Updated: Apr 16
Early in his career as a car driver, Rahul was driving on a mountain with a solid 1500 cc engine in the Himalayas when he saw a drop of air pressure in tyres. It was a frosty night where it was absolutely freezing! He was in the middle of nowhere, where there was no gas station, and the air pressure in the tires kept on falling. Rahul has been playing around with cars since he was a child, and he knew he had a problem here with his car. He was looking into options, and firstly he tried to figure out how far he could drive the car until it stopped? And what can he do if it did stop?
So firstly, he checked the light; if it just flicked on, it means the pressure is not too low. If the pressure is very low, it is difficult to drive as it could lead to a hole in the tire. Rahul reviewed what he could do, and he had memorised what one must do when the air pressure in tires is low. The best he could do was remove extra weight from the vehicle and drive very slowly, so first, he removed whatever was not needed and then slowly started driving the car.
We may not understand some of the stuff that Rahul did, but this is a great example of learning, which is essentially about ‘acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.’ There are three aspects to learning: memory is needed for learning, which is needed to retain whatever knowledge we have learned. Without memory, learning is pointless as you wouldn’t remember anything! Then secondly, we need to keep learning and remembering all our lives where we need to build mastery in a certain field as we progress in our education which we then apply once we start working and finally after we retire, we try to do new things, build new interests. Thirdly, learning is an acquired skill that basically means that you obtain over a period of time by working on it. It’s a continuous process of gaining knowledge, and you can acquire it whenever you want to.
TYPES OF LEARNING
There are several ways in which one can learn; the types of learning are as follows,
The first way of learning was rereading the text and massed practise of a skill or new knowledge, which is the least productive yet most preferred. It is a practice widely used in India with the belief that rereading gives rise to feelings of fluency. In general, the feeling of fluency is taken as a sign of mastery, but for true mastery or durability, a strategy like rereading is largely a waste of time. Personally, it is something that I find pointless as here we are just memorising and not trying to understand the content.
One way can also be learning through retrieval practice which consists of recalling facts or concepts or events from memory, which is a more useful form of learning as it builds memory. I see it as a better form of learning than rereading since it interrupts forgetting. An example of this is flashcards which basically have an answer on one side and a question on the other side, and this helps to improve memory and is an interesting form of learning.
As well as, one can try to solve a problem before being taught the solution that leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt, as here we are trying to solve a problem without knowing how to do it. Hence it would promote self-learning where the student will need to solve independently and could possibly correctly solve therefore learning by themself without being taught. I see this as very effective, and it gives students a challenge and a sense of satisfaction if they can solve a problem without being taught.
Personally, I feel one of the best ways of learning is that you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style. This method is effective as students learn in their learning style; hence they can learn in a way that enables them to grasp knowledge quicker, and at the same time, it will be more interesting for the student. For example, I prefer watching videos to learn, so if this was used in my school, I would have probably taken less time to learn and grasped knowledge quicker and much easier.
Testing is also a good way to learn where this helps to test your knowledge, and it is a way to see if a student was able to understand what was taught. Personally, I see testing as important as we see how much we know, and it shows what areas of the subject we need to work on. However, one can argue that testing focuses on memorisation and doesn’t show if a student understood a concept. I believe that we should focus on practising retrieval of learning from memory rather than testing. Active retrieval is one the best ways for learning since it helps to strengthen memory where its benefits increases as more effortful it is.
Finally, one can also try putting new knowledge into a larger context, which helps one learn more effectively. So one should try applying what you learn in the real world, for example when I was learning about taxes in economics, I tried seeing how taxes worked in real-world and understood the taxing system of India then started surfing for articles on tax changes by countries where I tried understanding why they change taxes and so on. Hence, this form of learning helps to create curiosity and a sense of willingness to learn, which I have seen built-in me through this way of learning.
WHY DO PEOPLE MISUNDERSTAND LEARNING?
One of the common misunderstandings that people have is that they believe that if you expose yourself to something enough times—say, a textbook passage from a 10th-grade chemistry class that this will become a memory and in the case of teachers, they believe that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give a single-minded focus, practicing over and over again and rereading is something which highly emphasized, about 80% of college students use it as a strategy implying the obsession with rereading.
However, as we discussed earlier, rereading is probably not the best way since it is time-consuming and you are not trying to understand the concept; hence, this memory is not durable and is not a way that you can obtain mastery over a skill. Since if you do not understand a concept, then it is difficult to apply it. Also, the advice on the strategy of learning to students is incorrect. In the case of India, we focus a lot on exams which is not the best way to make students learn as said by Pankaj Chandra, Vice-Chancellor at Ahmedabad University,“ There is too much focus on exams and not learning. This often desists the teacher to innovate their pedagogy. Exam becomes the end goal for the faculty, the learning and the curriculum.” which highlights how there is a focus on scoring marks and not actually learning and this results in a lack of mastery of the subject, thus making students coming out with degrees, unemployable. An example of that is shown by 80% of engineers being unemployable in India.
ILLUSIONS OF KNOWING
Students prefer rereading due to two reasons. One reason may be that they’re getting bad study advice. But there’s another one that they are made to believe that this is the only way you can build mastery over a skill. Hence there is an illusion in knowing, which can be shown by this quote said by the secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld in a 2002 press briefing about US intelligence on Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
There is a lack of effort in changing the current system, making students not question themselves whether they actually understood a concept and mastered it; hence, when they learn new concepts, they cannot apply what was previously taught. I believe there is a need to work on trying to make students understand that understanding a concept is the way to master, not memorize for the sake of marks. There needs to be less emphasis on exams and more practical assignments. Quoting here “ yeh school hai, pressure cooker nahi.”
Moreover, Albert Einstein declared, “creativity is more important than knowledge,” this implies that knowledge is basically something already there that can be learned. Still, creativity helps to discover stuff that wasn’t known before; hence it is more important. It may sound like creativity is more fun than knowledge, but it is important to know that mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.
To conclude, I believe there is a need to overhaul the education system, especially in India, where there should be less pressure put on students through exams. They should be given encouragement towards actually learning the concept and being creative. I’ll write more on this in my upcoming Pieces. Hope to see you there!
Make it Stick, Book by Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel, and Peter C Brown