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Learning ≠ Familiarity

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Here are two scenarios we can all probably relate to:

  • Teacher: “What do you mean I didn't teach you that? I totally did! It was the topic of last Tuesday's lesson!”
  • Student: “I don't get it — I read the textbook, took notes, and then re-read my notes, but I still did poorly on the test. I could've sworn I learned this stuff!”

In both cases, the speaker is confused about the difference between learning and familiarity.

If something is learned, it can be produced (or, in the case of skill, executed) by the learner, without any aid. Learning means, “I can do it myself.”

Familiarity, on the other hand, is what happens after we experience an initial lesson on a topic, or after we read something, or take notes, or re-read those notes, or re-read the textbook. The tricky thing is that the more times we do familiarity-producing things like those that I just listed, the more we experience the “illusion of competence” (here is a study) — it feels like we've built knowledge, but we haven't.

Let's pick on an example from my classroom.

This week, I taught a lesson on the process of African decolonization from 1945-1995. The lesson involved listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and my objective was for students to build knowledge of five nation-state case studies of decolonization in Africa.

The next day, the kids took a short-answer question quiz — they had to basically write a paragraph supporting and refuting the historical argument that the instability of post-colonial African nations was due to European imperialism.

(In other words, yet another learning sequence built on the same three layers of the Foundations Framework.)

In those student written quizzes, there were plenty of mistakes. This wasn't because they hadn't participated in a lesson where the material was taught — it was because, for those who made errors, the material had not been fully learned. Most students were familiar with material, but they hadn't learned it.

If we want kids to learn, we need to:

  • Empower them to learn:
    • Explain the difference between learning and familiarity
    • Give them basic self-quizzing strategies that they can use at home (e.g., flash cards)
  • Quiz them ourselves:

Both of those are important: lessons with built-in, efficient quizzing, and teaching the kids to own their learning with simple, effective learning strategies. (Learning strategies are one of the critical noncognitive factors in the Consortium Framework.)

4 Responses to Learning ≠ Familiarity

  1. Jennifer Kircher (@jangyuma) April 17, 2017 at 8:29 pm #

    Dave, I agree with the title completely. This subject is painfully clear during annual state testing. Teachers will look over students’ shoulders and are flummoxed by the number of mistakes. I think your list of suggestions is great, but I would add distributed practice, if it is possible. Congrats on your newest addition to the family, by the way.

  2. Andrea Heard April 25, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

    I can relate to this very much as I am a high school English teacher. While I have many times modeled a reading skill, have kids practice together, have them practice in groups, and then get them to work on this skill independently, the results seemed to never be what I imagined. They all could assist me during guided practice, but when it came to them and their own piece of paper… something was missing. Admittedly, I was frustrated but this challenge made me so much more reflective on presenting instructional content and the “we do” part of my lesson. I still have my struggles but the awareness of this makes me at least remember to behave sanely when I don’t get what is expected. Thanks for this post Dave.


    • davestuartjr May 8, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

      Peacefully is a good way to sign anything 🙂 Thank you, Andrea!

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