Implementing Science of Learning Research in Classrooms

Introduction: Learning Strategies

Education has always been a process of trial and error. Since the beginnings of education, educators have experimented with different learning tools, techniques, curricula, and learning strategies to optimize the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Some efforts have been more successful than others, of course. But how many of them are based on science with a robust body of research behind them?

To those outside the field the answer may be surprising: the learning strategies in place in most classrooms are not backed by a proven and solid research foundation.

Take the example of “learning styles.” For decades, the notion of “learning styles” has circulated among educators, administrators, and education policymakers. This is the idea that each student has a particular way they learn best, whether visually, verbally, kinesthetically, or in other ways. When instruction is tailored to an students’ learning styles, according to the theory, they learn better. The theory certainly sounds plausible, but no rigorousevidence actually supports it. Students do have preferences about what kind of teaching they prefer, but they don’t seem to learn any better in the preferred style. That preference is more likely just a reflection of a preference for something the student already does well, like writing or drawing.

Education research, despite a number of successes, too often falls down this path, theorizing about learning strategies and then implementing them without sufficient study to back them up. 

Going forward, the nation’s education system needs to improve the research and implementation process. The big questions are these: How do we start producing better knowledge about how to best educate our children? And how do we translate this body of research into classroom practice and appropriate learning strategies? This should include education not just in content, but in the practice of learning itself. In other words, students need to learn how to learn as well as learning content. 

Enter our project “Science of Learning: Research Meets Practice.” The goal of the project was to get the science of learning into the hands of teaching professionals as well as parents, school leaders, and students. The Learning Agency and its partners brought teachers and researchers together as a first step toward a tighter and more productive relationship between education research and education practice. 

What Is The Science Of Learning?

​Experimental research into learning strategies and how people learn first began over a century ago. In the decades following World War II, cognitive psychologists became more and more interested in the science of learning: how people remember incoming information, the differences between novices and experts, the course of expertise development, and the development of reasoning in children.

As researchers consolidated this knowledge in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing interest in applying this knowledge to classroom settings. Especially since the mid-2000s, collaborations between teachers and researchers have validated many of the central ideas first explored in the 1970s and early 1980s. These collaborations have also often led to fruitful teaching innovations and learning strategies.

We still have a long way to go, however. For example, many still use misguided study practices like blocked approaches to studying, where one concept is studied repeatedly before a new concept is explored. Research has shown that interleaving — or mixed practice — is far more effective teaching and learning strategies.

The Goal Of The Project: Testing Effective Learning Strategies For Students

The goal of “Science of Learning” project was to bring the science of learning into the classroom and kickstart the development of easy-to-use professional development materials. We also wanted to collaborate with teachers, and learn from them what was effective when implementing science-based practices. Too often, education techniques are implemented without sufficient teacher input, and, as a result, without a good sense of the actual conditions in the classroom. We were interested in listening to teachers about implementing the research, rather than telling them what they should do. The point of research is to help teachers not control them.

We were interested in what would happen if learning scientists met with experienced classroom teachers directly, and had a conversation about how concepts in cognitive science could possibly translate into the classroom?

As learning scientist Megan Sumeracki explains,

It’s really important to have bi-directional communication...where the researchers are talking with the teachers and saying, ‘here’s what we know based on the science,’ and the teachers are saying, ‘here’s what we know based on what’s going on in the classroom.'

We selected schools with a wide range of student profiles, teacher profiles, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Project partners included Leading Educators, Teaching Lab, and Wellington Road Productions.

Seven schools were chosen for the project, from urban Memphis, Tennessee and East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to suburban Kenner, Louisiana; Leominster, Massachusetts; and rural Medomack, Maine. With project partner Leading Educators, who helped with the selection of teachers in Memphis, East Baton Rouge, and Kenner, 16 different teachers were invited to participate.

The conversation with teachers included an initial interview to learn about their teaching experiences. They met with their assigned learning scientists and were asked what they knew about the science of learning concepts that they’d be working with, as well as what they believed contributes to effective learning. The teachers and researchers would then check in a few times during the duration of the project. The interaction culminated in a final filming of teachers in the classroom, and a debriefing among the teachers and learning scientists about what worked and what didn’t when trying out specific learning strategies.

Additionally, teachers were asked to tape themselves in at least one self-reflection piece and send it to our videographer. All of these elements were included in the final product: a video on the specific science of learning strategy that could be disseminated to decision-makers, classroom teachers, parents, and students alike.

The Learning Strategies

We focused on six different learning strategies. They can be used on their own or in combination with one another. And although they often lend themselves to specific subjects and concepts, they can all be adapted to a wide variety of classroom settings, grades, and subject areas to promote effective learning.

​“Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads,” according to cognitive scientist and author, Dr. Pooja Agarwal.

“For example, simply asking students, ‘What did we do in class yesterday?’ rather than telling them ‘Here’s what we did in class yesterday’ significantly boosts long-term learning.”

Frequent low-stakes quizzing is the signature example of retrieval practice and promotes effective learning. Other examples include clickers, which have been adopted in many college classrooms, as well as flashcards. The idea is to bring knowledge to the front of mind actively and in short spurts. 

​Dual coding involves teaching with two associated media at once: for example, text and images. “Dual coding is about combining images or visual representations with words,” says learning scientist Dr. Megan Sumeracki. “When used well, combining those can provide two ways of remembering information.”

But, not all graphic representations are created equal: just creating any picture is not enough. According to researchers, visuals must be directly linked to the text without many distractions to facilitate effective learning.

​Spacing is “coming back to information that was learned previously in order to refresh it,” states learning scientist Dr. Yana Weinstein-Jones.

Simply put, spaced practice is the opposite of cramming. Experts like Dr. Weinstein-Jones recommend that learning is stretched out over time, optimally over the course of a number of sessions. Teachers should bring up skills and concepts at strategically spaced intervals, to improve how well students grasp the material. Spacing can be combined with retrieval to good effect. 

​As noted above, interleaving is studying different problem sets, “or mixing up different types of problems or…different concepts that you’re trying to learn,” as Dr. Sumeracki puts it. This can help students to see links and similarities between different ideas and concepts and can improve long-term learning.

Dr. Sumeracki adds that when a teacher introduces interleaving into the classroom, “there might be some struggle early on, but over time the students will probably get more used to it, and then those successes will be really exciting.”

Metacognition is most often defined broadly as, “thinking about thinking.” But, in this context, involves more specific attention to the process of learning. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University describes metacognition in terms of the value of planning, monitoring, and assessing one’s own learning. When students pay close attention to their own learning, modifying their practice based on what works best, their results improve. 

According to learning scientist Dr. Regan Gurung, “The more we can make the thinking process visible, the better we can understand how to make it more effective. That’s what metacognition is all about.”

​In everyday contexts, we often use “elaborate” to mean “describe in more detail.” But psychologists mean something a little different by “elaboration.” In this context, elaboration is fundamentally about “making meaningful associations to a particular concept…it’s the opposite of just rote memorization,” states Dr. Stephen Chew, learning scientist.

Chew adds, “Elaboration … increases the number of ways of accessing information.” For example, when teaching students about the topic of variation in statistics, a teacher might ask the students to come up with an example from their own lives of high or low variation in order to encourage elaboration. These rich associates will help student retain the concept in a meaningful way. 

Acknowledgments: We’re grateful to the Overdeck Foundation for funding this project. We also thank Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein-Jones who reviewed the document and provided feedback.