What does 'learning' mean to you, and how do you measure it?

I'm not setting out to engage in a hissy fit here. I am hoping for a genuine debate and/or exchange of ideas.

Much as I find his presentation style engaging, I have trouble with the fact that Dr Itiel Dror appears to equate learning with recall. In order to assess learning, he tests recall.

When I was a child, committing material to memory was something of a party trick - something to be admired. While I was deeply impressed by Tony Buzan's story of the man who could remember a 200+ digit number, having heard it only once, I can't help wondering what the point is of such a skill.

Nowadays, the shelf life of information is so short, there seems little point wasting brain resource on committing it to memory. When information... any information at all... is so immediately available via the technology at our disposal, I'd rather my learners knew how to find some or other piece of information in its latest incarnation, when they need it.

One of the presenters at the conference gave a stated goal of her project as being the reduction of 'nudge learning' from a neighbour. I'm having a hard time seeing nudge learning as a problem. In fact, I think it's great, and I try to find ways to build into my solutions the means to nudge the right person on any given topic.

So, in this age, what is learning, if it isn't recall? How do we assess it? Do we need to assess it?

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Hi Karyn
Itiel would agree that knowing HOW to do something is learning. I'm with him and the psychological community on this one, defining learning as the process of encoding, processing, retention and recall. Knowing THAT something is the case and knowing HOW are both subject to the similar cognitive constraints and learning processes. Indeed the differences are to do with the differences discovered by experimental psychology around different types of memory. This in turn has led to advances in learning teachniques uncovered by science. You are right nto question what we are being asked to commit to memory, however, we still have to remember any new techniques, even the ones that tell us to avoid committing things to memory. Learning is precisely this.

There are huge increases in productivity in learning to be gained when we truly understand how the learner deals with learning, and this is the realm of experimental psychology. It is unfortunate that we're still under the spell of old Skinnerian behaviourism and Freudian nonsense in the learning world, as there's lots of brilliant research and findings that can truly revolutionise learning, if applied.

Cognitive overload, chunking, spaced practice, semantic versus episodic memory, optimised media mix....there's a long list here.

The 'nudge' person seems to be genuinely confused!
I'm not sure I can think of a better measure of learning than recall. I think the problem is that as L&D folk we have a tendency to believe that learning has some kind of intrinsic value, when in fact learning only has value when it is applied.

I would agree that the shelf life of some infomation is short (although some is timeless) and as Donald says we should be choosy about what we memorise. Even with the short shelf life information, it still pays me to not only remember and recall that I can find what I want via Google, but to memorise the Google operands that can be used to make search more efficient.

In answer to the do we need to assess it? I'm only interested in the application, not the learning - what you do will always be more important to me than what you know.

On the other hand, Itiel will always have a need to assess it, because he is in the business of helping us understand how the brain works.
I think we're addressing the same point, Barry. It's about being able to apply the knowledge. Remembering something does not equal having the ability to apply it.

So, in the light of what you and I both hold true, in order to test whether a person knows something, you achieve little by testing whether they can remember it. Instead, we should be devising tests of contextual application. So, if you allowed an open book resource assessment which allowed people to access the information at the point of need, but did not mark them on that, you could instead assess their ability to apply the information they have just looked up. Would that not be a more accurate assessment of knowledge?

I have always (and I mean always - I had this debate with teachers when I was at school) been of the view that the current assessment model favours the person with the good memory over the person with good application understanding. And, as such, leans towards behaviourism.
I totally agree with your first statement, but not your second. I think you're applying the wrong test.

You say that in order to test whether someone knows something, you achieve little by testing whether they can remember it. I disagree. If what you want to test is whether they know something, then testing recall is the best way.

However, I wouldn't test whether they know something (it has no value to me) - I'd test whether they can do something. I'm not testing the learning, I'm testing the application.

I certainly agree that this testing model favours memory over performance.
Thanks, Barry - I think you have captured exactly what I am trying to say... only far more eloquently, and with far more accurate use of semantics.

