How Learning Works
While scholarship in teaching and learning often provides empirical evidence that particular pedagogical methods work, the theory behind why they work is more likely to come out of scholarship in neuroscience, cognitive psychology or social psychology that examines how people learn and the factors associated with successful learning. As a whole, this literature is often called ‘learning science’ and has been popularized in trade books like Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, et al, 2014) or Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School (Medina, 2014). The literature is vast but there are now several accessible books and resources that discuss its key lessons and what they mean specifically for college instructors:
- Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center summarizes the 7 Principles of Learning that are discussed in greater detail in the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose, et al, 2014).
- Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (Benassi, et al, 2014) is a free e-book produced by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology that features chapters by the leading researchers on the cognitive principles of effective instruction.
- How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School(Bransford, et al, 200) is a free e-book from National Academies Press (summarized here by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching).
- “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology” (Dunlosky, et al, 2013) reviews the effectiveness of 10 commonly used learning techniques. The authors describe each learning technique in detail and discuss the conditions under which each technique is most successful.
- University of Arizona’s Learning to Learn Series has modules for several evidence-based strategies. Each module “provides useful information about it, why the strategy works and how faculty can incorporate simple exercises to teach their students to use such a strategy and become better learners.”
While there is a lot that instructors can do to make sure their teaching methods are consistent with what we know from learning science, it can also be useful to make sure our students know, since many of the study methods students use are actually quite ineffective. The following resources are meant to be shared with students:
- The Learning Scientists have a bunch of resources you can provide directly to students, including a downloadable
poster highlighting six strategies for effective learning, and a series of blog posts (written for students) about each of the strategies.
- Note: This post, "Putting the Six Strategies for Effective Learning Into Practice", describes a learning project instructors could have students do to explicitly apply the six strategies, and the video, "How to Study Effectively for School or College - Top 6 Science-Based Study Skills", summarizes the information from the Learning Scientists in a very student-friendly way.
- Stephen Chew’s video series on ‘How to get the most out of studying’ is also aimed at students; the website includes a teaching guide with suggestions for class discussion after students watch the videos.
- The article, Optimizing Learning in College: Tips From Cognitive Psychology (Putnam, et al, 2016) provides “a brief tutorial in how to optimize learning in a college course”, written for students.
- A Practical Guide to Study Skills provides both an overview of the research literature and practical suggestions for students.
- Study Strategies for Before, During and After Class provides a concise list of specific tips.
- Learning 101: Strategies for Effective Learning is a handout put together by Lanie Lockwood in the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, summarizing much of the material from the above resources.