Learning About Learning 

Common Terms and Concepts in the Field of Learning

(For A Glossary of Common Learning Terms click HERE)

John Webster

University of Washington

I. Learning in Life vs. Learning in School

As human beings, learning is one of our primary activities.  It’s up there with foraging, mating, playing, and working.  We start learning pretty much immediately at birth (some suggest we’re doing it even before we leave the womb), we learn at fantastic rates through our early years, and we keep on doing it in our adult years pretty much up until the end.  Which makes a second point about learning:  we tend to think of it primarily in educational settings, but in fact we are learning like crazy all over the place. 

Of course, educational learning is not the same as much of the other learning we do in a day.  When we drive we pay attention to where other cars on the road are, “learning” for a short time their positions relative to our own.  And that learning is continually being updated as we change positions:  a good driver is one who keeps relearning his or her position relative to other cars on the road nearby.  That’s very short term learning, however, a kind of “temporary learning” we might say, every trace of which is gone by the time we put the car in the garage, and that’s not what we’d like to say about what we learn in school. 

But beyond its duration (what learning theorists call “retention”), there is something else about academic learning that is very different from what you might call “real-life learning”:  a lot of it occurs in settings far removed from any real world application, and a lot of it is from books or teacher talk, not from something we are physically or emotionally involved with. 

Consider by contrast the learning you do when you meet someone new.  Name may come first, and then a whole set of things learned that come from early impressions.  We “read” new acquaintances’ clothes, their ways of standing.  We read their gender, their ethnicity, their age, their speech—and with each of these readings we develop a bit of information (which may not be accurate, of course) that we provisionally file away somewhere.  Most of this is unintended learning—it happens more or less automatically in response to some deeper interest in making sense of new appearances in one’s life.  Some of it is unconscious, some of it is what we might even call “intuitional.”  Someone asks you later what you thought of Roberta, whom you had met for the first time that morning, and you say, “I don’t know—she seemed a little different from most of your friends.  Maybe a little more quiet and reflective.”  But if you are asked back how you decided that, you might not actually be able to say.   

Such real-life learning differs from academic learning in that it is spontaneous, virtually unwilled.  It just happens, yet even something as brief as a first meeting with someone can produce some of the most long-lasting of memories in the history of a friendship.  You do it without “study,” and though it is not at all always correct (Roberta may turn out to be quite talkative once you get to know her!), it still very often turns out to be in the right ballpark. 

Contrast that real-life learning with the sort of learning that takes place in school.  There most of what you  learn concerns things at a distance—in time, in place, in need.  School learning is largely for the future— skills and information that will help you in times to come live a more successful, fuller life.  Few third or fourth graders need multiplication or long division in their ordinary lives, but they learn those skills then as a base upon which to build other mathematical learning.  In the fifth grade I learned a lot about the Philippines, but certainly not because I had a need to know anything about them at the time.  The learning there was really only my teacher’s way to help me imagine a world beyond my own; the real learning was that there was such a world, that there were at least as many countries out there as there were students in my class, and that knowing about the people who lived in those countries, their history and their geography, might help me become more aware of what it is to be an American by learning something about those who were not. 

Unfortunately, because much school learning is remote from the daily interests and needs of school children, we don ’t always find it very interesting.  We can be bored, or confused by school learning.  We may not much like the teacher, and we decide we won’t learn from her or him.  We may have other things that seem far more important on our minds, and thus we may be unwilling or unable to make the time or find the energy necessary to study. 

Which brings us to one more thing that makes school learning different:  for the most part we have to study to learn it.  We don’t, for example, learn much from doing one long division problem since without repetition few of us would remember the process.  If we are to retain the ability to do that process, we’ll have to practice it over and over again—maybe even over and over again for years! 

So school learning is for most students both quite different from life-learning, and much more problematic.  Unsurprisingly, then, people have given a great deal of thought both to how best to teach various subjects and, more recently, what it is inside learners themselves that make them learn better or worse.  What follows here is an introduction to learning from the point of view of learners themselves. 

Learning and Thinking: An Introduction and 4 Basic Observations

Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves. Learning is not compulsory, it is contextual. It does not happen all at once, but builds upon and is shaped by what we already know. To that end, learning may be viewed as a process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural knowledge.” 

