Theories in regards to how we learn have been discussed for hundreds of years. Theorists, such as Lawrence Kohlberg, have developed different ideas on exactly how people develop their cognitive abilities. While Kohlberg’s six stage theory on moral reasoning and judgment, is one of many proposed methods that can be reviewed by educators. Research has also focused on the different methods and habits that help individuals improve learning outcomes and memory retention and recall. Ideas on distributed learning, using study and contextual aids such as music, and allowing for perceptual learning, are important in improving learning outcomes in college students. Social factors such as parental involvement and support, cultural and family expectations, and the influence of peers may also be significant in how students respond to the learning environment. In terms of higher education, the culmination of these theories, practices, and social factors are imperative to how college students learn and engage in and out of the classroom.
Theories of teaching and learning
Carey describes the brain as the ultimate learning machine (Carey, 2014). As more has been discovered about the brain and the learning process, researchers and educators have begun to gain a deeper understanding of the various factors that affect student learning, engagement, and achievement. Understanding how learning and cognitive development may be achieved, some best strategies for its achievement, and the ability for social and cultural norms to shape the learning process; higher educational professionals, such as myself, are able to design and implement curriculum and methodologies to support students on the college campus.
This paper will consider the effect of these educational theories, practices, and social and cultural factors on college students being tutored at a small, faith based, and co-educational historically black college in Georgia.
Theories regarding how cognitive skills develop have been discussed for many years. One theorist, Lawrence Kohlberg, explained the phenomenon of this development as six stages of moral reasoning and judgement (Maxwell, 2014). These stages have been defined as: obedience and punishment orientation, individualism and exchange, interpersonal relationships, maintenance of social order, social contract and individual rights, and universal principles (Maxwell, 2014). In terms of higher education, Kohlberg’s theory helps explain the process of how students learn to engage and adapt to the college environment and its standards. As college students are no longer physically influenced by their parents and families, it is up to the student’s judgement and moral compass to guide their actions.
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For example, the development of obedience and punishment orientation is important for students attending tutoring sessions as failure to meet educational standards set by the college may lead to consequences such as: academic probation, suspension, and loss of financial aid.
How we learn
As students understand the consequences associated with not achieving academically, many students are driven to do well in the classroom by studying hard and seeking help when needed to achieve the best grades possible. Carey discusses distributed learning, study aids, and perceptual learning, as methods that college students are able to benefit from to improve learning outcomes and academic achievement (Carey, 2014).
Distributed learning, the spacing out of studying material over fixed intervals of time, has been shown to improve the amount of information students are able to recall later on. While the college stereotype of cramming the night before a big test has worked in a pinch, it has been shown to not be a reliable method for long term cognitive retention and recall (Carey, 2014). As a tutor, sessions with students were once a week and at the beginning of each session, I would review the material that was discussed in the previous session and ask the student to recall various theories, problems, or scientific laws that were discussed. I also would help students design personalized studying schedules to use during the semester to help prevent cramming.
While studying in these intervals, research has also suggested that certain study aids such as listening to soft music can improve memory recall. One study found that after students studied with soft jazz or classical music playing, they had greater recall of what they had studied when listening to the same soft jazz or classical music later on. The control group who studied in silence and had to recall in silence, had the worst cognitive recall of all of the testing groups (Carey, 2014). As a tutor, I would encourage students to study in their room with gentle music playing in the background and would sometimes play music quietly on my phone during tutoring sessions.
Another key element is the development of perceptual learning. This active learning process is achieved by allowing college students to put what they are learning into practice to gain experience, critical thinking abilities, and build skill application (Carey, 2014). College students are not able to build and develop skills by sitting in lecture alone, they also need ways to practice what they are being taught through laboratory sessions, research experiments, and internship experiences. These opportunities allow for self-correcting behaviors and contextual analysis to develop in way that would not have been achieved otherwise. In tutoring, when teaching how to balance chemical equations I would have students complete the problem on the white board. I would then have the student explain to me how the equation was balanced and if the student made a mistake, they would be able catch it on their own and fix it without me telling them it was incorrect.
While these methods have been shown to be powerful in improving cognitive ability. There have also been many false narratives about the learning process; one example is learning styles. Many college students have been taught that they learn best when using a particular type of modality: kinesthetic, auditory, or visual. However, research has shown that there is no significant correlation between learning styles and learning achievement (Willingham, 2018). One study observed if learning styles affected class performance in college students. The students were to study using techniques based on their perceived learning style. At the end of the semester, it was found that students who used learning style techniques did not perform significantly better over students who had not used learning style methods during the semester (Hussman & O’Laughlin, 2018). In my tutoring sessions, I did not base my approach on how the student thought they learned, but instead I would employ multiple learning modalities based on the topic I was teaching and what method I felt would be most effective. For some topics I would draw diagrams, while for other topics I would explain from the book.
