Dimensions of Learning

Learning theorists have argued that learning and development cannot be broken down into discrete and precise steps but is rather an organic process that unfolds in complex ways. Teaching and learning occur in dynamic environments where teachers, students, texts, technologies, concepts, social structures, and architectures interact. In our reflection papers, you will be documenting evidence of your development across six dimensions. These six dimensions cannot be “separated out” and treated individually; rather, they are dynamically interwoven. Our goals for a particular class should describe a trajectory of learning across multiple dimensions, and our measurements should be able to identify the paths taken by students and their progress from their individual starting points along that trajectory.

Confidence and Independence
This dimension addresses your level of confidence and independence when facing learning challenges. It is not necessarily the case that “more is better.” For example, an overconfident student who has relied on faulty or underdeveloped skills and strategies can learn to seek help when facing an obstacle; an independent student can learn to work collaboratively. In both cases, students are developing along the dimension of confidence and independence.

Skills and Strategies
Skills and strategies represent the “know-how” aspect of learning. When we speak of “performance” or “mastery,” we generally mean that learners have developed skills and strategies to function successfully in certain situations. Skills and strategies are not only specific to particular disciplines, but they often cross disciplinary boundaries. In a writing class, for example, students develop many skills and strategies involved in communicating and composing effectively.

Knowledge and Understanding
Knowledge and understanding refers to the “content” knowledge gained in particular subject areas and is the most familiar dimension, focusing on the “know-what” aspect of learning. In a psychology class, knowledge and understanding might answer a wide range of questions such as, What is Freud’s concept of ego? Who was Carl Jung? What is “behaviorism”? These are typical content questions. Knowledge and understanding includes what students are learning about topics; research methods; the theories, concepts, and practices of a discipline; the methods of organizing and presenting ideas to others; etc.

Use of Prior and Emerging Experience
The use of prior and emerging experience involves learners’ abilities to draw on their own experience and connect it to their work. A crucial but often unrecognized dimension of learning is the capacity to make use of prior experience as well as emerging experience in new situations. In a math class, for example, students scaffold new knowledge through applying the principles and procedures they’ve already learned: algebra depends on the capacity to apply basic arithmetic procedures.

Reflection refers to the developing awareness of the learner’s own learning process, as well as more analytical approaches to the subject being studied. When we speak of reflection as a crucial component of learning, we are referring to the learner’s ability to step back and consider a situation critically and analytically with growing insight into his or her own learning processes. For example, students in a history class examining fragmentary documents and researching an era or event use reflection to discover patterns in the evidence and construct a historical narrative. Learners draw on this capability to use what they are learning in other contexts, recognize the limitations or obstacles confronting them in a given situation, take advantage of their prior knowledge and experience, and strengthen their work.

Creativity, Originality, Imagination
As learners progress across the dimensions of learning, they generally become more playful and experimental, more creative in the expression of that learning. This is true not only in “creative” fields but in nearly all domains. In all fields, primary contributions at the highest levels are the result of creative or imaginative work. Even in the early stages of learning in a discipline, exploration and experimentation, taking new or unexpected perspectives, and playfulness should be recognized and encouraged as a natural part of the learning process. Among other things, it recognizes the value of creative experimentation even when the final result of the work may not succeed as intended.