Effective learning and motivation

When we talk about learning, we think (or at least we should) of permanent change in the brain, ie long-term memorisation. There is no such one-way relationship in which teachers impart knowledge and students passively receive it. Aside from memorising the learned material, it is important to internalise it, ie to develop an understanding of the material so that it is accessible to the student at different times and in various contexts. When learning and trying to understand the material, it is important to know that no one has a single suitable learning style. Developing a systematic understanding of each piece of knowledge and skill requires the implementation of different strategies.

In fact, we learn best when we make use of multiple senses, ways and places, when we learn at different times and approach it from different contexts.

Developing permanent knowledge and skills

When we talk about learning, we think (or at least we should) of permanent change in the brain. There is no such one-way relationship in which teachers impart knowledge and students passively receive it. Besides this, it is not important to simply memorise the subject. Instead, students need to internalise it, ie to develop an understanding of the subject so that it is accessible to them at different times and in various contexts. When learning and trying to understand the material, it is important to know that no one has a single suitable learning style. The learning styles myth has been debunked by scientific research, and, in fact, developing a systematic understanding of each piece of knowledge and skill requires different strategies. True learning occurs when we make use of different senses, ways and places, when we learn at different times and use different contexts and approaches. Scientific knowledge about learning helps you as a teacher to create a learning process that supports development and learning. By being aware of how people actually learn and how they definitely cannot learn, every teacher can make the learning process safe, secure and effective.

To that end, we have described various aspects below that you should take into account every day when planning lessons and monitoring your activity.

Have you thought about the following when preparing and conducting a lesson?

Before you begin to actively work with the learning materials, it is important to first give meaning to and set goals for the subject. It is often difficult for students to recognise which knowledge and skills a task is supposed to develop or hone, and what the overall purpose of the task is. Learning without giving it meaning does not help to store the information permanently. How long would you be able to do or learn something if you did not understand why you are doing it and what the end goal is? In fact, it could be said that an effective learning process starts with giving meaning to the tasks with students. However, there is a common misconception – namely, people often believe that giving meaning to learning and the upcoming activities means simply introducing the learning objectives. Perhaps this is true for teachers, but certainly not for students. Setting learning objectives and giving meaning to the subject does not mean simply introducing it, but requires approaching it from the student perspective and actively involving them. Take some time to make students give meaning to and set goals for the upcoming. This is the only way to make the goals and learning meaningful for students. It also increases learning motivation by making students interested in what they are doing and giving them a better understanding of what they need to achieve.

The one who works the hardest learns the most. In order for students to reach a substantive and in-depth understanding, they have to actively work on the knowledge and skills. When planning and conducting a lesson, teachers have to think increasingly more about how to make students into active learners, and at the same time support and coordinate the learning instead of doing all the work themselves. Active learning means doing, practising and actively working on something to put the subject into practice.

Watching and listening to videos, reading information and text and looking at the answers is not active learning. In fact, it is not learning at all. These activities can be used as the first steps towards learning, but they do not create or strengthen students’ neural pathways or lead to a substantive understanding of the subject. Active learning and practising means that students can do something independently with the information they gained by listening, watching or reading – they can think, discuss, generate ideas, ask questions and look for answers, explain, etc. We do not hand children a completed jigsaw puzzle or a finished Lego house – we want them to do the work, make mistakes and learn from them. However, it often happens that teachers want to give students as many correct solutions and as much complete information as possible, which they can memorise with little effort. In order for students to be able to understand the topic in depth and to use it in later life, they need to reach the understanding and solution themselves (while having support available) by doing the work, putting in the effort and making mistakes. For example, you can help a student who is struggling or doubting themselves by giving them hints or guiding them with questions, not by telling them the answers. Also, instead of providing students with rules or formulas, asking them to memorise them and then use them to solve problems, you could start the learning process with examples and tasks and direct students to work together to find the rules and formulas and thereby truly understand and give meaning to them. Complete information and providing solutions and answers do not allow students to actively participate in the learning process, to develop a substantive understanding of the topic and to internalise it permanently. Rather, it encourages short-term and disjointed memorisation of the information.

