A concise guide to the science of learning

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul, 10/12/15

Last week, I moderated a panel discussion in Washington, DC, sponsored by the organization Deans for Impact. This is a group of deans of colleges of education who are committed to “transforming educator preparation and elevating the teaching profession”—in part by ensuring that teachers-in-training are exposed to the science of how students learn.

To that end, Deans for Impact has produced a very concise and useful summary of the science of learning. You can read the full document here; below, I’ve pulled out some of the most useful cognitive principles from that document and added my own thoughts (in italics) about how these principles should guide the actions of parents, teachers, and managers.

Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know . . . and so: we should help students connect new ideas to old ideas with well-developed analogies. (Read more about making good analogies here.)

To learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved) . . . and so: we should show students how to employ the strategies of retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. (Read more about these techniques here.)

Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding . . . and so: we should help students break tasks down into manageable steps. (Read more about when to make learning easier and when to make it harder here.)

We usually want students to remember what information means and why it is important, so they should think about meaning when they encounter to-be-remembered material . . . and so: we should teach students to self-explain—that is, ask and answer questions about the meaning of what they’re learning. (Read more about the value of self-explanation here.)

Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied . . . and so: we should expect students to learn, understand, and remember this set of facts—not just be able to “Google it.” (Read more about the importance of committing facts to memory here.)

The transfer of knowledge or skills to a novel problem requires both knowledge of the problem’s context and a deep understanding of the problem’s underlying structure . . . and so: we should offer students a variety of examples that differ in their surface structure but share the same deep structure. (Read more about knowledge transfer and how it works here.)

Beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behavior in school . . . and so: we should encourage students to set learning goals, and should praise them for their effort and their use of effective strategies to reach those goals—rather than for being “smart.” (Read more about the importance of a growth mindset here.)

The ability to monitor their own thinking can help students identify what they do and do not know, but people are often unable to accurately judge their own learning and understanding . . . and so: we should show students how self-explaining and self-testing can give them a more accurate sense of their own knowledge. (Read more about developing metacognition here.)

Students will be more motivated and successful in academic environments when they believe that they belong and are accepted in those environments . . . and so: we should let students know that we have high standards, and that we believe they can meet those standards. (Read more about creating a sense of belonging here.)

Again, the full document from Deans for Impact can be found here; I recommend it.

Please send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

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