principles of learning

Principle of Learning #3 – Change

This post presents a brief elaboration on the third of seven principles of learning:

Principle #3 – Change. Learning is a specific type of change, which is governed by principles of (a) repetition, (b) time, (c) step size, (d) sequence, (e) contrast, (f) significance, and (g) feedback.

Figure 5. Seven principles of change by which the inner mechanism by which learning is facilitated

Figure 5. Seven principles of change by which the inner mechanism by which learning is facilitated

These seven principles of change are the inner mechanism by which learning is facilitated; in other words, the constraints and requirements of each of these principles must be satisfied in order for learning to take place. At first, changes in capacity and habit may be somewhat ephemeral and unstable. However, in accord with the seven principles of change which will now be discussed, these changes become long lasting and stable.

Principle #3a – Repetition. Learning is facilitated by repeated experience. Repetition in learning is much more than the redundant drill and practice by which it is so often characterized. Beyond its application to learning by rote, repetition plays a significant role in the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the unplanned, informal, experiential learning of our lives. Where there exists a similarity across objects or events, there exists a pattern. Where there exists a pattern, there exists the possibility of anticipating reoccurrence of the event characteristics that make up the pattern. As we recognize these patterns we are able to respond to them in systematic and automatic ways, refining and improving our response over time. Recognition comes by way of repeated exposure to the pattern. Thus, by the same principle of repetition which makes possible the rote memorization of discrete facts we might also develop higher order skills such as closing a complex sales transaction, managing personal or business finances, or delivering a public speech. It is primarily through repetition that patterns become well established and are differentiated from what has already been learned. [Note: Where there is greater significance (Principle #3f), or more easily attained contrast (Principle #3e), there is a decreased need for repetition.]

Principle #3b – Time. Learning takes time. Time does not cause learning to happen but provides a necessary condition for it to take place. This foundational role of time in learning was well stated by McGeoch (1932) when he said, 

Time, in and of itself, does nothing. It contributes, rather, a logical framework in terms of which we can describe the sequence of observed events. Certain spans of it are necessary in order to give other and effective factors a chance to operate, and time, thus, figures largely in scientific description, but not as a factor in causal laws nor is itself active in any way. (p. 359)

There are two important aspects of time in learning. First is the total amount of time required to attain the learning target. Second is the distribution of learning activity within that span of time. Because of mental and physical fatigue, it is generally not feasible to reach a sizable target in one continuous session of practice. Instead, sufficient time must be allowed for the learning target (i.e., the pre-determined change in capacity) to be achieved, and then practice must be distributed within that span of time as necessary to allow for recovery from physical and mental fatigue. [Note: Time is primarily a function of repetition (Principle #3a), or, the duration and frequency of whatever practice models, exercise, or experience (Principle #4) are necessary to effect the desired change in capacity (Principle #2).] Distribution of practice is also necessary because massed, repeated exposure results in temporary automaticity, meaning the activity may be performed without attention. Until firmly established however, this automaticity is fleeting.

Principle #3c – Step size. Smaller increments of attainment are more easily and more quickly achieved than larger ones. Intuitively, one might be inclined to find fault with this principle by citing the very large amount of time and effort required for someone working at an expert level to refine their performance—for example, the hours and hours and hours of practice that go into shaving a mere few hundredths of a second off a race time or making very subtle changes in posture to perfect one’s form in gymnastics or dance. These examples seem to be in direct contradiction to the principle as stated. In fact, it can easily be argued that most of the work that goes into training for world champion athletes, expert craftsmen, or top notch professionals, is required at the high end of performance in which the least amount of gain is realized. The misunderstanding here, however, is in regards to the metric of attainment. Step size of attainment is not a measure of the amount of time taken off the clock, or the magnitude of change in effective displacement toward refinement of a physical movement or posture. It isn’t the change in degree of precision in communication, execution of a medical procedure, or preparation of a technical specification. To the contrary, step size of attainment is a measure of effort. It’s not the size of the resulting change, but rather, the amount of effort required to make it happen. [Note: The amount of effort required is relative to what has previously been learned (Principle #3d) and is also a function of the degree of difficulty an individual might experience in achieving a particular learning target due to physical, psychological, or emotional traits and conditions, as well as previously established habits of engagement or aversion (Principle #6).]

Principle #3d – Sequence. Prior learning may facilitate or hinder ensuing attainment. This principle captures two ways in which prior learning might affect new learning. In the first case, something that has been learned previously can be applied in a beneficial way toward learning something new. For example, previous experience wakeboarding behind a boat means one does not have to acquire basic board skills (i.e., posturing, balance, speed control, and steering) when learning to kiteboard. Since full attention can be devoted to learning to control the kite and respond to wind and water surface changes, a person who has prior wakeboarding experience will be able to take up kiteboarding more quickly, all other things being equal, than someone who does not. The same analogy can be used to consider the second case, where previous learning may hinder learning something new. The learner with previous wakeboarding experience comes into kiteboarding with a habit of using the rope handle to bear his weight and pull him across the surface of the water. This presents a problem in the kiteboarding situation however, as the in-and-out motion of the handle is used to control kite speed, which is the surface area of the kite that is exposed to the oncoming wind stream. When taking up kiteboarding, the wakeboarder will need to fight the urge to pull on the handle and instead learn to sit back into the waist harness to which the kite is attached, leaving his arms free to vary kite speed as needed by moving the handle up or down. [Note: The facilitating effects of sequence are dependent on recognition of how what is currently being learned relates to what has already been learned (Principle #3e) as well as the degree of effort (Principle #3c) required to coordinate previously acquired knowledge and skills. Maximal facilitating effects of sequence are realized when the coordinating effort is minimal, or fully automatic, and there is full and accurate recognition of how what is currently being learned is related to what has been learned previously.]

