When it comes to learning, it is essential for educators to have a deep understanding of the various mechanisms that influence the process. Learning is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; rather, it involves a complex interplay of cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors. In this article, we will explore essential aspects of the science of learning, providing insights and strategies that can be applied to both traditional and online educational settings.
1. The Four Ways People Learn
Learning begins with the recognition that individuals have unique preferences and methods for acquiring knowledge. Recognizing these distinct modes of learning is crucial for educators:
- Novelty: The human brain is inherently drawn to novelty. New and fresh information tends to captivate our interest, making it a potent catalyst for learning.
- Repetition (+ Recall): Research spanning decades underscores the importance of repetition in achieving mastery. However, a critical aspect of learning is recall, as actively attempting to retrieve information significantly reinforces memory.
- Emotional Resonance: Emotions play a pivotal role in the learning process. Content that evokes emotional responses, whether positive or negative, tends to be more memorable. This underscores the significance of setting clear goals with emotional relevance in adult education.
- Association: The process of learning is facilitated when new information aligns with existing mental frameworks or schemas. Encouraging learners to connect new material with their prior knowledge enhances comprehension and retention.
2. Duration, Path, and Outcome (DPOs)
Effective learning necessitates a structured approach, characterized by a clear understanding of Duration, Path, and Outcome (DPOs):
- Duration: Determining the time allocated for a learning task is essential. This temporal aspect helps learners manage their efforts efficiently.
- Path: The strategy or activity chosen significantly impacts the learning process. Educators should carefully select methods that align with specific learning objectives.
- Outcome: Identifying the expected learning outcome provides clarity and purpose to the learning endeavor. Learners benefit from understanding the goals they are working toward.
Understanding DPOs (a term I have borrowed from famed Stanford University neuroscientist, Dr Andrew Huberman) offers a structured framework that guides the learning process, providing a roadmap for both educators and learners.
3. Focus and Attention
An often-overlooked but crucial aspect of effective learning is maintaining focus and attention (see Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Posner & Rothbart, 2014). The neuroscience of learning emphasizes that without attention and focus, the learning process is compromised. To ensure learners remain focused, educators must design content that captivates their interest, making learning both interesting and appealing. It should also include “optimal challenges,” (i.e., not too hard and not too easy) as these challenges have been shown to increase one’s level of engagement. Passive learning, devoid of active engagement, yields limited results.
4. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), conceived by Vygotsky (1978), serves as a foundational concept for educators. It represents the space between what a learner can achieve independently and what they can attain with guidance. Educators can leverage the ZPD to tailor challenges and learning difficulty levels, thus fostering growth and competence within their learners.
5. Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) (proposed by Sweller, 1988) delves into the workings of working memory, instructional practices, and attention in learning. It highlights the need for educational protocols that account for cognitive limitations. CLT identifies three types of cognitive load:
- Extraneous load: Cognitive resources allocated to irrelevant elements that hinder learning.
- Germane load: The cognitive effort dedicated to learning and the impact of instructional approaches on this effort.
- Intrinsic load: The cognitive demands inherent to the material or task being learned.
Aligning instructional practices with CLT can reduce extraneous load while increasing germane load, resulting in more effective learning.
6. Quality Input
Not all input is created equal. In all forms of education, the quality of input (the to-be-learned material) is paramount. It should be presented in a manner that ensures learners can readily understand and engage with it. Ideally, it builds upon their prior knowledge, is level-appropriate, expands their ZPD, and holds known relevance to the learner, fostering a meaningful and effective learning experience.
7. Desirable Difficulty
Generally, learning is better retained when it necessitates a challenging yet manageable level of cognitive effort (see Bjork, 1994, 2013). In essence, this implies that for more enduring learning outcomes, learners should actively and deeply engage with the material. Strategies such as spaced repetition, testing, interleaving, and free recall introduce desirable difficulty, promoting effective learning.
8. Deliberate Practice
Distinct from naïve practice, which involves mindless repetition, deliberate practice (a concept introduced by Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993) is purposeful and guided by expert feedback. It results in more robust learning outcomes, making it an essential component of effective learning.
9. Effective Feedback
Feedback, when processed and acted upon by the learner, is a valuable tool for enhancing learning. Combining feedback with feedforward, which provides guidance for future learning, proves more effective than providing feedback alone.
10. Achievable/Optimal Challenge
Setting challenges that learners can overcome with effort fosters self-efficacy, motivation, and focused learning (see Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009; Rea, 2000). Success breeds further success, making it crucial to strike a balance between achievable and challenging goals.
11. Affective Engagement
Creating a supportive and engaging learning environment significantly impacts learning outcomes. Injecting elements of fun, demonstrating care for learners, and fostering a positive atmosphere can enhance the learning experience.
12. Quality Out-of-Class Learning
Educators must equip learners with the skills to engage effectively with out-of-class learning opportunities. This involves leveraging various technologies, understanding the role of purposeful practice, and collaborating with students to implement effective learning strategies.
13. The Symbiotic Relationship Between Neurobiological and Psychological Processes
Effective educators recognize the symbiotic relationship between neurobiological and psychological processes in learning. By designing learning tasks that align with the brain's memory formation processes, educators can positively impact psychological aspects like motivation and self-efficacy.
14. The True Nature of "Fun" in Learning
Contrary to popular belief, fun in the classroom does not guarantee effective learning. Engaging activities that challenge learners, promote desirable difficulties, and encourage learning from failure often lead to more robust learning outcomes. Importantly, these types of learning tasks are frequently perceived as enjoyable by learners due to their heightened levels of engagement and as a result of the visible learning that often takes place.
In conclusion, understanding the science of learning provides educators with a solid foundation to enhance teaching practices and optimize the learning experience for students. By integrating these principles and strategies, educators can create a more effective and engaging learning environment, leading to improved learning outcomes.
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