just knowing is not enough for real learning

As children and young adults, we have all learned to reproduce facts for exams.  I remember learning where key diagrams were in my open book chemistry exam and I even rote learned 4 essays for my introductory sociology course. I demonstrated my ability to reproduce knowledge through achieving better than average marks. But sadly, nothing useful about this particular ‘knowledge’ remains in my working memory.  Perhaps the fault was that I did not see the relevance of this new knowledge after the exam. Educational theorists would say that I did not integrate this new knowledge with the demands of my everyday life, or that I did not alter my existing beliefs to incorporate this new knowledge.

So why do we assume that telling someone about new knowledge is enough for them to change to do what the new knowledge is telling them to do?

At an individual level, we know that regular exercise has a myriad of health benefits. Is that enough to change your behaviour to exercise more?

Similarly, for social trends…recently in the UK there have been 3 major reports into patient safety in hospitals, with lots of new knowledge, insights and recommendations for action. Already there is recognition that this will not be enough to act.

Simplistically, we need to integrate new knowledge with what is already known, our experience, or what is often called tacit knowledge. We need to reflect on, discuss how the new knowledge supports and contradicts what is already known. Our inner critic will argue the relevance of new knowledge for our current situation and often there is an inner reluctance to change until we can see the clear potential benefits. While this is important at an individual level, few of us will ever initiate a radical change on our own, without first of all discussing it with trusted friends, peers and colleagues. We are predominantly social creatures and we generally want to conform to agreed practices. Even if we want to initiate change, we know that we need to identify a coalition of willing colleagues to plan the process and engage the necessary people.

So perhaps I did learn something from my introductory sociology course, but definitely not from those practice assignments – but then that is another debate about the power of assessment!


I conduct and supervise research that promotes the translation of quality research evidence for use in clinical practice.

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Posted in behaviour, change, knowledge, learning
One comment on “just knowing is not enough for real learning
  1. […] just knowing is not enough for real learning (knowledgetranslationoxfordblog.wordpress.com) […]

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