What Is Learning? How Do You Know You’re Learning?

Have you ever had students claim they aren’t learning anything in your class?

When it’s the student who tries to nap most days, you understand where that comment is coming from. But what if it’s a motivated student, one who you feel you’ve reached all year?

Your heart sinks, and if you’re still a relatively new teacher, you start to second-guess yourself. This is particularly true in October and November.

I have had this happen before, including this year. As I was pondering how it is that students could think they’re not learning (while at the same time complaining about the amount of reading and writing we do), it occurred to me that maybe my idea of learning and the student’s idea is different.

So, I decided to find out what students thought learning is and how they know that they are learning.

With but a handful of exceptions, my students agreed that learning is (paraphrased to capture the spirit of what the vast majority of my students said):

  • when someone who has more skill than you do tells you everything you need to know
  • doing things you’ve never done before
  • working on new things
  • knowing new things you didn’t know before
  • a teacher stands in front of the room and puts the stuff in the book into words I understand
  • getting the knowledge you need to know or that you need to do something
  • trying to cram a bunch of stuff in your head and hope you can remember it
  • the process of finding out and retaining new information
  • gathering new information from a teacher or other people
  • writing notes and listening to the teacher
  • sitting and listening to people talk about the lesson and you do the work assigned
  • when the work is not confusing

How do students say they know they’re learning?

  • when I know what to do
  • when I know things now that I didn’t before
  • when I can remember what I heard the day before
  • when I see things that I didn’t see before
  • when I don’t fail the class or make low grades
  • when I can answer questions on the test
  • when I like listening to the teacher and take lots of notes
  • when my brain feels full
  • when I pass or fail the End of Instruction exam
  • when I don’t have to think a lot about something
  • when I can do a task all by myself
  • when I struggle to figure out what something means.

I think all of my students made valid points — there is a element of learning in, and a time and place for, everything they said. 

Some students even exhibited some deeper insight. One student said:

Learning is figuring out how to solve a problem, and then applying that to other situations. You know that you’re learning when you can do something that used to be difficult, and now it is easy.

Another student added:

Learning to me is a skill that you have perfected or the knowledge you’ve obtained. You know you are learning when you are confident in yourself about a certain subject or upcoming test.

When I think most of my students don’t understand though is that there is much more to learning than just being introduced to new information and then remembering and/or spitting it back out onto a test.

So last week, I reviewed Bloom’s Taxonomy with my students.


Bloom's Taxonomy
Click for details.
Bloom's Taxonomy
Click for details.

You can find these graphics, and others like them, at Teach Thought.

I explained that learning to communicate verbally and in writing is a process, and that learning new information is just a part of that process. Since then, when we are working on our writing prompts, I point out when we’re applying what we’ve learned (even from years past), analyzing information, evaluating a situation, or creating something new.

If you have students who feel like they aren’t learning, or you just want to deepen your students’ understanding of the learning process, share Bloom’s Taxonomy with them.


About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

  1. The first “Learning is” (‘when someone who has more skill than you do tells you everything you need to know’) really gets me – as I’m sure it does you as well! As you likely recall, mt efforts facilitating effective learning were at the college level. AND, while they never said it, what my students did say clearly let me know they expected me to identify ‘everything they needed to know – to be successful ($$$)… As if, with jobs not that far into the future still undefined, and even nearer term – with situations not really dealt with before (thus organizations’ being willing to pay them…).

    Love the last two thoughts on how they know they’re learning (‘when I can do a task all by myself’ and ‘when I struggle to figure out what something means’). I’d add however that it shouldn’t have to be ‘by myself’ and the second one is on target: good work should be creative and thus we should expect to struggle when learning…

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