Thursday, September 25, 2008

Factors Influencing Learning (Motivation & Context)

This was a really difficult question for me to address because I feel like learning is impacted by so many factors and that many of those factors are very interrelated.  But, to narrow it down to two factors I started by trying to identify my most significant learning experiences and then thinking about what they might share in common.  The things that I believe about learning have largely been shaped by experiences that I have had.  Interestingly enough, neither of the experiences that I will focus took place in a formal educational environment.  

The first was my LDS mission to Toronto Canada (yes I realize you just rolled your eyes thinking, "how cliche", everyone at BYU would say that--I would agree with you, a lot of people would say their mission was a tremendous learning experience and I think that there are good reasons for that which I will try to articulate here, so keep reading!).  No one forced me to leave home and spend two years in Canada riding dog sleds, living in igloos (just kidding, but it does get extremely cold) and talking to complete strangers about religion of all things.  I made a conscious choice to be a missionary and that led to a whole host of behaviours that enhanced my learning (I woke up early, read and studied, and then went out and tried to apply the things that I was learning whether that was specific doctrines, teaching methods, or the language--eh!).  There were a lot of what I would call sub-factors that helped my learning, but most of them were driven by my personal motivation.  The other thing that made my mission experience powerful in terms of my learning was that it was contextual and authentic--I was learning to be a missionary by being a missionary.  That didn't mean that I was thrown into the deep end without a life-jacket (although it felt that way at times), but it was a cognitive apprenticeship of sorts where I started as mostly a passive observer working with a seasoned missionary and then progressed to the point where I was the seasoned missionary.  The important thing was that the things I learned in my studies were things that I could use in my missionary experiences; likewise, my experiences drove my learning as well by helping me refine my ideas and raising questions in my mind that took me down new learning paths.  There was no real formal system for this learning, but it happened and happened much more effectively than I had ever experienced in a class I had taken.

The second experience that came to my mind as I considered learning was a job that I had as an undergraduate student here at BYU.  From my Sophomore to Senior year I worked as peer mentor in the Freshman Academy program at BYU (the same program that Brian Chantry in our class works for now as an administrator).  During my last summer as a peer mentor I was asked to assist three faculty members in doing research for a book they were planning to write focused on mentoring relationships.  While this was a formal assignment and I reported back to these faculty members, I was given all of the freedom in the world in terms of what I read, how I organized the information, and the questions that I pursued in my research.  So, essentially, I still had a great deal of choice and that impacted my motivation to learn.  Additionally, because I was also working as a peer mentor during this time I was able to let my research impact the way I carried out my mentoring role.  Specifically, I was working on developing a peer mentor training program to help new mentors understand their role and "become mentors".  So, the things that I was learning in my research had direct application to this other project that I was working on.  I read and wrote more during those 4 months (by a long-shot) than I ever did during an academic semester as a formal student, but I enjoyed it because I was in control and I was using what I was learning (I was also going to be teaching/coaching in a high school setting that fall and felt that what I was learning had a lot of implications for that work).  

So,  from these two stories, I have decided that the two factors that I believe have the most significant influence on learning are (1) the motivation/desire of the learner and (2) the context that the learning takes place in--it needs to be authentic.  I believe that there is plenty of literature to support me in those views (and probably plenty that would say that I'm wrong), but it is my experiences that have led me to this belief more than anything.  

In terms of citations relating to those views, one that comes to mind immediately is the Regeluth reading we were asked to do for next week ("What is Instructional Design Theory and How is it Changing?).  Part of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of what Reigeluth terms instructional conditions.  Two of the conditions addressed are the nature of the learner (including motivations) and the learning environment.   As far as contextual learning goes, the theory of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, see their book Situated Learning) has a great deal of support as well.  There is also a lot of support for this view in the article "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" that we read for class last week.

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