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

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Comprehending and Communicating Knowledge

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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

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