Latent Learning

I’ve read an interesting article recently that challenges what appears to be to orthodox view that performance on tests and other assessments is predictive of long-term learning and the ability to apply what one has learned on other situations. Among the several points that support the authors’ claims are seemingly contrary observations.

Latent learning is an example. Defined as “learning that occurs in the absence of any obvious reinforcement or noticeable behavioral change” (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015, p. 177), the idea is that simply observing and exploring the environment can results in learning.

I recognize the difficulties with noticeable behavioral changes. “If you don’t do anything different, did you really learn anything?” is a reasonable question. It calls to mind Eric Muzer’s observations about students who have the same misconceptions about physics after they have passed physics class as they had before taking the class (Lambert, 2012).

The difficulties with observing changes in behavior may arise as much from the nature of the changes we anticipate and the measures we concoct to find them. It is entirely likely we are wildly inaccurate about the lessons our students actually learn. It is entirely likely they are latently learning much about our curriculum, but we are missing it. I wonder if the lessons our students learn latently are actually the ones we should be teaching (I doubt it, but we may never know). I wonder what we might learning about our students, our curriculum, and (most importantly) about our instruction if we were to pay attention to lessons learned latently.


Lambert, C. (March-April, 2012).  Twilight of the Lecture

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review (Links to an external site.). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199.