Learning beliefs & Text understanding
Many students believe learning equals memorization. This belief is not surprising given the manner in which many teachers teach. While students need to have some things memorized, few teachers would say memorization is their learning goal for students. Yet, because students become so entrenched in their belief that memorization equals learning, promotion of deep processing by teachers is resisted. Student beliefs about learning affect student effort, but does it affect their actual understanding? The research in this review investigates how student learning beliefs relate to students’ ability to process text they read.
Chan & Sachs (2001) discuss two ends of a continuum for learning beliefs. On one end, students hold constructivist views of learning and believe learning to be qualitative. That is, learning involves deep mental processing and meaning making, with more connected ideas being learnt more thoroughly. On the other end of the continuum students hold a quantitative view of learning. Students on the quantitative end believe memorizing more facts about a topic results in learning. These students typically have a more passive perspective regarding learning. Researchers investigated students’ views on learning from grades 4 and 6 and compared these views to how well students performed on text processing tasks. The text processing tasks were questions designed to see how well students thought about the text, not if students could remember individual pieces of information from the text. Students were not asked which item was in the text, instead they were asked to solve an application problem using information from the text.
What the researchers found is that, not surprisingly, older students held more constructivist views of learning and were able to process the text better. Yet, when age was controlled for (taken out of the equation), students with more constructivist views of learning were able to process text at higher levels.
If students who hold more constructivist views of learning actually process text at higher levels, we must ask ourselves how we might change students’ views of learning. If our students view learning as a process rather than a product, as something to do rather than something that is done to them, their abilities to learn may actually improve.
Importantly, we must consider the messages we send students about learning. When our assessment is aimed at rote memorization or simple repetition of teacher notes, students are likely to think learning equals memorization. When we cover one topic and move on (never explicitly connecting topics) students are likely to see knowledge as compartmentalized rather than deeply connected.
I propose we not only change our implicit messages (method of delivery, assessments, etc), but that we forcefully attack students’ passive views of learning. By asking students to reflect on what learning is, we better prepare them for life, not just the “test”. Try asking your students, “What does it mean to learn?”. The responses might surprise you. Then, you will be better prepared to engage students in conversations about how they learn. For example, you might ask students, “How does a Powerpoint presentation inhibit our abilities to play with ideas? Why would “playing” with ideas help us learn better than me just telling you answers?”
Chan, C.K. & Sachs, J. (2001). Beliefs about Learning in Children’s Understanding of Science Texts. Contemporary Education Psychology, 26, 192-210.