This week’s research looks at one man’s efforts to uncover the processes of learning and memory from the hidden aspects of the student experience

If we are truly to meet students’ needs, then we must never lose sight of what they think, know and believe. One researcher understood this profoundly, and his work offers us the closest glimpse we have of the “hidden lives of learners”.

Graham Nuthall’s approach to understanding students’ experience was exacting. He and his colleagues worked with a class teacher to specify everything they hoped students would learn in a unit, and conducted a pre-test to discover what they already knew. Selecting four focus students in each class, they observed and recorded everything each student did and wrote and every word they spoke and heard. At the end of the unit, the researchers tested students and interviewed them about what they recalled. Finally, they returned a year later to repeat the test and interview.

I want to share two examples of Nuthall’s work. The first was published alongside his longtime collaborator, Adrienne Alton-Lee. In this paper, they examined what it means for students to remember something, testing the suggestion that remembering is a relatively simple process.

They found that correct answers on the end-of-unit tests reflected classroom experiences. Students recalled the content, the context – “Tony put up his hand and said…” – and their own thoughts: “I thought, you have got to be wrong.” A year later, however, students were much less likely to remember the original learning experience, and more likely to deduce the right answer from related knowledge.

Nuthall and Alton-Lee conclude that remembering can require complex and substantial intellectual effort, combining the learning experience, students’ thoughts, and the concepts to be learned.

Nuthall is often cited, accurately, as stating that students must be exposed to new ideas at least three times if they are to learn something new. But he is not advocating bland repetition. He found that students who answered a question correctly were far more likely to report “multiple ways of arriving at the answer”.

So learning depends on multiple exposures to new ideas and varied classroom experiences across those exposures.

The second paper I want to share was his last. In it, Nuthall narrated a 45-year research journey that led him to believe that much of what teachers and students do in schools is “a matter of cultural routines and myths”. All students learn the same way, he had found. But much of their experience is “either self-selected or self-generated, even in quite traditional classrooms”.

So the crucial distinction between higher- and lower-attaining students is that the former create more opportunities to learn – asking relevant questions, for example – while the latter depend on teacher-designed activities.

Nuthall emphasised, however, that teacher-designed activities may not give students the opportunities they need to learn. Teachers tend to evaluate lessons based on their students’ reactions. So “the criteria for successful learning”, in many teachers’ eyes, “are the same as the criteria for successful classroom management”.

Often, teachers keep students “busily engaged in activities that produce some tangible product”. But these may not produce learning. Much student and teacher attention is applied to resources and timings: how long an activity should take, whether headings should be underlined, what should be done for homework. For most students, the goal is to get things done quickly and easily.

Helping 30 students learn at once is hard. The “ritualised routines of teacher-student interaction,” Nuthall concludes “appear to have evolved to solve this problem”. We must look beyond these rituals, learning what students are really thinking and what they have understood if we are to help them.

I find many aspects of Nuthall’s work powerful and rewarding. And I’m moved by his effort to share his findings with teachers. He was still working to complete his book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, the week before he died. I’m impressed with how many contemporary debates he anticipated, offering nuanced and thoughtful answers.

Most importantly though, I find his method compelling. It’s easy to claim we should focus on students. But arguably, no one has done a better job of it than he.

The Hidden Lives of Learners is published by NZCER Press