We spend a lot of time in our business talking about learner “attitudes,” like Vacationer, Learner, Prisoner, and the outcomes we typically get from each. We talk about what learners find engaging and what motivates them to learn. Another area I think worth discussing comes from work done by Wichita State’s Marlene Schommer-Aikins: What do learners believe about learning? And how does that affect what and how they learn?

Schommer-Aikins outlines four belief areas. Think about your own beliefs in each space. What are your inclinations? In each area, is your belief all-or-nothing? If not, what percentages or proportions would you assign to each choice? And think past your gut-reaction academic, “correct” answer: What are your own beliefs, really, when you are trying to learn something new?

  1. How much control do you believe you have over your own learning? Is that inherited or acquired, or both?
  2. What do you believe about the speed of learning? Do you think learning is a slow process requiring practice and reflection, or is it something that should happen quickly if it is to happen at all?
  3. How is learning organized in your brain? Do you believe it exists in compartmentalized chunks, or in complex networks?
  4. How stable is knowledge? Do you believe information is fixed and unchanging, or does knowledge evolve and change over time?

So how might beliefs play out? Well, a person who believes that knowledge primarily exists as discrete pieces or chunks would probably see recall as “learning,” would see memorizing as a good study strategy, and would likely do well on tests but struggle with application. You don’t have to look far to find an instructor who believes knowledge, being simple and fixed, is easily handed down by authorities: In their view—and their practice—recall = comprehension = learning. On the other hand, those who see knowledge as something contained in interrelated networks would define “knowing” as being able to apply, and studying as integrating and elaborating new information. They’d probably do well on application but have trouble with testing on facts. People (like, ahem, me) who believe, or want to believe, that learning should happen quickly are likely to have trouble with patience and persistence. Those who believe they weren’t “born smart” will have little faith that instruction will help them improve. They’d likely ascribe mistakes to an innate lack of ability rather than see them as an opportunity to learn.

So what?

There are of course differing ideas around all this (if you care to go down that rabbit hole, start with “epistemological beliefs”). I offer Schommer-Aikins’s ideas here as one more way of thinking about the people for whom we create all these learning experiences. Apart from understanding, as we do, ideas around structuring and organizing instruction, we can also bring our understanding of learner beliefs about learning to bear on our work. Can we find new explanations for why learners misinterpret information or fail to connect it to something else when we feel that connection should be evident? Can it help us explain to stakeholders why passing a multiple-choice test won’t necessarily guarantee improved work performance? To take that a step further: Can we craft better assessments and tests of application?

Can we design in such a way as to help learners understand that learning can be gradual, and may become easier with experience and time? Can we find more opportunities to encourage and state the value of reflection? Are there things we can do to help offset the problems caused by self-defeating beliefs? Schommer-Aikins says: “When you’re frustrated with the adult learner who refuses to learn to use [technology], or doctors who quickly prescribe a drug without thinking through your unique medical history, or your mother who insists that child care is a simple black-and-white issue, think about the role that epistemological beliefs play in your dilemma.”

Want more?

The primary text for this column is: Schommer, Marlene. “The Role of Adults’ Beliefs About Knowledge in School, Work, and Everyday Life.” In Adult Learning and Development, edited by M. Cecil Smith and Thomas Pourchot. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.

Dr. Schommer is now Dr. Schommer-Aikins and teaches at Wichita State University. Since publication of the piece discussed here, she has continued to investigate the role of learner beliefs and their effects on learning outcomes. See her Curriculum Vitae or more information.