Human learning is about being exposed to new information, turning it into knowledge, and using it to improve a learner’s current condition; it is the privileged role of teachers to guide learners through this process of discovery and showing them how and why this information is of value to them. My motivation for teaching began as an undergraduate when working with at-risk middle school students in the San Francisco Unified School District.
As a tutor, I worked with a diverse set of students who were classified as “at-risk” for a plethora of reasons – inability to speak English, poor motivation, and a general inability to see value in what they were learning and its impact on their futures. What I realized then is that, prior to tutoring, students needed to be prepared and willing to receive instruction. So many of our students showed no desire to learn the subjects they were required to learn and therefore our attempts at tutoring appeared to be relatively ineffective. Their “at-risk” status appeared largely due to motivation rather than intelligence or aptitude. I became interested in the notion of human motivation and how the overall learning process, especially the underlying motivation behind a learner’s desire to locate and be exposed to “new” information. What was clear is that the basic concept of having smart college students tutor at-risk kids while appearing to be intuitively strong was not in itself an effective formula for high levels of student learning. Something was missing.
Gagne’s theory of learning states there must be an interaction effect between learner and instruction.; more specifically, there are nine events of instruction present for learning to occur – gain attention, identify objective, recall prior learning, present stimulus, guide learning, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance, and enhance retention and transfer. Although not a rigid, lock-step process, Gagne’s theory provides a foundation for quality instruction that informs everything I do. Each event represents a life-time’s worth of work that can be continuously improved and perfected. I have taught at the university level for ten years and continue to grow, learn, and become a better instructor.
The information processing model also helps explain why Gagne’s nine events are so effective. My background in cognitive psychology suggests that “learning” must involve taking information and stewarding it through a three part process for learners – sensory memory, short-term memory, and eventually into long-term memory where information becomes retained (Huit, 2003). To become a learner, a student has to pay attention to the information being presented. If instruction is initially successful, the student pays attention to the information presented and it will first be processed in his/hers’ sensory memory. The next step once a student’s attention has been secured is to engage the student in a deeper level of processing through practice, repetition, or some kind of question to be pondered or problem to be solved. Information is now in stage two, working memory, and at this point the information attenuated to will either be learned and make it into long-term memory or forgotten altogether. If the instruction successfully makes it through the first two stages then the information presented makes it into the third and final stage, which is long-term memory. Whether information that is retained in long-term memory represents true “learning”, however, is open to debate. The information stored in a student’s long-term memory should have value and also be learned in such a fashion so that it is accessible, retrievable, and usable. Schema theory helps explain how best to achieve this.
Schema theory (Anderson, 1977; Piaget, 1926) is a learning theory, which “… views organized knowledge as an elaborate network of abstract mental structures which represent one’s understanding of the world” (SIL International, 1998). Schema serve as “brain index cards” that serve as collections of “if-then” statements allowing people to make appropriate choices or decisions given the appropriate “if” situation. There three types knowledge that comprises a schema – declarative, procedural, and autonomic. Declarative facts serve as knowledge’s foundational building blocks whereas procedural knowledge serves as the rules behind how knowledge is stored and accessed when needed. Finally, autonomic knowledge, serves as the underpinning of “expertise” where schemata are well organized, easily accessible, and easily used in both basic and complex situations.
This learning theory is applied using instructional systems design, with a heavy emphasis on student accomplishments or what students will be able to do by the end of the course. Instructional design entails identifying learning outcomes and then working backwards to ensure that student behaviors are identified, taught, and the requisite texts, lectures, and practice are facilitated by the instructor to ensure these are acquired in the end.
Clear student learning outcomes (SLOs) are identified for each course that I teach and assignments are aligned to ensure that application of each of them is covered. Assigned texts and readings are selected for relevance, usefulness, and aligned to ensure retention in long-tem memory and the building of mental schema (so it can be remembered and retrieved when needed). Lectures are designed to support the readings and provide applied examples of the week’s topic. Providing instruction in multiple ways to account for differing learning styles is also of paramount importance to me and students are asked to interact with the material in multiple ways – group discussion during class, outside of class through threaded discussion, individual assignments, and group assignments.