Lesson 3 of 7
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What does the research tell us?

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The research about teaching students how to learn, shows us a lot. Lasky, who’s a researcher in the US, did one study where he looked at 10 strategies for student learning. And it turns out, that strategies we often think are really good, don’t actually work that well. So it’s an important area to be looking at. Now, this course, we’re going to be looking at three areas in particular.

Sleep. When it comes to sleep, there is so much research out there. We know that sleep enhances memory. We know sleep, it consolidates memories, which makes them available at a later time. We also know that sleep increases immune systems, reduces anxiety, lowers risk of getting sick. Makes you feel better. Makes you look better. After a bad night of sleep, nobody says, “I look good today.” And if that’s happening all the time, students suffer in terms of learning. So we have to help those students to understand the importance of sleep.

Now, retrieval practice is a second area we’re going to look at. For retrieval practice, there is again, a lot of research about this. In fact, Bob Bjork at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in the United States, has done a lot of work in his Learning and Forgetting Lab. This is all done in the area of retrieval practice. Basically what it boils down to is the more often you do something, the easier it becomes. So we’re going to practice on retrieving information so we can more easily retrieve information.

The last thing we’re going to look at is, chunking and patterning. It turns out experts see patterns in the fields that novices don’t. So we have to help the students to learn to see those patterns. This word comes out of a Gestalt psychologist from the 1930s, 1940s and cognitive psychologists in the 1950s. So it’s been around a long time. We just have to look at how to apply it to helping students to be better learners. Overall, there’s a lot of research. It can be intimidating at times, but there are some really good help. So we’re going to get started with this and in no time, you’re going to be really good with it.

The research evidence points to a few things that make a significant difference in terms of student learning, the first of which is simply to talk to students about the learning process. Research has shown that even a five-minute discussion on this topic in class improves learning outcomes. Within this discussion, there are three concepts that are particularly useful to students: growth mindset; understanding patterns (based on Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organisation); and the importance of physiological components that impact learning (e.g., sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition). We will explore each of these in turn as we go through this course, but for now let’s look at the evidence base.

  • Physiological components of learning. We don’t often discuss this in higher education, but one of the best ways to improve learning is to make sure one’s brain is ready to learn. There is a lot of research that shows lack of sleep impacts learning, that aerobic exercise improves learning, and food/water levels also impact learning. It may seem that faculty can’t impact how much student’s sleep, but that is not true. We tell students that coming to class will improve performance, that studying each night will improve course performance. We can also tell them getting enough sleep and exercising has been shown to increase course performance.
  • Retrieval practice. There is a extensive evidence base that shows the more students retrieve information from their memory, the more that information becomes embedded and the better they are at using that information for higher order activities. James M. Lang has covered the concept of retrieval in detail in this course ‘Small Teaching: Retrieval‘.
  • Patterns and chunking. More than 50 years ago, Gestalt psychologies did extensive work on how we perceive information and the patterns that are noted. These patterns occur across a wide variety of people and tend to be very stable across time. Because of this, we can present information in a particular way to help students gain understanding of topics.

Further reading:

Doyle, T. & Zakrajsek, T. (2019). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Stylus publishing.  

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus publishing.  

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success and how we can learn to fulfil our potential. Ballantine Books. 

Lexia (2017). 6 Tips to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset in the Classroom [Blog post].

Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep's role in memory. Physiological reviews, 93(2), 681–766.

Developing a Mindset for Successful Learning. Samford University. [Video series]. 




Have you had experience of teaching students how to learn? How did you best learn as a student? What were you taught about the learning process? Finally, what do you wish you had been taught about learning early in your education?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.