Learning and research. The raison d’être of universities. But what does research tell us about the process of learning? Cognitive scientists, Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki, have made it their goal to not only research learning, but to answer and disseminate research findings to teachers, students and the general public.
The Learning Scientists
Together Weinstein and Sumeracki founded The Learning Scientists. Through their blog, Twitter account, podcast and, most recently, their book, ‘Understanding how we learn: A visual guide’, they are opening up the findings of cognitive science and providing much needed insight into the psychological processes behind effective learning.
Understanding how we learn
Understanding how we learn summarises the founding principles and findings of cognitive science, portraying both its breadth and practical applications. It’s subtitle, A visual guide, refers to the input of educational illustrator Oliver Caviglioli, whose graphics demonstrate a key tenet of learning science – that words and pictures are at their most powerful when combined together.
The authors begin by examining the evidence that underpins cognitive psychology and then focus in on what makes such evidence reliable, making this guide a handy entry point for those without a solid background in quantitative research methods. This leads on to a discussion of two of the Learning Scientists’ common themes: (1) that our intuitions about what makes effective learning are often not supported by evidence; (2) that ubiquitous misconceptions about how we learn – learning styles, left/right brain – can be dispelled through the effective communication of research results.
Weinstein and Sumeracki then elucidate the fundamentals of human cognitive processing, highlighting the importance of perception and mode of stimulus, attention and levels of interest, and of course, memory in both its declarative and procedural forms. A key insight here is that memory is, despite common metaphors, not like a library. Knowledge is not stored in page-like bundles, but is instead reconstructed through complex neural processes every time we wish to retrieve it. Nor is knowledge the digital encoding of discrete bytes; it’s cumulative and in constant interaction with itself in the ‘schema’ that make up the complex, gestalt pathways of remembering and understanding.
Six strategies for effective learning
This background prepares readers to understand the heart of The Learning Scientists’ work, their advocacy of six learning strategies that have been found by cognitive science to be effective: spaced practice, interleaving, elaboration, concrete examples, dual coding and retrieval practice.
These strategies allow new information to be integrated with retrieved prior knowledge and then consolidated. This effortful reconstruction process is the key to an effective learning experience.Weinstein & Sumeracki, 2019, p. 76
Distributing study over an extended period of time.
Regular shifting between topics, ideas and problems, as opposed to focusing on one main study area for a long time.
Focusing on reasons and processes through answering ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.
Grounding abstract ideas in real-world examples.
Combining words and pictures in learning materials and study notes.
Drawing on memory alone to bring information to mind and using it to answer questions, describe ideas and solve problems.
The evidence given by Weinstein and Sumeracki to support their promotion of these strategies is pretty convincing, although they do note that the research behind spaced and retrieval practice is more comprehensive than for the other four strategies. This leaves the authors to end with a section focusing on the practical application of these strategies with advice for students, teachers and parents wanting to implement these techniques.
The Learning Scientists’ coverage of this challenging topic and the way they distil complex, research-based ideas into accessible and practical strategies will be of immense value to all of us within the learning and teaching community . However, a key concern for Weinstein and Sumeracki is learning to retrieve information for success in formal assessments and standardised tests. There is little discussion of the ideological conflicts that are taking place in this contested, politicised corner of education. For example, cognitive load theory, a cornerstone of cognitive science, is often used to justify the ‘back to basics’ approach to education espoused by many conservative governments, which emphasises memorisation over critical thinking and student autonomy. Indeed, The Learning Scientists’ positivist, cognitivist approach to learning will leave proponents of critical pedagogy decidedly uncomfortable, if not downright angry.
Nevertheless, the Learning Scientists provide at worst a valuable, and at best an indispensable, insight into cognitive science’s understanding of the processes of learning. A critical engagement with their work would enrich all of us who engage with learning and teaching at UTS and who are interested in evidence-based strategies for effective learning.