How People Learn: An Evidence-Based Approach


We recently released “The Science of Learning,” a report that summarizes the cognitive science related to how students learn. The principles in this post are drawn from that report.

1. Students learn new ideas by relating them to what they already know, and then transferring them into their long-term memory.

Students without adequate background knowledge, or who are otherwise not given enough instructional guidance, can be quickly overwhelmed in the classroom.

2. Students remember information better when they are given many opportunities to practice retrieving it from their long-term memories and think about its meaning.

To help students focus on the meaning of content, it can be helpful to assign them tasks requiring explanation (for example, about cause and effect) or to have them impose meaning on content (for example, through the use of mnemonics).

3. Problem-solving and critical-thinking skills are developed through feedback and depend heavily upon background knowledge.

A carefully sequenced curriculum can build student knowledge over the course of a school career, enabling students to solve increasingly complex problems. Teachers can also help develop these skills by providing feedback that is specific, clear, and focused on the task and on improvement rather than on the student or her performance.

4. For students to transfer their abilities to new situations, they need to deeply understand both the problem’s structure and context.

you can think critically about a subject only to the extent that you are knowledgeable about that subject.

5. Student motivation depends on a variety of social and psychological factors.

motivation is a complex phenomenon and depends, among other things, on whether a student identifies as the kind of person who belongs in a particular academic setting, or on whether he believes that his ability in an area can be developed with effort.

6. Misconceptions about learning, while prevalent in education, shouldn’t determine how curricula are designed or how instruction is provided.

All too often, teachers attempt (or are required) to modify their instruction because of student learning styles, to account for right-brain or left-brain dominance, or because content is developmentally inappropriate. Yet, familiar as these concepts may sound, not everyone agrees on their accuracy or effectiveness. We feel that embracing such approaches may distract teachers from the evidenced-based principles that should be guiding their practice.


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