the Science of Learning:
Using the Principles of
To Enhance Teaching and Learning
Diane F. Halpern
California State University, San
Diane F. Halpern
University, San Bernardino
San Bernardino, CA
Science of Learning:
Using the Principles of Cognitive Psychology
To Enhance Teaching and Learning
you for inviting me to join you in your deliberations about ways to apply
principles from the science of learning to enhance teaching and learning. I am
delighted and honored to be here. Unfortunately, you gave me an almost
impossible assignment—in about five minutes, I am supposed to provide a useful
summary of what we know about human learning and cognition with suggestions for
future research. In the short time allocated, I plan to share some of my
excitement about advancements in the learning sciences with you and suggest
some ways to translate our knowledge of human cognition into meaningful school
reform with the hope that you will continue to explore the findings and ideas
at some later time.
academic area is cognitive psychology.
Cognitive psychology is the empirical branch of psychology that deals
with questions about how people think, learn, and remember. Cognitive psychologists study how people
acquire, utilize, organize, and retrieve information. We study topics like
memory, decision making, problem identification and solving, critical thinking,
and reasoning. It is clear that a
successful pedagogy that can serve as a basis for the enhancement of learning
will have to incorporate ideas about the way in which learners organize
knowledge and internally represent it, and the way these representations change
and resist change when new information is encountered. Despite all of the gains
that we have made in understanding what happens when people learn, most
teachers “have gained relatively little from cognitive psychology” (Donald
Schoen, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983). It seems that even cognitive psychologists apply very little of
what they know about their academic discipline to their teaching. The gap between empirically validated theory
and practice is wide. This idea first
came to me as I sat through a deadly dull three-hour lecture on the shortness
of the human attention span.
Here are a few examples of cognitive
principles that should be guiding our design of learning activities:
1. What and how much gets learned in
any situation depends heavily on prior knowledge and experience. Psychologists use the term “construction of
knowledge” because each learner builds meaning using what is already known.
example, in an explanation of this principle in “How People Learn,” we are told
about a fish who learns about the dry world from a bird. When the bird
describes beings who can walk upright and breathe air, the fish imagines
fish-looking people walking on their tails, with both gills surrounded with
water and lungs filled with air. The comprehension process is similar to that
used when children learn that the world is round; they replace their
pancake-shaped view of the earth with a ball that has been cut in half, so that
we can walk on the flat cut surface without falling off. In other words, the best predictor of what
is learned from at the completion of a lesson, course, or program of study is
what the learner thinks and knows at the start of the lesson, course, or
program of study.
We maintain mental models (beliefs) for a wide variety of complex
phenomena including those we encounter in the physical world (e.g., moving
objects) and social world (e.g., stereotypes about members of groups) because,
for the most part, they make sense to us.
Our models of the world “work,” and thus are difficult to change.
Individuals beliefs about the world are organized into mental models that make
sense and “work”--that is, do a reasonably good job in their day-to-day life.
this: In a random telephone survey conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory
at Northern Illinois, 21% of the over 2000 adults who responded to the survey
believe that the sun resolves around the earth, and an additional 7% did not
know which revolves around which.
Didn’t most of these adults learn somewhere that for over 400 years the
scientific community unanimously determined that the earth revolves around the
sun? Although we cannot be sure, I
would guess that most of these adults learned this fact, but never altered
their mental models of planetary motion because their everyday observations
don’t support it. We see the sun
“moving” across the sky as morning turns into night. The earth-centric view of the universe makes sense according to
the naive model that is easily constructed and tested and confirmed on a daily
basis. In order to change an
individual’s mental model, we need to design instruction so that the errors in
naive models are exposed and the benefits of the new model are obvious.
Cognitive psychologists and others have diagnostic assessment models that
provide information about each learner’s understanding, and based on the way
learners respond to questions designed to probe their understanding, teachers
can redirect learning activities that correct these errors.
is influenced by our students’ and our own epistemologies (theories about
learning). Academic motivation is
related to beliefs about learning.
students believe that they cannot “do math,” or understand science, or write
poetry, or succeed in some other academic discipline. When you ask them about
this belief, you find that what they really are saying is that they believe
that learning should be easy, but when they learn in these disciplines, it is
effortful. What they don’t know is that learning and remembering involve
multiple, interdependent processes.