People do not store new information into long-term memory word for word. In addition, you do not simply obtain new information. It is necessary to find a so-called anchor point. When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, you need fitting pieces to form a picture, or in order to build something with Lego blocks, you need blocks that connect to each other. This is also the case with developing permanent knowledge and understanding – students need to associate new information with what they already know. Bringing previous information into working memory makes it easier for students to understand new knowledge by building a bridge to connect the old and new. In the context of learning, we can talk about the retrieval of prior knowledge and experiences, creating a big picture of the task and setting a goal, which makes the later organisation and understanding of the material significantly easier. Every student should have the opportunity in the learning process to recall their prior knowledge and actively retrieve it from memory. However, this is not a knowledge check in the usual sense. The purpose of retrieving prior knowledge is not to check it or show performance, but to actively recall information (including forgotten information) and thereby truly learn. This requires the support of teachers, so that students dare to openly express their thoughts, knowledge and understanding (which may not be correct at all). Therefore, when planning and conducting a lesson, it is important to think about ways to include all students and how to do it without materials through active free recall, by retrieving information from memory.

The most effective learning process actually provides students with the least amount of complete information and answers. Therefore, instead of providing all the information, insist on asking questions that guide students towards a better and deeper understanding. Teachers can consciously leave time for questions when planning lessons. When creating learning materials and tasks, you should think about ways to use questions to get students to reflect on, explain, paraphrase and discuss the subject. However, not all questions support learning. A question that supports learning, comprehension and understanding is not based on checking factual knowledge, but guides students to reflect on the topic, activity and their own thinking in a more substantive manner.

Here are some example questions that encourage students to really think about the subject as well as their answers and solutions:

  1. Why?
  2. Could you explain your understanding of it?
  3. Very interesting. Could you explain why you think so?
  4. That is correct. Could you explain how you arrived at this answer?

As a teacher, you should also avoid excessive assistance and give students the chance to understand the tasks and instructions. Do not deprive students of the opportunity to read, to work hard, to try and understand, to explain the task in their own words and to come up with questions.

It is not the knowledge imparted by teachers that students will permanently remember, but the knowledge they have come to understand on their own. Comprehending something requires independent work with the material, during which the student will definitely make mistakes. However, learning is often accompanied by the fear of making mistakes and forgetting. This leads both students and teachers to ineffective learning and teaching methods, which are primarily oriented towards momentary positive performance rather than the development of permanent and substantive knowledge and understanding. For example, a student may ask themselves questions and try to recall what they have read and get it wrong repeatedly. At this point, the student may think that this learning method is not effective, because rather than being easy and convenient, recalling the material requires effort. On the other hand, repeatedly reading through the material makes the information recognisable and gives the student the illusion that they remember and have learned the material. This is where their perception fails them – the faster and easier they remember the information, the more they should doubt the strategy’s effectiveness for substantive and long-term remembering and understanding. Teachers should remind both themselves and students that the conditions in which students make the most mistakes are the ones that lead to the most substantive and effective learning. Mistakes may seem unpleasant and anxiety-inducing, but they help to focus and make students be more serious about the work. The learning process should encourage students to make mistakes and learn from them. If we do not make mistakes while learning, we do not learn! Therefore, when planning the learning process, you should think about ways to create more opportunities for students to make mistakes. For example, instead of providing students with all the rules, formulas and connections, they could come up with the connections and rules on their own. Rather than starting with the rule and formula to be memorised, why not start with the task and its analysis? Encourage students to find solutions and patterns and share them with each other by allowing them to be the active party who makes an effort, asks questions and discusses. In doing so, you can find connections, rules and formulas that students actually understand.

Just because a particular topic has been learned in the recent or distant past does not mean that students can immediately remember the answer. Teachers often assume that since the topic has previously been covered, students will surely remember everything. If they cannot remember something, teachers often become stressed, which in turn makes students stressed as well. In addition to the teacher, students may also unconsciously assume that knowing something today means that knowledge will stay with them forever. Remember that forgetting is a normal part of learning. Knowledge and skills that are not used will be forgotten. ‘We have gone over this’ – stop! There is an apt expression for this in English: use it or lose it. So, if a textbook or curriculum puts important knowledge or skills on hold for a while, keep revisiting them every so often and let students actively recall what they have learned.

