The Science of Learning

In the opening pages of the recent best-seller, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the book’s authors note that we as teachers tend to make a lot of assumptions about how students learn—and, therefore, about what counts as effective teaching—on the basis of our own experiences, wisdom passed down by our mentors, and our sense for what’s intuitive. Intuition, of course, can be a powerful byproduct of long-term engagement with a set of concepts or skills. But it also has its risks: not only is it hard to interrogate practices that “just feel right,” it can be especially hard to let go of and revise those sorts of practices, even in the face of counterevidence.

For example, when students and teachers are asked about the effectiveness of reading a text only once versus reading it several times, they tend to intuit rightly that “only once” isn’t the best approach. But when asked about the effectiveness of reading a text several times versus reading it a few times, with time and self-testing between each reading, teachers and students alike tend to inuit wrongly that the mere repetition of readings will lead to better comprehension and long-term retrieval. The dissonance between what our intuition tells us and what cognitive science can show us isn’t limited to this example. As Make It Stick argues, “It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teaching and students isn’t serving us well…” (9). The good news, however, is that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SoTL, has shed considerable light on the science of learning in recent decades, yielding insights about a wide range concrete, practical strategies for instructors in all disciplines.

How Memory Works

Memory is the ongoing process of information retention over time. Because it makes up the very framework through which we make sense of and take action within the present, its importance goes without saying. But how exactly does it work? And how can teachers apply a better understanding of its inner workings to their own teaching? With a basic understanding of how the elements of memory work together, teachers can maximize student learning by knowing how much new information to introduce, when to introduce it, and how to sequence assignments that will both reinforce the retention of facts and build toward critical, creative thinking.

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Comprehending and Communicating Knowledge

Communication and comprehension are the giving and receiving of knowledge, and until knowledge has been received by a student, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t truly been communicated by a teacher. The challenge for teachers, of course, is how to get knowledge out of their own heads and into someone else's—and how to know it's there. This challenge is compounded by the fact that teachers and students confront something more than the everyday adventures that greet individuals trying to understand, relate to, negotiate with other individuals. On top of that, they also face a paradox at the heart of teaching and learning: on the one hand, the more expert you are, the more knowledge you have to offer a novice; on the other hand, the more expert you are, the less "like" a novice you’ve become and the less attuned you might have grown to how novices experience their learning. This gap between novices and experts needn’t become an impasse, however.

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Metacognition and Motivation

One of the most common issues teachers face is keeping their students motivated and aware of their own cognitive processes during learning experiences. This is because student comprehension becomes more difficult if students lack the motivation to remain present and engaged in the construction of their knowledge. If left unaddressed, this lack of motivation can lead to poor academic performance. Another factor that can impact student comprehension and performance is metacognition. Metacognition refers to an individual’s awareness and critical analysis of their own thought processes and cognitive ability. It is an important determiner of student performance, because if students are aware of their own comprehension and cognitive processes, they are better positioned to revise or discontinue them when needed.

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Promoting Engagement

If learning is the goal, student engagement may not be sufficient, but in most cases—whether they’re in the classroom or studying on their own—it is necessary. When considering how to promote the greatest likelihood of engagement, a number of internal and external factors come into play. Students need to be actively attentive, for example—and often to maintain that attention over an extended period of time. Internal factors such as alertness (How much sleep did my students get?) and distraction (What sorts of family matters are on my students’ minds? Why does it sound like there's a jackhammer in the room above us right now?) are, as every teacher knows, often completely outside of our control. That being said, whether you're talking about classroom settings—where teachers can more directly regulate many, if not all, aspects of the learning environment—or dorm rooms and libraries—where students must do their own regulating—cognitive science on how attention works offers a range of practical applications for improving student engagement.

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