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How do we know when people learn?

By Charles Duncan, April 8, 2013

Every time I see this cartoon it makes me think… cartoon_with_credit How do we know when people learn? For anyone interested in learning this is surely the most fundamental question. If we don’t know the answer how can we expect to provide education or training?

Of course, this question has been posed many times and a lot of research effort has gone into answering it. Most of the research seems to fall into one of two types. Since we are trying to measure something we need to have something to compare it with. One way to do this is to ask how much has someone learned compared with what they knew earlier. This could be called the “value-added” approach. It has the advantage that it can be applied to people who start from different experiences as it only tries to measure the change. This value-added approach is loved by politicians as it is thought to show how much value has been added by a school or university education. It can then be used to compare different organisations and identify which added the most or least value.

The other approach could be described as the “accomplishment” approach. Can we measure what has been learned against some “absolute” standard? This is how we test if someone has learned to drive. It is also used by many professional bodies when they provide professional certification (doctors, accountants, pilots).

For an individual, and for their employer, it is surely the accomplishment approach that really matters. They want to know what level they have achieved and they are much less concerned about the various factors and processes that influenced their learning. For learners, motivation comes from having each small accomplishment recognised.

How can we measure someone’s accomplishment in a comprehensive way? First we need to know what they were expected to accomplish. Then we need to assess if they have succeeded. But most subjects are complex and to say that someone has accomplished mastery of a subject means we need to assess whether or not they have mastered every part of that subject that is considered essential. That means being able to assess every single learning objective. This means we need to put a very different emphasis on assessment than is common at present. This has been recognised by others, for example the Curriculum for Excellence adopted across schools in Scotland includes a framework for assessment that recognises its importance in relation to all the expectations and outcomes for the entire curriculum.

As well as making assessment a cornerstone of learning we also need to reconsider what it means to master a topic. For too long we have expected to assess all learners with the same examination and use grades as a means of measuring the degree of mastery. It would be better to provide different levels of challenge, even for a single topic, and expect complete mastery at the attempted level. After all, if you are about to be subjected to brain surgery do you want your surgeon to have completely mastered the subject or are you happy if he or she was right 60% of the time?

One enormous advantage of providing assessment for every single learning objective is the feedback and encouragement it will give learners to see the progress they are making.

Of course when we assess if someone has mastered a topic we will often find that they have not. That is the point at which we can really help someone to learn. But that is the subject of another article – or perhaps you would like to comment.

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...Every time I see this cartoon it makes me think… cartoon_with_credit How do we know when people learn? For anyone interested in learning this is surely the most fundamental question. If we don’t know the answer how can we expect to provide education or training?