How we learn by Matt Ottewill


NOTE: The following article formed Chapter 2 of my degree dissertation entitled "An Investigation Into Ways Of Teaching MIDI". 1995

“Applying the findings of psychological research into cognition leads to a very real increase in learning. Teachers can help their students to become more efficient and more effective as learners.” Michael Howe (educationalist)

An accepted and simple classification reduces the influences which directly affect learning to two primary factors;

  • What we learn is determined by what we do.

  • What we learn is influenced by what we already know.

This classification ignores the many other influences which affect a learners ability to engage with a subject, such as motivation and social background, but such indirect factors are beyond the scope of this investigation.

Learning theory

These are generalised academic attempts to model the way in which we learn. They identify a series of stages in the learning process.

Prediction and comprehension As the lesson begins, or the learner starts reading, predictions about what will be learnt begin to form. Unlikely alternatives are dismissed and strategic decisions are made about whether to continue based on prior knowledge.

“Readers not only predict what an article will contain or what a statement will mean, they predict: what prior knowledge will be relevant and which strategies will be useful in approaching the new text.” Gerald Grow (educationalist)

Comprehension occurs when what is being learnt connects with what the learner already knows. This is essential in order for the new information to be meaningful.

“Information that is perceived by the learner is subjected to cognitive activity that results in a modification of the individual’s capacities: something new has been learnt.” Michael Howe

We can therefore see that teaching is most efficient when the new is expressed in terms of or with reference to the already known. Analogy and metaphor being particularly useful tools.

The process of interactive feedback happens most often in the classroom. Having delivered the “information”, the teacher embarks upon a process whereby original misconceptions are corrected, focus is re-established, alternative learning strategies suggested, and student evaluation takes place.

“... the good teacher will be using evidence of the student's understanding of theory to "adapt" the interactive activities to those appropriate to the students' needs ...” Diana Laurillard

Activity and elaboration
Students do not usually remember the exact details, perhaps in the form of the exact words, of what they are being taught. Instead they learn the generality.

“For all practical purposes, the vast bulk of information one reads is simply forgotten. We use it to "service" our model of the world, then discard the details.” Gerald Grow

Meaningful learning is only possible when comprehended information connects with issues important to the learner. A teacher who first inquires where a students ambitions lie and then demonstrates how knowledge of the subject will help, improves the chances for successful learning. A composer will more easily engage with the subject of learning MIDI if it is first demonstrated that MIDI can facilitate the creative process of composition.

“Instructors will commonly make the mistake of trying to explain how a system works before actually proving to the child that it can work.” Alfred Bawcombe (educationalist)

The transformation of information that is comprehended into information that is retained may be facilitated by processes which seek to strengthen the connection between the new and existing knowledge. These processes may involve activities such as note-taking or practical interaction and are collectively known as “elaboration”.

My observations of students studying MIDI at The Institute Of Music Technology and Lambeth College confirm that a theory based lesson must be followed by or integrated with a prolonged period of practical activity and “discovery”. A theoretical lesson, for example, on MIDI signal flow becomes meaningful in a following period of practical activity during which the students discover all the physical components, such as interfaces and software controls, that facilitate and control that flow. A process of questions and answers eventually results in comprehension but not necessarily learning which only occurs after several more sessions of practice. This reflects the fact that often both abstract theoretical knowledge and related practical skills must be acquired.

“Learning takes place when the new information becomes a part of the existing knowledge network. When elaborated and richly integrated, the new knowledge becomes meaningful and useful.” Gerald Grow

Knowledge becomes meaningful when it informs, and is informed by, other knowledge and useful only if it can be recalled at a relevant time.

“Knowledge is a construction, that is that we relate what we hear, see and feel into our knowledge structure to be as consistent with existing knowledge as possible.” Walter Wager (instructional design educationalist)

It has been suggested that memories and images stored in the mind bear the associated emotional imprint of the personalised experience they represent and that therefore the success of the learning experience, so often fraught with emotional conflict, is partially dependent on it being a pleasurable one.

