Researchers and Teachers Team Up To Study 6 Key Learning Strategies

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Students of all ages are subjected to different teaching methods, not all of which have been backed by rigorous scientific research. So a team of scientists at The Learning Agency Lab set out with the question, “How do we best educate our children so that they learn better, and learn how to learn, in addition to learning what to learn?” The Learning Agency Lab is a non-profit headquartered in Tempe, Arizona that’s committed to helping all students gain equitable access to effective learning.

The scientists, funded by Overdeck Foundation, used cognitive research about how people learn to identify six key learning strategies. Then they met with, observed, and interviewed 16 teachers in urban, suburban, and rural schools across the country to see how those science-backed learning strategies actually worked in the classroom. 

The beauty of this approach is that teachers and researchers had a chance to work together over a period of time to make sure the research findings could be incorporated in realistic ways.

The first strategy is “retrieval practice.” 

Retrieval practice is the idea that students should be asked to recall information frequently, rather than being told the same information over and over again. As learning scientist Dr. Yana Weinstein-Jones explains, “The act of retrieval actually improves your memory and understanding of the concept. That production of information is what’s causing learning, versus when information is presented to students.” So, for example, taking a practice test or informal quiz on a subject is going to improve students’ performance more than simply reviewing the information again would.

Strategy two is “dual coding.”

Dual coding is the concept of pairing images or graphics with words, because “we tend to learn best when we combine multiple modalities together,” says learning scientist Dr. Megan Sumeracki. But simply adding a picture to a slide full of text is not enough to promote learning—educators need to make sure the visual aid is actually reinforcing or helping to explain the verbal description of a concept. 

Dual coding can be used well in conjunction with retrieval practice: for example, when students are asked to label a blank diagram based on what they learned, their understanding of a concept will improve.

The third strategy is “spacing.”

Spacing refers to reminding students of the information again and again over time, rather than cramming once and expecting them to remember it forever. Teachers sometimes forget that they have a lifetime of repetition and practice in their subject area, whereas the material is usually completely new for their students. After working with the learning scientists, math teacher Bill Hinkley put the spacing concept to use in the classroom by starting to review old material at the start of each class before jumping into new material.

The next strategy was “interleaving.”

Interleaving is the idea of mixing up different types of problems or different concepts to help students see the links between them. “What interleaving does is it forces the students to figure out not just how, but also when,” says Dr. Sumeracki—so if different types of math problems are mixed together on the page, for example, students have to go beyond simply following directions, and actually determine on their own what type of problem they are dealing with before they can solve it. This type of learning can be a challenge when it’s first introduced, but over time students will actually begin to understand concepts in a deeper way.

The fifth learning strategy was “metacognition.”

This is the concept of planning, monitoring, and assessing one’s own learning. When students take the time to think about their own thinking processes, not just whether they got the right answer, they’ll be better learners. One way teachers can help students work on metacognition is by having students check in with themselves about their confidence level on each skill throughout the course of a lesson. Learning scientist Dr. Regan Gurung also suggests that teachers can model metacognition themselves by working through their thinking processes out loud.

Lastly, the research team focused on the strategy of “elaboration.”

Elaboration refers to making meaningful associations to a particular concept to understand it in a more well-rounded way. One important way to introduce more elaboration in the classroom is to connect academic concepts to everyday things that the students can relate to. Another part of elaboration is to simply get students talking to each other about the concepts they’re learning—even if for just a few minutes during each class period. After working with the research scientists on elaboration, sixth grade teacher Sanam Cotton reported, “There’s so much fun with these rabbit hole conversations, and it’s where kids really become invested in things. Elaboration ends up sparking, I think, a good amount of inquiry in students if they don’t already have it.”

The project concluded in a series of videos delving into each science-backed learning strategy and ways that teachers were currently working to incorporate them into the classroom. The video series is a free and valuable resource that all educators and parents can get something out of, in order to help our children learn better.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.