Brain-Based Learning

3 Common Myths About Learning—and What Teachers Can Do Instead

With a solid understanding of how people process information, teachers can use evidence-based strategies to guide student learning.

June 22, 2023
Benedetto Cristofani / The iSpot

Understanding how to best support students can be confusing and complex. To deal with this complexity, we develop naive theories and unscientific beliefs about what helps students learn. The science of learning has tested many of these beliefs, and evidence now shows that some of our most common beliefs about learners are wrong. These misconceptions about learning may cause us to waste some of our instructional time and effort—or, even worse, impair students’ learning.  

Below, I will describe three common myths about learning, debunk those myths, and reinterpret those ideas according to our most up-to-date evidence.

Myth 1: every student has a ‘Learning Style’

Many teachers believe that students have individual learning styles and that students’ learning is optimized when instruction is tailored to their style.  

Learners often express a preference for a specific modality of encountering information. For example, some students may say that they are verbal learners, while others profess to learn best with visual information. Sometimes, people theorize learning styles even more broadly, including concrete or abstract learners; active or reflective learners; and analytic, creative, or practical learners. There are countless unscientific tests online that will assign students a learning style—schools can even purchase expensive tests that will divide students into different style categories.  

Yet, no good evidence suggests that stable and useful learning styles of students exist. Furthermore, there is zero evidence that students learn better when information is presented in a way that meshes with their chosen preferences. According to research, trying to tailor teaching to match each learner’s preferred mode of processing is a waste of time and resources.

Evidence-based concept: Instead, research suggests that students will learn, remember, and apply novel information better if they process that information in multiple different ways. Processing information in multiple and varied forms (including multiple senses, abstract and concrete representations, diverse examples, and varied activities) creates elaborated and detailed memories, which enhances the long-term retention and generalization of that knowledge.  

Using it in the classroom: Students who learn fractions with math symbols, words, visuals, and kinesthetic experiences should master fractions better than students who only experience a single approach. Similarly, students processing French translations acquire the language better if they see, hear, touch, and taste food translations.

Myth 2: Testing should be used only to assess student learning

Teachers and students alike often view tests as a necessary evil—a means of assessing (both formatively and summatively) what students do and do not know.  Indeed, tests are critical indicators of what students have mastered. But tests are useful for so much more! 

Evidence-based concept: Numerous research studies now show that tests do more than just assess memory: Tests change memory. Tests exemplify a form of memory retrieval, in which students retrieve information from long-term memory to answer questions. Retrieving information from long-term memory changes the memory in a way that makes the information resistant to forgetting in the future. In fact, research shows that one of the best ways to ensure that you remember information is to repeatedly practice retrieving that information from long-term memory.  

Beyond just helping students remember information, practicing retrieval helps students organize information in their minds, apply learned information to novel problems and questions, recognize what they have understood and what they haven’t, and even learn more information from upcoming lessons.

Using it in the classroom: Teachers can prompt retrieval practice in countless and varied ways (which can also help teachers assess student mastery). Students can do a “brain dump,” where they write down everything they remember at the end of a class, solve a start-up question from last week using just their memories, create a mind map from memory of a text, answer questions on personal whiteboards, draw an illustration of main ideas from the lesson from memory, and more.  

Retrieval practice boosts learning whether it is graded or ungraded, whether corrective feedback is provided or not (but more feedback is better), and across many ages and disciplines. The only required feature is that students retrieve the information from memory (rather than rereading, repeating, highlighting, or recopying information). If we want students to be able to retrieve information in the future, it makes sense that they should practice retrieving that information now.  Practice makes perfect, after all.

Myth 3: Concepts that are easily learned are easily remembered

Teachers and students typically believe that if ideas are quickly or easily learned, they will be remembered in the long term. This “easily learned, easily remembered” belief is widespread, and it affects teachers’ and students’ choices about learning activities. Learners choose study techniques that allow quick acquisition of new information, including rereading or recopying notes (rather than attempting retrieval), focusing on a single concept at a time (rather than mixing together similar ideas), and practicing an idea in a single learning session (rather than distributing practice across many sessions).  

Evidence-based concept: Techniques that speed up the acquisition of ideas frequently speed up the forgetting of these ideas. In other words, research shows that easily learned often means quickly forgotten.

Using it in the classroom: Some difficulties during learning help students remember information in the long run. Slowing down learning by creating desirable difficulties can create better long-term retention than easier acquisition.  

For example, practicing retrieval increases errors during learning and is more effortful than rereading or recopying notes, but it produces big learning benefits over time. Similarly, students who answer a series of the same type of math problem in a row (blocking instruction) make fewer errors during learning than students answering a mixture of different problems (interleaving instruction). However, students who answer a mix of different problems ultimately remember more. Finally, studying a concept in a single session (massing instruction) feels easier and faster than spreading out that learning across smaller, distributed sessions (distributed instruction). Even so, distributing practice across time is very beneficial in the end.

There are important caveats here, though. Struggle in and of itself is not useful. Introducing unnecessary complexity or withholding instructions increases students’ struggle but does not support learning. In contrast, struggle during learning can be productive if learners are struggling over important aspects of the problem. For example, learning how to decipher between similar math problems is productive struggle because learning how to distinguish similar problems is important. Retrieving information from long-term memory is also productive struggle because we want learners to be able to retrieve information in the future.  

To ensure that students appreciate the benefits of this extra effort during learning, teachers can help students interpret struggle to mean that they are learning and view wrestling with ideas as indicating growth (rather than as indicating a limitation of their abilities).

Supporting students’ learning is a complicated challenge. We often develop intuitive ideas about what works best, but sometimes these intuitions can misguide us. Correcting learning myths and aligning our practices with evidence-based approaches can enable more effective and efficient instruction.

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