That’s the Wikipedia definition, and it’s not bad as a starting point.  One could add that learning is also change.  To be sure, that change is often incremental, and thus doesn’t actually seem much like “change” in any significant sense.  If I learn ten new Chinese words today, it will be true to say I’ve “changed,” but it will also seem trivial to say so.  That doesn’t mean, however, that your brain agrees that it is trivial.  The brain sometimes learns things with alacrity, but often it resists the changes that learning entails, even when you don’t want it to.  Brains, like other organisms, build structures that have a certain strength to them, and changing those structures is not always easy.  Our brains embrace some sorts of change—usually those that bring us pleasure—but they resist others.  Indeed, our resistances can be such, whether willed or unwilled, that we will not, even cannot, learn a given thing at all. 

The key elements of learning, then, involve perception, thinking, and storage.  Some learning comes simply from perception and seems automatic—you see something, your mind somehow marks it as worth remembering, and it gets stored in long term memory where it stays long enough for you to reflect on it while idly sitting on the porch in happy retirement.  Other learning is anything but automatic.  You take in an idea, a bit of description, a reading, a lecture, you may even understand it, but then within a few days or weeks it just seems to have disappeared. 

So how we learn is not very predictable, and that’s a reason why the study of learning has occupied people for a very long time.  Most of us would like to be able to learn more and to remember what we learn longer and more clearly, and as teachers we’d like our students to do the same.  But figuring out how best to promote learning is actually quite difficult.  Still, a few things are clear, and I set them out here as four basic observations about what we do when we learn:   

1.  New things we read, see, or hear pretty much all go into what cognitive scientists term the “working memory,” a kind of memory different from our “long-term memory.” 

Working memory is the place where we do the work of understanding, or the thinking that helps us sort out what we have heard or seen, connect it to what we already know, and make sense of it.  As the name implies, the working memory requires "work"—and that is something our brains want to minimize.  Brains want to be efficient; they want to spend as little effort as possible.  And for most of our thinking, we process the visual or perceptual input without even noticing we do it, and that is because so much of what we actually do from day to day in the world we have done in very similar ways before.  We see something and recognize it and decide how to react to it in milliseconds.  Our native language knowledge is like that, too.  We hear a phrase, and we instantly recognize the words and assemble and speak a response.  And in speaking, our brains are able to control our speech muscles in our tongue, mouth, lips and throat at what are amazing speeds—up to 30 muscle movements a second!

That kind of thinking has been called “fast thinking” to distinguish it from other much slower processing, or “slow thinking”—the kind of processing we do when we are taking in new knowledge.  Fast thinking can be fast because it takes very little work.  We hear a question, we come up with an answer, and for most questions and most answers, we don’t have to do a lot of thinking to complete the exchange.  With slow thinking, however, the working memory has to process what we see or hear or read, and then call up information of various sorts from our “long term memory” to see whether we know how to connect this new problem to what we already know, and if so, bring that knowledge to bear to solve the problem.  Consider what happens when you do simple multiplication. 

Suppose you are asked in a math class to multiply 2 by 2.  Though the first time as a small child  you tried to do this you probably took a while to figure it out, perhaps by counting on your fingers, most of us are drilled in simple multiplication so early and so often that our working memory can retrieve the right answer in an instant. 

But now suppose in that same class you are asked to multiply 36 by 21.  Few of us have memorized the answer to that problem, and so your working memory will ask your long term memory to supply what it knows about multiplying, and depending on what you’ve stored there from your elementary school days, you may recall that 1 x 36 is 36, and that 2 x 36 is 72, and you’ll remember, too, to add a zero for the tens column, and you’ll then add 36 to 720 to come up with 756 as an answer.  Many of us could do that problem in our heads, though we will not be able to do it instantaneously.  So our working memory can do that much work, even as it gives most of us a little bit of trouble as we figure out how. 

But now imagine that you are asked to multiply 3519 x 46779.   Very few of us would be able to do this problem in our heads even if we were given an hour to do so, and the reason for this that there are now so many numbers involved that we will run out of room in our working memory.  The basic math in the problem hasn’t changed—it is still multiplication, and the rules of multiplication are the same here as they were for the preceding two problems.  What is different is that we have more numbers to keep track of, and that’s enough to ensure that we can’t do the problem without the help of writing things down and invoking from long term memory all the subroutines we learned long ago about multiplication. 

This process (and in lesser degree the 36x21 problem above) is a classic example of “slow thinking,” as opposed to those lightning quick solutions we have for so many other inputs and problems we confront during any given day.  What is important to know here, however, is simply that even when we actually know how to do something already, we may be limited in our abilities to solve problems because our working memory capacity is not just dependent upon what it is able to recall from long term memory, but it is also quite limited.  Indeed, one kind of difficulty can be defined as whatever pushes our mind’s working memory beyond its capacity for manipulating data/problems. 