Some types of learning occur implicitly, that is without conscious
awareness. Other types of learning are
very easy, and other types of learning are effortful, perhaps even painful and
aversive, such as learning the names of the facial nerves or how to “do” long
division. It is only after they invest
in the hard work of learning that additional learning in these fields becomes
easy and more automatic. There is no single set of learning principles that
will always work. If I were learning
how to ride a unicycle, I would need to practice on a unicycle, no amount of
expert explanation would substitute for my getting on the unicycle and
pedaling; but I do not have to experience different events in history in order
to “know” them. The best way to learn
and recall something will depend, in part, on what it is you want to learn and
recall as well as what you already know.
4. Experience alone is a poor teacher.
There are countless examples where what we learn from experience is, in fact,
systematically wrong. For example, most jurists believe that they can tell from a
person’s demeanor whether she or he is telling the truth. In fact, they cannot. Therapists believe that a particular
intervention has worked when a client improves after that intervention; of
course, if most clients enter therapy at times of crisis, then improvement is
likely no matter what intervention is taken because of the ubiquitous effect of
regression to the mean. If a client does
not improve, then therapists reason that he or she was too sick to benefit from
the good treatment. There are countless
examples of this sort of erroneous thinking, where our beliefs about the world
are maintained and strengthened despite the fact that they are wrong. We end up with great confidence in our
is important because there is a popular belief that all learning and learning
assessments should be “authentic”--a term that I don’t particularly like. I’d
settle for phony learning if what was learned met the tests of long-term
retention, retrieval when needed, and flexible recall and use of the
information that was learned so it can be used creatively—regardless of how it
was learned. Authentic situations are often not optimal for good learning. What
is missing from most authentic situations and from most real-life situations is
systematic and corrective feedback about the consequences of various
actions. When jurists have many
experiences where they believe that they can tell if someone is lying and
they receive feedback as to whether or not the individual is lying, they can
learn that they are not good judges of truth telling. In real life, the systematic feedback is usually missing, so they
continue to believe that they are good at the task of identifying liars when,
in fact, they are not. Similarly, in
the absence of reliable and regular feedback, we tend to believe that our
interpretations of social events are accurate or the reasoning behind a
political belief system is valid when it may not be.
me quickly list a few more examples of ways that can be applying cognitive
principles to our teaching and learning.
all science courses, especially at the introductory level, involve a
lecture portion where a lone teacher mostly talks (and writes on the
board) and learners take notes—a satisfactory arrangement for learning if
the desired outcome is to produce learners who can repeat or recognize the
information presented, but one of the worst arrangements for the promotion
of in-depth understanding. In this example, the problem is that both the
faculty and students believe that achieving a high score on a recognition
test (i.e., multiple choice exam in which the questions tap lower level
cognitive processes) or a test that requires only repetition of course
material is evidence of “good learning.” Unfortunately, it is possible for
students to achieve a high score on tests like these and not be able to
recognize that a concept applies in a slightly altered context or be able
to apply a concept at some time in the future.
exercises are mostly “canned,” requiring very little original thought by
the learners and few surprises for anyone, thus bearing little resemblance
to the cognitive processes needed in real research laboratories. The more
creative aspects of research, including the generation of a genuine
question and the multiple decision points encountered in the research
process are invisible to students in most laboratory courses, especially
at the introductory level, where the vast majority of college students
complete their formal science education. It is impossible to estimate the
number of potential scientists and scientifically informed citizens who
are lost at this level because they fail to see any excitement in
research, but there are many reasons to believe that it is a large number.
- Asking learners to recall some
information leads to selective “forgetting” for other related information
that they were not asked to recall. Thus, the act of remembering
strengthens some memory traces and weakens others, a fact that should
influence how we test students. Few college faculty are aware of this
effect and inadvertently are creating learning activities that actually
cause forgetting for information that want students to retain. When
students are tested frequently, they receive higher scores than students
who are tested infrequently, thus creating the impression that frequent
testing is a sound educational practice. Conscientious professors will
often use frequent testing because they believe that the high scores
achieved on these tests show that frequent testing is a sound educational
practice. But, frequent testing also leads to overconfidence in learners
who erroneously believe that their long-term retention for the information
will be better than it actually is, a belief that should lead them to put
less time and effort into studying the material for future recall This is
another example where the short-term benefits of an educational practice
masks the long-term detriments associated with it.
