Five Principles of Learning

From a 1979 presentation by C. Durney and D. Harris

• Effort is proportional to commitment, and commitment in turn is proportional to both confidence in ability to succeed and impression of usefulness of what is to be learned or done.

If students don't think they can learn something, they won't be motivated and won't try very hard. Also, students won't be motivated if they think that what they are taught is not useful or relevant.

The relevance will be more clear if students do "holistic" tasks rather than "atomistic" tasks. Holistic tasks will produce something useful, whereas the product of an atomistic task will probably not be useful by itself.

An example of an atomistic task is pounding nails into boards. The student might learn about pounding nails but won't understand why it's useful. An example of a holistic task is building a desk. The student will see the usefulness of each part of a holistic task because each part contributes to the overall goal.

• Behavior changes only when it is occurring. People learn just the ability they practice, not a related ability.

You might think that you learn by listening to a teacher in a class, but that's not the way it works. You can sit and listen to a teacher talk for hours about balance and pedals and gear ratios but until you get on a bicycle you won't learn how to ride a bike.

• Transfer of a learned ability from a school setting to real-life usage is proportional to the degree of identity between the practice conditions and the usage conditions.

Solving a calculus problem in a game is going to be the same as, or very similar to, solving calculus problems in a real-life situation. But cooking in a game is going to be very different than cooking in real life. Even if the appearance and sounds of the cooking food are simulated well, cooking in a game won't have smells or require the same kind of manual dexterity that real-life cooking has. This principle says that transferring some cooking abilities from a game to a real-life setting won't be as effective as transferring the ability to solve calculus problems.

• Feedback is necessary for learning to occur.

Think about solving problems at the end of a chapter in a math book. Solving problems that have answers in the back of the book is a lot more helpful than solving other problems because of the feedback.

• Conceptual meaning cannot be transmitted from a teacher to a learner.

A concept is a mental image of a thing formed by generalization from particulars. The teacher can't transmit the generalization directly to the learner but can only help the learner to form the generalization for himself or herself.

The learner must experience at least two concrete instances or occurrences to learn a concept. For example, if the concept is "round things roll", then the learner could experience a pencil rolling and an orange rolling to learn the concept.

An important concept in algebra is the idea of "doing the same thing to both sides of the equation" to solve a problem. A teacher can spend a lot of time explaining that, but until the student has the opportunity to try out that idea with at least two examples, the student won't really understand the concept.