Most of us are concerned about students who fail to learn. To understand why they fail, we need to be aware of the conditions required for learning.
The first is a distinctive stimulus. Whatever has to be learned must be made to stand out for the student. Stimulus factors that increase attention – intensity, contrast, movement, novelty, and repetition – make a stimulus distinctive. This factor is primarily the responsibility of teachers. To make particular points stand out, vocal emphasis can be used or important terms can be written on the board. The concepts can be brought up repeatedly to help them stand out.
In textbooks, mentioning the concepts in titles or subtitles makes them very distinctive. As with my writing, important terms can be written in color, italics, boldface or all of these to make them more distinctive. If they are repeated in a summary, they are more likely to stand out. Repetition in the use of a study guide also increases distinctiveness.
Second, it is the students' responsibility to pay attention to the stimulus. This relates to the students' motivation. In turn, student motivation is related to two other factors – frame of reference and set.
The students' frame of reference is determined by the students' total background experiences – related to their age, race, religion, occupational interests, hobbies and so on. The frame of reference functions like a window frame. It outlines some factors, making them easier to notice. At the same time, it shuts out other factors from our view, so they are ignored. (Our view of the sexual harassment charges concerning Judge Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill are influenced by our frame of reference – whether we are male or female. We may react to the same stimuli differently, depending on our sexual frame of reference.)
In contrast to a life-long frame of reference, the set can change very quickly. In listening to an orchestra, you can quickly change your set to listen specifically to one set of instruments or another – violins, flutes, trumpets, tubas, drums, and etceteras. At a track meet, when the starter says, "Get ready, get set...", no matter what the starter says next, the runners will go. They are set to go.
Often students fail to absorb material, if their set is not on the material they are trying to digest. Suppose a student has had a recent argument. If it has not been settled, the student's set will still be on that argument. It would be the same, if the student is busy attending to the physical attractiveness of another student. No matter how distinctive the teacher's concepts are, the student will not be aware of them.
Students need to "Be Here Now" – they need to be thinking about the task at hand. If they do not have this motivation, the distinctiveness of teachers or textbooks will be ineffective.
However, even when teachers are making the stimulus distinctive, and the student is truly motivated to understand – the student still might not understand what the teacher is trying to convey. What is happening?
The student lacks attachments for the stimulus. These attachments – usually called "mediational units" – are bits of previous learning to which new concepts can be related. The best analogy is that the mediational units are "mental hooks" to which new information can be attached. As an example, suppose I draw a "zug" below. How could you define the qualities of "zuggishness"? How could you describe what has been drawn?
To describe it, you would have to use your mediational units. Some might say it looks like "an ice cream cone on its side." Others might say that it's a "semi-circle combined with a triangle." However, a jet pilot may see it as "a drag chute used to slow the landing speed of a jet plane." A lumber mill worker saw it as "a long, long log cut down its center." Personally, since a used to be a security guard, I saw the "zug" as a "flashlight beam in the dark shining only on the corner of a building." The more mediational units linked to the concept, the more likely or the better it will be understood by the learner. If the learner cannot link the concept to any mediational units, it cannot be understood.
For this reason, it helps to give a wide variety of examples for new concepts. If one example does not relate to the mediational units of students, others might relate. Likewise, the greater variety of experiences that can be offered to children, the more mediational units they will develop. In turn, these additional mediational units will aid them in learning new concepts.
Especially at the college level, some students do not do well, because they lack the mediational units for their courses. It would be helpful for them to take "remedial" courses to develop the mediational units that they need. Many students hesitate to take remedial courses, because they believe that taking these courses means that they are "stupid." Taking these remedial courses does not mean that the student is stupid, but it merely indicates that they lack the necessary "mental hooks" to understand new material.
If the stimulus does not stand out, the student is not attending or there are no "mental hooks" to relate to the stimulus – learning cannot take place.
Go back to listing of additional articles.
Go back to "A Line on Life" main page.