Wednesday / May 22

Three Lessons from the Science of Learning

Do you want your students to simply perform on a test? Or do you want them to really learn the knowledge, skills, and understandings?

Before you jump to answer the question, citing standardized tests and teacher accountability, consider that the students entering your classroom at the start of the school year spent last year in a different classroom. What do you hope the goal of the previous year’s teacher was for his or her learners? That’s what I thought. My goal is learning as well. Students walk into our classrooms with different interests, background knowledge, and prior experiences. Our goal, and thus our job, is to move them forward in their learning and not simply train them to perform on an assessment.

The learning in our schools and classrooms should be exemplified by the amount of growth demonstrated by each learner. Consequently, we strive to purposefully and intentional create learning experiences that result in learning and growth. With the overwhelming collection of research, books, and articles reporting out what works, extracting information that helps us create these learning experiences can be a challenge. Often the take-away is a shiny new strategy that promises to work, not unlike a late-night infomercial for a new product that will dramatically improve your life! Yes, there are incredibly powerful strategies that have shown incredible growth in student learning. However, as Bjork and Bjork (2014) pointed out, the learning is not the result of the strategy producing long-term learning beyond performance on a test, but rather the cognitive processes which are engaged by these strategies. So what are these cognitive processes?

Elaborate Encoding

Elaborate encoding involves learners processing the content in a way that allows them to make meaning of the information (Craik, 2002; Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975). Consider the following scenario in a first-grade classroom: The teacher is introducing the idea of different amounts of daylight at different times of the year. The learning goal is for students to make relative comparisons between the four seasons and the amount of daylight.

Which of the following options represents an approach that utilizes elaborate encoding?

Option #1:

The teacher shows a brief Brain Pop video on the position of the Earth relative to the Sun and then asks the students to complete a handout on the four seasons and the amount of daylight. The teacher then asks his learners to use this sheet to prepare for the upcoming assessment.

Option #2:

The teacher presents data on the amount of daylight and the time of year to the students.

After providing an overview of the x and y axes, the teachers ask students to work with their shoulder partners to develop a list of conclusions that they can generate from the graph as well as a list of questions they have about the information.

The answer is Option #2. Option #2 represents elaborate encoding because the strategy associated with the content requires learners to process the content in a way that allows them to make meaning of the information, even if they initially struggle with the content. Why?

John Medina (2014) identified three necessary components of meaning making. First, learners must have opportunities to look at the information through their multiple ways of representing the content (e.g., graphically, verbally, with questions, etc…). In this context, this refers to the ability of the learner to form his or her own internal mental representation of the days of the year and hours of daylight. Second, learners must have opportunities to find patterns between the graph, their observations, their partners’ observations, and their own experiences in life. Finally, learners must be able to emotionally invest in their learning. Social interaction, choice, personal response, novelty, and authenticity evoke this vested interest in the content. Option #2 allows learners to do all three. Option #1 provides two ways of representing the content, but the learner does not have an active role in these representations. There is no pattern finding and, likely, no vested interest in a worksheet unless you already love this content.

Elaborate encoding allows learners to make meaning of the content and thus creating stronger representation of the information, recognizing patterns, and invoking emotion (Medina, 2014). Do your strategies provide elaborate encoding?

Retrieval Practice

Once a learner has elaborately encoded information, long-term retention depends on retrieval practice. Retrieval practice refers to the act of retrieving information from previous learning experiences. Try taking the Penny Test to see if you can identify the correct image of a penny.

How difficult was this task? You more than likely had to locate a real penny to verify your answer (which is a). However, we have all seen hundreds if not thousands of pennies in our lifetime: repetition. So clearly repetition alone is not the answer to retrieval practice, otherwise you would be able to draw a perfect penny from memory. Completing an assignment of a “gazillion” questions in a packet or reviewing a mile-high stack of flashcards is not going to enhance learning or the desire for future learning. This may help with cramming, but that is performance and not long-term learning. The harder a learner has to work to retrieve the information; the stronger the memory becomes.

When looking at how you ask students to retrieve information, is it merely repetition or do they have to actively dig up learning?

The Spacing Effect

Elaborately encoded: check. Retrieval practice beyond simple repetition: check. One remaining question, especially in the age of accountability, standards, and standardized test is the frequency of such retrieval. How often do my learners need to engage in retrieval practice so that I see significant gains in learning? The answer is simple: Learners should engage in retrieval practice as soon as they have started to forget the information.  

By Icez at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This data supports the idea that overtime we will forget. Even with elaborate encoding and retrieval practice, ensuring that we space out retrieval practice is critical to long-term learning outcomes. Again, cramming works, but only for tomorrow’s performance on an assessment.

It’s not possible for a teacher to know the exact moment each of her 26 students is forgetting a concept. That’s why we have to constantly monitor and provide opportunities for retrieval practice throughout the day, week, month, and year.

Putting These Three Lessons into Practice

These three promising principles—elaborate encoding, retrieval practice, and the spacing effect—produce long-term learning rather than short-term performance on assessments. Retrieval practice through formative assessment is a systematic approach used to monitor and adjust daily instruction based on learners’ thinking. An essential component of academic success involves both the teacher and the student actively and continuously monitoring student learning through specific strategies designed to gather information on student learning. These checks for understanding should be designed and implemented to decrease forgetting, fill in gaps, and encourage students to think about concepts in a way that makes learning a long-lasting experience. The spacing effect ensures that you have waited just long enough for learners to begin to forget.

Stay tuned for upcoming Corwin Connect posts that provide specific examples of these lessons from the science of learning or promising principles in classrooms!


Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way:

creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In: M. A. Gernsbacher & J.

Pomerantz (Eds), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating

            Fundamental Contributions to Society, 2nd Edition (pp. 60-68). New York, NY:

Worth Publishers.

Craik, F. I. M. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present…and future? Memory, 10, 305-

Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory

research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in

episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.

Mayer, R. E. (2011). Applying the science of learning. New York, NY: Pearson.

Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules. 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home,

            and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Nickerson, R. S., and Adams, J. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object.

Cognitive Psychology, 11, 287-307.

Written by

John Almarode conducts staff development workshops, keynote addresses, and conference presentations on a variety of topics including student engagement, evidence-based practices, creating enriched environments that promote learning, and designing classrooms with the brain in mind. John’s action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

No comments

leave a comment