2.  Although our brain's working memory is limited, our minds have ways to expand its capacity. 

The most common way is by building up in advance a store of knowledge that can be recalled when needed.  The mind does this by memorizing, obviously, and in many cases it can make what it stores more efficient by learning it so well it becomes “routinized.”  So, as is clear from the problem outlined above, when you were a child learning arithmetic you had to memorize the multiplication table, and what that really did was enable your mind to turn 1 + 1 = 2, and 14 + 14 = 28 into instantly recallable and useable routines.  For most of us these became essentially automatic, and thereby available in an instant to speed us through what might otherwise overwhelm our working memory’s capacity. 

3.  This is also what happens with the skills required for driving alluded to above, as it does, too, even more importantly, for our language capacities. 

Language is not acquired quickly; no one learns to speak in a day or even a month.  Though infants everywhere begin experimenting with tongue and mouth movements very early on, it is months before any of their sounds are recognizable as “words.”  Similarly, we talk to our babies from their first moments out of the womb, and it is obvious that their brains begin attempting to process the sounds they hear from us very early on.  But it takes literally months for their brains to build the cognitive resources they will need for normal speech.  Even once they have accessed their own innate aptitudes for language use and have used those aptitudes to become able to talk, most will still make errors of muscle and voice control until they are 5 or more years old.  We all have stories about ourselves or siblings who said “busketti” instead of “spaghetti,” or “kinchen” instead of “kitchen,” both examples of what for most are temporary imperfections in the developing language circuitry of the brain.  By the age of 5 most children have developed in long-term memory a huge amount of the automaticity required for the use of language, but even then most human languages have special sound combinations some of us have not yet mastered (in English the “sp” and “tch” consonant clusters are particularly hard to master). 

Students need strong language skills for most school learning, and the higher the level of education, the stronger the skills need to be.  This is a problem for many students, both international and domestic, but obviously it is even more of a problem for those students whose full control of English is still developing.  One reason English 108 has been good for our incoming non-native speakers of English is that it gives them extensive practice using the English language skills with which they enter the UW.  Most were strong students on their home campuses, and their English is quite good for young men and women who have only just arrived in America. 

But as most of these students reach campus for their first Fall Quarter classes, the English they have is not yet fully fluent, whether orally or aurally, or while reading or writing.  That will change even over the four weeks they are in English 108, but in the confusion that accompanies the first quarter or two of being students, many will nevertheless find it difficult to strengthen their academic English as much as will be necessary for them to be fully comfortable as student readers, hearers, speakers and writers. 

4.  There do seem to be ways to increase learning, and one of those ways is to make people more aware of both what they do when they learn well, and what they do when they don’t learn well, and in doing so give them a certain amount of agency over their (otherwise unconscious) learning processes. 

What is appended below is thus a list of a number of well-recognized learning phenomena, and I supply them to you as a kind of primer.  Some of these terms arise in Kohl, though he is not a learning theorist and doesn’t use that language much.  They will also arise in other readings in the course and will be central to the research our students will be doing for the learning/writing conference. 

II. A Glossary of Common Learning Terms

John Webster

University of Washington

Long-term Memory:  The place in your mind that learning goes to live.  Some of what goes there may last a lifetime; other things have varying half-lives.  One goal of learning theory is to increase the length and completeness with which we retain learning.    

Working Memory:  The place in your mind where conscious “thinking” takes place. It is limited, though its limitations can be minimized by various mental strategies, like routinization (or what some call  automaticization), schemas, and chunking. 

The “Three Things Rule”:  This is a way of talking about the limits of working memory.  I use this “rule” to talk to students about why we often find new skills and material difficult to learn, explaining that one kind of difficulty is the feeling they experience when they are trying to deal with more in their working memory than its limited capacity will allow.  I don’t know if “three” is the right number for how many new things a mind can think about at once (it might be four or even six!), but the point is that the capacity of working memory is limited, and when students come to material that is new to them, they will often reach that capacity very quickly.  That can make them feel frustrated, resistant, even angry.  But for those who have learned that difficulty and frustration are merely stages in the learning of complex things, that feeling of difficulty can be the signal that they just need to slow down, get some things clear, make some connections to what they already know, or ask questions.  That will speed the movement of some of this new thinking into long term memory, and over time will reduce their sense of difficulty.  (The ability not to be put off by the negative feelings that difficulty engenders is called “resilience” [see below])   

