Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

14 September 2011

Meaningful processing

Clark @ 6:08 AM

Sometimes I worry about the myths that are out there about learning.  Ok, to be honest I worry about them a lot. Learning styles, generational differences, digital natives, the list goes on. But one that has personally been surfacing a lot is the type of activity that leads to meaningful learning.  So it’s time for me to lay it out, for the record.

I’ve talked previously about social processing, so I’m going to focus specifically on individual processing.  And, realize, my goals are not the ability to recite rote knowledge, but I’ll even address that. Note, by the way, that there are really two types of knowledge (c.f. Van Merriënboer), the things you need and the complex problems you apply them to.  So, first we’ll start with the knowledge you need, and then the problems you apply them to.

To help folks get knowledge down, memorizing the core facts they’ll draw upon in solving complex problems, the main component necessary is reactivating the knowledge.  You need to match the term with the definition, the model with it’s relationships, etc.  Sheer repetition doesn’t help, even here it’s making choices and getting feedback.

So, for instance, coloring a poster with the associated words doesn’t do the necessary processing, you need to activate the necessary concepts with connections to relevant things.  You need to semantically process the terms again and again.  Elaborating them, putting them in context, applying them to simple problems is necessary.  Flash cards work because they require the association task.  Just exposure doesn’t work, even with testing, it’s discrimination from competing alternatives.

Then we get to the application. And frankly, if you’re not having folks learn things to use them, why are you bothering? That’s why I like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, she works backwards from the task and then only focuses on the knowledge necessary to do the task.  A good heuristic approach that couples elegantly to a principled foundation.  And, as converging theories suggest, you need to be applying knowledge to support the ability to transfer that skill out of the learning experience.

So, you need to be looking at the knowledge to be learned in a more discriminating fashion than just exposure, and you then need to be applying that knowledge to a suite of tasks to support making it useful. There’s more, such as the necessary spread of tasks to support appropriate decontextualization to support transfer, and sufficient and spacing of practice to support retention, but here I just want to emphasize that rote exposure to knowledge doesn’t mean it will be learned, and that learning facts without applying them doesn’t lead to any meaningful outcome.  So can we start focusing on learning activities that generate meaningful processing?  Please?


1 Comment »

  1. Hey Clark,

    Love the post. I guess when I read this though there is an aspect to ‘meaningful processing’ that is being neglected and for me is possibly the most important. ‘Learning’ is ultimately at the hands and control of the learner not the designer. A designer needs to be cognizant that the activities they build do not necessarily, no matter how well they are designed’ have a 1 to 1 relationship with the learning. That is designers do not create learning, they create a stimulus for learning, and that stimulus in an of itself, will produce not 1 learning outcome but many. My point being is the mapping process that you speak of, and the design of learning activities that generate meaningful processing should be focused on creating a stimulus and should therefore ALSO include the support required to allow a learner to complete their experience. Does this make sense? Along the same lines of a designer assuming that exposure leads to even the simplest form of learning, designers assume that their designs equals the learning. We even use ‘learning’ as a synonym for ‘instruction’ in many cases. So there’s the creation of activities that generate ‘meaningful processing’ but that for me is the stimulus. There is then the need to support the stimulus and the various directions the experience of the stimulus may lead people to.

    Comment by Reuben Tozman — 14 September 2011 @ 8:39 AM

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