The Science of Learning – Victoria Littler

The Science of learning

The Science of learning was developed by Deans For Impact in collaboration with Dan Willingham and provides an evidence-based core of what educators should know about learning.  The study poses six key questions about the way students learn that, they believe, every teacher-candidate should grapple with and be able to answer.

Below is a summary of the questions and suggested solutions.

  1. How do students understand new ideas?

Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know: use of analogies can help students because it allows them to do this. In addition, a well-sequenced curriculum is important to guarantee that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas.

To learn pupils must transfer information from working memory to long-term memory because understanding can be impeded if students are confronted with too much information at once.  Teachers can use “worked examples”, for instance, a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem to reduce students’ cognitive burden. This guidance or “scaffolding” should be removed in subsequent tasks. Content can also be made explicit by modelling and examples.

Teachers may also use multiple modalities to convey an idea; for example, using an image while talking, taking care to ensure that the two types of information complement each other to enhance learning.

Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. Mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts: content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriately”, instead, teachers should ask “is the student ready?” or “has the student mastered the pre-requisites?”

  1. How do students learn and retain new information?

Students should think carefully about meaning when they encounter “to-be-remembered” material: teachers can assign students tasks that require explanation (for example, questioning students as to why something has happened) or requires them to organise material in a meaningful way.

Practice is essential to learning new facts, but not all practice is equivalent: teachers can space practice out over time, reviewing content over weeks and months and interleaving (alternating) tasks to help students remember information long term. Tests and quizzes are useful in doing this.

  1. How do students solve problems?

Each subject has some facts that, if committed to long-term memory, will enable them to problem-solve. Moreover, effective feedback is essential in moving towards mastery of a skill. This should be: specific and clear; focused on the task, not the student; explanatory and improvement focused.

  1. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside the classroom?

The transfer of knowledge or skills to a novel problem requires both knowledge of the problem’s context and a deep understanding of the problem’s underlying structure: teachers must ensure that pupils have sufficient background knowledge to appreciate the context of a problem. Teachers may also have students compare problems with different surface structures which share the same underlying structure. For multi-step purposes teachers can encourage pupils to find and label the substeps required to solve a problem, helping students identify the underlying structure of the problem. Concrete and abstract representations can be used to help students recognise the underlying structure of problems.

  1. What motivates students to learn?

Beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behaviour in school: students are more motivated if they believe that intelligence and ability can be improved through hard work. As such, effort, rather than ability, should be praised. Also, teachers can prompt students to feel more in control of their learning by encouraging them to set learning goals.

Internal motivation is more important than external motivation. Teacher’s should try to consider: is the activity one that a student is motivated to perform in? Whether rewards offered for a task are verbal or tangible; whether a reward is expected or not; whether praise is being offered for effort, completion or the quality of performance and whether a reward is going to occur immediately or after a delay.

The ability to monitor their own thinking helps students to identify what they do and do not know, but people often struggle to accurately judge their own learning and understanding. Teachers can engage pupils in tasks which allow them to self-regulate (self-testing, explanations). These tasks can help a student arrive at more realistic conclusion with regards to their own knowledge.

Students will be more motivated in an environment where they believe they belong and are accepted: teachers must reassure students that doubts about themselves will diminish over time. Teachers can encourage students to see critical feedback as a sign of others’ beliefs that they are able to meet high standards.

  1. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

Students do not have different learning styles; humans only use 10% of their brains; people are not preferentially ‘right-brained’ and ‘left-brained’; novices and experts cannot think in the same ways. Teachers should be able to recognise common misconceptions of cognition science that relate to teaching and learning.

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