5 Things To Learn About The Science of Learning

​The science of learning has come into its own in recent years, and many of the findings from the research are surprising, upending much of the folklore about how to best acquire new skills and knowledge.

It turns out, for instance, that there’s little evidence behind the popular notion of learning styles, the idea that someone learns better kinesthetically or visually.

Highlighters are a similar example. Many teachers encourage the use of the pens, and in many fields, highlighters are ubiquitous. But it turns out that there’s not a lot of research behind the approach.

At the same time, relatively little-used practices like self-quizzing show large outcomes and appear to be a highly effective way to gain an understanding of an area of expertise, according to researchers.

While the science of learning continues to evolve, a few crucial themes have emerged.

The Value of Value.
It’s impossible to learn if we don’t want to learn, and to gain expertise, people have to see skills and knowledge as valuable.

But just telling people that something is relevant is not enough. In fact, researcher Christopher Hulleman has found in his research that informing people that information is important can backfire. When students are told how to feel, they can feel threatened or overly managed.

Instead, students need to find meaning in the activities themselves. In other words, value has to go from the person to the material, from the individual to the knowledge or skill.

“It’s about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” Hulleman told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’”

Focus, Focus Focus.
Learning is a type of knowledge management, and to succeed, people need goals, strategies, and plans. Indeed, more than a hundred studies have demonstrated that people with clear goals outperform those with vague aspirations like “do a good job.” 

Learning targets should not be vague aims like learn the waltz, though. Overly ambitious aims can backfire because they seemed too distant. Instead, people are more likely to succeed if they have easy-to-accomplish benchmarks. So instead of a goal like learn the waltz, people should have smaller, more achievable targets like attend waltzing lessons once a week.

It’s easy to forget what we’ve learned, and studies going back centuries show that people learn more if they space out their learning over time.”

Beyond the Comfort Zone.
When it comes to learning, rigor matters a lot, and work by Janet Metcalfe shows that students need to learn material just beyond their area of expertise. If a student is learning art history, for instance, most would start by reviewing some of the things that they already fairly familiar with—Rembrandt is a Dutch painter, Van Gogh was a post-Impressionist, etc.

But learning happens, when people are pushed just a bit beyond their comfort zone. So the more effective questions for a person learning art history might be—who was Giacometti? Why was Louise Nevelson such an important artist? As Metcalfe argues, learning often comes down to finding the best of “window of opportunity,” and that means engaging in material just beyond our understanding.

This idea also explains why self-quizzing is an effective way to learn. The approach is more engaging and rigorous than more passive forms of learning like rereading. Same with self-explaining: People are doing more work to make sense of the material, and research shows that talking to yourself is a more effective approach than underlining.

Teaching Is Like Coaching.
Analogies often spark memories of IQ tests. Think: Nest is to bird, as doghouse is to ______. But studies show that analogies help promote richer forms of understanding, and when we make comparisons, we gain a richer sense of expertise. 

In a way, we know this, and people will often use analogies to help explain something new. Some pundits pointed out, for instance, that Brexit helps people understand the rise of Donald Trump.

In much the same way, analogies can promote creativity. Johannes Gutenberg, for instance, invented the printing press after seeing a wine press. Twitter is half SMS, half social media.

As a learning tool, analogies require some attention, to be sure, and experts like Keith Holyoak recommend that educators rely on a source analogy that they know well. For instance, the idiom “it cuts like a knife” is effective in large part because people are pretty familiar with knives.

As Metcalfe argues, learning often comes down to finding the best of “window of opportunity,” and that means engaging in material just beyond our understanding.”

Good Reviews.
We’re all overconfident. Sometimes this is a good thing. No one would become a teacher—or writer—without some streak of brashness. But when it comes to learning, people often think that they know more than they do, and research suggests that educators should do more to encourage students to review what they’ve learned.

More exactly, educators should encourage students to ask themselves: “Do I really know this? How do I  know this? Could explain this skill or bit of knowledge to a friend?”

These sorts of questions can have a powerful impact on learning, and some researchers like Marcel Veenman argue that “knowing about knowing” is often a better predictor of learning than intelligence.

For many of the same reasons, students should also regularly revisit material. It’s easy to forget what we’ve learned, and studies going back centuries show that people learn more if they space out their learning over time.

Technology can help here, and at least a half-dozen software programs like SuperMemo now promise to help students spread their learning out over days, weeks, months, even years. Or as one software developer puts it, “Only practice the material that you’re about to forget.”

Let me know if I’m missing any big takeaways in the comments.

-Ulrich Boser

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