Forgetting and active recall are very useful for learning. Therefore, forgetting can be considered a method of effective learning. It is important to remember how memory works – learning and teaching should include breaks, ie the learning of a particular topic should be spread over time. Although both students and teachers may feel that it is effective to devote a long stretch of time to learning a particular thing, studies show otherwise. Learning, forgetting, learning and forgetting the material, ie leaving the subject alone for a while and then going over it again, helps to memorise it for a long time. Therefore, when preparing tasks and the learning process, think about ways for students to take breaks from the topic, to work on another one and then come back to the initial topic. The purpose of taking breaks is not just to let their brain rest, but to use forgetting to learn. So do not be afraid of letting students forget what they have learned, and instead utilise forgetting in teaching and learning. During the lesson, the teacher can explain that instead of continuing to work on a particular topic, they will do something else for a bit. After a while, they can return to the initial topic and will likely realise that they have forgotten quite a bit in the meantime. Such conscious forgetting and retrieval of the subject is one of the most effective learning methods.

Learning the same thing over a long period has short-term benefits. Since the brain’s memory traces need time and repetition to be established, long-term remembrance requires spreading the learning and practice out over time and alternating it with other activities. This means that learning sessions, practice and revision should be alternated with activities not related to learning, or even with another task. Learning and practising for a long consecutive period seems beneficial because it improves performance and the student gets the illusion of grasping the material. However, spreading learning and practice out over a longer period promotes the long-term remembrance of these skills and knowledge. Therefore, in order to permanently store a memory trace, it is necessary to forget and retrieve the subject after shorter and longer periods, which can be done by spreading learning over a longer stretch of time.

According to studies, one of the most preferred methods of learning is the repeated reading of a text. Many students (and teachers) believe that repeated reading of a text is one of the most effective learning strategies. This is understandable – by reading through a text multiple times, students think they have mastered the material because the words and sentences of the text become more and more familiar when reread. This seems like a convenient, low-effort and effective strategy. Due to this, some students believe they are visual learners, not knowing that they have only reached this conclusion because of the material becoming familiar.

In order to utilise the text to learn more effectively, students could look over the text before reading it or starting a new chapter, thus getting the overall picture of the upcoming material – look at all the subtitles, pictures, tables, diagrams, words written in bold and the summary and questions at the end of the chapter. Doing so prepares the brain for what is coming. Similarly to when going to a new town and turning on the GPS, you look over the planned route and do not set off blindly. Going over the text, chapters and other parts is comparable to a situation where you are given shelves and hangers so you could organise the clothes in the wardrobe. Similarly, preparing for the text allows for thoughts to be organised effectively.

Once the preparations are done, students should divide the text into sections instead of reading through it all, and explain every step of the way what they have read, paraphrase it and discuss it with someone else. They should do this and recall what they have read without looking at the text or the materials. In order to better understand the information, you (or the student) could ask questions to see whether they understand (how? why?), and they should try to answer without looking at the text. Actively utilising free recall while reading allows the information to be stored much better and more permanently, and it will also be more easy to retrieve during stressful situations, such as during a test.

You should also think about how to make watching an educational video or listening to audio material more effective. Think about ways to plan watching video and listening to audio so that students could focus on what is expected of them, what is important, to search for necessary information and analyse what they saw and heard. The learning material should guide students to also reflect on which part of what they are seeing and hearing they already know and which part is new or raises questions. You can give students questions or information they should seek answers and pay attention to, or direct them to ask questions about what they saw and heard and to express their thoughts.

When it comes to questions and answers, remember that both correct and incorrect answers need to be analysed. The purpose of asking questions is not just to obtain the correct answers, but to develop an active dialogue in the learning process. Dialogues that promote learning are collective, mutual, supportive and purposeful. During these dialogues, students can use their own words to express their thoughts about the subject and analyse how they reached the answers. The teacher should make sure not to provide the answer to the question too quickly and not to deprive students of the opportunity to find it themselves. It is important to give students enough time to think and to not just say their answer was incorrect without offering any explanation. It is also not helpful to correct an incorrect answer without examining how they arrived at it. In this situation, you should guide the student and their thinking process and allow them to find the correct answer (with your and their fellow students’ support and help). People rarely think about the signal given to students when a teacher says their answer is incorrect or simply tells them the correct answer, which does not activate their thinking. The teacher’s reaction to a student’s mistakes significantly affects the student’s beliefs about whether their abilities can be developed or not, and can significantly support or inhibit learning.

