Learner's Concepts of Learning

The learner was a post-doctoral researcher in econometrics and macroeconomics who, with a fellow researcher, has developed a software tool that does international input-output analysis. The researcher had just completed a three-day course which convered the basics of using the Linux operating system on the command-line, use of environment modules, batch job submissions (including job arrays, job dependencies, and interactive jobs), advanced commands, shell scripting, use of shell scripting in job submissions, cluster architecture, shared-memory parallel programming, distributed parallel programming, and debugging.

What did you ask your student?

The questions I asked the learner were initially based on matters concerning the physical environment, class size, and facilities and whether they were conducive for learning. In this regard - as I suspected - the learner was critical. The room was of insufficient size for the number of learners present, although the general principle of a modest class size was applauded as it allowed for direct interaction with the teacher on what was often unfamiliar material (once again we witness Vygotsky's 'Zone of Proximal Development'). Even the shape of the tables (circular) came under criticism as they were designed more for small-group discussions rather than a directed workshop. Overall, the learner felt that the design and layout of the physical space had a negative impact on their learning, albeit minor overall. The media presentation tools (two large screens, plus whiteboard) helped the learning process as it was sufficient to both follow the material as it was being presented but with enough screen-space to check recent changes.

After this I asked a series of questions concerning the course content and its delivery, and whether that contributed to their learning. In this set of questions the learner was a lot more positive. The course content was structured in a helpful manner, with the each day's content described in summary at the start of the lesson, followed by a theoretical and high-level exploration of major themes, then with 'live', 'hands-on' content, which started with the very basic commands and built on this knowledge piece-by-piece ("scaffolding"), with each command and action being explained as it was being shown, and with related questions from the learners being incorporated into the exploration and examples.

The provision of live content along with written material was considered necessary - a lot is packed in the three days (indeed that is a also source of criticism) and the specifics can be forgotten, even if the concepts have become ingrained. Having material to return to is especially useful for the details and syntax. The material was immediately useful for their learning requirements and sufficiently generic to be applied to their particular problem. The delivery combined modalities (whiteboard, learner's hand's on screen, teacher's explanatory screen, conversation etc) in an effective manner, reducing the cognitive burden and reinforcing the concepts and explanation.

Finally, I asked whether them to reflect on what they considered effective ways of learning and whether the course was more or less effective than their (extensive) prior experience. The answers here were somewhat surprising as the learner indicated that their usual means of learning was quite different to the course. Their usual method is short lectures, round-table discussion, and a lot of reading, and a rather gradual implementation of their learned material into code with a reviewing process. This seemed to concur with the argument that disciplines, rather than learners, have styles which are most appropriate. Referencing back to matters of content the learner agreed that one learns by building on what a learner already knows.

What Are The Implications For Teaching and Learning in Your Context?

There is an ongoing need to find better and bigger premises that are designed in a manner which are more appropriate for the type of lesson that is being provided. It is difficult to quantify exactly how much the current teaching-space is reducing the effectiveness of the overall learning experience, but it is recognised as being sub-optimal. As this is the issue that was raised as the greatest concern it also becomes the issue of highest priority.

A second issue that was raised was the significant scope involved which has a challenging intrinsic cognitive load (even though the course is deliberately designed with breaks). The room design also affects extraneous cognitive load because the environment distracts from the content of the lesson (Chandler, Sweller, 1991). The matter of the environment has already been discussed. The intrinsic cognitive load can be, at least in part, rectified by developing additional classes to explore some of the content in greater detail and elaboration; this is currently underway with a planned course in regular expressions, a need that has been identified in prior lessons.

Finally, the short interview and discussion format held after the classroom experience established a good rapport between learner and educator with follow-up collaboration. Surveys can only do so much, and when the institutionally-provided survey is inferior alernatives have to be sought. The process of meeting and discussing directly with learners may be time-consuming but in this context there the return on investment is significant and worthwhile.


Chandler, P., Sweller, J. (1991). "Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction". Cognition and Instruction. 8 (4): 29