Student Learning

The subject of today’s entry is student learning.

It’s a subject that I think is essential to effective teaching, but is not well known by a good number of University level (or any level) faculty.

My intent is not to describe pedagogy – the art and science of teaching – or how we translate student learning and pedagogy into the activities that we do in class.  That’s the subject for a later missive (and our August 23rd workshop). My intent today is merely to offer a brief overview of five evidence-based principles that matter greatly to your work.

Let’s start by dispelling a commonly held idea among teachers: learning styles, as practiced today (by far too many teachers), is largely a myth.  While it’s true that students prefer to be taught in certain ways, there’s zero evidence to support that teaching to any particular style over the others (aural, visual, kinesthetic) promotes learning (Riener & Willingham, 2010).

Yes, it’s true that students are different (in interests, abilities, and motivations) it’s important to know that the following five principles matter more than what they’d prefer.

Please know that although I’m covering five, there are dozens more. I’m scratching the surface of a body of research that can form the basis of life-long study.  I would argue that the ones I’m presenting are key to understanding FYS’s course design.

(As you read, see if you can make the connection between these principles and our course design and what you do in class.)

Practice matters.

We operate using short-term and long-term memory, and learning is largely the province of long-term memory.  We know from decade of research that to “encode” or transfer information and knowledge into long-term memory requires deliberate practice.

This is not to say, “repetition.”  By practice I mean the doing something often enough so that recalling information or knowledge from memory is comfortable (not a struggle).  Some call this fluency.

When we begin to talk pedagogy, we’ll discuss how we can give students the chance to try things out under different contexts so they can apply what they know in these different contexts.

But as a preview, it’s why discussions and writing are so important. They allow us to work out ideas and see how these ideas connect with what we already know (and what we might do with them). Be careful, though: product production does not necessarily mean effective learning.

Connections matter.

Which leads me to principles two: it’s essential to connect what you already know to what you’re trying to learn. No student comes to us without knowing something, and this’ll affect how they process new information.

In some cases we are expanding upon this previous knowledge, or are adding new perspectives. This is called conceptual growth. On occasion we’re also correcting misinformation (be careful to separate opinion and interpretation from “fact”…) and creating conceptual change (Lucariello, et al, 2016).

We know that change is hard. We also know that until we discover we’re wrong, we think we’re right (until we realize we’re wrong, being wrong feels the same as being right…).

If you’re thinking this can be a tricky balance, you’re correct. It’s one of the many reasons why inductive teaching (involving students in the process) works better than one-way content delivery.  Making effective connections requires facilitation.

Recall matters

The ability to recall what I’ve been taught is essential to learning. It seems obvious, but teaching something does not equate to student learning.

It’s just as important that they can get information out of their heads as it is for us to get it in (Agarwai, et. al., 2013). But how and where they can recall information matters too. If a student can retain and recall information long enough to pass an exam, but cannot then use it elsewhere or later, than it’s not effective long-term learning.

This is why we shouldn’t confuse product production or high test scores with learning.  And why we should provide multiple contexts for ideas to be discussed.

I won’t go into detail (now) about different seminar practices that help build honest and fluent recall, but I’ll bet you can see how this can be tied to principle number one, practice.  Or to connections. Or to an ability to transfer knowledge.

Transferring knowledge matters.

If new knowledge is not transferable to multiple contexts than it does not represent long-term learning.

I was the victim of this more often than not.  I could do math problems in class (with the teacher there to answer my immediate questions), but was never able to apply what I learned to the next unit, or to everyday life.

The next unit or everyday life were different contexts.  I knew the formulas (well, mostly) but they were formulas for the sake of formulas; I had no idea how to apply them. They were devoid of meaning.

It’s one of the many reasons why you’ll hear the phrase writing across the curriculum so often in professional circles.  Too many students would see writing as that activity they “did” in English; they didn’t see their skills as applicable to other walks of life.

Think of your own ability to rattle off student names while seeing them in class, but getting flummoxed when running into them while downtown…

The bottom line: unless a student can apply what they know in multiple contexts, they haven’t really learned.

I’ll wager you’re once again seeing the applicability of practice, and recall, to this equation.

Intentionality matters.

I’m using the word intentionality rather loosely. What I mean is that I want students to be active and eager participants in the learning process.

Describing intentionality therefore requires that we discuss developmental readiness and motivation.  (In a later post I’ll talk about the use of clear goals, feedback, and pedagogies that create what Robert and Elizabeth Bjork call “desirable difficulties” toward making this happen.)

The material we ask students to wrestle with in FYS is not beyond their cognitive capability as admitted students to QU, but we all know that sometimes students do not want to rise to the challenge. This might be due to any number of factors, to include wanting to play it safe to secure a good grade, or hoping you’ll take on the hard work for them (by giving them the answer).

We know, however, that the more competent a student become, the more likely they are to willingly (intrinsic motivation) take on harder concepts and tasks (Lucariello, et al, 2016).  So to build intentionality, we must continuously build competence with the materials.

And that takes practice.


Agarwai, P.K., Roediger, H.L, McDaniel, M.A., McDermott, K.B., 2013. How to use retrieval practice to improve learning.

Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, ebrary, I., & National Academy of Sciences – National Research Council, Washington, DC. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Lucariello, J. M., Nastasi, B. K., Anderman, E. M., Dwyer, C., Ormiston, H., & Skiba, R. (2016). Science supports education: The behavioral research base for psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing teaching and learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(1), 55-67. doi:10.1111/mbe.12099

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32-35. doi:10.1080/00091383.2010.503139



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