Review: The Learning Cycle

learning cycle

The Learning CycleMuriel I. Elmer and Duane H. Elmer. Downers Grove: IVP Academiv, 2020.

Summary: The Elmer’s propose a five level process for learning that is not a transfer of information from the teacher to the student but the transformation of the life of the learner.

Most all of us remember cramming for an exam where we learned the information we needed just long enough to take the test. A week, maybe even a day later, it was gone. Part of the problem, according to the authors is that we often consider learning only a cognitive process, engaging our minds. Drawing on recent findings in neuroscience, the authors propose a learning process that engages the mind, the emotions, and our actions.

They propose a five step or level process, all build around the idea of recall, the remembering the information, and building on that:

Level 1: Recall–I Remember the Information. They look at how learning involves short, working, and long-term memory. Critical is getting to long term through rehearsal. One of the tools they talk about is the “memo to self,” a short note on one meaningful idea from a presentation. In this section, they also discuss lectures that transform. A key point is realizing that attention peaks at 10-12 minutes and then declines (a good time a change of pace, such as discussion or an exercise) and then rises again (a good time for summation). They offer a number of ideas for vibrant, memorable lectures and dealing with cognitive overload (like being the last speaker of the day).

Level 2: Recall with Appreciation. The aim here is for the learner to value the information. This introduces the affective aspect of learning, how one feels about the content of the learning. This happens in a setting that is safe, with a teacher that is credible, and where the learning experience is positive and self-affirming.

Level 3: Recall with Speculation. A learner who retains and appreciates the information then takes the step to consider how they will use the information. It involves visualizing how one might use the information in one’s life. This involves connecting new information with past content and thinking about how it may be incorporated in one’s life. It might mean adding, modifying, eliminating or strengthening a behavior.

Barriers to Change. Before moving to changed behavior, it is important to identify barriers and how to overcome them. They discuss the Reasoned Action Approach, which identifies the specific beliefs that control why and when we change our behavior and how convinced we are that the change will be beneficial. They then propose several learning tasks to overcoming barriers: the memo to myself again, role playing, accountability relationships, avoiding dangerous contexts, managing negative thoughts, and depending on Scripture and prayer.

Level 4: Recall with Practice. This is where one begins to change one’s behavior. It is important to recognize that practicing new behaviors may be uncomfortable at first and learning that at worst, we can’t do a new behavior yet. It takes time and repetition, dialogue and discussion in a community. This may be done through simulations, skill-training with practice, and the alternation of practice and debriefing, consolidating what is learned.

Level 5: Recall with Habit. This is moving beyond learning to act out a new behavior well to do that behavior consistently, where learning becomes habit. Habits involve a feedback loop of cues, routines, and rewards that we continue to practice long enough that we don’t give them conscious though. The authors discuss replacing bad habits with good ones and the importance of “keystone habit,” a small change that leads to other habitual changes. The author illustrated this with using the sound of a gecko to cue prayer.

While this learning cycle is useful in many learning settings, the authors, both committed Christians apply this to learning Christlikeness as habit becomes or forms character. They argue that no part of the learning cycle should be neglected if this is to happen:

  • Overemphasis on recall or remembering can incline people toward hypocrisy.
  • Overemphasis on valuing or emotion can incline people toward instability.
  • Overemphasis on barriers or obstacles can incline people toward paralysis.
  • Overemphasis on speculation or transfer can incline people toward inaction.
  • Overemphasis on practice or changing can incline people toward activism.
  • Overemphasis on habit or consistency can incline people toward empty routine.

The authors give us a biblically informed, and scientifically grounded approach to learning that transforms. I appreciate this, because the true aim of all education is the formation and transformation of learners in some way. Even more, the form of education that is Christian discipleship is far more than acquiring biblical knowledge, or even emotional dispositions toward the Christian faith and life. Unless truth transforms our thoughts, affections, and habitual actions toward Christlikeness, discipleship is just a bookshelf full of books, a notebook full of notes and a head full of ideas. The Elmers argue that so much more is possible, and shows the way for those who teach, and those who learn.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


One thought on “Review: The Learning Cycle

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2020 | Bob on Books

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