Teaching someone else is very effective for active recall and practice. It is a method of learning where the student explains the subject to others. Teaching others (paraphrasing and explaining the subject) is a highly effective learning method, even if you just explain the subject to a pet. By verbalising thoughts, you can highlight their various aspects and intensify their meaning. In addition, teaching others allows for active recall (without materials) and thus strengthens retrieval.

Retrieval can be strengthened by self-testing, which encourages the student to repeatedly retrieve information from memory and recall it without materials. Therefore, you should think about ways to create a learning process and tasks that constantly give students the opportunity for safe self-testing. It would be great if students could test multiple or even countless times. The more the better! Students and teachers are often unaware that the purpose of testing is not simply to find out the current state of knowledge, but that testing itself is learning. Recalling and retrieving knowledge from memory enables students to remember the subject more effectively and makes the knowledge permanent. Rather than remaining unchanged, the retrieved knowledge will allow students to find more and more relevant connections between what they have learned. Therefore, the learning material and learning process should be structured in a way that allows students keep recalling the material in various ways and test their knowledge – to ask questions about the subject, self-test, generate answers based on their memory, paraphrase what they have read, watched and heard, create a more systematic understanding and connections and thereby support the creation of permanent memory traces.

In order to develop long-term knowledge that supports comprehension, topics should be taught from multiple angles, in several ways and in the context of various issues. Although it is convenient and emotionally safe for both teachers and students to solve similar tasks one after the other (eg consecutive learning of base forms or tenses in a foreign language, solving the same type of word problems in mathematics or developing a specific type of skill on the computer), it is not beneficial for the development of permanent and substantive knowledge. In order to reach real understanding, it is good to confuse the brain from time to time (eg to learn various solutions or tenses randomly, not consecutively), so it could create order in the disarray and look for patterns, learn to recognise wrong turns, avoid them and to find the right turns even in changed circumstances. The more perspectives are used to approach the problem, the more substantive the comprehension will be and the more likely it is for this comprehension to stick in the long term. Cross-subject integration, which also helps students to understand the importance, purpose and content of what they are learning, definitely facilitates the use of different contexts.

Focus is important for learning. What a student is currently thinking about is what they are going to remember. Just as students want to focus on a particular topic for a long time, adults often ask children to focus more. In reality, people are able to focus better if they can occasionally switch it off. As neuroscientists explain it, our brain operates in two modes – focused and diffused thinking – and they are both important for effective learning. The brain cannot work in both of these modes simultaneously, and alternating between the two is essential for successful learning.

In the case of focused thinking, attention is on what is currently being learned, eg when trying to find solutions to a complex task. Reading and solving tasks and problems are aimed at a specific issue, usually entail a known course of action, and are only the first step to learning.

Another, equally important step is diffused thinking. Diffused thinking is used when the mind is unoccupied and relaxed. You may not even be thinking about anything specific during diffused thinking. Instead, you can take a break from studying and do something else that does not require focus: daydream, draw patterns, take a walk, look out of the bus window, have a shower, etc. Diffused thinking allows you to find creative connections between your thoughts, and at the same time, information you have previously acquired during focused thinking can activate in new connections. That is why diffused thinking can generate good ideas and lead to true understanding of the meaning and application of something you have learned, connections between fields, etc. During diffused thinking, your brain continues to work on the problem or topic, but it does so quietly and imperceptibly, often without you being aware of it. Therefore, it makes sense to start the learning process with something more complex that requires more time and effort, then do something else and create moments of diffused thinking when working with the subject.

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Supporting students’ autonomous motivation

Do you let things run their course and implement external control in the event of motivation problems? Coming across motivation problems often makes the surrounding environment react contrary to what would actually support student motivation.

For example, teachers may be compelled to threaten students with unpleasant consequences or control the learning process more. By doing so, the teacher may see a momentary illusion of motivated students, but they will quickly find themselves back in a situation where, rather than being motivated, the students are indifferent, reluctant or anxious. The effect of controlled and low-quality motivation is deceptive and short term and does not promote learning. Remember – if there is anything that makes learning impossible, it is fear, stress and anxiety. If you want to support learning, you should keep fear, anxiety, threats of failure and other unpleasant consequences away from the learning process.

