Best Book - Craig Almeida - "How People Learn"

September 23, 2014


Craig Almeida

Dean of Academic Achievement

Book: "How People Learn"

"By connecting the dots and stitching information together into a network of ideas and references, expert learners are able to understand things with greater depth and clarity. Thinking in a linear fashion, novice learners work harder at absorbing the material and struggle to make sense of and ultimately use information."

Instead of a book that inspired me, I’d point to a chapter that changed my approach to teaching.  This was early in my teaching career and shortly after I came to Stonehill in 1995.

Preparing for a conference, I picked up a copy of “How People Learn” and its second chapter grabbed my attention as it explored how expert and novice learners approach the processing of information very differently.  I still have the book and the pages of that chapter are heavily underlined.

What I discovered was a relatively simple concept: novice learners take information in and file it in a linear fashion while expert learners immediately take information and relate it to other material, which allows them to make greater sense of it.

By connecting the dots and stitching information together into a network of ideas and references, expert learners are able to understand things with greater depth and clarity. Thinking in a linear fashion, novice learners work harder at absorbing the material and struggle to make sense of and ultimately use information.

I think that realization helped me as a teacher and how I related to students in the classroom.  I could better appreciate why they struggled with the concepts and details of cell biology and why there might be a gulf between them and me.

Once that light went on, I switched my focus when teaching from just expecting students to grasp what we were discussing in class and lab to spending more time helping them understand how they went about fulfilling an assignment, giving them insight on their approach to the material and outlining the rationale for my expectations.

Before that, I would have handed out 12 pages of lab report instructions and be disappointed when the students didn’t follow them correctly.  Subsequently, I took more time to explain things to students and share with them. For example, I explained that if I do not follow grant instructions precisely or an author’s guidelines, I won’t get the funding or have an article published. By providing more context and showing more patience, I began to see my students becoming better at grasping the material.

To see students change how they work through an assignment, not just mastering the details but also growing in confidence, becoming expert learners, that gave me great personal and professional satisfaction. 

A regular feature in the "Monday Morning Update" newsletter, Best Book asks members of the Stonehill community to discuss briefly a book that influenced, inspired or moved them.