The Science of Learning

In a 2008 article in JAMA, Donald Berwick argued for broadening the acceptable categories of evidence in improving health care. Instead of asking, “Where is the randomized trial?” he suggested asking, “What is everyone learning?” When analyzing the best course of treatment, there are many methodologies that can guide clinicians.

The same goes for educators in their approach to teaching. Diana Chapman Walsh, the former president of Wellesley, writes about ongoing projects across the country to study how students learn. Of course, the initiatives in specialized centers may not always trickle down to the faculty who interact with students. So, rather than wait for a systemic shift, teachers can implement what we know about how learners learn.

One of the commenters on Walsh’s article summarizes some key guidelines:

  • Cover fewer concepts in more depth. Think four chapters, not twelve.
  • Study the how and why of tech, not just the what.
  • Focus on course outcomes.
  • Practice, practice. Many exercises.
  • Feedback about every exercise. Fast. Formative feedback. Not just “that’s bad.” Instead: “That’s bad. Here’s why. Fix it, and show me again.”
  • Show students how to learn your subject.
  • Give students measures they can use to assess themselves.
  • Give students access to personal, expert (relative to course level) help.


6 Responses to “The Science of Learning”

  1. To write effectively in digital spaces — meaning, literally, with *effect* on an audience — requires a bunch of knowledge that is not always explicit in the writing itself, but is implied by it: knowledge like understanding of audience, but even more broadly than that, of culture and cultural assumptions, of history and context, deep understanding of the moment … in a word, kairos. Digital writing might well be leading us toward shorter writing — I don’t know, I haven’t seen any studies about that — but in a condensed form it certainly has to pack more punch. That was an interesting graph from the Stanford study, and it confirmed what we were seeing when I was at Michigan State University: the amount and variety of writing dropped off in the 3rd and 4th years, to the detriment of the graduates in their first few years of professional life. The B-School was trying to do something about that … but “doing something” almost always means hard instructional work and often additional cost, too (e.g., smaller classes that allow instructors to do deep engagement with student writing).

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