Also it appears that knowledge is both recalled from memory and “reconstructed”.

“The organisation of memory seems to be a good deal more like multidimensional hypertext than like paragraphs of linear prose. People not only abstract the gist from what they read, they often do not recall what they read verbatim; instead, they reconstruct what they "know”." Gerald Grow

I would suggest that this process of inference is central to the application of theory in the context of an applied practical discipline such as the use of MIDI where such cognitive activities as “troubleshooting” are a daily occurrence.

“... if someone wants to learn a skill, then demonstrations of the skill, generalities about how to do it, and practice doing it, with feedback will definitely make learning easier and more successful.” Charles M. Reigeluth (instructional theorist)

Transfer of learning In learning theory much importance is placed on the ability of the learner to apply skills and knowledge learned in one discipline to other tasks and situations. Mental analytical tools are essential to the MIDI user who, when confronted by an unfamiliar interfaces, will need to explore its architecture and find the relevant controls and features.

Problem solving skills
Acquiring skills requires practice in problem solving. MIDI is a complex technology. Any teaching methodology should entail problem solving exercises designed to improve learning and the development of cognitive strategies.

Some teaching systems

There are no shortage of systems and theories which attempt to implement learning theory by constructing “ideal” learning environments and methodologies. It is accepted that different kinds of learning benefit from different instructional approaches.

Constructivism maintains that knowledge is “constructed” in the manner outlined by cognitive theory.

“Cognition is an active, recursive, integrated process by which we continuously model the world and continuously modify the model.” Gerald Grow

Behaviourist theory contends that “peoples’s behavior, including learning performance, is chiefly influenced by their perception of themselves”. Learning environments in which complex knowledge and skills are broken down into simpler “low-level” components allow learners to build self esteem and improve self image gradually.

Learner centered environments Self motivation in a learner often necessitates less intervention by a teacher. For some, course work which comprises information and problem solving tasks will work well, allowing them to work alone.

Open ended learning environments
These are systems designed to facilitate an individual learners unique search for understanding by improving the efficiency of their innate methodology rather than imposing a new one.

“Learners function as designers using the technology as tools for analysing the world, accessing information, interpreting and organising their personal knowledge, and representing what they know to others.” David Jonassen (instructional technology designer)

Semiology Although not an educational system in itself, semiology can be said to underlie all attempts to communicate meaning. Space precludes an in depth discussion, but the theory identifies a system of signs (such as language itself) and contends that human experience is preoccupied with acquiring knowledge through their interpretation.

In learning environments it is crucial that a consensus is established regarding the meanings of terminology and metaphor. For instructional designers the correct interpretations of metaphors in the form of icons, for example, by a learner cannot be assumed.


In this chapter we have concluded that ...

  • Successful learning is dependent on learner motivation.

  • Teaching is most effective when the new is expressed in terms of or with reference to the already known.

  • Feedback serves to correct initial misconceptions and evaluate learning success.

  • Identifying where a learners interests lie and then relating learning to those interests greatly improves the chances of successful learning.

  • Practice activities reinforce learning and help the learner retain knowledge and skills.

  • Exploration and discovery activities help motivate learning and the development of essential problem solving skills.

  • Knowledge not only acquired but also “constructed” by the learner.

  • The learning experience will be more successful if it is an enjoyable one.

  • Knowledge and skills acquired in one discipline are transferable to another.

  • Breaking down complex knowledge and skills into simpler “low-level” components allow learners to build self esteem.

  • Jargon, metaphors and signs can be powerful communicative tools but consensus of interpretation cannot be assumed.

  • Systems which improve the efficiency of a learners innate methodology may be more useful than ones that simply present knowledge.

Additionally we may conclude that ...

  • Compelling presentation of knowledge and skills motivates learning.

  • Effective teaching relies on authoritative and concise delivery of knowledge and demonstration of skills.

  • Efficient learning is partly dependent on a learners access to resources.

  • These resources must be up to date where a technical discipline, such as MIDI, is being taught.