What is the MOST important factor in learning? Here are a few possibilities:
A. Your intention and desire to learn
B. Paying close attention to the material
C. Learning in a way that matches your personal style
D. How much time you spend studying/practicing
E. What you think about while learning
Your intention and desire to learn are important, but, as it turns out, people often learn even when they have no intent to learn. And many students have had the experience of wanting to learn and working hard to learn, but still not being able to learn.
Paying close attention to the material on its own does not help learning, and may in fact impede learning. More on that below…
The evidence doesn’t support learning styles as an important factor in determining how well a student learns, although learning styles may affect other aspects of learning.
Amount of time spent is obviously relevant. But if the time is spent poorly, then, no matter how long you study, you won’t see much benefit.
So that leaves what you think about while learning as the most important factor. More specifically, in order to learn, you need to think in a deep way about the material. This can mean comparing and contrasting concepts, making personal connections to the material, or applying the concept to a real-world situation, among others. On the other hand, paying close attention to trivial details about the material will actually hurt learning, because it replaces deep processing.
Here’s a video in which Chew explains an experiment that elegantly demonstrates this principle.
There are a lot of fascinating implications of this research. These follow up points are especially relevant to me:
This is a primary reason why classes centered on lecturing are ineffective. During a lecture, the teacher has little to no influence on how deeply a student is actually processing the material. Nearly all of the impetus is on the student to process the material independently. Consequently, only students with strong metacognition (awareness of their own thinking) learn well, and these are the types of students who would learn well in almost any circumstance.
There are no substitutes for skilled teachers and well-designed curriculum. Strong teaching in particular is crucial because skilled teachers are able to guide students to process information deeply, through questioning, feedback, and reinforcement.
We should be cautious about what we expect from educational technology. For example, iPads are wonderful tools, and new interactive textbooks might replace traditional textbooks. But these things will not help students learn more on their own, because they can be used either effectively or ineffectively. Technology is new, exciting, and fun to use, but, unless it is applied to leverage fundamental principles of teaching and learning, it will not result in greater student achievement.
Which of these implications stand out for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Adam Percival heads the science curriculum team at CompassLearning. He has degrees in Physics and Science Education. Prior to designing curriculum for CompassLearning, he taught middle school science in Brooklyn, NY.