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Conditioning in the classroom: 8 tips for teaching and learning

You are probably familiar with animal learning and conditioning. You probably know that certain behaviours in your pet can be encouraged by reward, for example. You may also know something of the science behind animal conditioning: you may have heard about Pavlov’s drooling dogs, Skinner’s peckish pigeons or Thorndike’s cunning cats. However, what you may not know is that the scientific study of animal conditioning has provided psychologists with an armoury of principles about how training can be most effective. From this research, general rules of learning have been determined, and further investigated in mammals that are rather less furry than your average pet cat or dog – humans. Humans, like other animals, are adept at being trained and learning new information, and one of the most important contexts in which this happens is in school. So, as you go back to school, here are some tips from the study of conditioning that can be applied to teaching and learning in the classroom.

  1. Practice makes perfect. OK, maybe not perfect – but certainly better. One of the ways in which psychologists think learning takes place is through association: we learn by associating things together. It may be learning which elements, together, form hydrochloric acid, or it may be learning the sequence of the events in the water cycle. In both of these cases associations need to be formed between things, and the strengths of these associations grow the more frequently they are experienced; so practise.
  2. Put things together. How should things be experienced in order for them to be associated? Close together in space and in time is best. So, when trying to connect concepts, or other information, put them close together in space and in time – the same goes for reward and praise, their effects are more likely to be effective if they closely follow a desired behaviour. Try it yourself – give yourself a treat every time you have successfully completed a study session.
  1. Make it stand out. You can practise something all you want, but if the things that you are trying to learn about are not particularly significant to you then you will probably struggle. Humans and other animals learn better about things that are salient – things that stand out. So make the stuff that you are trying to teach, or learn about, stand out. Sometimes this can be hard, as not everything is intrinsically salient. You can overcome this by turning the thing that is dull into something that is not: salience can be acquired through association. For example, connect the stuff that you are trying to learn about with things that are important, or entertaining to you, these will be much easier to associate.
Dogs pets sleepy by 27707. Public domain via Pixabay.
  1. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong. Learning progresses particularly well when there is a difference between what you think is correct, and what is actually correct. You can exploit this to help your revision with a technique called retrieval practise: test yourself on material that you have learned in the past and then, afterwards, check your notes or text book for accuracy. Getting things wrong will help you learn, so do not be put off when things get difficult.
  1. Avoid interference. When you are trying to learn, the presence of other things around you can cause interference – extraneous sights and sounds can overshadow your learning. This is most obvious when something intrinsically distracting – such as a television – is present whilst you are trying to learn. But, as I noted earlier, even dull things can acquire the ability to stand out through learning, so be mindful of what accompanies the context of teaching and learning
  1. Spread it about. As tempting as it is to cram all your exam revision into a short space of time, learning (and therefore teaching) is more effective when it is distributed. Spread out the instances in which you are trying to learn or teach and it will be more effectively recalled later (such as during an exam!)
  1. Mix it up. Learning to tell stuff apart is more effective when it is interleaved. For example, identifying the differences between two very similar mathematical equations is easier if they are compared side by side. Staring at one for hours, and then then other is less productive. So, if you want to emphasise distinctions between things, interleave them rather than cluster them together.
  1. Keep things similar. However, sometimes we want the information that we learn to transfer to new circumstances or contexts, and to things that we didn’t originally teach or practise. That is to say we don’t want our learning to be distinctive – we want it to be general – so that, for example, you can identify common principles rather than just a collection of specific facts. Learning generalises well between circumstances that are similar – so take advantage of this where you can. For example, make the conditions of your study time as similar as you can to the conditions of where you will be tested. A concrete way of doing this is to actually test yourself during study time.

Featured image credit: Colored Pencils stationary by PIRO4D. Public domain via Pixabay

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