Lessons for learning: How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice

What did we used to think about learning, and what have we discovered?

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What did we used to think about learning, and what have we discovered?

Some old ideas about learning die hard. Consider, for example, the notion that memory can be improved with practice. That is, if students practice memorizing poetry, say, they will become better at memorization in general and will be able to apply that skill to other subject matter. Even today, some teachers remain convinced that this is an important thing for students to do (Roediger, 2013). But while it is tempting to imagine that exercising one’s memory will strengthen it, as though memory were a muscle, that theory has been disproved time and again.

Or consider the enduring but flawed theory that scientists refer to as “errorless learning,” the idea, popularized in the 1950s, that learning is most effective if students are prevented from making errors. Even today, many of us cringe when we see students struggling with a new concept or skill, and we might have the knee-jerk desire to step in and correct them before they stumble. Yet cognitive psychology has shown that because we learn from our mistakes, errors are in fact good for learning (Hays et al., 2013).

Of course, while educators today know much more about learning than they did in previous generations, and while scientific evidence has dismissed many old myths, other myths (such as the myth that children have specific learning styles) will likely remain in circulation for a while yet (Willingham, 2018). But although we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring that educators understand scientific findings and can translate them to everyday classroom practice, findings from cognitive psychology hold a lot of promise. More than 100 years of research, from both laboratory and classroom settings, have revealed a number of powerful strategies for teaching and learning.

In particular, four strategies stand out (Dunlosky et al., 2013):

  1. Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads (by responding to a brief writing prompt, for example), rather than cramming information into their heads (by lecturing at students, for example). In the classroom, retrieval practice can take many forms, including a quick no-stakes quiz. When students are asked to retrieve new information, they don’t just show what they know, they solidify and expand it.

  2. Feedback boosts learning by revealing to students what they know and what they don’t know. At the same time, this increases students’ metacognition — their understanding about their own learning progress.

  3. Spaced practice boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time so that new knowledge and skills are not crammed in all at once. By returning to content every so often, students’ knowledge has time to be consolidated and then refreshed.

  4. Interleaving — or practicing a mix of skills (such as doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems all in one sitting) — boosts learning by encouraging connections between and discrimination among closely related topics. Interleaving sometimes slows students’ initial learning of a concept, but it leads to greater retention and learning over time.

These strategies have been tested in both the laboratory and the classroom. In typical laboratory experiments on retrieval practice, for example, students study a set of material (e.g., foreign language vocabulary words, passages about science), engage in retrieval practice (e.g., via recall or multiple-

choice quizzes), and complete a final exam immediately or after a delay (e.g., ranging from minutes to hours or days). Consistently, researchers see a dramatic increase in both short-term and long-term learning (Adesope et al., 2017).

Similarly, research we conducted in several K-12 classrooms demonstrated that these four strategies led to consistent and reliable increases in students’ grades, confidence, and engagement (Agarwal et al., 2014). Further, we found these strategies to have strong potential to boost learning for diverse students, grade levels, and subject areas (e.g., STEM, social studies, language arts, fine arts, and foreign languages). And other researchers have demonstrated that these strategies improve not just the learning of basic factual knowledge, but also skill learning (including CPR resuscitation) and critical thinking (such as applying knowledge in new situations) (McDaniel, et al., 2013).

In one of our studies (Roediger et al., 2011), students in a 6th-grade social studies class were given three brief, low-stakes quizzes, using clicker remotes (wireless devices) to answer questions. Following a lesson on Ancient Egypt, for example, they were asked to click through a set of questions about the material. Notably, the quizzes touched on only half of information that had been presented. Later, when we gave them an end-of-unit assessment, their performance was significantly better on the material that had been covered in the clicker quizzes than the material that wasn’t (94% vs. 81%) — i.e., just by completing a quick end-of-class quiz on that material, students had improved their memory and understanding of it. Even a couple of months later, at the end of the semester, students performed significantly better on the material that had been included in the quizzes, scoring an entire letter grade higher on that portion of the assessment than on the non-quizzed material (79% vs. 61%) (see Figure 1).

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