What is Learning?

What is Learning?

Have you ever wondered what learning is and how to measure if it happened sufficiently? You might. But if you didn’t, don’t worry. It’s one of those ubiquitous things in life that just ‘is’. However in specific circumstances it is important to know what learning is. A definition of what learning is and is not, helps in measuring it. It has relevance beyond purely formal educational setting and also impacts talent management and performance appraisal process in companies.

What is Learning?

I invite you to take the time to think about learning settings you experienced as learner or assessor and consider how learning was measured. This gives insights into what learning could be. In my own experience I was assessed through written and oral exams, using open and closed questions. Sometimes short open questions, other times essay type of questions requiring short answers (e.g., one paragraph) or full length papers. I never had to perform in a simulated task, typical for assessing aspiring pilots, medical professionals, or armed forces. However, I had to perform certain tasks during the exam to show that I was able to complete them (e.g., driving test, sport test). Additionally, I once had to create a portfolio demonstrating my skills.

Type of Assessment What is assessed
Written or verbal closed  questions (e.g., multiple choice) Definition, head-knowledge. It’s kind of testing if you created a encyclopedia in your mind for the domain you were learning.
Written or verbal open question Similar to closed question this type of questions test if you have an encyclopedia in your mind. It has a lesser focus on definition, and more on (causal) thinking, and explanation. From an assessors point of view, we often look for the right sequence of explanations, and/or if the proper terms are used, and if these are used in the correct context.
Simulated tasks These ask learners to perform a domain relevant task in an imitated environment. It provides the advantage of being low-risk and cost-effective. Examples are role-plays, computer simulations (e.g., video games), computer-controlled mannequins. Successfully executing a simulated task requires the ability to do the necessary domain relevant skills (behaviors, actions). In most cases, this assumes that the ‘domain encyclopedia’ is present. Students are assessed by experts or fellow learners (peer-assessment).
Real tasks Like simulated tasks, these ask learners to apply the skills they have learned. It is normally used in situation where the risk of failing does not have disastrous consequences (death and/or destruction). Again, students are assessed by experts or fellow learners (peer-assessment).

What does this tells us about learning? First learning means putting information into our heads and being able to put it out at a later stage. Speaking about this in a derogative tone, we could call this type of learning ‘repeating what you heard’, memorizing knowledge. Passing a test with only closed questions does not equate understanding and expertise in the domain. It means a good memory about the terms in the domain.

Attempting to define learning

Learning can be defined using a mechanistic perspective, by assuming that learning is a change in behavior. In this sense, experience is perceived to be the driver behind learning. However, this needs to be further refined, as not all changes in behavior are due to learning experiences. Jan de Houwder and his colleagues define learning as

changes in the behavior of an organism that are the result of regularities in the environment of that organism

Regularities refer to things in an environment, objects, people, artifacts that stimulate someone (the ‘organism’) to change his/her behavior. These regularities in the environment need to happen multiple times, or multiple artifacts need to be happening at the same time. For example, a regularity in an environment that occurs at several points in time, is a task that needs to be completed multiple times. Possible examples are :

  • schedule a meeting with your boss: This requires learning technological skills and time management. It might also include learning tacit rules (how and when to schedule the meeting, what to include in the invitation)
  • present in front of the management board: Presentation requires learning to design a presentation, convince others of your story, clearly communicate your point of view
  • create a website: Website creation, depending on the project, could be learning technical skills, but can also include time management, project management, communication with the client.
  • giving feedback to your colleagues: This clearly requires learning to communicate properly.

While it is nice to have one definition that could potentially suit all different situations and individuals, I prefer the approach of Patricia Alexander and her colleagues in providing an overview of different principles of learning that have been established over time.

Principle 1 Learning is change
Principle 2 Learning is inevitable, essential, and ubiquitous
Principle 3 Learning can be resisted
Principle 4 Learning may be disadvantageous
Principle 5 Learning can be tacit and incidental as well as conscious and intentional
Principle 6 Learning is framed by our humanness
Principle 7 Learning refers to both a process and a product
Principle 8 Learning is different at different points in time
Principle 9 Learning is interactional

Measuring Learning

Keeping these learning principles in mind different ways of measuring learning can be established. If learning is understood as a change (Principle 1), and is seen as a process and a product (principle 7), this change can be a change in what and how much someone knows. All forms of measuring learning (closed & open questions, demonstration of behavior) are good to measure this change. If someone strongly believes that learning is a product or a process, care needs to be taken about how to measure learning. If learning is a product, then only the end-result should be considered. However, if learning is a process, then the focus of measuring should be on the steps taken to create a change in behavior.

