Seven drivers of learning

While educators are facing an onslaught of new technologies and ways of teaching, Arun Pereira and John Mullins argue that there are seven simple but well-established drivers of learning that, regardless of technology, are forgotten at our peril

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These days, amid widespread criticism of educational institutions and the results they deliver (or don’t!), educators of all kinds are being offered an onslaught of new technology-driven educational approaches whose purpose is to enhance students’ learning. There are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that make a lecture on almost any imaginable subject available anytime, anywhere, for free: get your education one 8-minute chunk at a time while you ride the bus or fly on a plane. There are online MBAs – perfect if your workplace is an oil rig in the South China Sea. There are troves of online educational content, such as that offered by the Khan Academy, that help students learn outside – rather than inside – the classroom. Inside the classroom there are new digital and other tools intended to bring what are all-too-often soulless and boring “Death-by-PowerPoint” lectures to life:  collaborative tools like Klaxoon, Creati.st, and Top Hat; polling devices; the so-called “flipped classroom”; and more.  Some of these innovations may stand the test of time. Others surely won’t.

Amid all the hand wringing about how we educators might consider deploying such technologies and the pedagogical approaches they make possible, and thereby do a better job, lest we be disrupted – or even eliminated – by technological progress, it’s important that we not forget what we already know about how people learn best. Yes, we all learn differently, as the research on learning styles makes abundantly clear (Kolb 1984; Mumford 1997). But, at least for those of us teaching in business schools, cutting across such differences are seven well-established drivers of learning, key principles that, regardless of the learning setting and learning technology, are forgotten at our peril. In this article we explore seven such drivers,[1] and we examine their implications for those of us who teach in business schools and how we might do what we do better and more effectively.

[1] We note that there are numerous research-based summaries of principles by which people learn, including Bain 2004, Ambrose et al. 2010, Brown et al 2014, and others. Our focus here is on seven drivers of learning that we find particularly relevant for those teaching in business schools.

Learning Driver #1:  People learn best when they are actively and cooperatively engaged in their learning

A substantial body of research dating back several decades puts it simply. “Learning is not a spectator sport.” (Chickering and Gamson 1987). In business schools, there are numerous forms of learner engagement that are inherently active and cooperative, of course: case discussions, mini-discussions with one’s neighbour in the classroom, study-group work, group assignments, projects, and more. Many of these learning activities require learners to go beyond knowledge and comprehension, and engage in middle- and higher-order thinking tasks such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom 1956). Alas, however, it has been said, not always in jest, that in too many classes the notes of the lecturer enter the notebooks of the students, without passing through the minds of either!

Reflection Point:  Simply “telling” is not teaching, and listening is not learning. Are we designing our curricula and our courses and the set of learner activities – inside and outside the classroom – to ensure active, engaged, cooperative learning?  Too often, we are not.

Learning Driver #2:  People learn best when they are given opportunities for reflection

Clearly, “… learning is enhanced by structuring opportunities for reflection…” (Bowden et al 2000). Reflecting on variations across similar situations enables learners to draw distinctions about what’s significant or important and what’s not, about the effects of context, and more. “It is through engaging students in reflecting upon the process and outcomes of their studying that progress is made” (Gibbs 1981). Yet how often do we hear from a business school instructor the following refrain: “I was unable to cover all the material because I ran out of time.” Sometimes we’re under the illusion that learning is happening best when our lips are moving. But as a wise and seasoned professor told one of us early in his academic career, “I used to think learning was happening when my lips were moving. But I’ve come to understand that the most learning is happening when their lips are moving.” Giving students time to reflect, and then share their reflections, is crucial.

Reflection Point: Do we allocate time for periodic reflection in our classes?  How do we ensure reflection takes place as part of students’ assignments and outside activities?   Might we remind ourselves that experience by itself is not necessarily a good teacher (regardless of whether the experience is inside the classroom, or through learning projects outside the classroom)? Reflecting on the experience makes the learning complete.

