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How can we be sure we have genuinely learned?

Lasting changes in memory only become apparent when we recall new information or perform a new skill after time has passed. Let's discuss.
Image shows schematic of three heads moving from not understanding, through mental processing to eventual understanding.

As individuals, we are not always the best judges of how we learn. At times we are susceptible to ‘illusions of learning’ in which we believe we have learned something, but discover later that we cannot recall it or perform the skill when needed.

Let’s briefly compare learning with training for physical fitness. With fitness, we know our goal has been reached because we can do something we couldn’t do before, such as swim ten lengths of a pool or run five kilometres.

Similarly, we know lasting learning has taken place when we are able to pass an assessment or successfully manage a simulated scenario.

Is text recognition the same as recall of knowledge?

Much of the learning we undertake does not include a formal exam or assessed simulation. Sometimes we believe we have learned something simply because we recognise it.

For example, we might read a section of a book or online text and understand it. Later we read it again. At the second visit we recognise parts of the text and think, ‘Oh yes, I remember this. But recognition is not the same as being able to recall the information from memory.

Multiple-choice questions

A similar illusion can occur when multiple choice question (MCQ) tests are presented at the end of an online learning module. In this situation, we might identify the correct phrase among three alternatives that we have not seen before. Recognition of text is not the same as the ability to recall information in our own words after time has passed.

A PowerPoint presentation

A similar illusion of learning may occur if we see slides of text during a PowerPoint presentation. We may hear the presenter read the slides and think, ’I understood that. But if the event includes no other learning activity, we may be able to recall little of its content later.

Retrieving information

A much more effective way to learn from text is to read it, let time pass in which another activity is undertaken and then see how much we can recall using our own words. This makes our mental connections more reliable because the act of retrieval strengthens them.

However, this approach requires more time and effort than a single visit to the material. If we believe we have learned something well, we may not take the additional step of attempting recall after a delay. This natural fallibility is present in many of us and is the reason we need teachers and trainers to design experiences that produce genuine learning.

Courses that learners say they like

Courses that learners say they like, and those that genuinely help them learn are sometimes quite different in design. This is because the training that requires little effort but provides an illusion of learning may be rated highly by participants.

This may be because they enjoyed it or perhaps because it took little time to complete. It may not be until later, perhaps during a real-life situation where the skill or knowledge is required, that the person becomes aware the learning has not ‘stuck’.

Cultivating a learning habit

In spite of these human susceptibilities, many people cultivate a learning habit in which they regularly practice recall. We might compare such learners with people who regularly take exercise to maintain their fitness level, or to musicians who regularly practice in order to maintain their playing skills.

How do this impact trainers and learning designers?

As trainers and learning designers we are susceptible to believing that positive feedback always correlates with effective learning.

It might, but it can also mean that the teaching was undemanding and the trainer was entertaining. The delayed recall is a more reliable indicator of learning than a five-star rating on a post-learning evaluation, even though these are nice to receive!

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