities or going to work in the community have not yielded the direct transfer results one would hope for. However, Bransford and Schwartz argue that such experiences probably prime the pump in terms of being able to learn from the future, especially when they are accompanied by some reflective experience directing their attention to more generalizable lessons. This certainly supports the notion of a liberal education filled with a variety of experiences rather than narrow training in a specific field, which might be more efficient in the short run but

fail the test of preparation for future learning.