Learning Driver #3:  People learn best when their prior knowledge and experiences are built upon

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” (Ausubel et al. 1978). Fortunately, we business school instructors work every day with learners who already possess a lifetime of experience with the world of business. First and foremost, they’re all consumers, and many have been employees or owners of businesses, too. Second, they’ve all learned since childhood about saving and spending, and about what is more or larger, about what’s less or smaller. They’ve learned that some things are expensive, others cheap.  Even better, there’s almost always someone in our classrooms who knows as much as – or more! – about a given topic than do we. There’s simply no excuse, no reason, why nearly everything we teach can’t be related in some way to our students’ past knowledge and experiences at some stage in their lives. “The more we tie information to the learner’s past knowledge … the deeper the learning.” (Medina 2008).

Reflection Point: It’s been said that that the best way to make new concepts stick is to use old associations as glue.  Do we take the trouble to choose cases, examples, and assignments where the context and setting are familiar to the students we teach?

Learning Driver #4:  People learn best when they are able to organise information into patterns and chunks

One of our colleagues was heard once to remark that, “The admissions office puts talented students into our classrooms. If we don’t mess them up too badly while they’re with us, they’ll be good when they leave.” But we’d do our students a disservice if giving them a badge and a larger network was all there was to a business school education.  How might we avoid this?  “A big difference between novices and experts is that experts have organised their knowledge into patterns and novices have not.” (Brent and Felder 2001). Pattern-matching is a key managerial skill for making sense of today’s fast-changing world, and it’s our job as instructors to help learners create and understand those patterns.

Moreover, according to neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (2012), chunking represents our ability to “hack” the limits of our memory. Chunking allows people to take smaller bits of information and combine them into more meaningful, and therefore more memorable, wholes. There’s a reason, after all, that telephone numbers have long been divided into groups – chunks – to make them easier to remember. Sadly, though, these days it’s our mobile phones that remember our loved ones’ phone numbers, not us.

Reflection Point: Memory is closely related to learning, and memory fades if we don’t build mechanisms for effective retrieval.  To enable retrieval, can we better frame, organise, and integrate our material into more easily digestible patterns and chunks?

Learning Driver #5:  People learn best when they are motivated

Alas, we’ve all had students in our classrooms who simply did not want to be there, for whatever reason. Perhaps ours is a core course that’s required of all students, and some of them would rather be doing something else with their time. Or perhaps we as instructors are failing to deliver on one or more of the learning drivers, and we’re the problem. If students are not interested in what we have on offer and find it irrelevant to their goals and expectations, we can hardly expect them to be motivated to learn. “Motivation influences the amount of time and effort students devote to learning and supports their continued engagement when difficulties arise.” (Hidi et al. 2004). One key to establishing learner motivation is relevance. “If students do not find the content relevant, they may see little value in mastering it and engage in behaviours required for deep learning.” (Ambrose et al., 2010). There are obvious implications here for curriculum design, as well as what we do in the classroom each and every day.

Reflection Point:  If we as teachers cannot make our subject matter relevant to our students, perhaps it shouldn’t be in the curriculum at all!  To ensure relevance in our material, might we ask about the goals and aspirations of our students?  Do we take the trouble to understand why students have enrolled in our programmes and courses, and what they expect to gain from them?

Learning Driver #6:  People learn best when feedback is provided

“Studies of adaptive expertise, learning, transfer, and early development show that feedback is extremely important. Given the goal of learning with understanding, assessments and feedback must focus on understanding and not only memory for procedures or facts.” (Bransford et al. 1999).  There are profound implications here for how we assess and thereby encourage further learning, of course. Are conventional examinations, which all too often focus on what’s been memorised, or at best, what’s been understood, the most effective way to provide feedback to help learners learn more?  Should assessment be “for learning”, instead of “of learning”? Alas, we too often assess what’s easiest to measure on an exam, rather than what we really want learners to learn.

Reflection Point: We tend to think of assessment as the end of each segment of a learning journey, rather than as a learning experience in its own right and a stepping-stone to more learning.  Might we assess earlier and more often (rather than at just the mid-point and end of the term)? Would doing so be valuable for students, and for teachers alike?

Learning Driver #7:  People learn best when the intended learning outcomes are clear

“Well-expressed statements of intended learning outcomes help students to identify their own targets, and work systematically towards demonstrating the achievement of those targets.” (Race 2001). Sadly, these days, some of us are caught up in administrative requirements that we state learning goals and learning objectives for what we teach and even, sometimes, for each small portion thereof. We’re asked to do so for good reason, as Race notes.

