Coerced vs Un-coerced Learning

What is coerced learning? You are coerced into learning something if the main reason for you learning it is to avoid a negative consequence imposed on you by someone else. Examples Coerced learning happens when parents, teachers or employers make you learn something. If you don’t learn what they want, they will impose negative consequences on you. This kind of learning is often associated with apathy and alienation, blank staring from the back of the classroom and impatient waiting for the weekend. What is un-coerced learning? Un-coerced learning happens when your main reason for learning flows from your own interests, values and self-defined goals. If your motivation for learning feels chosen and endorsed by you, you are engaging in un-coerced learning. This might happen if you are interested in the content of what you are learning, if you enjoy the process of the learning itself, or if the learning leads to some outcome which you yourself want. Examples We almost always enjoy learning about other people through gossip. Just think of how easy it is to pay attention when someone is telling you about your friend’s misadventures from the night before. There is no impatience or wanting to be somewhere else. Perhaps this is because the connection between gossip and things which we enjoy (comparing ourselves to others, deciding who we like and don’t like) is immediate and obvious.

We learn some subjects at school not just to avoid negative consequences imposed by our parents and teachers. Perhaps there is a subject in which you read ahead in the textbook because the pace of the class can’t keep up with your interest. Maybe you think about it in your spare time and talk about it with your friends. This might happen because:

  • You like your teacher, which rubs off on your liking of the subject.
  • You might have gotten good results in a subject and so learning it gives you a sense of mastery and superiority.
  • Perhaps doing well in a subject is a necessary step for a career you want to pursue, you see this link clearly in your mind and this makes you motivated to keep learning.

Many people also freely learn about sport. They check the latest scores, they read the wikipedia entries on their favourite sports people and they discuss the ins and outs of the sport with anyone willing to listen. This might be because they themselves play the sport and so have a personal connection with it. Or perhaps learning about the sport is linked with the fun activity of watching professionals compete at a very high level.

What do these examples have in common? Un-coerced learning seems to always be closely tied to something which we like a lot; such as comparing ourselves to others (gossip), teachers we like, careers we want, feelings of mastery and superiority (favourite subject), the sports we play or watching professionals compete (sport).

How might we encourage un-coerced learning?

  • Increase curiosity and interest in what’s being learned. According to the spreading interest model, interest spreads between neighbouring nodes in a network. So if we connect what’s being learned with things which are already of high interest to a learner, we can increase interest in what’s being learned.
    • Mems [1] are one way of connecting what you’re learning with what you’re personally interested in – you literally build an association between what you’re learning and something you find interesting.
    • Another way of increasing curiosity and interest is by presenting material in a way which makes its links to everyday activities obvious. For example, learning might happen through a team project with some real world outcome, the completion of which requires learning certain things.
    • Another way of making learn more interesting is to connect it to some goal which the learner has and make this link as vivid as possible in their mind.
    • Another option is personalising the learning by connecting it with things specific to the learner, for example incorporating their name, nationality or gender in the learning process.
  • Give choice, but not too much. Giving learners choice over aspects of the learning process increases their sense of autonomy. Learners given choice show more enjoyment of, better performance in, and greater persistence at learning. These benefits remain even if the choices they make are trivial.
    • But too much free choice can be demotivating. For example one study found that having 6 choices was more motivating than 24 or 30 choices.
  • Learn with other caring individuals. Learning with others who show interest in you and care about you helps make learning more enjoyable.
What are some other examples of un-coerced learning? What else might be done to encourage un-coerced learning?

[1] If you’re not sure what mems are, check out memrise to find out!


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