Success and Other Obstacles to Learning


In Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing—a fascinating, important, award-winning book that comes from the discipline of writing studies and has broad implications for teaching and learning in any discipline—Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak follow several college students from their first-year writing courses to courses they take and write in the following semester to see how—and, indeed, whether—they take what they were taught in the writing course and apply or adapt (i.e. transfer) it to other settings. The question of transferring learning from one context to another is tantamount to the question of learning itself. If students cannot transfer what they learn in a course to other contexts, we might as well say they haven’t even learned—because, once that class is over, they will only ever be in other contexts. Under the umbrella argument that we should purposefully teach for transfer, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak explore what it looks like when transfer happens, when it doesn’t, and what factors may make the difference.

One particularly enlightening discovery in the book involves a student who was not able to transfer skills and concepts from her first-year writing course to other contexts for the simple reason that she did not learn the skills and concepts the writing course hoped to impart. The researchers how Marta failed to learn because she thought she already knew, more or less, what she needed to know about writing. This was a belief reinforced by prior successes on standardized tests and writing assignments in high school and college: “given affirmation in terms of good grades and favorable feedback, she—all too understandably—did not see the need to change her approach to writing” (p. 91). In a painful irony, being a “good writer” prevented her from growing as a writer.

To put it another way, Marta’s prior knowledge about writing prevented her from developing new knowledge about writing. This is but one possible way to relate to one’s prior knowledge. For students who did learn, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak offer three other models of how new skills or concepts might relate to prior knowledge: students may (a) tack on bits of new learning onto old frameworks, without changing their old ideas much (the “assemblage” model); (b) integrate new learning with prior learning, reworking the old frameworks in light of the new (the “remix” model); or (c) may encounter a significant failure or challenge that causes them to rethink everything they thought they knew (the “critical incident” model) (pp. 112-20). All three of these models imply accepting that what one already knows isn’t enough or isn’t all there is to learn. In this respect, learning requires being willing to “inhabit the role of novice” (p. 18). Convinced of her own expertise, Marta followed what we might call the “cup too full” model. She simply hangs on to her prior knowledge instead of learning new knowledge.

(As an aside, I imagine there are times this applies to most of us as teachers when it comes to growing in our teaching. We know a lot. But what we know might not always be what we need and may sometimes get in the way of what we need. We ought, then, pay careful attention to when things go wrong: those are our opportunities to learn.)

Effective teaching may mean we need to head off those things that might keep our students from learning. That cup-too-full mentality would certainly be a significant obstacle. I can think of some others too.

People have trouble learning when they:

  • Think they know the subject adequately already, are satisfied with their current knowledge or performance,
  • Are too busy with other demands,
  • Are too distracted by social media,
  • Are not interested or do not see the relevance in the subject,
  • Do not put in enough effort,
  • Aim more for good grades than for understanding,
  • Do not believe they can grow (fixed mindset, lack of self-efficacy),
  • Do not yet have the necessary prior knowledge,
  • Use ineffective learning strategies way (poor “study skills” or no practice of metacognition)

What other obstacles to learning might we add to the list? And, more importantly, what else might we do to counter them?


4 responses to “Success and Other Obstacles to Learning

  1. This matches exactly my own dissertation research in a first year comp class where the student who progressed the most was one who embraced the novice role (after initially resisting it), and a high-achieving student was frustrated and progressed little because she believed the course had nothing new to teach her. I thought then and still think now that one key is bringing to the surface and discussing openly with them the conceptions of writing they bring to the course. That is, let’s put their (and our) competing writing theories in dialogue and see how they hold up.

    • Thanks for sharing that, M.C. In cases when students have told me that, say, the material isn’t new to them, I’ve tended to just believe them. (How do I know what they’ve studied previously?) But now I’m wondering if that’s actually the case or whether they’re just not able to see what’s new or I’m not able to explain it. I think what you’re suggesting–making the conceptions of writing visible–is just the thing to do.

      • I think it can be some of both. But to take my experience as an example, in HS I studied debate and learned the terms ethos, logos, & pathos, but years later I understood how impoverished my conception of those concepts was. So often, all of us (not just college students) just don’t know what we don’t know. And dialogue is the only way to uncover this.

      • Yes, that makes sense too. There’s knowing something and there’s KNOWING it.

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