Portal Pieces: Some Resources on Learning Issues


Webster, John. Learning About Learning: An Introduction to Common Terms and Concept is the Field of Learning

Webster, John. A Glossary of Common Learning Terms


Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

A full and readable treatment of the range of issues most talked about in teaching and learning scholarship over the past few years: prior knowledge, motivation (under which resistance is treated), best practice for comment and feedback, differences between expert and novice knowledge, how students can become self-directed learners. I found it all helpful, particularly the chapter on motivation. It keeps it closely connected to classroom practice and sees resistance largely in terms of failed motivation (which at some level it obviously has to be!).

Bransford, John D. Ann L.Brown, and Rodney R.Cocking, eds., with additional material from the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, Suzanne Donovan, John D.Bransford, and James W.Pellegrino, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition ( 2000 ).

A remarkable book about learning, written as both a summation of the past 30 years of educational research as viewed through the lens of cognitive psychology and as an exposition of the field's key findings for teachers everywhere. It is well-written for a book so close to the ed-psych lab, and it lists, defines and discusses most of the major new ways of looking at How People Learn. The first chapter is written as an overview, laying out the ways in which educational theory has reoriented and reorganized itself over the past 30 years. Its following chapters look at Expert vs. Novice understandings, Learning and Transfer, How Children Learn, the Mind and the Brain, Learning Environments, examples of Effective Teaching, and Teacher Learning. Pretty much a must for anyone with serious interest in How People Learn. Its great virtues include its being completely and freely available online.

Deci, Edward, with Richard Flaste. Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin, 1995.

Not the newest book out, but still the best introduction to “Self Determination Theory” (SDT), a data-based motivation theory out of Humanistic Psychology. In essence the problem of motivation here is that of tapping what are proposed as one’s innate inner motives: those towards autonomy, competency, and connectedness (community). These are in opposition to extrinsic motivations like rewards or punishments (in an educational context grades can be seen as either), or any deontic instructions (i.e., behavioral demands) from outside the self that, though internalized, and perhaps dominant in a person’s behavior, have nevertheless not been accepted by a willing learner in an authentic way. Though learning is a big part of this book, Deci’s theory is also about happier alternatives to living in guilt and repression. (For an extensive overview of SDT see the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination_theory )

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass, 2009.

The author of this very readable book is a cognitive scientist, and uses that branch of learning studies to educe 10 principles for good teaching. He begins with the problem of why students often don’t much like learning (short answer: the brain doesn’t actually like to learn—a claim interestingly at odds with a lot of other talk about learning), and then goes through a number of observations about how cognitivists now think the human mind works. Learning is obviously a big part of this book, but like the Ambrose book its focus for action, as it were, is on teaching. Though this treatment is highly readable—even popular—it comes with substantial bibliography for anyone wanting to follow up.

Articles and Websites

_____, emotionalcompetency.com “Motivation: Stimulating Movement.” http://emotionalcompetency.com/motivation.htm

An intriguing, popularly written website whose treatment of motivation is essentially an outline of Self-Determination Theory—i.e., Deci and Flaste in a nutshell. My students last year found it too hard to process, but it does summarize and define key terms, and its illustration does encode a lot of the basic scheme D and F adduce. The key claim is that the more authentic a motivation, the more powerful it is, for it is serving ends that the normal self sees as very much in its interest. (As in the Deci annotation, those ends are autonomy, competency, and connectedness) Inauthentic motives, by contrast, seem without the same force because the self does not see them as being “relevant” or useful to any of its true ends. The other key concept here is that of introjection—their term for any imperative from the outside (like a teacher’s assignment or a mother’s command) that the self feels obliged to carry out, but has not accepted in an authentic way. Selves may act on introjected imperatives, but usually only at a cost. One cost of such actions is little motive to learn deeply—i.e., instead of learning with full understanding, an active control of the material, and durability, learning is often temporary and never fully integrated into one's other knowledges.

Atherton J S (2011) Learning and Teaching; Resistance to Learning [On-line: UK] retrieved 2 May 2011 from http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/resistan.htm. Atherton has an extended reflection on this same issue at: http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/learnloss_1.htm

This is an approach to “resistance,” focusing exclusively on a “cost” based theory of learning. His main concern is what he calls “supplantive” learning—that learning that supplants earlier learning (what in “Opening the Locked Box” I call revisionary learning in contrast to additive learning). He uses the economic metaphor to explain how students behave in learning situations where they learn something new only by giving up something they already know. He observes that one can think of that as a cost—students must pay something in order to make progress. (A more friendly metaphor might be “investment.” If you want to see your general fortune grow, you do not stand pat with your money in your wallet, but rather you invest it such that it can accrue profit.) Atherton has an expanded essay on this same topic (look for the link at the top of the page); it’s a little wide-ranging and speculative, but offers other ways to conceptualize supplantive learning.

