Learning well: “Our attitude has a powerful impact on our performance”

27 Jun 2022

Learning in such a way that you retain what you have learned: An interview with learning research specialist Sarah Hofer.

Glass facade of the Historicum in the evening.

LMU, Historicum | © LMU

Why is it worth trying different approaches to learning? And what difference does it make whether you just regurgitate something word for word or have actually thought it through? We talked to Sarah Hofer, Professor at LMU since April 2022.

Your research looks at how individual support can be provided for learning processes. Do people learn in such different ways?

Sarah Hofer: The basic learning mechanism works in the same way for everyone. New knowledge has to find points of reference in your own existing knowledge network. If that happens, it is highly likely that you will retain what you have learned.

What differs from person to person is what these networks of knowledge look like, because everyone has had different experiences and learned different things in the past. If you have little or no prior knowledge of a given topic, for instance, that has a profound influence on how you learn new content about it. People also have different abilities and interests, and, from situation to situation, different degrees of willingness to actually grapple with content. Attention spans – whether you can stay concentrated for long or only short periods – likewise vary.

I can take these aspects into account when I plan my own learning activities or, in the role of a teacher, when I prepare my lessons. In this way, I create learning opportunities that make optimal use of the learners’ resources. That is the idea behind individualized learning.

Learning itself is something we learn

Are there certain learning styles?

You can’t divide people up into standard categories by saying that one person has only a visual approach to learning, another haptic and still another auditive. There may be preferences due to a person’s own experience, likes, dislikes and abilities. But that is no reason to only learn this way and not that way. If you do that, you might miss out on some aspects of the material. So, thinking in terms of learning styles takes us in precisely the wrong direction. It is better if every individual seeks to assimilate course content in as broad a way as possible, with different approaches and via different means of access.

To what extent does learning at school shape subsequent learning behavior?

Learning itself is something we learn. It is obviously heavily influenced by our experience at school, where you often only hear: ‘Learn what is in your books for the exam’. But no one tells you that simply memorizing content is not necessarily a sustainable strategy.

Why is that not efficient? And what would be a better way?

You only really retain what you have learned if you apply yourself to the content. That is hard work, of course. It is much easier to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just quickly read through the text again’. And that is better than doing nothing. But it would be much more effective to process the text in another way: asking questions about it, finding links to other content, trying to visualize it or talking to a friend about it.

That said, many studies indicate that students do not see actively grappling with course material as particularly attractive. Nor do our school and university cultures firmly establish the importance of being able to apply knowledge flexibly and not merely reproduce it in the next exam. But if you shift the focus onto genuine understanding, if content repeatedly has to be used, applied and linked up in different contexts, you learn to tackle the material differently: more deeply, more intensively.

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At school, we also learn what we are good at and what we are not so good at. How important is our self-image when we are learning?

There is a reciprocal relation between our self-concept and our actual performance. If we are good at something, we tend to feel good and competent when we do it, though not necessarily. In turn, our academic self-concept influences our performance.

In my research I have, for example, investigated the impact of gender stereotypes in mathematics and science. Here, gender stereotypes can adversely affect the self-concept of girls and young women – irrespective of their objective performance. That triggers a vicious cycle, because they then really do fail to invest so much energy in these subjects.

Having said that, one study only recently found that beliefs about whether or not your own abilities can change seem to be even more important. It makes a significant difference whether you get the feeling that you cannot do something and will never be able to do it, or whether you believe that you can get better and better at it. This attitude has a powerful impact on your performance.

As a teacher, that is something you can influence depending on the messages you send. It makes a difference whether you say, ‘You can’t do that’, or whether you provide feedback on what the student could work on and, in so doing, offer a perspective for progress.

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Can you give us a few hints? What use is highlighting texts, for example?

It is not enough merely to go through a text and highlight passages. But if I take five different colors and actively look for the concept for which each color stands as I study the text, that is something else. By doing this, I lend structure to the content and tackle its meaning.

Or if I read a text and, after every paragraph, ask myself: What was it about? Can I sum it up in my own words? Then I can really learn something, because I have created numerous points of reference for the new content, allowing it to be more broadly embedded in my knowledge network.

And what about listening to lectures?

If all you do is listen to a lecture without thinking any more about what was said, you miss out on a lot and little is retained in your mind. It is better to take notes – preferably formulating them in a way that focuses on the key points.

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Can more equal opportunities be achieved by the right kind of learning?

I get the impression that current research into teaching and learning pays less attention to children and young people with suboptimal background conditions. Yet these are precisely the children that need most support. One-size-fits-all tuition doesn’t fit all. Children who are doing fairly well, who can learn on their own initiative and receive support from their environment, can cope with it. But for others it can be difficult. I would like to see children being taught with more attention paid to the resources they have; I would like to see tuition being adapted flexibly for groups of children with similar background experiences and needs. I believe that could definitely contribute to more equal opportunities.

Prof. Sarah Hofer

Sarah Hofer, Professor at LMU since April 2022. | © Astrid Eckert

Sarah Hoferis Professor for Research on Learning and Instruction. Her research explores how learning situations can be adapted to the individual resources and needs of the learners. She also studies the use of new technologies in teaching contexts.

After research visits to TUM and the Universität der Bundeswehr München (University of the Armed Forces in Munich), she took up a professorship at ETH in Zurich. She became a professor at LMU in April 2022.

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