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Variety of Strategies Needed To Foster Learning, N.A.S. Says

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While students may learn better when learning is "situated" in real-life contexts, they also need to spend time learning abstract principles and basic concepts.

That conclusion comes from a report released last month by a National Academy of Sciences panel. The group of 14 prominent psychologists had hearings, made site visits, and sifted through hundreds of studies on learning, memory, emotions, and social processes in an effort to distill what is known about new techniques that claim to enhance learning.

Their 396-page report, called "Learning, Remembering, and Believing," is the third in an investigation that has lasted nearly nine years.

The study was initiated in 1985 at the request of the Army Research Institute, which had hoped to incorporate the panel's findings into military training programs.

But panel members said their conclusions--some drawn from research focusing primarily on schoolchildren--also apply to a variety of learning situations.

Techniques Evaluated

The panel also concluded that:

  • Students frequently have the illusion that they know more than they do;
  • Cooperative-learning techniques, when properly scripted and structured, can enhance learning;
  • Interactive computer games and simulations can enhance students' motivation to learn, but there is little evidence that they actually increase learning;
  • Learners' self-confidence can be increased by emphasizing that the skill being taught can be easily learned, giving students opportunities to see people of different backgrounds mastering that skill, and urging students to attribute their improvements to hard work rather than to innate ability; and,
  • Despite claims to the contrary, hypnosis and transcendental meditation do not improve learning.

Real-Life Learning

The panel's findings on the role of "situated" learning come from a growing body of studies suggesting that students will better master a skill if they are taught it in the context in which they might be expected to use the skill. Some proponents of this approach argue that all learning should take place in such contexts.

The panel members agreed that situated learning helps students "transfer" more of what they have learned to real situations, but they argued that some abstract concepts need to be taught directly.

"There are many domains in which fundamental skills are critical to acquire before more specific training can be taught, such as learning to catch a ball before playing any sport with a ball," the psychologists wrote.

Moreover, added Robert A. Bjork, the panel's chairman, fixing the training conditions too rigidly "runs the risk of creating inflexible knowledge and skills." For example, students may only be able to recall the skill they have learned when placed in the same situations.

On the matter of students' illusions about their own competencies, the panel said students frequently have delusions of their own competence because they confuse being familiar with a skill with understanding it deeply and being able to use it in a variety of situations.

"They can confuse the ability to follow a procedure when executed by someone else with their own competence to perform that procedure," Mr. Bjork said.

To combat that tendency, the psychologists said educators and trainers should provide challenges for their students that give them chances to realistically assess their own competencies.

The panel's endorsement of structured cooperative-learning techniques was based mostly on studies involving schoolchildren. But the group concluded that, over all, such techniques can be more effective than individual learning.

But, the psychologists said, more research is needed to find out why cooperative learning seems to work, under what conditions it works best, and whether adults using the technique can make the same kinds of learning gains.

The group was more skeptical about team-building approaches to training, which are often used with adults in corporate and military settings.

Such approaches can boost morale and team cohesion, the panelists said, but they do not necessarily improve performance.

The panel is working on a fourth report in its investigations.

Single copies of the panel's current report can be obtained for $39.95 each, plus $4 for shipping and handling, by writing: National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, D.C. 20055.

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