George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How People Learn: An Evidence-Based Approach

Paul Bruno

Ph.D. student in education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education
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Proposals to "professionalize teaching" are popular today, but agreement about what this should entail is elusive. At Deans for Impact, an organization composed of leaders of programs that prepare new teachers, we believe that part of what distinguishes members of a profession is general agreement on a body of domain-specific knowledge that is relevant to practice. We recently released "The Science of Learning," a report that summarizes the cognitive science related to how students learn. The principles in this post are drawn from that report.   

Teachers will always need to use their knowledge of students and content to make professional judgments about classroom practice. However, we believe the art of teaching should also be informed by a robust understanding of the learning sciences so that teachers can align their decisions with our profession's best understanding of how students learn.

6 Scientific Principles Every Teacher Should Know

Unfortunately, our education system is rife with misconceptions and confusion about learning. So let's clear away the myths and focus on well-established cognitive principles and their implications for the classroom:

1. Students learn new ideas by relating them to what they already know, and then transferring them into their long-term memory.

This means that teachers should make sure that students have -- or should provide students with -- the background knowledge needed for understanding new content. Students without adequate background knowledge, or who are otherwise not given enough instructional guidance, can be quickly overwhelmed in the classroom.

2. Students remember information better when they are given many opportunities to practice retrieving it from their long-term memories and think about its meaning.

While nobody likes rote or "drill and kill" assignments, repeated, deliberate, meaningful practice with content can both cement student learning and make it easier for students to remember content in the future, enabling them to tackle increasingly complex challenges. To help students focus on the meaning of content, it can be helpful to assign them tasks requiring explanation (for example, about cause and effect) or to have them impose meaning on content (for example, through the use of mnemonics).

3. Problem-solving and critical-thinking skills are developed through feedback and depend heavily upon background knowledge.

A carefully sequenced curriculum can build student knowledge over the course of a school career, enabling students to solve increasingly complex problems. Teachers can also help develop these skills by providing feedback that is specific, clear, and focused on the task and on improvement rather than on the student or her performance.

4. For students to transfer their abilities to new situations, they need to deeply understand both the problem's structure and context.

This is in stark contrast to the common desire among educators and policy makers to teach so-called thinking skills that can be applied in any situation. The reality is that you can think critically about a subject only to the extent that you are knowledgeable about that subject. The more knowledge that students have about a specific problem, the easier it will be for them to recognize the important aspects of that problem -- and how to solve it.

5. Student motivation depends on a variety of social and psychological factors.

Ideally, students will be motivated to engage in course content because they are fascinated by it and enjoy it. But motivation is a complex phenomenon and depends, among other things, on whether a student identifies as the kind of person who belongs in a particular academic setting, or on whether he believes that his ability in an area can be developed with effort. Fortunately, there are a variety of steps for teachers to make sure that students feel a sense of belonging in class and that their effort is worthwhile.

6. Misconceptions about learning, while prevalent in education, shouldn't determine how curricula are designed or how instruction is provided.

All too often, teachers attempt (or are required) to modify their instruction because of student learning styles, to account for right-brain or left-brain dominance, or because content is developmentally inappropriate. Yet, familiar as these concepts may sound, not everyone agrees on their accuracy or effectiveness. We feel that embracing such approaches may distract teachers from the evidenced-based principles that should be guiding their practice.

The Science of Learning

Ideally, there are a great many things that teachers would know before beginning their teaching, more than we can address here. To that end, Deans for Impact has produced The Science of Learning. This short publication is intended to serve as a resource for teacher educators, new teachers, or anyone in the education profession who is interested in our best scientific understanding of how learning takes place. We believe that, as part of their preparation, all teacher candidates should grapple with principles of cognition and be able to apply them in practice. Our learning-science content, which several of our member deans will be implementing in their respective schools of education, elaborates on each of the points mentioned above, draws specific connections to classroom practice, and carefully documents the underlying research evidence.

Together, we can help elevate the prestige and rigor of the profession that we call teaching. We would be happy to hear your thoughts on these scientific principles and how you use them. Please share in the comments section below.

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Dr. Duane Crowe's picture

Thank you so much for your article. I agree that a more evidence based approach can can elevate the teaching profession.

nstifel's picture

I agree with you, Lisa. We should not need to go to an external site, and in this case, actually need to download a document, to see the sources. I didn't bother downloading it. Too often edutopia reduces empirical findings to what reads like anecdotal observations.

Jesse Pirini's picture
Jesse Pirini
I run a tutoring company in NZ.

I agree with some of the other commenters. These read like a list of empty tips. For example, what does this even mean in practice 'Teachers should provide students with the background knowledge needed for understanding new content". All I can imagine is a teacher saying, 'here, let me pour in this background knowledge and then you can learn the new content'.

I would prefer a much more in-depth discussion of what background knowledge even is, how to determine if students 'have' it, and how to develop it. Learning is complex, and this list obscures that complexity.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Lisa, nstifel, Jesse: Thanks for the feedback. It's been passed along to Edutopia's editorial team.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

It's interesting- I plan to use this with my graduate students in our PBL concentration to talk about specific, concrete ways of applying the ideas listed here. (The external site didn't really bother me either)

Danielle Kinsey's picture

Understanding how people learn is an interesting topic that needs to be discussed more often. As noted in the blog post, students lacking domain or background knowledge will miss opportunities to connect new information to old. Within instruction, I think it's critical to find ways to help students access the background knowledge so they can use it not only for today's lesson, but beyond. In the spirit of scaffolding, students needs to be supported in their learning, so they may be a "participant" instead of a "spectator" (Bruner), and for many that will mean giving them adequate background knowledge.

Interesting points in the blog post! All worth looking into further...

Barry Garelick US Coalition for World Class Math's picture

"I had to go to the original document by Deans for Impact."

Was that so hard to do?

"This is a common issue with articles in Edutopia. Expecting educators to take an author at his or her word and not investigate their sources is just the kind of practice we need to change if we are to truly "elevate the prestige and rigor of the profession." "

But you're probably OK with the hundreds of articles in the papers and online that claim that traditional education was a failure, and reporters taking that on people's word.

Carolyn K's picture

And yet there is nothing discussed about the percentage of children who walk into the classroom on the first day of the school year already having mastered the content, nor the research-proven harm of forcing these children to sit and learn little or nothing all year.

This research, too, is worthy of sharing. For more than a little, visit A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America's Brightest

AMBALIKA's picture

I agree that students learn by associating new ideas with what they have learned previously. Adding to it, semantic networks may play a chief role in it.

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