Part 1 of the 4 part series on Promising Principles to Enhance Learning. Parts 2 through 4 will delve deeper into 3 of the promising principles.
How does learning work? No, really, how do your students learn and how can we leverage this knowledge into great learning, through the design of our classrooms, learning experiences, and tasks? All of us want our students to effectively learn the content, skills, and understandings associated with the specific subject area or grade-level we teach. From authors purpose and figurative language in English language arts, human impact on ecosystems in environmental science, symbolism in art, or overhand throwing in physical education, the range of topics and ideas is as diverse as the students in each of schools and classrooms. Plus, learning is much more than cognitive. Learning content, skills, and understandings associated is not isolated from the social, emotional, affective, and language components of both the learning and the learner. Learning is complex. The characterization of learning as “reading, writing, and arithmetic” does not even come close to conceptualizing the highly complex, multidimensional, highly coveted outcome we strive for in our classrooms: flexible, durable, and usable learning that is the impetus for life-long learning beyond their time in our schools and classrooms. So, again, how does learning work and how can we leverage this knowledge to meet our goal of flexible, durable, and usable learning?
A starting point for addressing the essential question of this Corwin Connect blog is research generated from the science of learning. The science of learning offers promising principles or practices that may work in our classrooms. The use of the word may be a bit startling and not what you may have expected in a blog with such a definitive title. However, we must make adaptations to these principles or practices that reflect the local context of your school or classroom and then generate evidence that allows both us and our learners to determine if learning has occurred. Promising principles and practices direct our attention to where we must devote time to the discovery and development of a definition of what learning looks like in our individual classrooms, within the context of their content area and grade level. From there we must engage in evaluating what specific findings from the science of learning is a promising principle or practice. Let’s take an up-close look at 7 specific promising principles and practices from the science of learning that serve as a starting point for both understanding how learning works and suggest ways that you can enhance learning in your own school or classroom.
- Motivated learners are better learners. Motivation is an essential component of the science of how we learn simply because the learning expected in our classrooms will only move forward if learners have the desire or willingness to commit the necessary effort to acquire, con- solidate, and store declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge. Motivating our learners is a balanced blend of tapping into their interests, building their self-efficacy, link their efforts in learning to specific outcomes, promoting cooperation and collaboration, and using prior achievement and success as a launching point.
- Learners must attend to what they are learning. Learners must successfully discern between what is relevant, irrelevant, and then holding that attention until a specific goal or outcome is accomplished. In our classrooms, this goal or outcome is the successful acquisition, consolidation, and storage of learning. Selective attention, or directing our attention to relevant stimuli, is powerful in ensuring that our learners focus on the right content, skills, and understandings at the right moment, and for the amount of time.
- Effective learning is best achieved by elaborate encoding. Elaborate encoding is the deep processing of information by linking new content, skills, and understandings to prior knowledge, background knowledge, and/or previous experiences. There are three contributors to elaborate encoding that support this deeper processing. In addition to motivation and attention, elaborate encoding requires multiple representations of the content, skills, and understandings. When we refer to multiple representations, we are referring to mental representations or different ways of thinking about the learning. This should encourage learners to find and apply patterns within their learning. This is different from simple repeating patterns.
- For effective learning to “stick around”, learners must practice retrieving that learning. Retrieval is the act of “going and getting” declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge. Once learning is acquired, encoded, and stored, the act of retrieval is the reactivation of that learning through active processing (e.g., summarizing, classroom discussion, developing an argument or debate, concept mapping, etc…). We should space out retrieval during the learning experience, day, week, or unit AND offer multiple opportunities to retrieve just as learners are about to forget.
- Learners have a limit on their capacity to process learning. This is known as a learner’s cognitive load. Our working memory, and thus our cognitive load, is limited. The quantity of information that can be actively processed in our working memory at any one time is limited. In our classrooms one source of this “weight” or “pressure” on working memory comes from what we expect our students to know, understand, and do. Additional sources of “weight” or “pressure” can come from other interactions and experiences that learners are thinking about while also in our classrooms. (e.g., an argument with a friend during lunch, the excitement of an after-school activity or event, the apprehension about a particular piece of content, or the anticipation of impending weather that may result in a day off from school). This is a balance!
- Productive struggle leads to productive learning. Productive struggle occurs when the task or experience is challenging enough so that the learner must devote significant cognitive resources to make progress in that task or experience, but is provided the necessary supports and scaffolds to prevent frustration or discouragement. Barbara Blackburn describes productive struggle as the learner’s sweet spot (Blackburn, 2018). Whether you pre- fer the learner’s sweet spot or operating within the Goldilocks Zone, productive struggle means different things to different learners. For example, what is complex for one learner may not be as complex for another. What is difficult for some students may not be as difficult for others. Much like the cognitive load of our learners, this is a balance!
- And last, but certainly not least, effective learning requires effective feedback. Feedback is the exchange of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process and is the basis for improvement (Merriam-Webster, 2021). This exchange of information provides support for learners as they direct their time, energy, and effort toward encoding, retrieval, and struggle. Feedback also supports learners in managing the cognitive load. Feedback only supports learning when the information is received and effectively integrated into the learning experience or task. To effectively integrate feedback into learning, the feedback must be received by the learner.
In the end, we must be fully aware of the impact resulting from the decisions we have made in our classrooms. From adapting promising principles or practices based on the local context of our classrooms, to explicitly teaching strategies to our learners, if what we are doing moves learning forward, we must keep doing it. But as we continue to do what works best, we must create a learning environment that releases the responsibility to our learners. When the semester ends or the year is over, will our learners know what to do when they don’t know what to do, and we are not around? That is how learning is supposed to work. That is how we leverage what we know about how learning works to meet our goal of flexible, durable, and usable learning.
Blackburn, B. R. (2018). Rigor is not a four-letter word. Routledge.
Merriam-Webster. (2021c). Feedback. Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feedback