You’re Already Harnessing the Science of Learning (You Just Don’t Know It)

Learning Research

You’re Already Harnessing the Science of Learning (You Just Don’t Know It)

By Pooja K. Agarwal     Jul 24, 2018

You’re Already Harnessing the Science of Learning (You Just Don’t Know It)

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Ten years ago, I read an article in the New York Times with dismay. It was about how clickers were all the rage in schools across the country. It featured colorful photos of students using clickers and quotes from teachers who were thrilled with students’ newfound enthusiasm in class.

The article focused on how clickers could help boost engagement and gamification in the classroom. But it only mentioned the word “learn” twice.

As cognitive scientists who conduct research on learning, my colleagues and I were baffled. Scientists have demonstrated the power of retrieval, or bringing information to mind, for more than 100 years. Our research on using clickers in a public K-12 school district near St. Louis showed dramatic benefits on student achievement—even increasing students’ grades from a C to an A. So why wasn’t learning featured more prominently in an article about clickers in schools? (We wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times; it didn’t get published.)

Now, a decade later, I see the same clicker-like trend: tools like Kahoot, Quizlet, Quizizz and Plickers are wildly popular due to the increased student engagement and motivation they can provide. Meanwhile, these tech tools continue to incorporate powerful strategies for learning, which are discussed less often. Consider, for example, four of the most robust research-based strategies from the science of learning:

1) Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads (e.g., quizzes, clickers and flashcards), rather than cramming information into students heads (e.g., lectures). Retrieval practice is a no-stakes learning opportunity that increases student learning, beyond formative and summative assessments.

2) Spaced practice boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time so learning is not crammed all at once. By returning to content every so often, students’ knowledge has had time to rest and be refreshed.

3) Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics, which encourages students to develop the ability to distinguish between multiple concepts. For example, learning increases when students practice addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems all mixed up, rather than one type of problem at a time.

4) Feedback boosts learning by providing an explanation after retrieval that indicates whether a student was correct or incorrect, which increases students’ metacognition or understanding about their own learning progress.

Sound familiar? It’s because approaches that encourage students to use what they know, revisit it over time, mix it up and learn about their own learning are core elements in many current edtech tools. Kahoot and Quizlet, for example, provide numerous retrieval formats, reminders, shuffle options and instant feedback. A century of scientific research demonstrates that these features don’t simply increase engagement—they also improve learning, higher order thinking and transfer of knowledge.

Instructional Strategies

Even without tech tools, you’re probably implementing these strategies in your classroom. Here are two common instructional strategies that incorporate the science of learning (although you might not realize it):

1) Think-pair-share: You’ve likely heard of or used this instructional strategy, which is simple and interactive. It encourages students to think about a topic or prompt, pair up with a partner to talk about it, and then share their reflections as part of a larger class discussion. But what are students doing during the “think” stage? If they’re writing down a quick response to a prompt before pairing up, they’re using retrieval practice. And if you ask students to think-pair-share about previously learned content, that’s a perfect use of spaced practice.

2) Peer feedback: We give feedback to students all the time. Based on rigorous research, the key is to give elaborative feedback—an explanation to students, not just correct/incorrect feedback. Peer feedback can be a quick way for students to give and receive elaborative feedback, without any grading involved.

But here’s the rub: Just because we’re already using strategies such as retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving and feedback, that doesn’t mean we’re all set. We need to push ourselves by asking a critical question: Are we truly harnessing the science of learning intentionally and purposefully, or is learning simply along for the ride?

For example, do you often start class by saying, “Here’s what we did yesterday,” followed by a review of the content? Next time, simply ask students, “What did we do yesterday?” and give them one minute to write down what they can remember. Based on a wealth of research, this subtle shift from reviewing to retrieval practice transforms student learning without additional prep time or classroom time. Even just one question, prompt or short no-stakes quiz helps students pull information out of their heads, which makes a big impact on engagement and learning.

Yes, many of us are already using strategies based on the science of learning. But we have the power to do so much more. It’s time to move beyond the days of that 10-year-old New York Times article when we focused solely on engagement. We need to start harnessing research, examining our teaching practices and implementing evidence-based strategies in our classrooms. The science of learning must be at the center of our conversations and it must become a driving force in education.

We’ve waited long enough.

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