As students across the state of North Carolina and the country start back to school, this is an opportune time for teachers, parents and students to reflect on how to learn most effectively. Research on the science of learning has uncovered several important keys to learning. Here are four of them:
Build “growth mindsets.” Students who have a growth mindset realize that the human mind is a muscle, and the keys to gaining skills and understanding are hard work and practice. Contrast this with the fixed mindset adults all too often promote unintentionally in students, which emphasizes being “smart” and getting work done quickly. Students with fixed mindsets don’t learn to work hard, because they think that having to do so means they aren’t “smart” enough.
Parents and teachers can foster growth mindsets in children by praising their effort, emphasizing perseverance, and giving them honest, helpful feedback, rather than praising their grades and natural abilities. These practices should help break students of limiting thoughts like “I’m not a math person,” which only serve as excuses preventing them from trying something challenging.
Forget “learning styles.” Fixed mindsets are common, but dangerous, as are a popular educational myth: learning styles. Learning style theories abound, and most of them are based on the idea that people learn best via only one modality: for example, visual, auditory, linguistic or kinesthetic. These theories promote the idea that learners will maximize their understanding if instruction is matched to their dominant learning style. Many public, private and charter schools throughout the state have worked hard to match instruction to each child’s appropriate learning style, with teachers coming up with different teaching methods for each kind of student.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned work has been for naught, as years of rigorous research have produced absolutely no support for the idea of learning styles. We all learn best when we are presented with information in multiple ways: visually, verbally, by working with materials or ideas ourselves, etc.
Use “distributed practice.” How can students study effectively? When most people are trying to study for a test, they employ what is called “massed practice” or cramming. Massed practice can help students pass tomorrow’s multiple choice test, but learning scientists have found that for long-term learning of complex concepts and skills it is much better to engage in “distributed practice.” This strategy involves frequent, shorter practice sessions spaced out over time. Most teachers discourage cramming the night before a test, but there should be much more emphasis on engaging in distributed practice inside, as well as outside, of the classroom.
Use “self-testing.” But what kind of practice should students do? One of the most strongly supported study strategies is self-testing. This can involve trying to recall the major details of what was just read in a book (with the text closed), or answering summary questions after reading a chapter, as long as notes and resources are not used. (They can be used to check for accuracy afterward.) Better yet, students can predict questions that they think will be on an exam and then try to answer them. This “testing effect” strengthens memory and promotes higher cognitive thinking, which depends on recall.
Some of these strategies may be common sense and others counterintuitive, but research shows that they are powerful ways to help students learn. Unfortunately, the clogged pipeline between researchers and teachers has allowed some unsupported ideas about learning to establish firm roots in our classrooms and has kept other, more helpful, practices from doing the same. Educators, researchers, and parents working together, though, can help students learn more successfully.
Brian Cartiff is a doctoral student and Jeffrey A. Greene is an associate professor in the Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.