Barrett, Dan. "Skimming the Surface," insidehighered.com, April 11, 2011. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/04/11/study_of_first_year_students_research_papers_finds_little_evidence_they_understand_sources

A report on a conference presenation at 4C's in 2011 by Rebecca Howard and Sandra Jameison on "The Citation Project," a study of how first-year students use citations in research papers. Most, it turns out, find one or another way of evading the real work of research, which is to read, understand, and put in critical perspective. Instead there is block quoting, patch writing, and not very good paraphrase. Very little summary. At least as interesting as the article (which is pretty interesting, even if you already suspected as much) are the comments. Rather predictably, most commenters lament the lazy and immoral ways of students rather than the lazy and slapdash assignments and syllabi of instructors. (I think comment #39 hits the nail on the head).

Golden, Serena. "'The Procrastination Equation,'" insidehighered.com, May 6, 2011. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/06/author_discusses_new_book_on_procrastination

Do you procrastinate (which is, by the way, Latin for "put off until tomorrow")? This is an interview with Piers Street, who just published The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done (HarperCollins). The piece provides a nice portal through which to enter the procrastination literature. Street is himself a researcher in motivation and procrastination studies, though this particular book, evidently, is a popular treatment of the subject. He says his theories are both new and synthetic of older approaches, and remarks that the principal tenets of procrastination research (except for his, of course!) haven't changed much in 30 years.

Kohl, Herbert. "I Won't Learn From You," from I Won't Learn From You, 1995, pp. 1-32.

A brilliant essay capturing in a range of ways the learning issues connected to student motivation. Kohl sees students in far more complex terms than most theorists of learning and teaching, and in fact this piece is a far-ranging critique of mainstream thinking about student success and failure in classrooms. In short, he rethinks many students' "inability" to learn in terms of a choice made either consciously or unconsciously to "not-learn." He then explores via a series of examples different reasons students he has worked with have had for "not-learning." These range from the personal to the political. His account also includes his own efforts as a teacher to respond to these learning challenges.

Meyer, Jan and Ray Land. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing in the Disciplines.” ETL Project Occasional Report 4, Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham, 2003. http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/docs/ETLreport4.pdf

Important for its explanation of threshold concepts—those discipline-defining concepts that are both necessary entry points to work in many research areas, and rarely understandable without a certain amount of rethinking and relearning of one’s common sense notions of how things work. One such would be the concept of natural selection, a theory about how species evolve which flies in the face of what seems a universal human will to understand change in terms of purpose and meaning. Force, in physics, would be another such threshold concept, as would reading in English, which upon arriving in their classes students think they understand perfectly, but which the fields of literary and cultural analysis see as a complex act of acculturated response and construction. The authors go on to point out that threshold concepts like these are often also examples of “troublesome” knowledge, by which they mean those knowledges that seem to have something about them that, again, flies in the face of what prior understanding or common sense would expect and are therefore often quite difficult to learn.

Mooney, Chris. “The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science: How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.” Mother Jones, 18 April 2011 http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney

A semi-popular review of research on humanity’s penchant for error. Very provocative for thinking about motivation, prior knowledge, and (especially) not-learning. His account, in short, is that we all have strong affective responses to new information such that we are likely to react strongly either positively or negatively depending upon how it seems to affirm or attack our prior understandings. Thus climate change deniers rarely change their minds when they hear new evidence that supports the theory. Indeed, they may even believe it even more firmly than before. In general, because we will do a lot to not-change the deep conceptual frames/lenses through which we see the world, human beings find learning in a charged atmosphere very difficult. In such cases we much prefer not-learning to learning.

Moore, Margaret. “How We Change: Driving me Crazy or Driving me Well.” Huffington Post pop psych articles, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-moore (Once you get to this page, scroll down to find links to all three pieces mentioned here.)

This is the first of three popular explications of how motivation theory applies to health issues—like smoking, or dieting, or getting more exercise. The other two are “How We Change: Driving with the Brakes on” and “Who is Driving your Health and Welfare?” In the series Moore draws on work by Dan Pink on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, on Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow, and on Deci and Ryan on Self Determination Theory’s notions of deeply motivating needs: the needs for autonomy, competency, and connectedness. She does not address school issues, and so the interesting question for me lies in how students can transfer Moore’s analysis of these general health issues to English 108's academic learning issues. The exposition is relatively simple, and the metaphor of driving is worth exploring. And like many motivation pieces, it doesn’t address education—which I think helpful because it allows me to ask students to transfer concepts into their own educational experience.

