How Learning Works: 10 Research-Based Insights

By: Babe Liberman

You’re a teacher, so you know how learning works. You see it happen in your classroom every day. But do you know how learning really works? Do you know how the brain processes information and what makes it stick? Do you know how to take that information and apply it in your school or classroom?

Long story short, neuroscience research has shown that learning in the brain happens in three phases: encoding (transforming experience into long-term memory), consolidation (storing and maintaining information over time), and retrieval (accessing information when needed). Additionally, researchers have discovered that the environment in which students learn, including the physical space as well as social and emotional factors, can impact learning.

Digital Promise and the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, led by Dr. Melina Uncapher, teamed up to synthesize findings from the growing field of learning sciences research into 10 key insights about how people learn. These insights are relevant for learners of all ages and ability levels and are true in classrooms and out-of-school learning settings.

Keep reading to find out more about these insights and how you can use them in your classroom to ensure you’re providing the best possible learning experience for your students.

10 Insights from Learning Sciences about How Learning Works

1. Learning is a process that involves effort, mistakes, reflection, and refinement of strategies.

2. Thinking deeply about the to-be-learned material helps students pay attention, build memories, and make meaning out of what they are learning.

3. Communicating high expectations and keeping learners at the edge of their mastery helps each student reach their potential.

4. Retrieval practice strengthens memory and helps students flexibly apply what they learn.

5. Spacing out learning, and interweaving different content strengthens learning.

6. Students are more motivated to learn when they are interested, have a sense of autonomy, and understand the purpose behind what they are learning.

7. Students learn well when they feel safe and connected.

8. Collaboration and social interaction can be powerful learning experiences because they encourage deeper processing and engage the “social brain.”

9. Students’ physical well-being, including nutrition, sleep, and exercise, impacts learning.

10. The entire environment, from space to temperature to lighting, can affect learning.

How You Can Apply These Findings in the Classroom

Knowing how learning works is all well and good. But how do you take these research findings and apply them in your classroom? Below are a few tips based on research from the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, for providing your students with the best learning experience.

Boost Motivation

Insights 1, 2, and 6 all relate to motivating students to reach their full potential as learners.

When students have a sense of control over their own learning, their intrinsic motivation improves, helping them persist longer at academic tasks. Build agency and motivation by helping students understand that many aspects of learning, including strategy and effort, are under their control. In the classroom, provide feedback that focuses on students’ processes and helps them see both the productive effort and the effective strategies they used. Encourage a growth mindset by reminding students of their progress while supporting them to work through challenges.

Provide students with dedicated time to make meaningful connections between the material you’re teaching, their own lives, and the world around them. When students see how the material relates to their lives and interests they have frameworks for deeper understanding. Try asking complex questions that require students to build connections between new content and their background knowledge. Assign projects that challenge students to write and design for authentic audiences and purposes, including projects that help their local community or are connected to a cause they care about.

Finally, you can also support students’ interest and motivation by providing some level of choice. Allow students to choose their own books to read or select their preferred format to complete an assignment. But, try not to overwhelm students with choice; offering a limited number of options (three to five) is often the most motivating.

Learn more about the research behind student motivation and learning mindsets.

Strengthen Memory

Insights 4 and 5 relate to building strong memories, which is key to make the learning stick.

Activities like self-testing and low-stakes quizzing ask students to practice remembering the information they’ve been taught by retrieving it from their long-term memory. These retrieval activities actually strengthen the path to memory, leading to more enduring learning.

Students may be reluctant to add more self-testing and quizzes to their school days, but retrieval doesn’t have to be boring. Flashcards are a useful self-testing tool and can be more fun when students are invited to design their own cards, incorporating images, definitions, and examples that spark their memories. Students can self-test with their flashcards to assess which facts are harder to retrieve and flag them for more retrieval practice.

As for quizzes, get rid of the “pop” variety. Make quizzes low-stakes, simple, and quick. Remember, the goal is learning, not assessment, so these quizzes shouldn’t be graded. Having students generate questions for future quizzes can help them learn and can help you plan!

Find more information about the research behind cognition and memory, and ideas for retrieval activities.

Inspire Collaboration

Insights 7 and 8 relate to the social side of learning.

Students are highly tuned to social dynamics, and harnessing this social drive in the classroom can take students further than they can go alone. Working collaboratively toward a common goal, rather than dividing a project into parts that can be done individually, encourages students to discuss, think about ideas they might not have considered, and learn more than they would if working individually.

Encourage students who are working in groups to get to know one another to better understand each other’s perspectives. You can promote collaboration and exchange of ideas by structuring projects to require shared learning and co-creating. True collaboration involves the skills of listening and recognizing how ideas can be combined. Support students in groups to take on well-defined roles—like facilitator, recorder, or presenter—to make sure that group members know how to contribute effectively.

Finally, students can work together by teaching each other. Having students prepare to teach is a powerful way to engage the social brain, whether or not they end up teaching the material! Teaching others often benefits the tutor the most, so be sure to give all students the chance to be the tutor as well as a tutee, or to compare notes on the lessons they prepare.

Don’t Forget the Learning Environment

Insights 9 and 10 relate to the context for learning, which can be just as important as the content you’re aiming to teach.

It’s no surprise that learning will be impaired if students’ basic physiological needs are not met. Students with good overall physical well-being have better cognitive skills than when they are in poor condition. While teachers can’t provide for all of these needs around the clock, they can ensure that students get daily movement and exercise through outlets like recess, gym class, and active classroom activities when appropriate. Educators can also make parents aware of the effects of the blue light from digital screens on children’s sleep quality and can recommend putting devices away at least an hour before bed.

Of course, elements of the physical environment can play a role in determining whether the classroom will be conducive for focus and learning. Incorporating flexible furniture—lightweight or on wheels—can support flexible instructional goals and give students choice in where they work to empower them to take responsibility for their learning. If your classroom has less natural light than you’d like, replacing your lighting with blue-enriched or full-spectrum bulbs can improve students’ cognitive performance. If you aren’t lucky enough to have windows with views of nature, taking your class for walks outside, and even keeping plants in the classroom, can lead to some of the benefits of nature.

Share your Learning Sciences Journey

If you need a reminder of the 10 key principles of learning, you can download the resources we’ve shared in the form of a poster to hang on your classroom wall or even a set of cards to take on the go.

But we all know that when it comes to teaching, tips and techniques mean nothing unless they actually work. So, we want to hear from you. How are you applying the learning sciences? What strategies are you trying? What’s working so far? What questions do you have for researchers or other educators?

You can let us know by using the hashtag #researchatwork to share your learning sciences stories on social media or email them to [email protected]. Digital Promise will feature educators at different stages in experimenting with learning sciences research on its social feeds.

For more, see:

Babe Liberman manages Digital Promise’s Research@Work initiative, supporting networks of researchers and education leaders to collaborate toward improved learning outcomes. Find Babe on Twitter at @babeliberman.

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