Sometimes kids say “nothing” when their parents ask them what they learned in school today. And, although that response is something we don’t want to hear, it is probably closer to the truth than we want to believe, because, as we all most certainly know, learning doesn’t really happen in a single class period. And, when it does, it’s not learning per se, but encoding, consolidation, or retrieval—or some mixture of the three.
The encoding stage involves introducing you to some knowledge pattern in the natural, social, or academic environment. For example, you may know ratios and rates, how to graph lines on the coordinate plane, and what steepness is, but at some point you are completely new to the concept of slope—which packages those former concepts into a unique bundle—so encoding is what happens when you are first introduced to slope.
There are a few important things to note here. First, slope could have been introduced, or encoded, as an isolated dot. (Well, not exactly. Nothing is ever completely “isolated.” But you get the idea.) Second, regardless whether it is encoded as a standalone concept or as a package of concepts, slope is a new object of knowledge. It is perhaps possible now for the slope blob above to interact or connect with the green blob of content knowledge, whereas none of the individual items can do so. And, third, whatever we mean by slope above, we cannot mean the entire concept of slope (whatever that means anyway).
The new concept of slope on the right is a little too complete to represent encoding, plus any structure created there fades quickly over time like pictures in Back to the Future (forgetting). This is where consolidation comes in. Consolidation solidifies and maintains the arrangements of knowledge components assembled by encoding.
Generally, consolidation is associated with simple practice—i.e., practicing the concept you have encoded rather than extending or altering the concept in any way. But it is as true to say that you are learning slope via simple practice as it is to say that you are doing so by encoding the concept in an introductory lesson.
Finally, there is retrieval, which is the process of reconstructing an encoded concept from memory in response to a natural or artificial stimulus. What is the slope of a horizontal line? The answer to this question requires triggering the slope concept, where the answer may be directly stored, or you may have to drill down into the slope package above—into the ratios and rates concepts—to figure out that the slope of a horizontal line is a 0 rise over some nonzero run, so the answer is 0. Or, the fact that the slope of a horizontal line is 0 can be stored together with the concept package shown above, giving you two ways to figure out the answer.
Why should retrieving a concept to answer questions be considered a part of learning that concept? Because, at minimum, retrieving strengthens an encoded concept.