Grand Challenge for SoTL #3
SoTL practitioners study postsecondary teaching and learning to better understand and improve the complex processes of learning. Learning is a holistic experience involving cognitive, affective, social, physiological, and cultural processes and influences, and is facilitated by understanding existing scholarship on learning and the individual experiences of learners.
What is it?
Learning involves long-term changes to one’s behavior, knowledge, skills, or awareness. Learning is constructive in that it doesn’t involve a simple, exact transmission of information from an educator to a student. Rather, as a student learns, their prior knowledge, beliefs and abilities, physiological state (e.g. blood sugar levels, amount of sleep) and current context influence the ultimate form and content of what is learned (National Academy of Sciences 2018). Thus, learning cannot be considered simply a cognitive (thinking) process, but one that is holistic and is influenced by all aspects of an individual.
Why and how is this Grand Challenge important?
Learning is the goal of education, which provides a foundation for the transformation and advancement of individuals and societies. The better both learners and educators understand the processes of learning, the more effectively all can support and engage in learning. Thus, understanding the learning process is worthy of resources and research.
There are many aspects of the process of learning that lend it to being a grand challenge. To start, learning is complex – there are several domains of learning (cognitive, affective, psychomotor, physiological) and many levels of learning, such as memorization, comprehension, and evaluation (Wirth and Perkins 2013). Although what happens in the brain when people learn is not fully understood, deep and lasting learning typically requires multiple opportunities to practice and meaningfully engage with the materials, coupled with feedback (Lovett, Bridges, DiPietro, Ambrose and Norman 2023), all of which require time and resources. Further, while there are commonalities across learners, there are individual differences in what and how people learn due to different prior experiences, social and physical contexts, and current motivations (see also Grand Challenges #2 & #4). Thus, there is no approach to teaching that will guarantee the same learning for all students in all contexts.
Additionally, while researchers have made great gains in our knowledge of the learning process itself, it is still not fully understood. Understanding learning is made more difficult because the processes underlying learning are not directly visible (Bass and Eynon 2009). Educators rely on externally observable behaviors or demonstrations to indicate that learning has occurred (e.g., performance on exams, performance of a task, or self-assertions). Sometimes behaviors suggest learning has occurred but, in reality, the learning was superficial or not lasting. Conversely, sometimes learning has occurred but isn’t demonstrated at a particular time and educators conclude it hasn’t occurred. The necessity for effective measures of learning pose a grand challenge for the assessment and study of learning.
Another ongoing aspect of this grand challenge is that, in most cases, educational systems have not prioritized “learning how to learn.” Consequently, neither learners nor educators have been given opportunities to develop expertise in understanding the learning process or in becoming metacognitive about their state of learning. Thus, they may use or recommend approaches that are less effective for learning (Dunlosky and Rawson, 2015), and educators may be less able to effectively adapt their teaching to the variety of learners and contexts they encounter when teaching.
Finally, technology-supported learning brings promise but also further complicates this grand challenge related to the complex process of learning. On the positive side, it can provide individually-paced instruction that embeds best practices (e.g. spaced retrieval, gaming incentives) that were determined from studying the learning process. Less positively, educational technologies and the training to use them effectively are not equally available to all teachers and learners, and their availability is directly influenced by larger geopolitical contexts (Alam 2022; Baum and McPherson 2019).
What’s needed to address this Grand Challenge?
Given the above challenges, educational institutions need to find ways to provide opportunities for educators and students to learn about the processes of learning and support efforts to incorporate effective pedagogies and student learning strategies that deepen learning and promote life-long learning. Educators need to explore adaptive ways of educating in order to maximize learning for larger numbers of students while accommodating individual experiences and neurodiversity, different backgrounds, and varied educational contexts. Technology should be leveraged to expand teaching and learning opportunities, with care given to provide equitable access.
How might SoTL practitioners study this Grand Challenge?
Scharff, Lauren, Holly Capocchiano, Nancy Chick, Michelle Eady, Jen Friberg, Diana Gregory, Kara Loy, and Trent Maurer. “Grand Challenges for SoTL #3.” International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, November 2023. https://issotl.com/grand-challenges-for-sotl/gc-sotl-3/