The Learning Hierarchy

Whenever I hear a teacher utter the words “Sometimes she can do it, and sometimes she can’t” or “He’s got problems putting information into his long-term memory” I look for evidence that the teacher has applied an instructional hierarchy of learning. Here is a quick revision of the hierarchy; and a reference for one of the many useful books I was introduced to during my professional training as an Educational Psychologist.

When mastering any new skill or strategy, the learner typically goes through a predictable series of learning stages. At the start, they are usually halting and uncertain as they try to use the target skill. With teacher feedback and massed practice, the learner becomes more fluent, accurate, and confident in using the skill. It can be very useful to think of these phases of learning as a hierarchy (See chart below).

The failure of the instructor to attend to the learning hierarchy is one of the most common reasons why an Individual Educational Plan may be unsuccessful. A pupil appears to have learnt a skill and so another skill is introduced before the pupil has reached even a level of fluency, let alone generalisation or adaptation. Part of the success of programmes such as Tracks Literacy or Reading Recovery is the application of the Learning Hierarchy. For example, Reading Revovery requires teachers to plan for pupils to “Roam in the Known” as a way to help the pupil take skills up from the Accuracy Level to higher planes of confidence and competence.

The learning hierarchy (Haring, Lovitt, Eaton, & Hansen, 1978) has four stages: acquisition, fluency, generalization, and adaptation:

Stages of Learning

1.  Acquisition. The learner has begun to learn how to complete the target skill correctly but is not yet accurate or fluent in the skill. The goal in this phase is to improve accuracy. For example, when learning to change gears in a car, I would say that a learner is at Acquisition Level if they can change gears accurately, but need to give it their full attention and may not be able to perform this correctly if distracted.

2. Fluency. The learner is able to complete the target skill accurately but works slowly. The goal of the Fluency Building ( sometimes called “over-learning” phase is to increase the student’s speed of responding (fluency). In car driving terms, a driver who is fluent in changing gears can change gears, chew gum and chat to the passenger at the same time.

3. Generalization. The learner is accurate and fluent in using the target skill but does not typically use it in different situations or settings. Or they may confuse the target skill with ‘similar’ skills. The goal of this phase is to get the learner to use the skill in the widest possible range of settings and situations, or to accurately discriminate between the target skill and ‘similar’ skills. Continuing the driving example, the driver who has generalised the skill of changing gears can jump into any model of car and be able to confidently change gears, after a brief check at the pattern of gear positions.

4.   Adaptation. The learner is already accurate and fluent in using the skill. They also use the skill in many situations or settings. However, the learner is not yet able to adapt the skill to fit new task-demands or situations. Here the goal is for the learner to be able to identify elements of previously learned skills that they can adapt to the new situation. For the car driver, an example of adaptation of gear changing might be that their skill in changing gears enables them to learn how to use a joystick to control a computer game.

Although the Hierarchy does not mention a 5th Stage, I always add one more of my own:

5. Maintenance. There is a need to practice and rehearse any skill in order to maintain the usefulness of that skill.

When the teacher accurately identifies a student’s learning stage, the instructor can select instructional ideas that are more likely to be successful because these strategies match the student’s learning needs.

Reference:   Haring, N.G., Lovitt, T.C., Eaton, M.D., & Hansen, C.L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

Image Credits: dirac 3000

Now read: Choice Theory: 5 Basic Human Needs

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