Social and cultural factors
Despite what is known about the cognitive aspects of learning, there are still social aspects of the learning process that are affected by the student’s moral reasoning and judgement formation. Interpersonal relationships may motivate students based on the expectations and support of family and loved ones and may determine how the student values their education. Obedience and punishment orientation based on cultural expectations may drive students to perform out of fear of the consequences if they do poorly, and the role of peer relationships may change how a student behaves and engages in the college environment.
While, socio-economic status is a hardship many students face, research has shown that despite it, over all parental involvement strongly correlates to how students value education and engage in the classroom (Usher & Kober, 2012). In my experience, students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds are many times also first generation college students. One student who I tutored during my first year in the tutorial center, was the oldest of four children and the first to graduate from high school in their family. Many times they expressed to me how excited and proud their parents were of them for going to college. Their family had always encouraged them to do their best in school and the support and encouragement were a big part of the student’s motivation to get good grades. They wanted to make their parents proud and set a good example for their younger siblings. These familial relationships and expectations strongly affected how the student engaged and valued their educational experience, and reminded me that the role of family support is integral to a student’s motivation and success.
I have also witnessed many students whose driving force is the fear of failure and disappointing their family. In some cultures, education is highly valued and there is immense pressure to perform at a certain level. According to Usher and Kober, cultural differences influence student values, feelings of competence and goal setting, as well as impact the student’s motivation (2012). During my last year tutoring, an international student from Zambia and presidential scholar came to see me about getting help with an extra credit assignment in a class the student already had a high grade in; I asked why they were stressing over an assignment they did not need to complete and the student explained to me that in their culture, education was highly valued and that they were expected to go to an Ivy League school and become a lawyer, doctor or something equally prestigious. Harvard was where all of their siblings had gone, and as the youngest the expectations were extremely high. If they did not get in to the University, they would be seen as a failure and an embarrassment to their family amongst the people in their hometown in Zambia. The student was eventually accepted into Harvard, but this situation showed me the importance of cultural norms and expectations on students. The fear of failing to meet those cultural and familial expectations was the fuel for this student to meet their educational goals.
While, family expectations are imperative, the role of peer influence is similarly important to a student’s success. A study completed by Wang and Eccles found that peer support was able to affect a student’s engagement in extra-curricular activities, school identity, and how they valued school overall (Wang & Eccles, 2012).
In one particular situation I had the pleasure of observing one of my students blossom into a confident and intelligent young adult after changing their peer group. This student became president of their Greek house, president of the student government association, an honor student, and now attends Duke University School of Divinity. However, when this student first came to school, they were accepted on a conditional basis due to their low GPA, was constantly in trouble for fighting, and was almost expelled during their first semester for illegal substances. Things did not start to change until the student developed a romantic interest in a classmate who was in the honor’s dorm. The student stopped attending parties, started going to class regularly, was studying in the library with their love interest’s study group, and had started seeing me for weekly tutoring. The student then started attending campus church services, accepted Christ, and made new friends who encouraged their studies in class and in the bible. All by changing their peer group, this student changed the course of, not only their educational journey, but their entire life and showed me how important who we surround ourselves with can be on our success.
While the subject of how we learn is still continually being discussed and researched, some practices such as distributed learning, using studying aids and perceptual learning are able to significantly improve educational outcomes; while some ideas, such as learning styles, have been shown not to be very effective. Social and cultural factors are also continually shaping how students navigate through educational spaces. As educators it is important to consider how all of these factors, along with a student’s moral reasoning and judgement, affect how they engage, learn and achieve in and out of the classroom.
- Carey, B. (2014). How we learn: The improbable truth about where, when and why it happens. London: Macmillan.
- Hussman, P. R., & O’Laughlin, V. D. (2018). Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles. Anatomical Sciences Education. doi:10.1002/ase.1777
- Maxwell, B. (2014). Moral Development: Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/7829090/Moral_Development_Lawrence_Kohlberg_and_Carol_Gilligan
- Usher, A., & Kober, N. (2012). What role do parent involvement, family background, and culture play in student motivation? Washington, DC: George Washington University Center for Education Policy
- Wang, M., & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Social Support Matters: Longitudinal Effects of Social Support on Three Dimensions of School Engagement from Middle to High School. Child Development, 83(3), 877-895. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01745.x
- Willingham, D. T. (2018, October 04). Are You a Visual or an Auditory Learner? It Doesn’t Matter. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/opinion/sunday/visual-learner-auditory-school-education.html