Teaching for Transfer
sole reason why we have schools and universities, that is formal settings
designed for learning activities is that we expect that learning will
transfer. Information learned in one
context can transfer to a different context, but we need to teach in ways that
encourage transfer. Because of my
interest in and commitment to helping students improve their ability to think
critically, this is one topic about which I have very strong feelings. The purpose of formal education is
transfer. We teach students how to
write and think well in the belief that they will use these skills when they
are not in school. The truth is
sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
consider a simple concept like correlation.
Most students who have taken courses in the social and behavioral
sciences or statistics can tell you that a correlation between two variables
does not necessarily mean that one caused the change in the other. Most students who have had course work on
this topic can compute a correlation coefficient for a set of data and provide
examples of positive and negatively correlated variables. They can explain the oft-cited example that
as the number of churches increases in a city so does the number of
prostitutes, but that this relationship doesn’t mean that the increase in
number of churches caused the increase in number of prostitutes. But what happens when they are sitting at
their kitchen table and read in the newspaper about a study that found that
students who attended preschool were better readers by the end of first grade?
Many of these same students don’t recognize the likelihood that attending
preschool did not necessarily cause the first graders to be better
readers. But our students can be taught
to recognize and apply concepts, like correlational reasoning, that are learned
in school in real world settings.
frequent use of real-life examples will help students to recognize these
principles when they encounter them out of school, especially when a wide
variety of examples are used and informative feedback is provided. There is a strong research base that
supports this statement. Of course, a
teacher who returns to the same topic with real life examples throughout the
semester will “cover” less material than one who goes on to another topic as
soon as her students can compute the correlation coefficient and explain that
correlation is not cause. We need to
give more thought to what we want students to know and be able to do when they
finish our courses.
some consideration of what sort of information students will need to know and
in what settings, principles to enhance transfer and retrieval can be
incorporated into every learning activity.
Assessing Learning Outcomes
need assessments of learning that are consistent with their intended use.
Assessment is a term with multiple meanings. Assessment designed to provide
feedback that will improve teaching and learning is different from assessment
for the purpose of certifying a level of knowledge or skill for the learner,
which is also different from assessment for the purpose of evaluating the
instructor or the instructor’s system or state. I believe that much of the
heated debate over assessment would be resolved if those involved in the debate
realized that they are often talking about assessment for different purposes
and the type of assessment needs to match its intended use.
We need research
that can “scale up,” by that I mean research designs for large and diverse
groups of learners, multiple researchers and teachers, with at least a
quasi-randomized design that will allow stronger causal inferences than most
educational research designs. Educational research needs to be funded for
longer periods of time so that long-term retention and transfer can be
assessed. Long-term retention and transfer are the reasons for education, but
we cannot determine the effectiveness of any educational application or
intervention if the funding runs out before the students leap the many educational
gaps, where increasing numbers are unable to bridge from high school to
postsecondary school and from school to work.
We need to invest in dissemination
projects with as much care and planning as we put into the research itself.
There need to be rewards for good educational practices along with positive
outcomes for researchers and teachers who are willing to take risks, even when
the knowledge gained from those risks is that some method did not work as
are, of course, numerous other examples that I could have used to make my point
that knowledge of how people learn, think, and remember should at the heart of
educational reform. I am happy to
provide suggested readings for anyone who would like to learn more or check my
conclusion that, with appropriate instruction, we can improve how people learn,
remember, and think.
closing, I’d like to add that enhancing student learning is the most important
task we face as a society. Work place and citizenship skills are more complex
that ever before; a thinking, educated citizenry is our best hope for the
future. We can do a better job of educating our country’s most precious
commodity--smart, educated adults who can cope with and chart the direction of
the change. The rate at which knowledge
has been growing is exponential and the most valued asset of any society in the
coming decades is a knowledgeable, thinking citizenry--human capital is our
wisest investment. More than ever, we need to prepare students to learn
efficiently and to think critically, so that the United States can remain
competitive and cooperative in the 21st century.