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Learning processes, learning outcomes and phases of learning

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

University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

The scientific study of learning becomes possible only when investigators reach agreement on the nature of the subject matter, that is, the nature of the changes which are to be referred to as “learning”. Since the main purpose of teaching is to facilitate or bring about learning, it follows that teachers, teacher educators, and teaching researchers must also have a very clear understanding of just what it is that we are referring to when we talk about “learning”.

Most conventional definitions of learning refer to a phenomenon which (1) involves change, (2) occurs in individuals, and (3) involves a change in behaviour as well as a change in the central nervous system. In Section 1 we explore some of the implications of this definition for the observation and measurement of learning.

In addition, the term “learning” is used to refer to many different kinds of change and each of these different kinds of change are dependent upon the presence of a rather different set of conditions. In Section 2 we identify some of these different kinds of changes: changes in competency, changes in motivation, and changes in likes and dislikes.

Section 3 looks in greater detail at changes in competency and identifies a number of different kinds of acquisition outcomes which need to be distinguished because each is dependent upon the presence of a somewhat different set of conditions before they are likely to occur.

Finally, we observe that all types of acquisition move through several phases on the way from initial acquisition to mastery and long term retention. These phases are described and defined in Section 4.