Taking Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel to task. Learning is complex.

I read the Times Educational Supplement with interest today. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel seem to have all the answers as expressed in ‘Effortless learning is a dangerous illusion’. Learning does, indeed, require effort. However, I take issue with the suggestion that ‘repeated exposure [does not burn] new knowledge into memory’ and that ‘re-reading does not get below the surface of the text’. As always, learning is a complex matter and individual students acquire knowledge differently.
While I also subscribe to the notion that effective learning comes from manipulating the knowledge one wants to acquire, I also remember as a teenage student, reading and re-reading texts in preparation for exams. I was delighted when I recalled much of the language and its underlying concepts when I was writing my answers to the exam questions. It was more than fluency that helped me write those essays – I had acquired an intuitive understanding of how the language worked and of its inherent underlying concepts. It was different to the language I used in my daily life; it was language that was more appropriate for the academic subject and I had learnt it by reading and re-reading the text.
Spaced or interleaved practice is effective, as they say, but it does not need to be as haphazard as suggested. Simply extending the time needed to hold a piece of knowledge in the working memory can help to remember it in the long term. I used this method to teach spelling to a student who was having difficulties and simply by asking her to hold a number of words and related material in her mind for a while, helped her to learn the target words more effectively and permanently. You will find more of this idea in my book ‘The Spelling Game’. I agree that recalling the learnt material at a later date would help the learning even further, but it does not have to be an anxiety-ridden experience.
I disagree with their dismissal of the idea that if learning feels easy, it is not being learnt effectively. With some students a jumble of ideas or questions simply leads to confusions. Little is learnt and the sense of failure can make a lot of difference. Some students first need to understand the material that they are learning and this understanding needs to be presented in a way that it is easy for the students to understand. Only after this can they involve themselves in the more adventurous manipulation of the knowledge and practice in recall in the way we all suggest.
I also disagree with their suggestion that we are not good judges of what we know and don’t know. If we cannot recall something, we are immediately aware that we do not know it, we have not learnt it. This is basic common sense. However, I agree whole-heartedly with the effectiveness of testing. Testing and re-testing ourselves with material that makes us approach the same subject in different ways certainly aided my learning.
You may wish to have a look at my dissertation on ‘The development of language acquisition of a Mature Learner’ available free on http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/48/. In this, I studied myself learning a new language and discussed in greater depth how we acquire knowledge in the form of language.
It is a complex matter that cannot be easily described in affirmative, may I suggest ‘sweeping’ statements. There is no definitive answer, for our personalities and cognitive competence vary considerably. In this area of education, one-size does not fit all.
Rosemary Westwell


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3 Responses to “Taking Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel to task. Learning is complex.”

  1. M T McGuire Says:

    I am supremely uninterested in cricket. Yet I learned quite a bit about it, entirely against my will, through hearing the rest of my family discuss it endlessly. So actually, I’d say repetition worked for me I that particular case, almost against my will.



  2. M T McGuire Says:

    Sorry re potion worked, I mean…

  3. M T McGuire Says:

    Or even repetition sodding spell check.

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