September 3rd, 2014

Those Magical and Mysterious Learning Moments


I’ve been reading some old issues of The Teaching Professor newsletter and ran across a lovely piece by William Reinsmith on learning moments. He’s writing about those times when students get it, when something turns the lights on and they glow with understanding. It may be a moment when they finally figure out how to do so something—a long elusive skill or a solution to a problem. Other times it’s a moment of insight, often a possibility or explanation that had never crossed their minds, or a set of ideas that come together and create a new perspective on a familiar issue.

This happens individually, as a learner studies and works alone, but it also happens during class to one or more students. And it’s those moments of a group epiphany that are of interest to Reinsmith. “A learning moment erupts in its own time and place, on its own terms.” “When the moment arrives a space opens up and the class is stilled—an insight is shared, a quiet wonder descends.” It’s those “ah-ha” moments when there’s a collective, “So that’s how it works” or why it works.

It is interesting that the final step in learning regularly occurs in these very short time frames. Certainly there is cumulative learning, a growing understanding of something but even then, along the way, things come together quickly, in a moment. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where one key piece fits and the whole corner is finished, or an insight is the dot that connects a whole series of lines.

Reinsmith notes that learning moments cannot be forced. “… not even the most outstanding teacher can summon a learning moment. The most we can do is fashion a context for them.” He thinks we do that by avoiding rigidity and fostering “a sense of ease; where a certain lightness, even playfulness reigns.” Reinsmith recommends that we “… stay open, keeping our minds nimble. Most of all we must learn to abandon what we thought was important and surrender to [learning moments] serendipitous nature. Put succinctly, teachers … must learn to live on the balls of their feet, expecting the unexpected.”

Reinsmith’s descriptions are lovely, metaphoric, and abstract. I think moments of learning happen for individual students and collections of them in most every class, but not always with teacher awareness. The teacher is doing his thing and the students are doing theirs without recognizing they are both on the same bridge. The students are trying to cross to new understanding, and the teacher is trying to help them get there. I know, more metaphors, yet there are some things about teaching and learning that many of us have experienced, but can’t find the words to explain. I know that what Reinsmith writes about learning moments is real. I’ve seen them, felt them, and wished I could make them happen more often.

When one of these moments happens among a group of learners, it’s powerful. Like a bolt of lightning, it strikes with a flash, booms around for a few second, and then is gone, but not before leaving its mark. We have a tree on our property that was hit by lightning. We were there when it happened and saw pieces of bark flying through the air. The tree lives on, but it has been permanently changed.

The pragmatic question is how to make the most of these learning moments. By pausing and honoring them with silence? By celebrating them? Should we ask students to talk about what they’ve just experienced? Reinsmith writes that teachers should “ride the wave,” seeing if the moment can be made to last longer so others may find their way to the new understanding.

A lot about teaching and learning is very nuts and bolts—pragmatic, practical, here’s-how you-do-it advice. Much of our pedagogical knowledge is empirical, evidence-based, and logically coherent. But neither of those explain those magical, mysterious moments that raise hair on necks and boost heart rates. So, as the new academic year settles in, head to class expecting a regular day, but having thought about how you’ll respond should a learning moment suddenly illuminate the room.

Reinsmith, W. (2003). Make the Most of the Learning Moment. The Teaching Professor, 17 (10), 1, 7.

  • Yes, these "aha!" moments are what makes teaching so rewarding for me. As an instructor all I can do is till the field, plant the seeds, and hope something sprouts. We are designers of educational experiences and our design needs to facilitate our students ability to reach their own eureka moments.

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  • perryshaw

    My experience is that learning moments are often the catalyst for transformational learning – that point of disequilibrium / cognitive dissonance that enables our students (and often me as the teacher) to make a paradigm shift in understanding. Confession time: too easily I can get so fixated with the set agendas of the class curriculum that I feel discomfited by the potential "time loss" of engagement – or (worse) miss these learning moments completely. Embracing learning moments means that we need to cover less and give space and time to learn more.

  • Steve Grusendorf

    While we cannot make these learning moments occur we should, as Reinsmith suggests, "ride the wave" of a student's discovery. One effective way can be to ask the student to share via a 3×5 card the nature of their discovery utilizing descriptive language. For instance use a thought starter such as: "using one of the following words describe your recent "aha" moment. (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How)".

    An example response might be: "I discovered why it's been easier for me to learn from some professors than others over the years. It's because I have a particular learning style. Knowing that I am a visual learner will not only help me retain new knowledge better but might also help me understand why at times I feel stuck in certain classes."

    Once a student turns in a card you can use this, with his or her permission and anonymously, as a topic of discussion with your students.

  • Chuck Seeley

    I vividly recall one particular “aha!” moment in an undergraduate management class I taught many years ago. I had prepared the students with a foundational understanding of management, using lectures, reading, and case discussions. No aha moment in that. However, once we had this foundation established, I gave the students an assignment to shadow, observe, and then interview a practicing manager. They were to assess what they learned from this practicing manager and compare and contrast it to what we had learned about management in the foundational part of the course. The assignment included writing a paper about what they had learned and also presenting their learnings to the class for group discussion. This is where the “aha” came in for individual students and for the class as a whole.

    Individual students reported that the managerial concepts we studied began to make sense to them when they interacted with a practicing manager about how he or she applied those managerial concepts to their work as a manager.

    The class as a whole was very engaged in the discussions we had around each student’s time with the practicing manager. They asked each other questions and interacted with each other’s learnings about management. Giving students assignments in which they interact with the learning content, with each other, and with practitioners may be one way to create an “aha” moment.

    • Kevin Aiken

      Hello Chuck, thank you for the post,
      I appreciate what you shared in your particular narrative about the idea of aha moment in the classroom. When I read your response, I realize the class or individual students received aha moment as a result of the interaction with other managers. It seem that they recognized what you taught was in line with what the managers were practicing thus resulting in aha! I was wondering if you ever receive an “aha moment” as a student or teacher? And if so how?

  • Alvin Hull

    Though we can't force learning moments when something turns on the light bulb for the student and you see that breakthrough in their learning experience, we still must do all we can to see it happen. It's ironic that the very goal of teaching is something slightly beyond our reach!

    If I do not see my students experiencing those learning moments, I do not feel as though the goal of that session was met. If my goal was to get through my notes, or keep status quo in the classroom, or to see my students pass their exams, then it would be another story. But my goal is to see them "get it", and even better, when all the students together "get it." That really is a powerful moment.

    Taking advantage of that learning moment seems critical in helping the students to walk away from their learning experience with something that will stay engrained in their minds. I'm trying to change some of my posture as a teacher by not worrying so much about getting through all my content for a lesson, and instead, taking a few moments at the end of the class for students to write down their one "take away" from our class period. Normally it will reinforce the main point from their learning moment that day.