The Learner’s Perspective

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Many industries are changing dramatically, and the railways are no exception.

Meeting future challenges is not merely a matter of attracting people with the right skills: rail staff themselves must expect, and be willing, to reskill, upskill and change roles during their career within the industry. They will need to take charge of their own learning by seeking out development opportunities, rather than waiting until they are told what they need to do.
On the flip side, organisations will need to ensure that employees can see the value of training and are motivated to do it. The effectiveness of training and development can be maximised by a good understanding of learning principles and learners’ perceptions. This article outlines some key aspects of the learner’s perspective that should be considered when creating effective development opportunities.

Key strategies for learning

Regardless of the type of learning we are engaged in, a large body of research tells us that one thing is crucial in most circumstances: practice.

Without rehearsal, we normally forget information very quickly. For this reason, limiting one’s learning to the rereading of notes made during a class or seminar, or to the reading of books and papers, may not be most effective. Far more effective is testing our own recall or having it tested in a low-stakes fashion by our instructor. The very act of attempting to recall information helps to consolidate memory. Because we rarely adopt this method spontaneously, we may need to be encouraged to do so or to have regular mini-tests built into our curriculum. There are many benefits of low-stakes testing throughout a course, including encouraging learners to study, providing useful feedback to both the learners and the instructor, and facilitating the learning of information encountered later in the course.

In the case of skilled actions, the same advice applies: practice makes perfect. We already know that this is crucial for musicians, for example. During the early stages of learning a long piece of music, they often break the composition into manageable “chunks” that they focus on getting right. The transition between chunks is often a stumbling block in these initial stages of learning, but with practice the performance becomes more automatic and the stumbling blocks disappear.

Research into learning, forgetting, and the effects of practice has use for employers. If employees undergo training of some sort, or engage in self-directed learning, this may well be wasted if they do not subsequently have the opportunity to apply their new learning in the workplace. Their skills may fade. Moreover, those employees may cease to see the point of taking up further training opportunities and lose motivation.

Girl at computer screen learning

According to Aristotle’s ideas, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Ideally, learning should also be spaced out across time in a discrete series of events, rather than condensed into a short period. For example, when students do all their rehearsal for an exam at the last minute, it may help them pass the exam, but the information is likely to be quickly forgotten. Several studies show that university students often forget substantial amounts of information as they pass from one level of the course to the next. In practice, if external tutors are providing training for an organisation, it may be difficult to space out learning, either because the trainers are unwilling to operate in that way or because of transport costs. In this case, some sort of follow-up assessments might be considered, perhaps conducted online.

Learning in your sleep

'Sleep after learning is essential to effectively hit the ‘save’ button on those new memories.’ Professor Matthew Walker, University of California, Berkeley

The brain’s memory storage areas are highly active during sleep, meaning that sleep is important for learning. ‘Deep sleep’ predominates in the first hours after falling asleep, during which memories for new information get moved from the brain’s short-term storage area into longer-term storage. In the later hours of sleep, ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ sleep is more prominent, during which links are made between new memories and previously-stored memories – a kind of ‘fine tuning’. Failure to get a full night’s sleep (7 to 8 hours for most people) has a negative effect on recall, as well as impairing the ability to absorb new information gathered the following day. Sleep deprivation also impairs our ability to think creatively. However, about 1 in 3 people do not get as much sleep as they should.

Instructional methods versus learner-centred methods

The most familiar learning method that we experience is traditional teaching, in which an instructor imparts information to us. As learners, we are relatively passive in this method. Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centred method that is widely used in medical training and which has also been adopted in other domains. In the PBL approach, students are assigned to small groups under the guidance of a tutor, referred to as a guide or facilitator, and are presented with problems before any preparation or study has occurred. Through self-directed learning, students seek out the information that is required to solve the problem.

A review of 43 studies of PBL versus lecture-based learning found that PBL was more effective for practical skills then traditional learning. Learners seemed to acquire less factual knowledge but, on the other hand, showed better retention of that knowledge over the long term.

However, there is no straightforward answer as to which methods of teaching and learning are the best for any given instance, and other factors may need to be borne in mind. For example, PBL tends to be more resource intensive than the traditional approach. Also, because formal instruction is such a large part of people’s prior experience, learners may come to expect this and react negatively if they are suddenly expected to take the initiative in an unfamiliar setting. It may be that a mixture of instructor-centred and learner-centred methods is sometimes most appropriate.

The importance of acquiring factual knowledge should also not be underestimated. While some propose that there should be a greater emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills, the educational expert Daniel Willingham argues that there is little evidence that teaching critical thinking as a general purpose skill is very effective. Rather, it appears that a certain level of topic knowledge within a domain appears to be necessary before people can apply higher-level thinking skills within that domain. In short, wisdom appears to develop from expertise.

The importance of context

When we are trying to learn something, we also unconsciously process information about the wider context. This means that when we later try to recall the target information, we do better if we are in the same context as when we learnt it. Contextual cues stored in memory help to activate cues to the target information. In one demonstration of this ‘encoding specificity’ effect, the psychologists Duncan Godden and Alan Baddeley had SCUBA divers learn lists of words, both while underwater and while sitting at the water’s edge. Subsequently, when they were required to recall the words they had learned, performance was best in the original learning conditions: words learned underwater were best recalled while underwater and words learned on the beach were best recalled there.

Physical environment is not the only contextual factor that can impact upon learning and recall. One’s own emotional or physical state at the time of learning and recall also has an influence.

The context-dependent nature of memory implies that the effectiveness of employment-related training will be strengthened when it matches the actual context of the job as closely as possible. For example, a train driver will learn more from driving a train than from reading a description of what he or she is supposed to do. Where it is not practical (or safe) for a learner to engage in such learning on the job, simulations may provide a good alternative. The advent of digital technology increasingly provides opportunities for simulation in online environments or virtual reality. This fascinating and fast developing area will be explored in the next article in this series.

Calling for sound psychology of learning to underpin new initiatives and technological developments

The one thing that the employees of the future can expect is change. To successfully surf these waves of change people will need to adapt by developing their knowledge and skills, and employers will need to provide the support structures to motivate and enable this. To create successful learning environments for rail staff, we should ensure that new technology and initiatives are grounded in robust research from the psychology of learning, some of which has been described here.

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Priya Shah and David Hardman
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