When teaching doesn’t equal learning

I do several different types of teaching and training. In addition to working directly with animals, a huge part of what I do is teaching people how to train their pets. I also teach a class for undergraduate students in the behavior analysis department at our local university. The same basic principles of learning apply in all of these situations, even though they seem pretty different.

There’s something we have to be very careful about when teaching that I’ve experienced many times with the people and animals I work with. Just because you think you’ve taught something, doesn’t mean that the learner has actually learned it.

Just because you think you've taught something, doesn't mean that the learner has actually learned it. Click To Tweet

Chalkboard with this quote: Just because you think you've taught something, doesn't mean that the learner has actually learned it.

Here are a few examples to explain what I mean…

In the undergraduate class that I teach, we spend a handful of class periods playing the shaping game PORTL. One exercise that the students always enjoy is teaching another student the concept of “taller.” When given a set of objects, the learner has to wait for a cue and then select the tallest object. (The teacher must teach this entirely with the clicker – no talking to the learner!)

Once the students think they have taught the behavior, I come and test their learner by presenting several new objects. Sometimes, however, rather than taller, the learner has created an elaborate set of rules based on color, shape, position, or other properties of the objects. If this is the case, when presented with totally new objects, the learner either confidently picks the wrong object or has no clue what to do.

Although PORTL is a simulation, the same thing can easily happen when working with an animal, a child, or an adult. The teacher thinks she has taught a certain rule or concept, but the learner has learned something entirely different.

Here’s another example. Some months ago, a friend was teaching her dog to go lie on his bed in the living room. She kept practicing the behavior until it was really solid. Then one day without thinking about it, she moved the bed to another spot in the living room.

Later in the day, she told the dog to go to his bed. Rather than going to the bed, however, the dog went to the spot in the room where the bed used to be. In this case, he had learned a different version of “go somewhere” than what the owner had intended to teach. He thought it was about going to a particular spot in the room, rather than going to his bed.

Different types of disconnects between teaching and learning

I think this breakdown between teaching and learning happens more than we realize. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell because the learner just makes occasional errors. For example with the PORTL taller example I discussed above, the learner may come up with a rule that isn’t related to taller, but that still resulted in picking the correct object most of the time.

This happened recently to several of my students. They were trying to teach the concept of taller using a collection of about a dozen objects. By chance, several of the taller objects were shades of red, pink, and red-orange. The learner thought the task had something to do with color and had come up with several rules that allowed her to often be correct, even though she had no idea the teachers wanted her to pick the tallest object.

Here are several variations of this phenomenon that can occur in training situations:

1) The animal or human thinks he has learned the behavior, but actually has learned something different than what you were trying to teach. This was illustrated in both the PORTL taller example and the mat example above. Sometimes there is just a little bit of disconnect, while other times the individual has learned completely the wrong behavior or concept. Often the learner is very confident and thinks that he is doing exactly what you want!

2) The animal or human has learned the basic behavior, but can’t yet do it to the extent the trainer expects. If the trainer asks for too much, it appears that the animal doesn’t know the behavior or doesn’t understand what the trainer wants. Perhaps the dog does usually know how to sit and stay when guests come over, but the behavior breaks down when your cousin arrives with her four rambunctious young children. The dog hasn’t forgotten – he just doesn’t yet know how to sit and stay under these conditions.

3) The behavior has multiple parts, and the animal or human has only learned part of what you were trying to teach. Perhaps the final behavior is a chain of smaller behaviors or perhaps the behavior has multiple components that must happen at the same time. In either case, if even a small part wasn’t learned or was learned incorrectly, it can sometimes cause the whole behavior to fall apart.

What to do? What to do?

When teaching doesn’t equal learning, the traditional trainer or teacher tends to place the blame on the student, whether the student is an animal or a human. The teacher may say that:

The learner wasn’t trying hard enough.
The learner wasn’t paying enough attention.
The learner is lazy and unmotivated.
The learner isn’t smart enough.
The learner just doesn’t care.
And so on.

If you assume that the failure is entirely the learner’s fault, then there’s not much for the teacher to do, except to keep practicing with the learner or to try to teach the behavior again, often using the same methods and procedures.

Instead, the more difficult, but ultimately more useful approach is to figure out if there are ways you can improve your teaching so that it is easier for the learner to master the concepts you are trying to teach.

How can you improve your teaching so that it is easier for the learner to master what you are trying to teach? Click To Tweet

Here are some action steps if your learner has learned the wrong concept, or is making a lot of mistakes, or is just really struggling to learn a particular behavior.

