The science of learning uses research from a range of disciplines, including cognitive psychology, education and especially neuroscience to understand how learning occurs in the brain and how learning experiences can be most effective. It is a rigorous, evidence-based approach to understanding how we learn and how to improve learning outcomes.
Over the years, many theories of learning have been put forth. What is a learning theory? It is simply an attempt to explain how people learn, retain and apply knowledge and skills. Some of the most influential theories of learning include:
- Behaviorism is a theory of learning that focuses on observable behavior. According to this theory, learning occurs through the reinforcement of targeted behaviors and the punishment of other behaviors.
- Another theory of learning comes from cognitive psychology. It focuses on mental processes such as attention, memory, visual and auditory processing, and the integration of sensory input, as the basis for learning. Those mental processes are also called cognitive skills and this type of theory is also referred to as Learning Process Theory.
- The theory of learning known as constructivism emphasizes the role of the learner and underscores the necessity of their active involvement to develop understanding and acquire skills. It emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning.
- Social learning theory emphasizes the role of social interactions in learning. It posits that learning occurs through observation, imitation and the modeling of behavior by others. It emphasizes the importance of feedback and the social context of learning.
The science of learning enables us to examine these various theories through the lens of neuroscience research and to take the aspects that are supported by the evidence. Among the most important findings in the body of research is that cognitive skills alone will predict 50 percent of the variance in academic outcomes, more than any other factor in the learning and teaching equation.
Importance of the Science of Learning for Educators
The science of learning is important to educators because it has the very real potential to improve education at all levels of learning, from preschool to adult education. It can help improve teaching practices because educators who understand how people learn can design more effective teaching methods and learning environments. This will lead to better outcomes for students and increased engagement and motivation. It can also help educators and learners be more efficient in the learning process. For example, by using techniques such as spaced repetition and interleaving, learners can retain information more effectively and with less effort. The science of learning also helps apply our understanding of individual differences in learning to personalize learning experiences and therefore better meet the needs of each learner.
Science of Learning for Children
The science of learning is important for children because it can help them become more successful learners and develop a positive attitude towards learning. When kids understand how their brains process information, they can choose learning strategies that help them learn more efficiently and effectively. This helps build self-confidence. Additionally, when kids know that cognitive skills can be improved and developed to a greater extent than most people realize, learning becomes both easier to obtain and more fun to do. When learning experiences are engaging and motivating for kids, the kids stay interested and invested in their learning and persist through the inevitable frustrations and difficulties of learning new things.
The Cognitive Principles of Learning
- Neuroplasticity Fuels Learning
The general term for the brain’s ability to change and to develop in response to its environment and the demands being placed on it is neuroplasticity. Essentially, the human brain develops by organizing itself, creating and pruning neural pathways based on its unique experiences. The fact that the brain is constantly changing means that learning will happen throughout our lives.
We build new knowledge and skills on top of what we already know. Therefore, effective learning experiences must be built on our prior knowledge and connect new information to existing neural networks.
3. Practice and Repetition Build Automaticity
When an individual performs an activity repeatedly, the skill becomes automatic (embedded in procedural memory) and does not require conscious thought to execute (like riding a bike or driving to a familiar location). Practice strengthens the connections among neurons in our brains, making information more easily retrievable.
Feedback provides learners with information about their performance and helps them adjust their understanding and behavior accordingly. Feedback must be both timely and actionable. Immediate feedback enables error correction, and faster, more accurate learning. The speed of feedback allows for more repetitions to be executed in a specific amount of time.
5. Learning for Transfer
Transfer refers to the ability to apply knowledge and skills to new situations. It is also sometimes referred to as generalization of learning. Effective learning experiences should promote transfer by emphasizing the application of knowledge and skills in diverse contexts while integrating multiple skillsets.
Attention and meaningful participation in a learning experience are essential. Active engagement promotes deeper learning as learners must actively process and apply information. Engagement is necessary to activate and strengthen the neural networks where the skills and information are being processed for them to be retrieved and used later.
Applying the Science of Learning
Applying the science of learning means using research-based strategies and principles to optimize learning experiences and improve learning outcomes. This includes:
- Helping students improve their cognitive capacity enables them to fulfill their potential as learners. Developing cognitive capacity through cognitive training can also help students access learning experiences in a more equitable way. One recommended program is BrainWare SAFARI, the most researched, comprehensive, integrated cognitive skills training tool delivered online.
- Designing effective learning experiences by applying the science of learning involves creating learning environments that provide opportunities for active engagement, feedback and personalization.
- Using evidence-based interventions, the science of learning helps us understand learning in general as well as how to help students acquire specific skills. Interventions can be developed that are more effective, more personalized and work more quickly. Developing stronger cognitive skills through cognitive training programs improves the effectiveness of other interventions and allows for results to be visible more quickly.
- Personalized learning experiences might involve providing learners with choice and flexibility in how they learn and how they demonstrate what they have learned. It takes into account both learner preferences as well as the differences and variability of learner profiles in terms of their cognitive skills. The cognitive assessment and personalized learning strategies are fundamental to the effective personalization of learning experiences.
- The science of learning suggests that we need to continually monitor learning experiences and make adjustments based on data and feedback. It’s all about the data. Not only do we continually monitor and evaluate our programs so that we can make adjustments, but we also support families, schools and other organizations we work with to do the same.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?”
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?”