I maintain the only accurate measure of workplace learning is workplace performance, which is where a genuine two-way review process is irreplacable. Sadly it has been replaced in many organisations - by a unilateral box-ticking exercise :o(
The English obsession with semantics comes in handy at times :)

I completely agree, many organisations do seem to rely on the tick box approach to assessment. My own belief is that there are a number of reasons for this;

* It's cheap and easy to do
* Managers like managing stuff, not people, and so don't deal with tough issues
* L&D are happier to be measured on actvity/recall rather than performance
The smart money is on 'apply' type questions most of the time. And yes they're harder to write and both training and compliance people tend to inflict recall questions because they're easier. But sometimes a person's job involves giving verbal explanations - sales, call centre etc - and for them it's no good reading it off a job aid. So they have to recall and you have to test recall.
As an amazing coincidence I'd just typed a long reply along these lines, which I accidentally deleted. The phone went and it was a trainer with whom I'm working on a project. She'd given me a detailed and tedious compliance framework that her SME, an auditor, had given her; I'd sent her back to find situations in which this stuff would be applied, so instead of 'what is the rule/' find 'in this situation what do you do?'. She came back and said that she'd spoken to some of the target audience - auditors - and they in fact need to memorise this stuff because they have to explain to their customers what exactly they might be in breach of and what legislation both states and means. So the target behaviour turns out to be a verbal explanation - but a good one.

Ruth Clark's 'remember' and 'use' level objectives are a good reference point; sometimes the objective has to be 'remember' for good reason. But yes they should be the minority. And it needn't be stupid questions. (Cathy Moore: 'Ask them what pert of the person's job is answering multiple choice questions?')
I would start defining what information means. For me, information is various types of data, facts - which might not be in a context or integrated all together.

Based on this, I think learning is not only about gathering information - this is something now everyone can do thanks to internet - but rather internalize that information, put it into context, integrate them all together and with completely different types of information etc.

I attended the CIPD HR conference last year, specifically a seminar about neuroscience. I learnt that the best way we can learn is to solve a problem. If this is the case, well, then it is VERY important to recall experiences, reflections, information - anything to help solving an issue. So, it might be that the best way of measuring learning is to check on the solutions? After all, this is what companies are looking for when they invest in L&D - solutions, new skills, change of behaviour etc.

Funnily, my friend and I were talking yesterday - how does the "new" generation who grew up surrounded by technology, internet, mobile phones etc. use their brain and learn nowdays? Why are they using the internet for? Maybe I'm too old fashioned, but I still respect learning by memorizing information - as I see this as a base to build on. Otherwise, if I have no memory to hold on even a piece of info... then what's the point?
Hi Timea

Thanks for your reflections. What I wonder, with regard to the memorising things is this:

I have been told by several unrelated people who are in a position to know, that, by the time an engineering student reaches his/her third year, at least half of what they learned in their first year has been rendered obsolete. Much information has a very short lifespan, so memorising it is counterproductive. Of course, 7X8 (as far as we can tell) will always = 56, so perhaps times tables are useful to memorise.

But - by contrast - we used to have to memorise the capital cities of countries. The world map looks so different now from the way it did when I was a child (and if your profile pic is anything to go by, that was even longer ago than in your case ;o)) - countries have changed shape and name, some new countries have come into existence, others have changed their capital cities or the names of their capital cities. Trying to sift through my memory bank to sort the still-current information from the obsolete is a huge task. So I simply dumped most of it. Now, if I need to know the capital city of a country, I google it.

By far the most valuable skill I have is that of finding information when I need it. That skill was not taught to me at school (sadly). My sons think I know everything about everything. Their first port of call on any subject is me. I have tried to show them how it is that I 'know' so much and my older son (seventeen) is finally getting the picture. This morning he was faster on the draw than I was to find out if his school was closed due to snow. He learned that it wasn't. Tomorrow, he may need to learn that piece of information again, because it may have changed.

This is why I am such a fan of George's connectivism theory. We seek patterns, we sift, we process, we revise the shape of what we know based on new incoming information. But memorise? Not very often.

Perhaps I'm just trying to justify my eroding memory as I age ;o)
If the younger generation don't memorise stuff, why do they beat us in pub trivia quizzes?
Speak for yourself, Norman! ;)
Learning for me is being able to do something now that I wasn't able to do before. For example, blogging and taking part in forum's like this is not natural to me and I'm sure that in my early days I will make a few mistakes. (Whilst typing this I've also just learnt what the genius function does on the iPod I acquired.) As for measuring it..for me its like saying how long an elastic band is......do we need to measure it?



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