Professional Learning

How People Learn: An Evidence-Based Approach

Deans for Impact believes that teacher educators should focus on how students acquire and retain information to help them build their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

October 9, 2015
Photo credit: Vick the Viking via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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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