In order to support students’ high-quality autonomous motivation, think about whether their three basic psychological needs – relatedness, competence and autonomy – are met. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, creators of the self-determination theory, are the most famous motivation researchers of the turn of the century. They emphasise that instead of thinking about ways to motivate students, you should think about how to create an environment where they start to motivate themselves. Self-determination theory is a theory of motivation, according to which people’s readiness to seek new things and challenges, and to develop and learn, can only be expressed if the environment meets their innate basic psychological needs (relatedness, competence and autonomy). This makes students feel that they have chosen their own path and activities, or that they are consciously and willingly following someone’s instructions. This allows them to focus on an interesting activity or an important goal, instead of having to deal with meeting their needs.

To achieve this goal, we have described various aspects that you should take into account every day when planning lessons and monitoring your activity.

Have you thought about the following when preparing and conducting a lesson?

One of our basic psychological needs is relatedness, which is characterised by feeling valued, cared for and supported. Relatedness means feeling that your connections with the people around you are meaningful, warm and cherished.

In order to support students’ need for relatedness, make sure that:

  • you have meaningful connections with students – know your students and create an environment where they can get to know each other better and where you are a united team moving towards a common goal;
  • you consistently get to know your students – know their hobbies, activities, etc;
  • you have good and supportive relationships with your students;
  • students have supportive and friendly relationships with each other;
  • students feel cared for and valued in your class and under your tutoring;
  • students are not afraid to come to your class;
  • you do not compare students to each other, as this undermines their friendly and supportive relationships;
  • you notice all students – the loud, quiet and shy ones alike;
  • you implement collaborative learning in the learning process, which makes students interact, learn from each other and help each other more (group work, teaching each other, joint discussions, etc); and
  • every student in your class feels that they can personally contribute to the class and tasks.

The need for competence means that a person feels they manage a task or subject. It does not mean that they should do this alone, without any help. It is important for students to feel that they are able to manage on their own, but at the same time know they are not alone, that they have someone to turn to for help if they need it. When it comes to the need for competence, it is important to address the importance of learning skills – if students lack the knowledge and skills to learn effectively and if their learning competencies are not supported, they will sooner or later face a situation where they feel that they have made an effort (but have done it in a completely ineffective way), but they still cannot cope with the task or learning.

In order to support students’ need for competence, make sure that:

  • students feel they can handle tasks that provide optimal challenges;
  • you consistently teach students to learn and support their learning skills;
  • you make mutual agreements with students (at the beginning of the year, trimester and each lesson). Remember that you do not make agreements just once and you have to come back to them again and again;
  • your students know the objectives of each lesson, what awaits them and what the course of action is;
  • you provide students with pleasantly challenging tasks, while not leaving them alone and helpless;
  • you direct students to notice when they need help and encourage them to ask for assistance. You should instil in your students to have fun working hard, find the spot where they actually need help and dare to ask for it;
  • that students have opportunities to evaluate their own work and get feedback;
  • that students have opportunities to provide feedback to each other’s work;
  • that you encourage students and notice and recognise effort; and
  • that, if necessary, you provide students with the resources they need for the task – learning aids should not be hidden or inaccessible.

In order to act autonomously, a person needs to feel that they are in control of what they are doing, that they have chosen their path, and activities and are following someone else’s instructions consciously and willingly. This means that the subject and activities are meaningful and purposeful for the student, and they can be themselves in the learning process, with all their thoughts and feelings.

In order to support students’ need for autonomy, make sure that:

  • you avoid external control and stress in the learning process;
  • you set goals and give meaning to the subject and include students in it;
  • the structure of your lessons is clear and safe for students;
  • you ask and take into account the views and perspectives of students;
  • you really listen to your students – this makes them feel that their opinion matters;
  • you associate the subject with everyday and current topics;
  • you respect your students as they are. No student should feel that they have to act differently to please the teacher;
  • you accept students’ negative feelings. No one’s feelings should be prohibited. All we can do is offer support in dealing with these feelings. In addition, you should think about the negative feelings of students as a good feedback opportunity and really look into why they had such feelings and how you can change your ways so students could feel more positive in the future;
  • you increase the initiative and involvement of students;
  • you take into account the pace and performance of both faster and slower students; and
  • you offer students various choices that are meaningful and based on their perspective.
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  3. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2016). Facilitating and Hindering Motivation, Learning, and Well-Being in Schools: Research and Observations from Self-Determination Theory. Handbook of Motivation at School, 96–119.
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