Thursday, September 3, 2015

Learning Cycles

When talking about learning cycles we often refer to the processes that occur while  we perceive, choose, reflect, store and retrieve data and information that our surroundings provide. It is often displayed as a cycle, because the new information needs to become a part of the already existing knowledge in order for learning (i.e. acquisition and elaboration, Illeris, 2009) to be meaningful for student. There must be connections between the newly learned material and things we have already learned. If the contradiction is too big students get confused and/or disengaged. It is hard to be interested in something that doesn't make any sense, which is the main reason for me to always emphasize the importance of including choices for students in the basic design of instruction.

Instructional design aims to improve the teaching and learning processes and occurs before the actual teaching happens. Sometimes the design only focuses on individual lessons, but even then it is fairly easy to include optional activities and assignments for students, so that they can choose from a selection and find something that is personally meaningful for them.  In the teaching situation we as teachers use different strategies, teaching methods and techniques to enhance students progress in moving through these cycles of perceiving, choosing, reflecting, storing and retrieving. Some teaching methods emphasize reflection, others emotional input or maybe learning from trial and error. The cycle is still utilized either visibly or behind the scenes. My choice most often is to talk about metacognition and make the cycle visible for students, so that they have better grasp and control of their own learning process.

There are different  visuals available in the internet about the learning cycle. Most quoted or modified is probably the Kolb's (1984) experiential cycle, which has provided the prerequisites for my own thinking about learning process. 

No matter where is our preferred phase to start learning (Experiencing, Reviewing, Concluding or Planning), there are certain things to consider while we are setting the scene for learning, if we want the cycle to be rolling and support the learning process:
  1. What is the role of the learner? Are they included in decisions about what and how they learn?
  2. Are learners' perspectives taken into account while planning the learning experience?
  3. Are individual differences accommodated and valued so that we won't have 26 identical "experiments"? (Please note: an experiment, like research, cannot have a known result before starting the experiment!)
  4. Are learners co-creators of the learning process?

These questions are not new. They are based on learner-centered principles of APA Work Group in 1997. Designing instruction that supports learning is easier when we use these principles of learner-centered education, and empower students to engage in their own learning process. 

Learning is extremely individual, because what we each see/hear/think depends on our previous experiences and the unique filters we all have. Thus, while presented with the same information we process it in diverse ways. Even in a collective learning situation we all are engaged in our own personal learning process. Understanding that learning and teaching are not the two sides of the same coin is the beginning.  Students learn all the time, but they may not be learning things we wanted them to learn.

To further explore the way learning process is described within the experiential learning theory, you might want to look into the Honey and Mumford (2000) learning style questionnaire based on Kolb's cycle.

APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. WashingtonDC: American Psychological Association.
Honey, P., & Mumford, A. (2000). The learning styles helper's guide. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Peter Honey.
Illeris, K. (2009). A comprehensive understanding of human learning.Contemporary theories of learning, 7-20.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development.
Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles, 1, 227-247

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