Performance and Learning

I mentioned in my last post that Bjork presents ways to make knowledge transference an integrated part of learning. In his chapter, Bjork alludes to conditioning as a primary problem in why transference does not happen naturally.

Transference is a difficult thing to learn. It’s easier to just learn the facts, and parrot them back again. In order to learn transference, the learning needs to occur across different times and settings. Students don’t like that.

In psychology, one of the principles of learning is shaping. Using shaping, you can get a bear to ride a bike (not any more, but it used to be done all the time). How shaping works is you provide a reinforcement (reward) for behaviours that are close to the behaviour you want. Once that behaviour becomes commonplace, you change the criterion for when the reinforcement is given to something that is closer to the behaviour you want. This cycle continues until the bear is riding the bike. So in our example, you give the bear treats when it goes near the bike. Once the bear associates the bike with treats, you only give them a treat when they touch the bike. Then you change the criterion to picking the bike up, and on, and on… Pretty soon (or maybe it takes a long time) you have a bear riding a bike.

What does this have to do with teaching?

Behavioural scientists have shown that all organisms (including us) respond to conditioning techniques. Shaping is a conditioning technique. We find ourselves in a shaping cycle with our students every time we deal with an assessment. You set an assessment to provide a learning opportunity for your students, and their performance on that assessment comes back to shape your behaviour as a teacher. If your students do well on their assessment, there is positive reinforcement provided to them for learning what you wanted them to learn (they get good grades). As greater numbers of your students achieve your desired assessment outcomes, you receive positive reinforcement through feedback from students, feedback from colleagues ect. that says you are doing a great job. In many institutions, student feedback is made public and plays a direct role in promotions and tenure. That is a powerful reinforcer. You want to do well.

As a result of this powerful reinforcement cycle, your teaching and assessment is tailored to what the students excel at, and they excel at the assessments you set. What we end up doing is maximising performance, not maximising learning. In order to maximise learning, difficulties (desirable difficulties as Bjork calls them) must be introduced so that students can learn things in new settings and times. This is what transference is all about.

Our whole education system is designed to maximise performance rather than promote learning.


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