Understanding how we learn: cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology researchers have greatly improved our understanding of how we learn. Much of the research has implications for teachers in the classroom, and a number of key initiatives, including the UK’s researchED programme, aims to bridge academic research and classroom practice. Teachers, researchers and bloggers have taken the key findings from Hattie (2012) Visible Learning meta-analyses of hundreds of studies and used them in real-world contexts.

What makes great teaching?, a Sutton Trust report by Coe et al. (2014), illuminates how many learning strategies used regularly by students (and often recommended by teachers) have little effect on learning. The report identifies that many of these ineffective practices are popular even though empirical evidence for any efficacy is very limited. There are seven specific practices which are not supported by research evidence.

1. Using lavish praise:

This approach, particularly when used with low-attaining students, is more likely to convey a message of low expectations (Dweck, 1999; Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence.

Stipek (2010)

2. Discovery learning:

Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves is a major feature of some international curriculums but the value of discovery learning is not supported by research, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). However, as with interpretation of many research findings, much depends on the detail. For example, homework is found to have a more significant impact at secondary level than at primary level.

The effectiveness of any kind of enquiry-based, constructivist approach to learning will be determined by its delivery in the classroom. Proponents of this approach believe that discovery learning encourages active engagement and motivation, and that it helps to develop responsibility and independent learning and problem-solving skills. Critics would argue that it creates cognitive overload and makes it difficult for teachers to detect learners’ misconceptions. However, it is the teacher’s ‘quality of thought and effort’ that will really determine the effectiveness of any one strategy.

3. Grouping learners by ability (‘sets’ or ‘streams’):

This is a strategy widely used in education systems around the world – but there appears to be little evidence that it makes a positive difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al., 2014). The Education Endowment Foundation review suggests that indeed it has a mildly negative difference to learning outcomes.

Although ability grouping can, in theory, allow teachers to target a narrower range of pace and content of lessons, it is equally likely to create an exaggerated sense of homogeneity within any group. Even the most rigorously set group will contain a wide range of different abilities in different areas of learning and, of course, this is where an empirical test like CAT4 can be useful in identifying the extensive learning variables within any group.

4. Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas:

This is one of the most common study approaches when revising or attempting to memorise material. Indeed, for some students it may well be the only way they prepare for a test or examination. But a range of studies – for example, Brown et al. (2014) – has shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow for forgetting are all more effective approaches.

5. Strategies to boost confidence:

Dealing with students’ low levels of confidence and reduced aspirations, before teaching any content, also appears to have limited value. Even if the outcome of such support strategies is more motivated students, the impact on their actual learning appears to be small (Gorard et al., 2012). More than this, the poor motivation of low attainers is seen by Coe et al. (2014) as “a logical response to repeated failure”. He suggests instead that teachers “start getting [students] to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase”.

6. Preferred learning styles:

The efficacy of presenting information to learners in their preferred learning style remains a persistent myth in education. Indeed, the Dekker et al. (2012) study showed that 93% of teachers in the UK agreed with the statement that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinaesthetic)”, and a 2014 survey reported that 76% of UK teachers “used Learning Styles” because they felt that this benefited their students in some way (Simmonds, 2014).

However, it is more likely that some of the harmful effects of the learning-styles approach will impact negatively on students’ learning. These include ‘pigeonholing’ learners according to invalid criteria, creating inappropriately ‘differentiated’ resources and creating unrealistic expectations of a now-discredited approach.

7. Active learning only:

The belief that for improved learning students should always be active learners, rather than sometimes listening passively, is also an education myth. This claim is often presented in the form of the ‘learning pyramid’ which shows percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed.