How do you know that you actually learned something aka what are learning illusions

Author: Kadri Kalle, education program manager of Let’s Do It Foundation

How many of us have even thought about this – what happens in the learning process, how our brain takes in and assimilates new information? And how much our idea of what is learning differs from what learning actually is? And therefore – how should teaching be designed?

Disclaimer: this story is a very simplified insight into the psychological process of learning, where in reality there are many more important details than given in here.

Let’s start with two situations.

Situation no 1: At the end of a training, a learner feels they learned a lot from this day – the trainer gave a lot of new information and facts, the learning activities were playful, easy and simple.

Situation no 2: At the end of a training, a learner feels that the topic has become more messier for them, there has been some struggling, the trainer sometimes asked hard questions and they now have more loose ends and questions in their head than before.

Which learner learned more on that day and for what reasons they?

Of course, based on so little information, we cannot truly say who learned more, because we don’t know what actually happened in both trainings, if there were any follow up learning activities etc. It is possible that both learners learned something. But based on what information can we decide whether learning has been effective?

What does learning mean?

It means that some new knowledge or skill finds its way into our long term memory. To get that place in the long term memory, first this new skill or knowledge needs to be connected with our existing skills and knowledge – this means that learning is effort, struggle, unraveling – the brain needs to work and that usually is not easy! And foremost, this means getting confused, because we are encountering information that we do not yet have in our memory.

In the light of this, it is more probable that the learner in situation no 2 learned more. Or to be precise, the process of learning started. Because learning is a slow process and it starts with the learner starting to think more deeply about the topic, solving assignments or problems, which leads to them understanding what they know and what they don’t yet know – only in this process can the construction of new knowledge start in the learner’s head. And this means new questions. By the end of the learning process, the most important questions of course should be answered, but the learner should find them themselves, with the support of the teacher/trainer. If we don’t have any new questions, then it’s likely that our deeper thinking wasn’t even activated or we heard about things we already knew and therefore there was no new knowledge.

The illusions of learning

One of the main problems in the field of teaching and training is that many of us have so-called illusions of learning – misconceptions of when we learn and when we don’t. There are many studies confirming this: what often learners consider as effective learning methods are in fact not effective (several examples can be found in a popular science book about learning, “Make it Stick”). The main root cause of this is that the FEELING that we learnt something doesn’t necessarily mean we did. As it could be with the learner in situation no 1. Having seen many facts doesn’t mean they will be stored in our memory.

To truly know in which situation, no 1 or no 2, the learner learned more, we should ask them a couple of months later what they still remember from that training. This is another illusion of learning: we tend to estimate whether learning happened at the wrong time. Just because at the end of the training day we think we learned a lot, doesn’t necessarily mean we will remember it half a year later. It has been estimated that we forget roughly 70% of the information directly after having heard or read it. In order for the new knowledge or skill to be stored in our memory, it needs to be forgotten and recalled – the memory trace needs to be trained. This also means that the contact with this new information (and this doesn’t mean simply rereading, -listening or -watching but retrieving only from the memory) has to happen more than once. In this light we cannot also be sure if the learner in situation no 2 truly learned something, when the training was only a one-time meeting.

How do we know that we truly know something?

Effective learning can also start from learning to observe and analyse your own thinking and learning process, to know how to learn effectively, even if it doesn’t feel effective. This is called metacognition. As the saying goes: there are things we know we know; there are things we know we don’t know; and most difficult are the things we don’t know we don’t know. Metacognition could help us discover that.

I start most of my circular economy trainings with an exercise of definitions. I ask the participants to explain the meaning of several terms that they have all previously widely used in their texts or talk. And almost every time it turns out that these definitions and meanings are unclear and tangled with each other. It’s the knowledge that learners don’t know that they don’t know.

Therefore we should be critical towards our own knowledge and learning and test ourselves – do I really know this? How can I be sure of this? How do I know that I have learned effectively and acquired new knowledge?

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Can you explain the learnt topic to someone without looking at the study materials?
  • Can you recognize the core principles of the topic in different real life cases? What are the core principles of the topic?
  • Can you recall the learnt topic weeks or months later, without looking at the study materials?

To end with new questions – do we then also know how effective teaching should happen? How do we know when teaching has been effective?

Good opportunity to get to know this better is to come to our Zero Waste Trainer training, where we’ll look into these and other aspects of learning and teaching. As a result of the training you will get a solid basis for helping your learners understand your expert knowledge better.

And as a starter, you can read more about metacognition and how to teach effectively from the Zero Waste Handbook.

This story is based on the scientific work of many educational psychologists:

  • Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 417-444.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L, McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick.
  • Jacobson, M. J., Markauskaite, L., Portolese, A., Kapur, M., Lai, P. K., & Roberts, G. (2017). Designs for learning about climate change as a complex system. Learning and instruction, 52, 1-14.

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