To better assist or foster student learning, educators should understand the processes of learning, including what enhances and impedes learning. The following resources provide information and examples about the processes of learning and the factors that affect it.
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Principles of Learning
Long-term retrieval of knowledge is often difficult - For example, this link takes you to a research article that found that students forgot most of the knowledge taught in a course within two years.
Below are four research-based principles of learning effectively described at the U.S. Department of Education's Doing What Works resource. Along with a description of the principle, you can find examples of its use in the classroom, video interviews of researchers discussing the principle, and suggestions for its application.
Space learning over time - "A key aspect of effective teaching and learning is helping students to retain information over the course of the school year and beyond. Research has shown that exposing students to key concepts and facts on at least two occasions, separated by several weeks to several months, greatly reduces the rate at which information is forgotten. This is accomplished by spacing the introduction of material over time and by reviewing material with short quizzes, review games, targeted homework assignments, and exams."
Examples with practice - "Students learn more when worked examples, or solved problems, are alternated with problems to be solved... Students benefit from this approach, learn effective problem-solving strategies, transfer these strategies more easily, and, ultimately, solve problems more quickly. "But don't be fooled by the word "problem" above. This principle of learning does not just apply to math courses. The learning of any skill or concept can be enhanced by interweaving the successful modeling of the skill or thinking about the concept with opportunities for the students to practice with them. In other words, research finds that instead of modeling something and then giving students a lot of practice with it, you should provide some modeling or examples of successful work, then some practice, then some more examples, and so on."
Connect abstract AND concrete representations of concepts - "Teaching a new concept in purely abstract terms can make it difficult for students to fully understand what is being taught. On the other hand, teaching a new concept in exclusively concrete terms can limit a student's ability to recognize key concepts or understand how to apply the concepts when faced with a new problem. Connecting abstract and concrete representations, and clearly highlighting the similarities and differences, can help students master the content being taught and develop better problem-solving strategies.
Higher-order questions - "Across subject areas, when teachers ask higher-order questions and provide opportunities for students to develop deep explanations, learning is enhanced."
25 principles of learning - A good list of research-based principles describing how and when people learning most effectively.
"How experts differ from novices" - A chapter from the book How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (available online) - it is useful to understand how our students, mostly novices, learn and think differently than experts.
Cognitive load theory - This page provides a good, brief overview of how people learn information and ideas, with a focus on cognitive load. Cognitive load theory says that "working memory, however, is extremely limited in both capacity and duration. These limitations will, under some conditions, impede learning." Look through this page to find out why that is so important for student learning and what can be done about it.
Bloom's Taxonomy (and more recent revision) - Benjamin Bloom and colleagues created a hierarchical classification of educational goals and objectives in three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. The cognitive objectives have received the most attention and are what most people are referring to when mentioning Bloom's Taxonomy. The cognitive objectives still serve as a valuable framework when considering the levels of understanding educators at all levels wish their students to achieve. A slight revision to Bloom's cognitive objectives was suggested in 2001, as described at the link above.
The Taxonomy extended across four dimensions of knowledge (factual, conceptual, procedural, metacognitive)
Useful examples of how to translate Bloom's levels into questions or problems to be solved
Obstacles to Learning
Students come with misconceptions - This series of classic videos (freely available online) illustrates how students do not come to us as blank slates. Students bring all sorts of preconceived notions and misconceptions that can be quite a challenge to overcome.
A Private Universe (20 min.)
Minds of Our Own (3 1-hour videos)
"Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence" - Interesting review of research that finds that our weaker students are "doubly cursed": They not only are less competent to begin with, but they are also less able to recognize when they are doing poorly.
"How the mind learns during sleep" - This blog entry reviews recent research showing that the brain enhances learning during sleep, so that missing sufficient can inhibit meaningful learning and make studying less useful.
The Einstellung effect - "A pervasive source of cognitive bias" - Students will often attach themselves to one idea or option or perspective and then fail to consider any others. "The result is that alternatives to the first idea are ignored. This mechanism for biasing attention ensures a speedy response in familiar situations, but it can lead to errors when the first thought that comes to mind is not appropriate. We propose that this mechanism is the source of many cognitive biases, from phenomena in problem solving and reasoning to perceptual errors and failures in memory.
Stereotype threat - This phenomenon is actually more an obstacle to performance. Stereotype threat is experienced by a person when he fears that he will confirm a negative stereotype about his group through his performance. For example, women who are equally good as men at math will tend to perform worse than men on a math test if they are told that the test is diagnostic of their math ability. The women fear that they will confirm the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men. You can find more examples and a lot of good information about the phenomenon at the above link.
Multitasking - Students think they can do it. Research says they can't.
"Cell phones in the classroom: What's your policy?" - an essay by Sydney Fulbright
Modes of Learning
Learning styles or preferences - Although research finds that there are differences in how people learn and how they prefer to learn, research finds that we are far more similar than different in those processes. Furthermore, although a lot of attention has been given to different learning styles or preferences in students, research has yet to find substantial evidence that identifying and then teaching to different styles or preferences provides any significant benefit to students. For example, see the following reviews of learning styles approaches:
Strategies for Learning
What works? 10 strategies for studying and learning - A very thorough review of research on common techniques such as highlighting text, rereading material, and testing oneself. The research was published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2013).
How to get the most out of studying - a video series from Stephen Chew - good videos you could provide or assign to your students
In-class note-taking skills - good list of advice for students
"Tips for developing students' note-taking skills" - an essay by Maryellen Weimer
Teaching critical reading - from the Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center at Berkeley
Summarizing and notetaking - brief but good research-based advice
EXAMPLE: Using cell phones to summarize complex text
Student self-assessment for improvement - Students can take the accompanying assessment of their approaches to and attitudes about learning, and then reflect on the results to gain insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
Motivation to Learn
Self-determination theory - A well-researched theory, self-determination theory has been effectively studied in and applied to educational settings in efforts to increase the intrinsic motivation of students.
Promoting positive student motivation - Good overview of theory and research on student motivation with some suggestions - IDEA Paper 41 - from The IDEA Center
Have a link to good resources on student learning? Please e-mail the Center.