Learning Sciences Strategies

Research in the science of learning is revealing effective teaching and learning strategies that make it more likely that students will retain what they learn and will be able to use it in future courses and after they graduate. Some of these strategies are counter-intuitive, so as a first step, instructors may need to explain to students these principles about how learning works, from Make it Stick

  • Experiencing some difficulty during the learning process will help the learning be remembered.
  • Learning that is easy is often superficial and easily forgotten.
  • When learning requires effort, it changes the brain and increases intellectual ability.
  • Wrestling with a new problem before seeing the solution improves learning.

Instructor Practices that Promote Long-Lasting Learning

Create Desirable Difficulties

  • Create in-class tasks that are complex and will challenge, but not frustrate, students. The tasks should be ill-structured, having more than one pathway for reaching a solution or conceptual understanding. Research shows that students have rich repertoires of solutions to draw from, although not all are correct. The act of exploring the possible solution paths may build learners’ abilities to discern between what is important and not so important. This sets the stage for more efficient retrieval of the information when a new but similar task is encountered.

  • Engage students in learning tasks before a concept is formally introduced.For example, have students discuss and predict the outcome of an historic event they have not yet read about, answer questions about an experimental data set they have never seen before, or write in a genre for which they have received no prior instruction. This engagement creates a "need to know" that will focus students' attention on the information presented.

  • Add steps to assignments that involve higher-order cognitive levels; e.g., require students to evaluate their solutions in comparison to others’. This deliberate practice consolidates the related concepts in students’ minds.

  • Have students explain or justify their solutions or answers to others. This practice works to consolidate the idea or solution in the learner’s mind, and it allows the instructor to assess students' understanding.

Exploit the Testing Effect

  • Spiral back to earlier content in assignments; having students practice this retrieval solidifies learning.

  • Test students frequently on material from throughout the course, with low-stakes quizzes, polling questions, or reflection activities. Students learn better from being tested than from re-reading or listening.


Student Practices that Promote Long-Lasting Learning

Encourage students to:

  • test themselves, using text questions, old exams, self-prepared flashcards. This is more effective than re-reading text material or reviewing completed solutions.

  • space out their self-testing. The effort required to remember concepts after forgetting between practice sessions helps to solidify learning. include different problem types in each session. This sharpens students’ ability to distinguish among problem types and apply the correct solution strategies.

  • explain their understanding to someone else, particularly someone who knows less about the topic. The effort required to teach something to someone else (even a dog, cat, or their own reflection in a mirror!) will help solidify learning.


References for Additional Information


You are welcome to contact one of our faculty developers to discuss your teaching ideas, concerns, or questions, related to this mini-primer, or any other topic related to teaching and learning. We are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the OIA.