Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 2 - What learning involves

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What learning involves

Learning can be defined as 'a relatively permanent change in behaviour which occurs as a result of practice or experience'. Here, the term 'relatively permanent' is usually taken to mean that the learned behaviour can be demonstrated at least a few hours after the learning process occurs. To put it another way, learning can be thought of as a process whereby a person acquires the ability to carry out a task or procedure of some sort in a natural and relatively effortless way, as if it were an innate part of his or her behaviour pattern.

The way in which such learning comes about will, of course, depend on the exact nature of the task or procedure that is being learned. In the case of a relatively simple cognitive task such as learning the names of the various parts of an object or system, for example, it may simply involve scanning the material sufficiently often for it to pass through the short-term memory (where material is stored on a purely temporary basis) into the long-term memory (where material is stored on a long-term or permanent basis). In the case of a more complicated learning task involving higher-level cognitive activities (such as analysis or synthesis) or a mixture of cognitive and non-cognitive activities, on the other hand, it will probably involve actually carrying out the task sufficiently often for the behaviour patterns needed to perform it without difficulty to become firmly established. This major key to effective learning is called repetition. The other major key relates to the concept of reinforcement, which refers to the consequences

of actions. Behaviour which is rewarded is likely to be repeated. Behaviour which is ignored is likely to fade. Behaviour which is punished tends to be suppressed in the short-term rather than changed in the long-term.

Another feature of the learning process is that both learned material and behaviour tend to disappear with time if the material or behaviour is not revisited periodically. The ability to recall simple factual material, for example, generally falls to something like 25% of its original value roughly a week after the material was learned, and continues to fall thereafter until it eventually disappears completely unless the material is subsequently revisited. If the material is reviewed at suitable intervals, on the other hand (say, after a day, a week, a month, and so on) it will become progressively more firmly lodged in the long-term memory until it eventually becomes permanently fixed. Exactly the same is true of other learned skills, most of which require to be practised or used regularly if they are to become a permanent part of a learner's repertoire.

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