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What is Meaningful Learning?
From Bits and Bytes to Knowledge and Skills in 15 Weeks…

This year – together with the overall new look for the Syllabus magazine — this column will be taking on a new look. In the past, this column has addressed issues and trends in online and distance teaching and learning. As most of you have probably noticed, the distinctions between campus learning and on line learning have been blurring. We are now at the point that key issues across the higher education enterprise —all revolve around the intersection of teaching and learning with evolution of information technology tools Not only are teaching and learning changing, but all interactions over the life of a student with an institution.

In the interest of shifting with this new acceptance of technology in the teaching and learning environments, I plan on addressing issues that impact faculty, students, and environments, whether on campus or wherever learning is occurring in a structured manner.  In conversations with many of you, you have indicated that you find specific questions about teaching and learning issues most valuable. Some of these pressing questions are “How many students really make sense when teaching on line?”  “How much does it cost?” and “How long does it take to integrate the web into effective instruction?” Other important, and even larger questions are, “What are good ways of communicating technology issues to administrators and legislators?” “How do we balance the issues of time, technology and learning and lifestyle?” and “How can we – as a community -- create a teaching and learning enterprise that serves the larger goals of society?” 

Input and suggestions are always welcome. Share your questions and concerns, your successes and your wins! I do try to answer all email, but occasionally messages will come at very busy times, so I ask your patience. I enjoy meeting many of you both in real life and virtually.

The beginning of a new semester is a time of planning and rethinking of courses. What are we really hoping that our students learn in 15 weeks?   Can we move from Bits and Bytes of data to Knowledge and Skills in 15 Weeks?  Here are some thoughts on meaningful learning and how we might go beyond bits and bytes. 

Beginnings hold the seeds of the ends.  And the goals and objectives of courses set at the beginning of the semester impact the learning that students achieve by the final tests and evaluations. How do our students achieve that learning? What really works? And is the learning that they are doing truly meaningful? 

You may well observe, “Isn’t all learning meaningful?”  It may be, but certainly some learning is more meaningful, dare we say useful, than other learning. The learning that we desire that our students achieve in a course is intended to be both useful and meaningful. Can we achieve meaningful learning in 15 weeks, or do we only achieve a heap, a mound, a pile, or a collection of bits and bytes of unrelated data?  We may feel good, however, because we have “covered” the material.

An even more fundamental question is whether we understand the learning processes well enough to design courses for student success?  How might we ensure that our students take in, arrange, formulate, organize and relate information into meaningful learning?  Does the learning that our students do in our courses contribute to their ability to really do anything else? Does it improve their ability to learn more information, to develop skills, to be better interpreters of the information in the world around us?

Defining meaningful learning

How many of the goals and objectives that you have planned for your students qualify as meaningful learning? What if we defined meaningful learning as “learning that makes a difference in the knowledge base in our mind? Or “Learning that makes a difference in how we view the world?” Or “learning that makes a difference in our skills sets, in the things that we can actually do. How might we —collectively— modify our current goals or objectives?  

All definitions of learning are linked to various philosophies and theories of learning. What one believes about the mind and how the mind grows in knowledge impacts how one thinks about what students should be learning. A recent book on adult learning listed 50 different types or definitions of learning, including active learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning, group learning, self-directed. One reason for the plethora of learning definitions is that learning is both a product – an outcome, a tangible knowing —as well as a process. In meaningful learning, we are focusing on the product or the outcome of the learning process. We are focusing on what the knowledge that a person would know that he or she didn’t know before.

One of the most concise definitions among those 50 definitions mentioned above is one by Malcolm Knowles. Knowles defines learning as the “process of gaining knowledge or expertise.” (Knowles, 1998, p. 17)  Other definitions of learning include one by E. A. Haggard that states that learning is a “change in behavior as a result of experience.” (Haggard, 1963, p. 20.) This definition of learning is obviously heavily influenced by the behavioral theory of mind, stressing the need for experience for learning to occur.

We are fortunate today that we have a large body of research on mind and brains and knowing and learning on which to draw. This research suggests some of the following definitions for meaningful learning.

  • Learning that changes one’s brain structure;
  • Learning that supports and enables growth of more knowledge
  • Learning that changes a person’s life. 

Meaningful learning, in short, is learning that makes a difference—in one’s mind and in one’s life. I think that this type of learning is what we would like our students to achieve, and that we would enjoy facilitating.

In “How the Mind Works” Stephen Pinker –a cognitive scientist at MIT -- describes what he calls “one of the great ideas in intellectual history.” The idea is great because it solves one of the great puzzles of the mind-body problem, that of connecting the ethereal world of meaning and intention with a physical hunk of matter like the brain (Pinker, 1997, p.  24) That idea has the formidable name of the “{Computational Theory of Mind”. It is a powerful idea — because it helps to explain why learning some ideas might be so difficult or time-consuming for students. Fortunately, it also provides a principle for designing learning experiences to be more effective.  

The Computational Theory of Mind: What is it? 

The Computational Theory of Mind states that beliefs, desires, and other intentions are stored in our minds as information, as bits and bytes of data.. (Pinker, Stephen., How Does Our Mind Work, 1997, p. 24)  This theory also states that  "Information and computation reside in patterns of data and in relationships of logic that are independent of the physical medium that carries them.”

What does this mean, and how does this computational theory of mind —this big idea— apply to learning?  Let’s think of it this way. We know that learning begins with small bits and bytes of data, of information, of facts. And we know that learning progresses beyond facts with the formation of concepts.   Concepts work because they capture (or arrange, structure) a multitude of facts into a larger pattern and set of relationships. In fact, an effective way of thinking about the big idea of the computational theory of mind, is to complement it with a simple way of expressing this theory.   The computational theory of mind supports the basis principle that “the more you know, the more you can know.”

In other words, learning is an interplay, a dialogue between facts and theories, between facts and principles, between bits and bytes and patterns. Are you planning for this interplay between the small bits and pieces of learning and the larger principles, and theories?  What are the core concepts and the principles that envelop, bring together, the discrete facts of information?  Are the facts important?  Absolutely?  Is it sufficient for learning when the facts are known? I think Not.

Knowledge, beliefs, and skills are “bits of information” which become meaningful information when these bits and bytes are organized, collated, chunked into symbols, patterns, and relationships.

The computational theory of mind also helps to explain why sometimes students find learning new facts, concepts, or principles so difficult.  Students come to us with a mind already filled with patterns and relationships. These patterns and relationships cannot be changed with a simple learning of individual facts, or discrete, isolated bits of knowledge.  The knowledge needs to be cultivated, manipulated, arranged, and organized into meaningful learning.

In cases of early learning in a discipline, when students are being introduced to a whole new field of study, there may be no “receptor cells” for the facts. Or to return to our seeds metaphor of earlier, there may be a well-grown ground cover that receives the seeds, but makes no room for them to grow. The power of the computational theory of mind—this Big Idea — is that we must think about teaching towards patterns and relationships. Going beyond the bits and bytes

So, what are the hints for structuring your course for effective learning?   As you are designing your courses, remember the Instructional Design 101 question is, “What do I want my students to know, to think, and to able to do after investing their time and talent into this course?  Add to that question these two principles for both you and your students.

  • Learning takes time; and teaching takes time. Be realistic about what each of you can do.
  • Well-designed and well–written materials facilitate learning of core concepts and reduce confusion. However, content design and development is costly and time consuming This means choosing or writing materials with care is one of the most important tasks of planning for meaningful learning.


Revised June 4, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010