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5 Science of Learning Strategies to Boost Learning - No Magic Formulas

About 6 years ago I became obsessed with finding some sort of magic formula of what a successful lesson plan should look like. I got into neuroscience trying to find answers to how our brains learn and what we should be doing as teachers to make learning more effective. But do you know that feeling you have deep down that the answer is going to disappoint you?

That’s exactly what happened in the first week of January. I had just returned from Switzerland where I’d spent New Years’ Eve with my aunt and cousin eager to attend the first lesson of Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice at the University of Bristol. My excitement was twofold. Firstly, because this unit seemed to have been tailormade for me and, secondly because the tutor was my brilliant professor Paul Howard-Jones.

Then it happened. Halfway through the lesson, he said that we were not going to learn the magic formula that I had been seeking. He said that maybe, to be quite fair, all neuroscience can do is confirm what we’ve been doing all along and give us new insights into a couple of new things. I sort of knew it. To be fair, I had always known it and finally started looking at the beauty of it all. We have been doing the right things after all. For the better part, anyway. As John Hattie puts it:

Nearly everything we do has some positive impact on students
John Hattie, 2012

Indeed, we can say that teachers have been teaching for millennia and students have been learning (some better, some worse). Despite disagreeing with Hattie in some important regards, the impact that realization had on me was liberating. It confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine and allowed me to focus on the things that could have a positive impact on our students but we are not doing as much as we could in the classroom.

That was when it hit me! The objective of my dissertation at the University of Bristol became crystal clear. I decided to conduct a thematic analysis on what authors have contributed to the Science of Learning regarding effective classroom strategies and devise a scale based on it to help teachers reflect.

More than 150 strategies later, all condensed into 6 themes that now contain around 30 classroom strategies that should work better according to the Science of Learning (neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy play a huge role here), allow me to share some of the things that we are not using as often as we could that may have an enormously positive effect on students.

1. Pretesting

Researchers have found a positive correlation between pretesting – applying a test at the beginning of the lesson – and performance. A quick quiz about the content that will be discussed in that particular lesson is likely to raise students’ awareness and curiosity about the subject and keep them more engaged to find out what they got wrong and why they got some things right (Kornell et al. 2009; Little & Bjork, 2016). It is also an effective way to activate students’ prior knowledge and, consequently, facilitate the learning process (Brod et al. 2013; Shing & Brod, 2016).

How to do it?

Right at the beginning of the lesson, use Kahoot, handouts, or flashcards to ask students questions about the content they are about to learn. Do not get them to work in pairs or groups at this stage. Working individually will most likely guarantee that everyone tries their best to retrieve the information they need to get the right answers and will not have their thought process interrupted by someone else.

2. Retrieval practice

Repeated retrieval of memory items increases declarative memory consolidation and improves students’ long-term learning (Karpicke, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). Wirebring et al. (2015) have also demonstrated that the act of constantly retrieving information will create different representations of it in the brain and, therefore, make its retrieval more easily prompted.

How to do it?

After presenting new content, give students a couple of minutes to practice and then ask everyone to retrieve that knowledge individually before moving on to the next topic. This could be as simple as asking students to write down what they can remember, have understood, or reflect on that for 30 seconds or a minute before sharing it with someone or engaging in another activity.

3. Spaced repetition

For declarative memory to be consolidated in the brain, sleep is required. Newly learned information stored in the hippocampus temporarily is replayed in the brain during sleep to make more representations and long-lasting memories (Maquet et al. 2000). Revising content only once after that lesson or doing homework on the same day might be a waste of cognitive resources as it would be more beneficial, based on the notions of spacing effect and memory consolidation, to revisit it the next day after sleeping and in future sessions (Henderson, Weighall, Brown, & Gaskell, 2012; Seehagen, Konrad, Herbert, & Schneider, 2015).

How to do it?

Create a revision timetable. Categorize the topic you’re teaching into codes (Lesson 1 Topic 1 – L1T1) and plan your future lessons with quick pop quizzes to help students revise. Start applying the quizzes a day after the content was introduced, then increase the distance between the last revision session and the next one. Try something like this:

L1T1 quiz in L2, L4, L10, and L15

L2T1 quiz in L3, L5, L11, and L16

You can also use the color-coded tags technique that you can access here.

Remember to assign homework to be done at least the next day after the content was introduced.

4. Brain breaks

Even though there is no consensus about how long we can focus, it probably lies somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes (Stuart & Rutherford, 1978; Davis, 1993; McKeachie, 2006), and if we get more information than what our working memory can handle, generally between 2 and 9 chunks, we normally experience cognitive overload (Miller, 1956; Sweller, 1988; and Cowan, 2001). So, just like hitting the gym to work out, we should ideally apply focused effort (lifting weights) and then take a break (rest) between series. This will allow our brains to shift from the focused mode of thinking into the diffuse mode, which will start the consolidation process and free our working memory for more information (Oakley, 2014).

How to do it?

Get a Pomodoro timer or use one online and set the mark to 15, 20, or 25 minutes. Tell your students everyone is going to be working hard during that period and when the timer goes off, they will have a quick break (it could be 1, 2, 3, 4, or even 5 minutes). During that break, allow students to do whatever they choose: they can listen to music, they can watch a quick video, they can play a game, they can stand up and stretch, they can sit with someone else and talk about anything. The idea is to have them relax a little so that they can keep their attention span high and facilitate memory consolidation. You can read more about it here.

5. Attitudes and beliefs about learning

Everything mentioned before can be very useful and important strategies, however, it might not mean much if our students do not believe in their potential to learn and, even worse, if we do not believe in our students’ potential to learn. Research on 1) growth mindset (Dweck, 2008); 2) metacognition (Karpicke et al. 2009; Dunlosky et al. 2013); 3) brain plasticity (Blackwell et al. 2007; Myers et al. 2016; Paunesku et al. 2015); and 4) self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Schunk et al., 2008) suggest they are great allies in any educational setting. Respectively, we can summarize them as 1) the idea that our intelligence is not fixed and can be improved through effort and constructive feedback; 2) “thinking about thinking” or “learning how to learn”, that is, using study strategies based on the Science of Learning; 3) the idea that the brain is changed by experience and that it can always learn; and 4) the quality of people who can successfully set, maintain, and achieve goals and expected outcomes.

How to do it?

Do not just focus on content. Promote the idea that effort and dedication are key if they want to be successful learners and acknowledge that. Take time from your lesson to teach your students facts about the brain and how it changes structurally when we learn. Tell them that there are better or more effective study strategies and teach them (you can start with the list I’m providing here). Help them organize their studies and set goals. You can use some concepts of strategic planning or project management.

Use these strategies and tell me how it went. After all, there’s no magic formula. We need to be critical about our practice and remember that science is still making important discoveries. If you want to read about about the contributions of SoL and how it can be used in your English classroom, check out this article I co-authored with Hall Houston.


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