Every one of us has felt that kind of difficulty, just as we have also experienced the way difficulty fades as we become more experienced.  When you learn to drive a car, for example, it’s difficult to manage all the various steps required to put the car in motion—and just as difficult, as my brother learned the hard way—to find the brake pedal.  But an experienced driver not only runs the car’s controls without much conscious thinking about them at all, but knows to check the rearview mirrors regularly, to check side mirrors when changing lanes, and so on.  To begin with, however, every single one of these acts had to pass through and be directed by working memory.  That made us poor drivers for a time, but for most of us, in relatively short order each of the acts of driving become so routinized that we could do them effortlessly. 

Prior knowledge/preconceptions:  Everyone has learned things before they enter a classroom, so each also brings prior knowledge or preconceptions—ways of knowing, “facts,” strategies, commonplaces—with them.  Some of this prior knowledge is essential to learning—indeed, learning becomes much easier when we already know something about whatever it is we are studying.  It gives us something to connect new knowledge to, and thereby remember more easily what we are learning.  It’s the sticky side of what I think of as a Velcro strip to which the tiny hooks of new learning can successfully attach.  But prior knowledge is not always an advantage:  it may also create difficulties when it involves misconceptions, irrelevancies, or even outright error.  Moreover, such prior knowledge may not just be partial or wrong.  It may be (and in fact often is) so strongly held that it cannot easily be dislodged.  (The difficulty of extirpating prior knowledge is the subject of a 1987 video called “A Private Universe.” http://learner.org/resources/series28.html )

Unlearning:  This is the process one must undergo in dealing with prior knowledge that is wrong or misleading.  Unlearning is neither straightforward nor easy, though teachers tend to assume it is.  Teachers may just say, “That’s the wrong way to think about it,” and then move on.  But often that’s not enough.  Classic example?  The five paragraph theme.  Not many students give it up just because a teacher says to.  Self-reflection about what one knows and about what trouble one has when learning something new can often help students locate and replace prior knowledge, but without help some students never do. 

In my experience the most deeply held knowledge is that concerning self-concepts and ethical behavior.  Students often have emotional and personality stakes in the things they know and the way they know them, and if we want to help them revise their thinking, we will be most successful if we help them address and reassess those internal commitments. 

Even when we don’t have a stake in a given wrong way of thinking about something, however, old learnings are hard to expunge, and over time may even reassert themselves. 

Metacognition:  Metacognition is thinking in explicit ways about how we learn and think, and thereby becoming better aware of one’s learning/thinking processes.  The insight here is that awareness can offer students at least the possibility of control over some of the otherwise unconscious processes of learning and not-learning.  Becoming successfully metacognitive involves self-reflection, which is why we may ask students to write narrative accounts of various things we ask them to do.  Many see self-reflection as helpful in building students’ self-assessment skills, and more generally, to strengthening self-confidence.  My own experience is that it is very helpful in dealing with failure as well as success.  At least as important, building strong metacognitive habits can help students in learning how to transfer learning from one context to another. 

Self-assessment:  This is the ability to assess accurately one’s own performances.  Students very often bring weak self-assessment skills to any given class.  Jerry Graff (in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind [2004]) argues that academic experience is often highly mystified and mystifying for students. I agree, but I would add that the way teachers assess and grade is one of the greatest of these mysteries.  Many students never get a very good sense of what they do well and what they do not do well, and in the absence of genuine understanding of what they know often come diffidence and anxiety, or resistance and/or alienation from the entire process.  When, by contrast, teachers build and share realistic criteria and rubrics with students, much of this mystery can be removed, since students then have the means to assess for themselves how they have or have not succeeded. 

Motivation: extrinsic, intrinsic; autonomy, competency, and connectedness.  Motivation has been a major interest in learning theory for a very long time as people have tried to define the best ways to motivate students to learn.  The simplest and probably most frequent analysis of motive talks of “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic” factors.  In this way of thinking people act either for their own internal (“intrinsic”) reasons, or for rewards of one kind or another (“extrinsic”—or external to the self) reasons, and much of this conversation concerns which extrinsic factors work best.  Will workers be motivated better by cash or by a promotion?  Or by the threat of a demotion?  Will the threat of a 5 year prison sentence deter people from, say, smoking marijuana?  Will a low grade or a high grade on a test motivate students to work harder? 

