best learning moments

Back in the last millennium (!) at Ultralab we were keen to explore great learning as part of a much larger piece of research about metrics for learning and of effectiveness, eventually feeding into our Learnometer project.

I set up two "ask a 1,000" surveys to build insights into what was effective learning.

The first asked about people's best learning experiences, in a very open ended way, the second very specifically focussed on school students' best piece of work, where it was now, and if their parents had seen it.

With the "best learning experiences" work we sought a representative range of respondent, roughly in line for age and gender with the population, but we didn't attempt to compare across socioeconomic boundaries, or look in any way at family circumstances. Nevertheless, when we sought to categorise the responses we found that the top ten characteristics of a "best learning experiences" mapped pretty well onto any constructivist model of learning.

Afterwards, for a couple of years, when we presented this work we would always preface it by asking the audience for a few of their own best learning experiences and unfailingly, they also fell into most of our top ten list of characterisics.

In a world where standards seem too often to be confused with standardisation, the last two were particularly significant. Anyway, here is the top ten, with the most reported characteristics first.


active - doing something there were no reports of the best learning being by just reading about it, or watching a video, or hearing a report second hand. All our learners, young and old were actively engaged physically in what they remembered as their best learning experience - which isn't to say that the indormation in books, videos etc were not helpful on the journey to that best moment.
doing it with others I think we expected that a significant number would report their best learning experience as being a sloiutary thing - but in practice for everyone it was in a social context, with others. Of course, in codifying responses this is complex - since just about everyone also report that a teacher / coach / parent / mentor was involved, and that they had an audience, both those features would have also been seen as "with others" - but in practice the learning was never solitary, even ignoring the teacher / parent / coach / mentor. The key word here is probably social.
a sense of personal progress

this one was also very clear - in a world where performance is judged against criteria, or norms, the learners reported, again almost universally, that a key element was a sense of personal progress - what the literature calls Ipsative Referencing. The reference point of others' achievement is relevant (for example in the "got there early" below) but it was the sense that "I could now do something I couldn't do before" that ranked very high for respondents.

a guide / coach / teacher although many different people fulfilled this role, there was almost always a coach / parent / teacher / mentor / older sibling present. Again in coding responses this was sometimes also the "audience" (as with riding a bicycle for the first time).
a difficult task achieved the key point here was that for amny, the best learning experience was a tough one. Itwas the sense of distance travelled in the attainment that came over and it was also very clear - some took time to clarify in their responses - that this didn't mean "busy", or unremitting. It was achieveing something difficult - whether an understanding, a skill, a task -that mattered and of course this also played into that ipsative referencing above
there was an audience how does the old debate go? "if ta free falls in a forest and there is noone there the "hear" it, is there a sound?". Well what we got loud and clear from our learners was a view that the best learning experiences certainly did have someone there to see - exhibition, celebration, validation... they needed that audience.
a sense of "got there early" curiously this categroy feature especially in skill based learning experiences - sport, music, best learning, perhaps (more work needed here) because the attainment of others is more clearly mapped ("I was better than John Smith was at this age") experience. Anyway, "go there earler than was perceived to be the norm, if there was a norm, was signifcantly reported and in our top ten.
a feel for others' progress in a way this is not easily distinguished from the one above, but it came out so often that we thought it was worth reporting separately. You felt and valued the "steepness of the curve" of your own progress all the more acutely when you were aware of others' progress by way of comparison.
some passion... and although we are now down at 9 and 10 in the list of key descriptors of people's best learning experiences around 60% reported that the group of learners, or the teacher / mentor / parent, or their audience, revealed considerable passion (although that word wasn't used by everyone reporting of course). But this was a long way from the detachment of sterile learning activities - it mattered.
a little eccentricity Eccenticity came up so often - teachers who were mad about georgaphy, in the nicest sense! The eccentricity was always in the guide / coach / teacher, never reported as the learner's eccenticity but that quirkiness seems to help add that "special" label to these best learning experiences.

So in all, a pretty comforting list if you are trying to create the conditions for great learning - albeit perhaps a fair way from what happens in some classrooms, families, churches, football teams, or wherever, today.

this page created by prof stephen heppell 03/11/98 and last updated Monday, December 9, 2013 2:01 PM