Cognitive psychology research suggests that three major factors influence how much and how well we learn: ability, prior knowledge, and motivation.
The capacity with which we were born that enables us to acquire new skills and knowledge varies among individuals. Just like height or musculature, we arrive on the scene with a certain mental (or learning) potential. It may be unfair but some of us are born taller, slimmer, more physically attractive, or able to learn more quickly than others. This general learning ability is the intellectual capacity with which we are genetically endowed. It strongly influences our overall capacity to learn. Note the word “general”. With greater general ability, we grasp more quickly, comprehend more easily, and recall more efficiently than others do. We seem to get it faster and play it back or even enhance it better than those not as intellectually able. Obviously, like musculature, the way in which intellectual ability is fostered and trained can seriously affect how well one’s cerebral capabilities grow and develop. We have to be aware of the differences in ability and compensate for those who do not learn as rapidly as others. We also have to keep the more generally able learners constantly stimulated and challenged to maintain their focus.
Although we posses general intellectual ability, we also are endowed with specific abilities at our birth. An ear for music, a golden voice, an athletic agility, or an artistic talent are extremely valuable specific learning abilities that are more important than general intellectual capacity in certain instances.
General and specific abilities greatly influence learning, but how much a person already knows about what he or she is being taught also strongly affects learning. A brilliant philosopher or mathematician may not learn as well as less intellectual gifted carpenter when receiving some new piece of instruction about carpentry. Prior knowledge helps the learner acquire additional knowledge or skills more rapidly.
We all have seen the power of high motivation – the desire to achieve something. We also have seen the reverse: those who don’t care, have no drive, or seem to lack interest in learning rarely achieve proficiency in new knowledge and skills. We often talk about motivation and its importance, but what is it?
Motivation is affected by three major factors – value, confidence and mood.
Value. The more we value something, the more motivated we are about it. The higher the value attributed to what is to be learned, the greater the motivation.
Confidence. If you feel totally inept in your ability to learn something, how motivated are you to try? The answer, of course, is unmotivated. Low confidence in learning is strongly correlated with low motivation. As the confidence of the learner increases, so does the motivation. Overconfidence, however, leads to a decline in motivation. If the learner feels that “this is so easy, I don’t even need to try. The optimal point of motivation is where the learner has enough confidence to feel she or he can succeed, but not so much that the incentive to learn declines.
Mood. We all know that if we’re not in the mood, our motivation to learn goes down. Personal feelings affect our mood as does the atmosphere of the learning and working environment. A positive learning environment tends to improve a person’s mood and, hence, his or her motivation.
Adapting for differences in ability, prior knowledge, and motivation
Ability, prior knowledge, and motivation strongly affect learning. Can we, as trainers, influence all of these? Fortunately, the answer is “Yes”.
Although we can’t alter a person’s ability, we can observe and detect his or her strengths and weaknesses. As a result, we can adapt the learning system by taking the following measures:
- Adjusting the amount of time for learning
- Providing more practice for those who require it
- Simplifying and breaking learning into smaller chunks for those who are experiencing learning difficulties
- Providing additional support for those who need it
- Including activities with greater challenge for those who learn more quickly
Those are only a few ways of compensating for differences in learning ability. The key is to observe and acknowledge such variations and make suitable modifications to the instruction whether live, online, or from a book.
If learners are missing prerequisite knowledge and skills, we can make adjustments to these gaps in the following ways:
- Creating pre-learning sessions materials to close the gaps
- Building special supplementary learning events prior to or concurrent with the learning sessions
- Creating peer tutoring pairs and teams to provide mutual support for overcoming gaps.
- Providing overviews and summaries of prerequisite content in outline or summary form.
- Directing learners to online sites that can fill knowledge or skills gaps.
That’s only a starter list. Offering sources of knowledge or resources for acquiring prerequisite skills can help bring learners up to speed quickly.
Based on the three major factors that affect motivation, we can overcome deficiencies in the following ways:
- Enhancing the value of what is to be learned. Show the learners what’s in it for them. Provide examples of benefits. Show them admired role models valuing what is to be learned. The more the learners perceive personal value in what they are learning, the more motivated they will become.
- Adjusting the learners’ confidence levels with respect to the learning content. Be supportive to build their confidence that they can learn but provide sufficient challenge so that they don’t become overconfident about it.
- Creating a positive learning atmosphere. The more open and optimistic the context you build, the more open and positive the learners will be, and that leads to greater motivation… and to learning.
Keep in mind that all learners are different. Whether as a group in a classroom, as a team at the worksite, or individually through a manual or via computer in real time or asynchronously, they come to us with widely differing characteristics. Training, in its broadest sense, is a compensation for what each of our learners lack.
Just imagine what our job would be if all of our learners came to us with elevated general and specific learning abilities, vast prior knowledge, and tremendous motivation. Would we teach until they learned what we provided them? Or would we give them the learning resources and then get out of their way? If you choose the second option, you’re right. Talented, knowledgeable, and motivated learners only require learning resources and useful feedback. The less they possess of each of the ingredients, the more we trainers have to work to compensate for what they lack.