Other work focuses on “intrinsic” factors.  Self Determination Theory, or SDT, sees us as being moved most powerfully by three basic inner needs:  the needs for autonomy, competency, and connectedness.  Dan Pink uses similar terminology in his Ted Talk on motivation, though he changes his description of the three internal factors to “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”  In all, the claim of the intrinsic camp is that internal motives are on the whole more powerful than extrinsic rewards, and in learning, they are the root of a self’s strongest will to learn. 

Self-Efficacy:  This is a student’s sense of capability in the face of some learning task.  Unsurprisingly, this varies a lot from student to student, but its effect on learning is significant.  When students think that they will be able to do something successfully, they often have more ability to problem solve and succeed in learning than when they do not think they’ll be able to do it well.  Contrariwise, when students believe something is too hard for them, they may not have confidence that they will be able to do it at all. 

But some of one’s sense of self-efficacy is part of what one develops over time.  Depending on the kinds of success and support you have had with various levels of difficulty, you may feel more or less capable of dealing with whatever a given learning task will throw at you.  High levels of self-efficacy usually mean higher levels of engagement and achievement because students with strong self-efficacy don’t let short term difficulty put them off learning.  Interestingly, students do not automatically have strong feelings of self-efficacy just because they have been successful as learners.   Albert Bandura, Frank Pajares, and others have shown that “when people doubt their capabilities to accomplish a task successfully (that is, have low self-efficacy), they tend to not put forth the effort to succeed, they tend to procrastinate, and they will give up on the task sooner when facing difficulties than those with higher feelings of self-efficacy.” (Gerald Neff, WPA-list Apr 23 2010)   Dee and Jacob have linked low self-efficacy to plagiarism, too, in “Rational Ignorance in Education: A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism”: http://www.nber.org/papers/w15672 (Jan. 2010). In motivational terms, "self-efficacy" is related to the internal need we are all theorized to have for "competency"--a self's ability to act effectively.

Resistance:  passive, active, conscious, unconscious:  Resistance to learning is anything a learner does to put off or avoid learning something.  Resistance is not just common, it is universal.  None of us is always receptive to more and more learning.  Moreover, some resistance is to be cultivated as necessary to effective critical thinking.  People are, after all, always trying to “teach” us things that are wrong or misleading.  Being able to resist their theories is part of being a responsible critical thinker. 

But resistance is often not only unhelpful, it’s passive, unacknowledged—even unconscious.  Students need to become able to recognize their resistances, and must be given constructive ways of voicing them.  Resistance helps learning best when it is active (and conscious), not passive, and when a classroom environment supports students in voicing their  resistance.  Teachers can help students by “authorizing resistance”—inviting students to locate and describe what they are resisting.   

Not-learning:  A phenomenon in which someone attempts to prevent learning from happening altogether.  Among students it may actually be a conscious strategy—as Herb Kohl describes in recounting the anecdotes of Wilfredo or Barry.  But not-learning is even more frequent in the world than Kohl suggests.  His focus is on conscious not-learning, a form of active resistance for either political or personal identity reasons.  But I would maintain that all of us not-learn regularly.  One reason for this is that there are so many things to pay attention to that no one could ever attend to them all.  As a consequence, our minds are constantly doing a kind of epistemic triage, deciding what we will attend to, and what we won’t.

But another reason is that many of the things the world offers us to learn run against what we already know or believe, and for most of these things we turn down anything that would disturb our normal ways of seeing the world.  Al Gore talked of the facts of global warming as  “inconvenient truths”—truths that would disturb how we think about the world but more importantly how we live our lives.   Many of us are emotionally, economically or egocentrically unwilling to make the kinds of change such learning seems to demand, and thus we choose to not-learn either the science or its implications.  “Temporary learning” (see next entry) is another common version of not-learning. 

Temporary, or pro-forma, learning:  A widespread phenomenon in academic learning where  students learn things for a short period (sometimes only long enough to take an exam), but don’t actually learn them deeply and with retention.  Inauthentic learning (see “Authentic Learning” below) is very often of this sort.  When minds do not have strong motives for remembering something, the half-life of learning will often be correspondingly short.  (One classic study suggests that retention of learning from many lecture classes—not high to begin with—is among  most students cut by half or more within 6 months.) 

Deep learning:  Something like the opposite of temporary learning is deep learning.  Education scholars use this phrase to mean learning that is highly motivated and fully (“deeply”) understood.  Retention will be deepest and thus most robust when students have fully integrated the target learning into their own core understandings, and have been able to articulate it in their own language and in connection to other well-established understandings.  Deep learning is also something like the holy grail of education, since such learning is not just retained longer but is also a better basis for extension and transfer to new contexts than is less fully integrated learning. 