1) Recognize it. This may seem like a given, but it’s not. I see many teachers and trainers who just continue with the same plan, even though it is clear that the current plan isn’t working for a particular learner.

2) Don’t blame the learner. Work with the assumption that if the learner understood what you wanted, and was motivated and physically capable of doing it, that he or she would be doing it.

3) Analyze what’s going on. Learning is always taking place. Instead of focusing on what the individual hasn’t learned, instead try to discover what the individual did actually learn instead of what you were trying to teach. Understanding the source of the disconnect can lead to valuable insights.

4) Make sure your objectives are clear. Sometimes training doesn’t go as planned because the trainer doesn’t actually have a clear enough picture regarding what the final behavior is supposed to look like.

5) Make a new plan. Change something. What can you do differently so that the learner has a better understanding and the necessary skills to achieve what you are trying to teach?

6) Keep teaching. Implement your new plan. You may need to revise it again later on, but that’s okay. If you’re really stuck, you may need to seek advice from a friend or professional.

My current teaching project

I teach an upper-level undergraduate behavior analysis class in the fall and spring. We just finished up the spring semester, so I’ve taught the class three times now.

However, there are several key areas where I’ve realized there is a clear disconnect between what I’m trying to teach and what the students are actually learning. These are concepts and ideas that they really have trouble grasping, either because it is the first time they have been exposed to the idea or because it is something that is easily confused with another concept.

I have a project for this summer. I’ll be completely redesigning this course. I’m planning to carefully examine the objectives for the class – what are the outcomes that I really want the students to master during this course? Then, I’ll be redesigning the content and instruction so that it is easier for all of the students in the class to learn what I am trying to teach.

Next fall, I’ll test it out and continue revising it. It’s a big project, but I’m excited. I may share some more about the course redesign process in the coming months, as it is going to be on my mind a lot this summer.

Here is what I want you to think about this week. If your student is struggling – whether an animal or person – what can you do to improve your teaching to make it easier for the individual to learn?

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  • Tom Heiskell

    Very helpful specific examples about how to understand how our learners are trying to succeed. It is easy to fail to see them because one way or another we are locked into the perspective of our intentions.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the examples. I completely agree that it is very easy to get stuck in our own perspectives.

  • very interesting concept. I need to test my teaching instead of testing the learner!

    • Kim – that’s a great way to put it – that we need to test our teaching, rather than testing the learner. 🙂

  • Sonya Bevan

    This is gold!

  • Anna Savelesky

    Thanks Marla. You are very correct in your analysis of these issues. I had an instructor whom I told that I couldn’t understand what she wanted. She kept blaming me and became quite angry with me because I “wasn’t trying hard enough” or wouldn’t give up old ideas which she deemed incorrect, even though she kept telling me the same thing in another way. It took me quite a while to figure out what she meant by her remarks. Also, I don’t think she could see my body work on the horse and couldn’t see that I was really doing what she told me to do. I just felt that what she said wasn’t accurate in my feeling. I have been riding so long that my body knows what to do to keep in balance, even though I couldn’t tell you intellectually which was always my challenge. That is the difficulty of learning “by the seat of one’s pants”. Good to hear from you in this informal way.

    • Thanks for sharing. It can certainly be really difficult to be on the learner’s end of this – when you are trying really hard, but the instructor is set in her ways and not understanding.

  • Jessica Fry

    This is fantastic! I too am pulling apart my upper level undergrad courses this summer to get to my course objectives in different ways. I’ve also been using my dog trainer skills to figure out how to revamp my freshman Intro Bio Course to turn my students into flexible, enthusiastic learners!

    • Hi Jessica,

      Good luck with your course redesign. My undergrad degree was actually in bio. I would think that the freshman bio course could be a difficult one to teach, as I imagine you get students with very different knowledge levels and very different levels of enthusiasm for the subject.

      I hope you are able to find ways to change the course to make it even more interesting and educational for your students.

      And very cool that your dog training skills are coming in handy. 🙂



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  • FD

    Mary, I Loved all the examples you used in this post! Very explicit in your writing. I taught 3rd grade a few years back, and it was important for me to evaluate and reflect on a daily basis. Now that I am a dog owner, I have incorporated some of the things I learned in the classroom, to teach my pup. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, FD. I’m sure your experience with the third graders has made you a much more patient and thoughtful dog trainer!

  • Clare Kendry

    Very interesting example. I hope you are able to find ways to change the course to make it even more interesting and educational for your students. Thanks for share this great experience also.

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