Might it be true that almost anyone can learn almost anything? And if it’s true, how might we approach the challenge of developing high levels of learning for the wide variety of students whose learning we want to develop? The results of a major study released by Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year may provide the answers.
The study drew from 1.3 million observations across 27 datasets involving students from elementary to college level courses in math, science, and language. The results provide several interesting and promising insights about learning and how we can help our students become successful, especially when challenged by certain learning tasks.
First, a caveat: Students need to be ready to learn for any set of strategies to be successful. If students aren’t ready and willing to engage, the best instruction and learning strategies provide little effect. We need to prepare students for learning by stimulating interest, sparking curiosity, helping them to see a purpose, or otherwise generating a level of commitment necessary to invest energy and persist at a reasonable level. Of course, this step requires us to know our students and have a relationship strong enough to be influential. Nevertheless, once students are ready to learn, we need to help them move forward. Here’s where the Carnegie Mellon study can be most helpful.
Second, two definitions: A skill is something that’s learnable. Talent is the rate at which you can acquire a particular skill. Talent according to the researchers is largely determined by background knowledge and experience. Of course, knowledge and experience come from interest and engagement. Still, the researchers found that despite variations in where learners begin their learning journey, the rate at which learning occurs from one instruction and practice session to the next is surprisingly consistent. In the end, the level of learning or skill mastery achieved is more likely to be determined by persistence than initial talent.
So, what’s the powerful strategy that can lead to almost anyone learning almost anything? It starts by identifying the specific skill or set of concepts to be learned. Next, we need to break down, or “chunk” the complex skill or concepts into the component parts of which it’s comprised. The size and complexity of these “chunks” depend on the complexity of the skill or concept involved and the background knowledge and experience learners brings to the learning task. As examples, success in geometry requires understanding of relationships between points, lines, surfaces, angles, and shapes. Learning calculus requires mastering the fundamentals of algebra, functions, and graphs, as well as solving linear and quadratic equations and other processes.
These subskills or concepts become the focus of a series of cycles of learning and practice, known as deliberate practice.* Deliberate practice features a clear learning goal, embedded instruction, initial and subsequent attempts, followed by additional instruction, feedback, reflection, and application. The researchers found that seven cycles of learning and deliberate practice are adequate to master most skills and learn most concepts. In fact, they labeled this part of the learning process the “Rule of 7.”
The researchers also noted that for attainment of skill mastery and concept knowledge to be successful, students need supportive learning conditions. They need access to necessary resources to support their learning. They need coaching and feedback to help them remain focused and on track. Progress tracking can provide timely information that provides encouragement and supports reflection. The ongoing attention and engagement of an influential adult also can add crucial emotional support.
Additionally, learners can focus their learning and increase learning retention by frequently self-testing as they learn. The process of developing self-questions, formulating responses, and identifying areas in need of review or further study focuses attention and signals the brain that this information is important for long-term storage. Of course, occasionally returning to previously learned skills and concepts for review and reflection further embeds learning in the brain and extends recall.
We know that students come to us with varying background information and experience. However, it’s helpful and hopeful to note that regardless of background our students can learn challenging content and master difficult skills. The key is to provide manageable “chunks” for learning and engage learners in deliberate practice, with supportive learning conditions. The bonus of self-testing and distributed practice can make the learning long-lasting and accessible when needed.
**The concept of deliberate practice was discussed in greater detail in IYC: When Learning Requires Heavy Lifting on October 5, 2021