Focusing on learning as a product, it is important to keep in mind that learning here implies a change from state 0 (the ‘unlearned’ or less experienced state) to state 1 (the ‘learned’ or more experienced state). Hence, it is necessary to measure the growth in someone’s knowledge base, or how much their behavior changed. At my local university, medical students have to do progress tests several times per year. During these tests students get asked questions about all medical domains, also those they have not yet been taught. Of course 1st year student receive very low grades, but such a system helps to measure growth, hence a change in knowledge. When the focus is on learning as a process, individuals need to keep track of what they do in order to learn. Thing about typical measures using in learning analytics, such as number of clicks, videos watched, notes taken.

Measuring learning can only happen if someone (or something like a computer) assess the learning process or product. Assessors are normally experts, looking for specific behavior or words which signal that the student has internalized the concepts of the domain. Learning, and becoming an expert, is a tricky thing. Over the years, people internalize more and more expert knowledge which can make it harder to verbalize what they know and why they know it. It’s kind of the causal links between concepts get buried deep into the brain of the experts.

Measuring hard vs. soft learning products

Individuals can learn ‘declarative knowledge’. These are the things that are written in text books. However, for companies it is also important that individuals are good at specific soft skills. Take communication as an example. We want doctors to properly communicate with us, not just make sentences loaded with medical jargon that leaves us clueless, or provides us with information in a cold, inhumane manner. Take a moment to imagine how you, as a doctor, would tell a spouse that their partner has only 1 month to live and that there is nothing the medical profession can do to circumvent the imminent death.

Fortunate at work, most communication is less dramatic (with the exception of ‘you are fired’). Soft skills encompass more than just communication. Collaboration, decision-making, problem-solving, negotiation, team work, self-management, time management etc. are all part of it. The company knack.it has provided an innovative way to measure how good someone is in those skills: Individuals play short games which establish their level of competence in various soft skills. Here, learning is not measured, but a kind of ‘base line’ measure of someone’s skill level is taken. It has become hugely popular as a recruitment tool to pre-screen candidates for the right skill level, or as an assessment tool in final year of high school for students. Knack.it isn’t the only company whose aim is to provide base-line assessment of individual’s talent in order to improve the recruitment process.

Focusing more on learning instead of assessment, Zoomi.inc provides personalized and adaptive training to employees. The company is collecting learning behavior on its platform and uses this to adapt the training offers. In this information is collected about the learning process to improve the learning product. Zoomi.inc focuses on analyzing employees ‘data footprint’ to understand what training content works or doesn’t work and based on this provides personalized learning solutions.

When to Know What Learning is

Knack.it and Zoomi.inc provide two new ways in which employees knowledge and skills can be assessed, and thus learning, a change in knowledge and skills, can be measured. In an organizational context it should be made transparent why employees should be learning, and how the collected information is used. For example, the speed at which someone learns could provide insight into how capable the person would be in novel roles that are outside of the person’s current expertise zone. Knowing who the ‘highly adaptive’ employees are is good in case of unwanted turnover, crisis, or unexpected business opportunities. Also for talent management it is important to know who-knows-what, and how much they have been growing in their role. Insights about what employees are learning can help to determine who wants to become a specialist in a certain area, and who seeks diversity in experience.

From an employee perspective, it is important that information about what they learned and how fast they learn will not be used for performance assessment. This destroyed the necessary safety that learning requires. Learning can be painful, physically in sport, but also emotionally when repeatedly failing a task. Knowing that failures will not count against one’s performance appraisal and promotion helps to make failure see less risky. The idea of creating a CV of failures for others to read, isn’t new and is, for a junior members, very rewarding to read. If you hold a senior position, have you tried to create such a CV and shared it with junior members ? In German we say

Es ist notch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen (masters are made, not born)

Key take away

  • Data for assessment and about learning should be thought further than the standard quiz format. Employees leave traces everywhere, and if used ethically, these learning traces can help employees grow in their current role and enlarge their future potential.
  • Try to triangulate your data about employees current knowledge and skills, and their learning. Individuals are biased in their judgment, data collected via learning platforms lack context, video observation do not allow for interaction. But together various sources of data can complement each other and provide a holistic view of your employees.

Are you struggling with your personal learning, your professional development, or uncertain if your employees are learning ? Contact me for more information about learning and a free consultation.

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