Pink, Daniel. “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation | Video on TED.com” www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

The TED blurb summarizes: “Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories—and maybe, a way forward.” This is fun to watch, is very clear, and keeps its main focus on the two simplest terms in motivation studies: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As he ends he then connects that quite simple oppositional pair to a very quick introduction to Self Determination Theory—though without actually identifying it as such— offering a tri-partite parsing of the roots of intrinsic motivation into autonomy, mastery, and purpose (compare SDT's autonomy, competency, and connectedness). Again, the connection to academics is not treated, and I have asked students to write to fill that gap.

Ramirez, Gerardo and Sian L. Beilock. "Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom." Science, 331, 211 (2011); 211-3. (Available on the 108 resources site.)

A research study of students who wrote about anxiety before taking a math exam vs. a second group of students who did not.  The first group did better on the exam, and the article both explains the experiment and offers a cognitively based explanation of the reasons for this. 

Schulz, Kathryn. "Kathryn Schulz on being Wrong. Video on TED.com" www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

Schulz begins with an engaging story about having been wrong about something, and then turns this into a reflection on what you might call "the power of being wrong." She addresses the same problem Chris Mooney (above) writes on—the way human beings often persist in error even when they should know better. But she also talks about our way of unconsciously living-in-error. This is caused by our in-built habit of believing we are right about what we know, and perceive anyone else's way of thinking as foreign and/or wrong. Presented with contradiction, most of us plow right on discounting other views as those of the uninformed, the idiotic, or the self-interested liar. She counsels us to think more, and better, about the nature of human existence, which is not only always to be at risk of being wrong, but probably more wrong than right most of the time. Much of what she says connects well to the learning issues surrounding error and failure.

Webster, John, “My Troubles with Perry: Developmental Scheme or Humanities Curriculum?” in David Gosling and Vaneeta D’Andrea, eds., International Conference on theScholarship of Teaching and Learning: Proceedings 2001 and 2002. London: Educational Development Centre, 2003. Pp. 118-121. http://faculty.washington.edu/cicero/metacognitiveteaching.htm#Perry

William Perry conducted a highly influential 1960’s study of undergraduates from which he concluded that there was a pattern to the intellectual development students underwent over their undergraduate years. This short paper both summarizes Perry’s scheme and offers an alternative to Perry’s explanation of what he (and others repeating his study over the next 30 years) have found. Though dating back to the ‘60’s, Perry still appeals to those looking to understand better how college learners process new material.

Webster, John, "On the Challenges of Working with the Writing of English Language Learners." MS, 2011. http://faculty.washington.edu/cicero/metacognitiveteaching.htm#ELL.

Teaching writing to a class with several ELL students can be a challenge. This short paper offers an introduction to thinking about both the fears and the nature of the challenge that comes along with teaching English Language Learners in the college writing classroom. It includes a description of the notion of "reading through error" along with other suggestions for successful teaching.

Webster, John, “Opening the Locked Box, Or How I Came to Love Metacognition.” MS, 2008. http://faculty.washington.edu/cicero/metacognitiveteaching.htm#Box

An account of teaching a class in which metacognition, along with a number of learning concepts, became part of the curriculum. It offered me some unlearning as well as new learning moments, and made me a partisan for including learning topics in any class I teach. I offer an introduction to a set of learning issues which run from what one could call the underlying narrative structures of many college classes as well as accounts of the effects of prior knowledge on learning along with not-learning and resistance—both in general and in a particular class. My deeper theme is the extent to which student learning is both complex and usually hidden. Working to open up their learning processes for the good of learning is surprisingly difficult.

Webster, John, "Five Key Grammar Errors Native Chinese Speakers Often Make When Writing English." MS, 2011.


A short essay detailing some of the errors native Chinese speaking English Language Learners find very difficult to avoid because they follow from basic differences between the syntactic structures of the two languages. Owing to the complete absense in Chinese of some of the most basic and therefore most noticeable features of English, Chinese ELLs will usually have great difficulty with what many English-speaking readers will think to be among the most naive and sloppy of grammar mistakes. This essay outlines those syntactic differences and explains why they are not necessarily indicative of ignornace: "in spite of how awful these errors may seem to us ... once a reader learns to take an 'other language oriented' perspective on English, most of even these seemingly egregious grammar problems will not actually interfere much with our understanding what a writer wants to communicate."

Weimer, Mary Ellen, “Six Causes of Resistance.” http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/student-learning-six-causes-of-resistance/

This is a short redaction of Chapter 12 of Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom, (2nd ed), 2006. She briefly distills and defines six modes of resistance.

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