But sometimes, there’s merit in the “Aha! Moments” that we conjure up through the use of compelling materials and vigorous class discussion. Perhaps giving away the punchline up front isn’t always the best thing to do. And sometimes (more often than we think!), there’s merit in asking students to learn the way many of us learned to ride a bicycle as kids: get on the bike and fall off several times. We don’t know about you, but we (thankfully!) were not given PowerPoint presentations on how to ride!

It seems to us that the outcomes we seek for our business school graduates and our executive education participants are to enable them to lead and manage people, investments, and organisations of all kinds more effectively than would otherwise be the case. In other words, our teaching and their learning are about what they’ll do differently as a result of being with us.  Outcomes are what we are after.

Reflection point: Must we know what we want our learning outcomes to be? Of course! Should we state such outcomes clearly and succinctly? We should, at least most of the time. But we worry when we see such outcomes expressed using words like “know” and “understand”, a topic upon which we reflect in the closing section that follows.

Knowing vs. doing

In their classic 2000 book, The Knowing-Doing Gap, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton confront the challenge of turning knowledge about how to improve organisational performance into actions that produce tangible results. It may be that we in business schools are contributing to this widespread challenge by failing to address the seven drivers of learning we’ve explored here. We talk at our student learners, instead of engaging them. We provide too few opportunities for reflection, pattern-making, and the chunking of what they learn into usable and memorable forms. We fail to motivate them and their organisations to be the very best they can be, instead of just good enough. We spend too much time assessing what they know and perhaps understand, rather than what they have learned to do. And perhaps we don’t often enough ask our students to do something difficult – based on having read something outside the classroom – before we patiently explain how to do it, much as they’ll be asked to do in today’s complex and messy real world.  One of us recalls an early assignment he was given as a newly-minted MBA graduate many years ago: “We seem to have a performance problem in our Kenosha operation. We’d like you to go to Kenosha and figure out how to solve it!”

We fear that by missing the boat on the seven drivers, we risk sending our business school graduates forth into the world with some accumulated knowledge, to be sure, but little practice or expertise in how to apply that knowledge to deliver performance outcomes – how to do.  Thus, faced with the budding technological revolution in education and the risks it brings to our institutions and, indeed, to our own careers, it is imperative that we put today’s pedagogical choices and tomorrow’s learning technologies to work in service of every one of these seven drivers of effective learning every day. Are we ready? Do we have the courage to do what we do, differently? The time for change is now.

REFERENCES

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. 2010. How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Ausubel, D., Novak, J. & Hanesian, H. 1978. Educational psychology: A cognitive view: 163. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bain, K. 2004. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bloom, B. S.  1956. Taxonomy of educational objectives; the classification of educational goals. New York, NY: Longmans, Green.

Bowden, J., Hart, G., King, B., Trigwell, K. & Watts, O. 2000. Generic Capabilities: A Framework for Action. Generic Capabilities of ATN University Graduates. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Bor, D.  2012. Ravenous brain: How the new science of consciousness explains our insatiable search for meaning. New York: NY: Basic Books.

Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. 1999. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: 66. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brent, R &  Felder, R.M. 2011. How Learning Works. Chemical Engineering Education. 45(4): 257-258.

Brown, P. C., Roedigger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M.A. 2014. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z. 1987. Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin. Vol. 39, No. 7: 7.

Gibbs, G. 1981. Teaching Students to Learn: A student-centered approach: 91. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Hidi, S. & Renninger, K.A. 2004. Interest, a motivational variable that combines affective and cognitive functioning.  In D. Y. Dai & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition: Integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experiential learning:  Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Medina, J. 2008. Brain rules: 110.Seattle WA: Pear Press.

Mumford, A.  1997. Putting learning styles to work. Action learning at work.  Aldershot, Hampshire; Brookfield, VT: Gower.

Pfeffer, J. & Sutton, R. 2000. The knowing-doing gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action.  Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press.

Race, P. 2001. The Lecturer’s toolkit: A practical guide to learning, teaching and assessment: 21.  London: Kogan Page.SaveSave

John Mullins

Professor John Mullins is an Associate Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, London, UK. Both are contributors to the International Teachers’ Programme (ITP), a leading faculty-development programme (www.itp-schools.org) held annually.

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Arun Pereira

Professor Arun Pereira is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India.

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