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What Impacts Learning?

I don’t know how people learn. No one knows for sure. There has been considerable research on the subject and three things have been proven to influence how people learn: prior knowledge, context and expectations. Why we give something our attention, or focused consciousness, is as mysterious as consciousness itself. Throughout history the great philosophers and scientists have tried to understand thought. From the seventeenth-century philosopher, Renee Descartes who stated, “ I think therefore I am,” to Dr. Robert Anderson, 1976, Carnegie Mellon University, who developed the famous ACT theory (Adaptive Control of Thought), many great minds have realized that in order to learn, we must focus our thoughts.

Robert Gagne, one of the twentieth century’s innovators in instructional design, developed the concept of conditions of learning. These are cognitive processes tied to “Nine Events of Instruction,” the first of which is to gain attention. These nine events include: gain attention, inform of objectives, review prerequisites, present stimuli, provide guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance and retention, and transfer. Although some consider Gagne to be behaviorist in orientation and a bit out of favor with the current constructivist pedagogy, I believe he still has validity. Notice that he starts off the creation of instruction with “gain attention.” If there is no attention, no connection, no focus and our thoughts are elsewhere, the odds of our learning decrease (Gagne, Briggs & Wagner, 1992).

John Keller developed ARCS, a theory of adult learner motivation more than a pure learning theory. ARCS states that learner motivation is dependent on four factors—attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction. Attention is all about reining in the level of interest, focus and engagement. After all, when our thoughts are elsewhere and we are not paying attention, we are not going to learn because we will not be motivated to learn. Relevance is the “WIIFM” or “What’s in it for me?” In the case of learning, what is important is what is in it for the learner—not the instructor or the teacher or the subject-matter expert. What is in it for the learner? Adult learners have to know why. Confidence comes as the learner gains assurance and belief in self by learning new things. Finally, satisfaction means that the learner is feeling more competent. The learner needs to be satisfied that the investment was worth the time, and in many cases, the money (Keller, 2006).

It is also important to understand how, where and why we focus our attention. Attention, after all, is focused or concentrated thought. An example I like to use to illustrate this is the television commercials produced by some of the large pharmaceutical companies. These companies are advertising drugs, but you would never know it. You never see a pill, a doctor, a hospital or any other sign of illness. You never see the drug. These commercials draw your attention to a lifestyle. They show people on the golf course, groups of men in fishing boats, a middle-aged couple in the middle of a lake with a sunset. They are intentionally drawing your attention to something else; a feeling, a lifestyle or a promise of a better life. While you are watching scenes of a sunset, they are reading you the legal disclaimers and side effects. These multi-billion dollar organizations understand the power of visuals and they understand attention.