Principle #3e – Contrast. That which is to be learned must be differentiated from and related to that which has already been learned, or from that which is similar, but critically different. The principle of contrast applies to the learning of factual knowledge, the understanding of concepts, the execution of physical movements, and performance of complex tasks, as well as to the formation of beliefs and the cultivation of feeling. When new knowledge, skills, or beliefs are perceived as being no different from existing knowledge, skills, and beliefs, the salient features of what is new will be ignored and will be lost. Learning will not take place because what is new will be discounted as simply another case of what is already known. To prevent this, differences between what has already been learned, or between new things which are similar, must be accurately and fully recognized by the learner. [Note: Both repetition (Principle #3a) and significance (Principle #3f) facilitate the process of differentiation: repetition provides multiple opportunities for comparison between similar instances; significance, through attention, brings to light salient similarities and critical differences.]

Principle #3f – Significance. That which is to be learned must be significant in some way to the learner. Significant learning experiences are those which claim the attention of the learner, those which are connected to prior experience and knowledge, those which require the exertion of effort, or those which are accompanied by an intensity of sensation or emotion. Significance through meaning can result from repetition (i.e., the establishment of familiarity of a previously unfamiliar pattern, as described in Principle #3a) but may also initiate it. For example, the occasional experience which has a certain novelty, demands great effort, or is accompanied by strong intensity or emotion will often be rehearsed repeatedly in the mind, related in communication with others, and even acted out. Mental rehearsal permits learning with apparently, but not actually, less repetition than might otherwise be expected since internal rehearsal takes the place of external reenactment. [Note: With greater significance and contrast (Principle #3e), fewer acts of repetition (Principle #3a) are required since once the critical features are understood, it is no longer necessary to discover them.] Also, as previously noted, (Principle #2), significance that stems from novelty, intensity, and effort wanes with repetition, as the mind and body adjust and provide automatic, but temporary, ways of responding.

Principle #3g – Feedback. Feedback is the means by which learning is directed toward a specific target of attainment. All intentional or directed learning is aimed at the attainment of some target. Feedback is the means by which the learner, or any other agent directing the learning process, ascertains whether or not progress is being made toward the end goal, and whether or not the goal has been reached. Feedback may come in many forms but, when effective, always provides an indication of (a) whether or not the target has been attained, (b) whether or not the learner is making progress toward the objective, and (c) what needs to happen in order for the learner to move forward. It is also true that feedback plays a role in incidental learning—i.e., learning in which the target is not intentional, but rather, is incidental to circumstances to which the learner is subjected. By this definition, there are two cases to consider. First is the case in which a person has no intention to learn, but engages in various activities for some other reason (e.g., to earn money, to pursue pleasure, to get a high score, to avoid negative consequences, or to get something for nothing). In this case, the feedback that person will be attending to is feedback regarding whether or not they are meeting their goals. Under these circumstances adjustments may be made that result in an increase of capacity or establishment of habit, and thus, learning will occur. As an example, many people have little interest in technology per se, but are very interested in maintaining social connections and interacting with their friends. In pursuit of new means by which to engage, they incidentally acquire knowledge about, skill to use, and habits of engaging with mobile devices and online social networks. The second case where feedback plays a role in incidental learning is when a person is actually working towards a predetermined learning target (i.e., an intentional target), but makes incidental attainment of other targets along the way which may or may not be incremental steps toward the end goal itself.

7 Principles of Learning – the short version

Seven principles of learning, the foundation of a Principles-of-Learning Framework (Weibell, 2011), form the basis of this blog. Future posts will elaborate on these seven principles of learning and explore how the Principles-of-Learning Framework can be applied to a mass educational transformation that is now taking place in public education—toward student-centered, data-informed, teacher-led, personalized learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning classroom.

Principle #1 – Potential. Humans are endowed with an inherent potential for increase in capacity, the establishment of habit, and the definition of being.

Principle #2 – Target. Human potential may be channeled intentionally toward a specific, predetermined target of learning, or will otherwise follow incidentally from the conditions to which a person is subjected.

Principle #3 – Change. Learning is a specific type of change, which is governed by principles of (a) repetition, (b) time, (c) step size, (d) sequence, (e) contrast, (f) significance, and (g) feedback.

Principle #4 – Practice. Principles of change are activated and aligned with learning targets through models of practice, exercise, or experience.

Principle #5 – Context. Learning is facilitated by a context of practice that is the same as, or accurately represents, the context of performance.

Principle #6 – Engagement. Learners will often engage in certain activities as a matter of habit, though they are also influenced by their current capacity to engage, as well as factors of motivation and inhibition related to the activity as a whole, part of the activity, its circumstances, or its expected results.

Principle #7 – Agency. Learners are not passive recipients of learning, but active agents with the ability to choose how they will apply their attention and effort, and to choose what learning activities they will engage in. Others may exercise their agency to promote or inhibit the agency of the learner, and may play a role in facilitating or impeding successful learning.

Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: A conceptual framework for domain-specific theories of learning.