Authentic (vs. inauthentic) learning:  Authenticity concerns a given student’s motivation for learning.  Authentic learning is that which makes a kind of deep sense a student—seems for whatever reason truly useful, or connected to a deeply felt life purpose.  The classic inauthentic motive for many an assignment and many students is a grade.  Some of us were deeply motivated by grades, but many students are not.  They may want good grades, and work hard for them, but they often do no retain that learning well.  Inauthentic learning is frequently a kind of going through the motions, though many students will smile, look engaged, seem perfectly happy.  And they may be, too.  Paradoxically, students may even think they really do care about the material.   This is complicated by the mysterious nature of “motive.”  Consider that while your students really like to listen to music, often “know” it inside and out, they wouldn’t be able to articulate reasons why they are willing to “learn” it so well.  Similarly, they may be happy in a given class, and even trying to learn, but they may nevertheless still have no authentic motive for learning what their teachers are teaching.  If you can figure out things like that, and hitch your course material to them, you are way down the road on this. 

Difficulty:  As learners, we all have different responses to the difficulties we run into.  Some of us look for it, seek it even; some of us hate it, can’t stand dealing with it.  Most of us probably have a complicated relation to difficulty—embracing it on one occasion, shying away from it on another.   Whatever one’s response, however, people tend to do best with difficulty when they have the metacognitive ability to recognize it, define it, and work to find a productive strategy for dealing with it. 

Transfer:  The act of taking something learned in one context and bringing it to bear in another.  Recent work has stressed the notion of "dynamic transfer," noting that we don't usually transfer knowledge directly from one problem to another in a single moment of insight, but by working at something over time, trying first one thing and then another until a solution begins to emerge.   One reason problem-based-learning has become more widely used is its underlying claim that as one builds problem-solving skills one also builds the kinds of mental habits that promote transfer. In this way of thinking, the more success students have figuring out how to extend their knowledge to accomplish new tasks, the more extensive and resilient their transfer abilities become.

Bridging the School-Life gap:  I’m convinced that students often keep the world of school learning at something of a distance from their life-learning.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like school, only that they see school learning as in at least some degree unreal or impractical.  Students often do not themselves know how to bridge the gap from the subjects they care about in life generally to classroom subjects they care much less about.  Teachers may actually encourage the maintaining of this gap when they don’t ensure that students bring their own enthusiasms and expert knowledges into a classroom. Teachers need to find ways to bridge that gap; students will benefit if they can learn (either on their own, but more frequently by being taught) to recognize the gap, and develop their own ways of bridging it, too. 

Threshold Concepts:  Those key concepts or ideas in any given discipline that define ways of thinking that differentiate that discipline from other disciplines.  Thus in biology the concept of evolution is central to a great deal of what biologists do; if you don’t see what the key mechanisms of evolution are, you won’t “get” biology at all.  In economics one threshold concept is that of opportunity cost, and in literary studies such a concept is that of close reading.  Threshold concepts are also often examples of what Meyer and Land (In “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge”) call “troublesome concepts,” since they are often difficult to understand because they are counter-intuitive to a given discipline, or they are particularly complex in their implications. 

Failure.  We all know what failure is; we are less likely to see failure as a healthy and necessary part of learning.   Yet many complex processes are difficult enough that most learners will not be successful attempting them on a first or second or third go.  For those who have developed a fear of failing, or a propensity to avoid situations in which they imagine failure as possible (failure aversion), they similarly will have developed a learning disability as well.  Until one learns to see many kinds of failure as normal costs of learning, and therefore something that may be of great value, one may resist the learning that would result from a process in which failure might be a temporary result.  This is connected to the concept of “risk taking,” again something necessary to many kinds of learning.  Those who cannot take risks on occasion will be less effective learners than those who can. 

Resilience.  “Resilience” is the term learning scholars use to describe people’s ability to retain the ability to keep working at a task in the face of difficulty and/or failure.  Research shows both that different learners evince different degrees of resilience when facing a certain task, and that one’s capacity for resilience can be increased, primarily by metacognitive exercises and support as students encounter difficulty and its resultant frustrations in the course of learning challenging material.  Learning that even failure can be a productive act in learning difficult skills can also help strengthen both emotional and intellectual resilience in a given learner.   

John Webster©2012