How the Research on Learning Can Drive Change


The closure of schools and colleges across the nation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shed a spotlight on one of America’s dirty secrets: many institutions of education and those that teach at them are not using the research on learning to guide instruction. The result is that instructional practices that were disengaging and/or unresponsive when used in a classroom are now downright dreadful when placed online. Students are tuning out and sometimes not tuning in at all.

What’s a student to do? Suggestions for other ways of doing things might help. But it makes no sense to have students coach teachers about how to construct effective courses. Plus, a practice can be effective in one context and ineffective in another. Take the quiz, for example. Great way to move new information into long-term memory and build fluency ….if it isn’t graded. If it is graded without a chance for feedback and revision, it is just a technique for ranking students, not for learning. However, it is certainly fair for students to expect teachers to be using research on learning to design their courses. The research on learning can optimize learning. It can also be an entry point for change.

Let’s take a look at some of the most basic concepts that research has uncovered about how we learn. Remember, you can’t just pick one or another of these concepts. The power lies in drawing across them to design engaging, motivating, and responsive learning experiences.

Cornerstones of the Learning Sciences (Adapted from Levers and Logic Models published by CompetencyWorks)

#1 Learning is Doing: Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner. Students do not simply absorb information and skills. They need the opportunity to practice, receive feedback, and correct themselves. Watch who is doing the talking in a classroom. If teachers are doing all the talking, it’s likely that students aren’t learning. They may be listening, but listening isn’t learning. Learning and thinking is hard work. It requires active engagement and effort. (See #3)

#2 Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion, and motivation. The brain does not clearly separate cognitive from emotional functioning so that optimal learning environments will engage both. It’s important that students feel safe if learning is to be optimized. When we are afraid, our amygdala becomes activated making it harder to learn. Do students feel valued? Relationships matter in creating a culture of inclusivity and belonging. Are schools designed so that teachers and professors have the opportunity to build strong relationships with students? Do students feel that the school and teachers want them to be successful? Do they have chances to receive feedback and revise or do grading practices simply judge them?

Motivation is important to learning but it is also dynamic and changes in response to a number of factors. In fact, as students learn more about their cognitive processes, they develop a greater sense of competence and thereby increase their motivation.

#3 Effort is dependent on motivation and self-regulation. Effort is influenced by motivation. Similar to intelligence, motivation is malleable. Beliefs about intelligence shape the amount of effort students are willing to invest. Those who hold a growth mindset will put more effort toward learning than those who hold the misconception that intelligence is a fixed trait. Providing incremental opportunities to experience growth reinforces that effort will result in success. Learners will be more motivated when they value the task and if they are confident they will be successful with support available if needed.

When learners are able to self-regulate—when they can successfully manage thoughts, behaviors, and emotions—they are better able to initiate and sustain focus and effort on difficult tasks. Students may be highly motivated but not have the skills necessary to manage the emotions they experience in the process of learning. Thus, students need coaching to build the social and emotional skills to manage the stress they experience from situations in or out of school, the metacognitive skills to monitor their learning and the self-regulation skills to change strategies as needed.

#4 Intrinsic motivation leads to better long-term outcomes than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic or controlled motivation (systems of reward or punishment such as the traditional grading system of 0-100 points for assignments and behaviors) may be useful in the short-run but often produces the unintended consequence of disengagement and resistance. Self-determination theory explains that motivation will increase when learners experience competence (I can be successful), relatedness (there is meaning and connection to what I am learning), and autonomy (I have control over the process). Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes this as mastery, purpose, and autonomy. It’s important to remember that motivation is dynamic. It increases and decreases. It can be shaped by cognitive processes, and external expectations can become intrinsic motivation.

#5 Learning is shaped by the way information is processed and transferred into long-term memory. New information is processed in working memory before it can be transferred into long-term memory. Working memory has limitations to how much new information it can absorb, requiring students and teachers to consider the cognitive load. Strategies can be used to reduce demand on working memory and helping to transfer new information and concepts into long-term memory. Stress and anxiety can have an impact on cognitive load — it’s just harder to concentrate when you are worried or scared.

#6 Acquiring new knowledge and skills requires effective feedback and the opportunity to revise. Effective feedback focuses on the task (not the student) and on improving (rather than verifying performance). Assessing student learning, identifying misconceptions or gaps in understanding, and providing feedback are critical steps in the learning process. Assessment information is as important to helping teachers to adjust their teaching strategies or improve their skills as it is for helping students adjust their learning strategies.

#7 Learning builds on prior knowledge and context. People learn new knowledge optimally when their prior knowledge is activated. Learners need to have structures to organize and retrieve information. Thus, attaching new information to what they already know in a context where that knowledge is accessible, relevant, and responsive to cultural understanding can be helpful in mastering new ideas and skills. Students will have different sets of skills and experiences. Teachers need to find out what students know and can do so that they can help them make progress.

Think about the traditional classroom. A teacher stands in front and lectures. Maybe they ask a question and call on one of the students who raise their hands. All that is expected of students is to listen, take notes, and participate when you are confident that you know the answer. Students aren’t using the knowledge. They aren’t building skills (except for note-taking). Teachers don’t have any idea of a student’s prior knowledge or their levels of understanding.

Eventually, students will be given a test and then a grade. The teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to give feedback to students or for students to revise their work. The grade is then rolled up into a GPA whereupon students are ranked. A culture of judging, not safety, is created. (See this article for an analysis of the flaws of the traditional system.)

Modern schools, ones that fully draws on the research on learning, are designed to enhance relationships, provide flexibility so that teachers can respond to students who need more help or attention, and there is time for high-quality project-based learning where students get to apply their learning.

In the modern classroom, a community of learners is created at the beginning of the semester. Teachers ask students about their goals, and together, they create a set of expectations in which they all commit to supporting each other in their learning. The learning targets and what it means to be successful are transparent. Students are involved in learning experiences, sometimes individual and sometimes in groups, that allow teachers to understand where students are in their learning and give them feedback along the way. It may take some students longer or have to do more revisions to reach success. Grading isn’t used as a form of judgment or ranking. Instead, it provides feedback, helps teachers improve their instruction, and students get guidance on where they need to focus their efforts. Summative assessments like a report or an exam are used for teachers and students to see the progress being made and plan for how to help students be successful in meeting course or program goals.

Students can be powerful advocates in helping motivate colleges and high schools to transform by engaging them in conversation about the research on learning. Before you sign up for courses ask department heads, teachers, and professors about their pedagogical philosophy. What are their beliefs about how students learn?  What research are they using to design their courses and instruction? To what degree are they committed to every student being successful? (Beware: Some departments like engineering and finance are likely forcing teachers to use a bell curve. The US News and World Report’s ranking of colleges tends to reinforce this behavior. ) How have they designed their courses to motivate students?

It’s likely that somewhere in most districts, colleges, and universities there is someone tasked with improving instruction or teaching professors how to do online learning. It’s possible you can find some allies for advancing the idea that institutions of education need to draw on the research on learning. If not, why not? It is possible that they simply cannot imagine a world different from the one they operate within. Build some creative tension and move the conversation into a place where you can help shape solutions together.

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