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Learning interactions and their component events

Prepared by John Church, PhD, School of Educational Studies and Human Development

University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

In this section we identify some of the main events which learning depends upon. These events have been the subject of scientific study for the better part of 100 years and, as a result it is possible to describe them with some confidence. The main problem which still faces learning researchers is the problem of deciding upon the level of specificity/generality which should be used when describing and analysing different kinds of learning.

Activities which result in learning may be described at various levels of abstraction. For example, a common level of analysis is the teaching topic or unit of work. A teaching topic typically consists of several lessons or class meetings each of which involves a number of identifiable learning activities. This is the level of analysis which is commonly employed for programme evaluations and method comparisons – as when an investigator compares a radical new method of teaching something against the boring old “traditional method” of teaching the same thing.

At a less general and more specific level is an analysis at the level of a particular learning activity. For example we might analyse or measure the effects on learning of a single class lesson, or a single peer tutoring session or a single instance of a fluency building game.

At the least general and most specific level we can analyse the effects of single learning interactions. For example, we can describe the events which go to make up a single learning interaction (such as responding to a request to spell a particular word and receiving feedback on that attempt) and we can measure the effects on learning of different forms of learning interactions (such as learning interaction which include feedback and those which do not include feedback following the practice response).

We know from experience (and more than 100 years of research) that learning can occur as a result of just one or two repetitions of an experience so it is clear that the description and analysis of learning must be at the level of individual learning interactions. We also know that learning can result from interactions which are as small as hearing, or saying, or seeing, or writing a single word so it is clear that the description and analysis of individual learning interactions must be at the level of specific responses that is, at the level of specific and distinguishable behaviour-and-purpose units.

The ability to analyse learning activities at the level of the learning interaction is a very important teaching and research skill because it enables teachers and learning researchers to describe both the particular types of learning interactions which have been selected for use and, even more importantly, to describe the number of learning opportunities received by each child.

In Section 1 of this chapter we define a learning interaction and its component elements (antecedents, practice responses, and consequences). Subsequent sections describe and define several types of antecedent presentations (Sections 2) and antecedent prompts (Section 3). Section 4 describes various ways in which practice responses can vary and Section 5 describes several different kinds of consequences (such as reinforcing, aversive and neutral consequences).