Students have different learning styles (characteristic strengths and preferences in the ways they take in and process information) which some students find something hard and others will find it easier, because they have a suitable learning style towards the particular area.
Some students tend to focus on facts, data and algorithms; others are more comfortable with theories and mathematical models. Some respond strongly to visual forms of information like pictures and diagrams, while others learn more by verbal forms (written and spoken explanations). Some prefer to learn actively and interactively; others function more introspectively and individually.1
Humans are more ‘plastic’ than any other species and are born less capable than any other mammal. Hence they are more dependant on learning.
To answer the question in detail; references from a few theories on learning must be examined in order to give us and in-depth view on why some things are more difficult to learn.
The first theory to be looked at is Behaviourism. Behaviourism is a theory of human learning that only focuses on objectively observable behaviours and discounts mental activities. Behavioural theorists define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviour.2
Experiments by behaviourists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioural pattern. The first is classical conditioning; this is where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus and acquires the capacity to elicit a similar response. The second is operant conditioning; this is a form of learning in which the consequences of behaviour produce changes in the probability of the behaviours occurrence. The behaviour operates on the environments and the environment in turn operates on the behaviour.3
The next theory to be looked at is the Humanistic theory. Humanistic theorists believe that the reason for difficulties in learning is different between individuals. They believe that the ‘whole person’ should be studied. Humanists aimed to investigate all the uniquely human aspects of experience and emphasise the importance of the individual’s interaction with the environment.
Bugental (1967), the first president of the American Association for Humanistic Psychology described that ‘A proper understanding of human nature can only be gained from studying humans, not only animals’ as one of its fundamental assumptions.4
Basically following the Humanistic approach, it can be said that the only way to find out why a person has difficulties in learning is to study that person individually and then find out why he/she has difficulties in learning. If this was the case, then there would be a huge amount of reasons why someone would have difficulty in learning.
Using the biological theory, it can be said that someone may have inherited something that causes them difficulty in learning. For example, something like Dyslexia can be inherited and causes difficulty in learning.
The next theory is the Cognitive theory. The strength in the Cognitive theory is that cognitive psychology investigates many areas of interest in psychology that have been neglected by behaviourism; and yet unlike psychoanalysis and humanism, it investigates them using more rigorous scientific methods.5
If it isn’t biological, behavioural or humanistic, it’s cognitive. The cognitive theory is interested in how people understand material, thus in; aptitude and capacity to learn and ‘learning styles’
Originally theories of perception, Gestalt moved his theories onto problem-solving learning.
Gestalt said the Brain insists on finding patterns, wherever, possible to help make the learning easier. He added that you start feeling frustrated (mild tension) until everything falls into place and makes sense. He also added that learning is similar to problem-solving.
Apart from just using these theories, there are other reasons that can be used as reasons to say why some things are more difficult to learn than others.
For instance, the fact that some people have a better memory system than others would be a valid reason. Atkinson & Shiffrin’s multi-store model on memory explains the input, storage and loss of information. If a person has not got a good memory system then he/she would find it very difficult to learn, as in order to learn, you have to remember what you have learnt.
A lot of studies were undertaken in looking at memory. Miller (1950) said that the capacity of the STM (short-term memory) is said to 7 +/- 2 ‘chunks’. Therefore Miller is suggesting that in the STM we can hold between five and nine pieces of information. However, Simon (1974) criticised this and said that we have a LTM. We have a shorter memory span for large chunks of information and better memory span for smaller chunks of information.6
From what Simon has said, we can say that if we shorten our notes from the subjects studied, we can remember them for longer, thus helping us to learn.
Bower & Springston (1974) found that participants recalled meaningful ‘chunks’ of information (FBI, PHD, BBC) better than meaningless ‘chunks’ of information (FB, IPH, DBB).7
Some things maybe more difficult to learn than others not because of how we learn but what we learn. For example, some people may generally not understand a subject (e.g. Mathematics), and if an individual did not understand what was being said then how is he/she expected to learn anything.
Take the study by Bower & Springston (1974), they found that people recalled meaningful ‘chunks’, because they recognised the material and were able to understand and remember it.
Therefore if you do not understand or recognise the information, there is little chance of you actually remembering it.
Do children think differently just because they have not been learning about the world for as long as grown-up’s. Or is there something really different about children’s minds.
The capacity to learn changes with age; (developmental process) some people’s capacity may not change as quickly as others while growing up.
Through experience and life in school, it has clearly been seen, that some people are quite clever at a young age because they are learning more quickly. Those who are not so clever at young age start to catch up when in their ‘teens’ and soon they are equal to those who were smart at a young age. Some children even surpassed those who were smart at a young age.
Swiss biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is renowned for constructing a highly influential model of child development and learning. Piaget’s theory is based on the idea that the developing child builds cognitive structures–in other words, mental ‘maps’, or networked concepts for understanding and responding to physical experiences within his or her environment. Piaget also added that a child’s cognitive structure increases in sophistication with development, moving from a few natural reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities.8
He devised a table which showed that a child between 0-2 years would start using language and have symbolic thought. At 2-4 years the child would start using symbols. When between 4-7 years old, Piaget said that the child would have some reasoning but not have any adult logic. A child between 7-11 years would have more adult-like reasoning but abstract capacities would be limited. When 11 years and above the child will start using formal logic and abstract thought.
One more issue has not been looked at, and that is intelligence. We all say he./she is intelligent which is why he/she is smart; but what is intelligence.
The theory of human intelligence was devised by psychologist Howard Gardner, who suggests that there are at least seven ways that people have of perceiving and understanding the world.9
First is Verbal-Linguistic (the ability to use words and language), followed by, Logical-Mathematical (the capacity for inductive and deductive thinking and reasoning, as well as the use of numbers and the recognition of abstract patterns).
Third is Visual-Spatial (the ability to visualize objects and spatial dimensions, and create internal images and pictures). Body-Kinesthetic (the wisdom of the body and the ability to control physical motion). Fifth is Musical-Rhythmic (the ability to recognize tonal patterns and sounds, as well as a sensitivity to rhythms and beats)
Interpersonal (the capacity for person-to-person communications and relationships) and last is Intrapersonal (the spiritual, inner states of being, self-reflection, and awareness).10
All the above theories and explanations give reasons to why some things are more difficult to learn but the question should be asked; Are some people all round better at learning than others. Or is this what ‘intelligence’ means?