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Learning beliefs & Text understanding

March 23, 2010

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.

Research Summary:

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.

Classroom Implications:

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 3:58 pm

    I gather you’re research demonstrates the difference between learning how to be “smart” or learning How to be “intelligent” whereas one is learned subjectively the other objectively.
    One is primarily biological the other is metaphysical, like the difference between learning the formula or learning the process verses learning both. This is where it becomes obvious that just learning “what” with out the “how” leaves the student less than intelligent but smart.
    The skill of learning is inherent in human nature, the key is the teacher must cause the student to reject subjective thinking in order to enhance the objective thinking process which in turn raises questions in the mind of the student that will assist in pointing to a resolve, and they each will have questions that the teacher may have never thought to present answers to in advance.

  2. Wendy Gearhart permalink
    April 7, 2010 5:26 pm

    I think that asking teachers, “What does it mean to learn?” would also be a great idea. Educators need to realize that their role has changed. No longer are they the performers with a wealth of information, but the facilitators guiding their students in their learning process.

  3. Dinah permalink
    April 18, 2010 9:16 pm

    If we make the classroom a place of inquiry–a place where students are the ones coming up the with questions–isn’t this the first step in adjusting student’s beliefs about learning. We need to model the searching, digging, questioning approach that we want our students to use. We will take these steps to help students move from a memorization idea of learning to a constructivist view!

  4. Jon Lenig permalink
    April 21, 2010 4:33 pm

    Hmmm, I agree to a point. You still need to have those core concepts/terms in order to explain and make any point. The problem with many students is all they ever do is memorize some terms and never make any connections between terms or even know what the terms really mean.

  5. April 28, 2010 9:52 pm

    After reading this, it seems that students need to find a need to make a connection to the text. How does it relate to them? How will learning this material help me at all? Unfortunately, those connections may not be realized for a while. If students can learn good inquiry skills and find meaning in learning, they will succeed at new levels.

  6. Heather permalink
    May 1, 2010 12:39 pm

    To piggyback on what Wendy and Dinah said, it is so important that teachers model this process of learning to students and promote life-long learning. We can create “safe” places to learn and explore and help kids value this process over just getting the grade. As a teacher, I have seen the value in recent years as I have purposed to communicate with students about their learning/thinking; kids are more likely to take risks and learn to value learning for the sake of learning.

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