Several years ago, I was talking about learning with my friend Larry. We were, I thought, talking about helping teens do better in high school and college. But something was wrong. We two imminently reasonable people were not understanding each other. It turned out he was talking about his time at Harvard Law School and I was talking about junior college students struggling with math. Ever since, I have found that my discussions with teachers, students and adults are frequently more productive and satisfying if we take the time to clarify what aspects of teaching and learning we are talking about. In particular, I have found it helpful to distinguish between familiar learning and fresh learning.
- Familiar Learning
Learn more about a topic you already know a lot about. For example, suppose Sam tells you that your mutual friend Charles dropped out of college in November, is living at home and is driving for Uber. The next day, your friend Mary asks if you know why she hasn’t seen Charles on campus. Without having studied or reviewed, you can probably tell Mary exactly what you heard from Sam.
- Fresh Learning
Learn something is a subject that is new to you. For example, suppose you read this in a math book: Conic sections are the curves shapes of slices of a hollow “double-napped” cone. The names of the possible conic sections are ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola. For most of us, these two sentences about conic sections contain a lot of new information. Reading or hearing the sentences once is not sufficient to understand and remember the information.
The difference between familiar and fresh learning is critical for learners. Experts can learn easily from lectures and books because they are familiar with the subject. Students are often faced with fresh learning because they are beginners in the subjects they take. If, as a student, you have learned Spanish I, you are an expert at that level. For you, Spanish II will be familiar learning. But if you got a C in Spanish I and remember only about half the vocabulary and grammar from Spanish I, Spanish II will be a struggle. You are likely to confuse new vocabulary and grammar with things you supposedly learned in Spanish I. That confusion quickly becomes overwhelming academically and emotionally. Maybe you have had that experience in learning a language or a math course.
The problem for learners and faculty is how to deal with the differences between students in what is familiar learning for some and what is fresh learning for others. In private tutoring, it would be ridiculous to start Algebra until the learner can calculate with fractions. But in a school setting, it seems almost impossible to deal with such differences. As a consequence, most efforts to improve student outcomes through better presentations, lectures and books are doomed to modest gains.
There are two ways for instructors to help students with gaps in their prerequisites for a course. First, they can encourage students to catch up on their own. Of course, this requires that they realize they need that extra work right at the beginning of the new course and to actually do the necessary work. Then, too, some students are so far behind they don’t have the time to catch up and keep up. These are the reasons so many students quickly fall behind, struggle and drop-out. With students working on different lessons at any given time, it would be counterproductive to deliver live lectures to the whole class. What works is to use videos and textbooks to deliver the information and to use class time like a study hall. But this is a study hall with an important difference. The instructor is available to help and coach students individually, one at a time. This combination of individual help and self-paced, mastery learning leads to dramatically better student outcomes.