How We Learn

At some point in their education, many adult students experience a disconnect between what they are learning and how that knowledge will be used in their future careers. This is particularly evident in gatekeeper academic courses such as mathematics, which are often taught in an abstract lecture or skill/drill format. Career-oriented coursework makes much more immediate sense to these learners. Why is this the case, and what can we learn from it?

Cognitive Theory

An examination of the convergence of theories about intelligence and learning provides clues. Combine Gardner’s theory that the mind’s capacity for learning is much broader than traditionally assumed, Kolb’s assertion that individuals have a natural ability to learn through a variety of methods, and Caine and Caine’s studies that connectedness is a key to effective learning and the result is a set of precepts with which to work. In general, most people learn best when:

  • Course content is addressed in a concrete manner involving participation, physical or hands-on activities, and opportunities for personal discovery.
  • Concepts are presented in the context of relationships that are familiar to the student.
  • Ideas are presented via concrete, tangible examples and experiences (rather than solely through abstract models).
  • Interaction with other students— through study groups and teaming—is built in to the learning experience.
  • Understanding is emphasized over rote memorization of isolated fragments of knowledge.
  • Instructors recognize that the ability to transfer what is learned from one situation to another is a skill that must be learned.

Contextual Teaching and Learning Theory

A synthesis of these ideas leads naturally to contextual teaching and learning theory. The contextual approach acknowledges that:

  • Learning is a complex and multifaceted process that goes far beyond drill-oriented, stimulus-and-response methodologies.
  • Learning occurs when learners process new information in such a way that makes sense to them in their own frame of reference.
  • The mind naturally seeks meaning in context, in relation to a person’s environment, doing so by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful.

Curricula and instruction based on contextual learning strategies should be structured to encourage five essential forms of learning: Relating, Experiencing, Applying, Cooperating, and Transferring (REACT). In light of learning research these strategies seem “natural,” but as instructors we cannot take it for granted that students are aware of the strategies that will help them learn, retain and apply information. We should create learning experiences that use the “REACT strategies” and we should also take the time to inform students about why we have selected instructional methods that require active student participation. Furthermore, we should not be surprised if students need to be taught how to carefully observe and record data, for example, or how to communicate effectively as part of a group. The REACT strategies are designed to help students build new skills and knowledge regardless of their starting point.

>> Learn more about teaching with the REACT strategies.