What’s What in Education? №3 The Science of Learning

Mark Rosenbaum
9 min readMar 3, 2022


Professor: I have previously spoken to you, at length, about The Science of Reading, an approach to instruction that is based on research-validated teaching strategies and has been shown to lead directly to improvement in reading achievement. I know of little that could be more important than helping teachers to have a greater positive impact on their students. With that in mind, I want to explore that concept in a broader manner. How many of you are familiar with the approach known as The Science of Learning?

Students: A few students tentatively respond.

Professor: As a committed life-long learner, I have invested a great deal of time and energy into investigating how the human brain works (neuroscience). That would include the study of left brain/right brain functions; regions of the brain and what they do; whole brain learning, and more. The Science of Learning now informs me that I was, basically, wasting my time! Of far greater importance is cognitive psychology, which focuses on the mind and behavior. This is what will tell us “what makes teaching and learning effective.” (Science of Learning Institute 2019)

Well, the good news is that one of our countries leading institutions of learning, John Hopkins University, is taking a leading role in spreading the good news about this approach. You can check this out on your own at http://scienceoflearning.jhu.edu/

For now, consider the following set of powerful basic tenets:

  1. Students learn new ideas by building on their prior knowledge — ideas they already know. Students’ prior knowledge can help them substitute for information that’s not explicitly stated in the text, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will remember the meaning of the text. Instructors who are aware of their students’ accurate prior knowledge can design instruction to connect new information more effectively with what students already know. What to do:

a) Look for patterns of error in student work to identify possible gaps or misconceptions in students’ prior knowledge.
b) Activate students’ prior knowledge and promote connections by prompting students to think about what they already know about the current lesson’s topic. This can occur as a pre-class exercise or an in-class discussion or activity.
c) Use clear examples that connect new material to students’ everyday knowledge.
d) Highlight conditions of applicability to help students who are missing knowledge of “when.”
e) Address misconceptions by helping students recognize the contradictions in their thinking by creating experiences where they need to apply the new concept/approach/model (rather than just asking them to recite the “correct” answer). Recognize that the more deeply held the misconception, the more time it will take to dislodge, so build in multiple opportunities for
students to practice the new way of thinking.f) Adjust the level of support in assignments so that more support (e.g., worked examples, step-by-step breakdown of problems) is available for low prior knowledge students and less support (e.g., open-ended, more complex problems) for high prior knowledge students (see Lee & Kalyuga).

2. “Students need practice to learn new facts, but it’s best to space practice over time and alternate with different types of content.”

Distributing practice over time — that is, spacing study episodes out with breaks in between study sessions or repetitions of the same material — is more effective than massing such study episodes (for a review, see Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted & Rohrer, 2006; Carpenter). Learners who space their practice outperform learners who mass their practice even if both groups spend the same time studying. Spacing practice is usually better for long-term retention, sometimes by a large margin.

3. “Good feedback is specific, clear, and focused on improvement, and it’s essential to learning.”

Classroom-based research has disclosed three curious facets about feedback. First, teachers allege they dispense much helpful feedback to their students at relatively high levels and they claim they do so routinely.

Second, trained classroom observers, in studies into interaction patterns in classrooms, disclosed that feedback occurred in most classrooms at relatively low levels, and barely at all in many locations. Even studies with highly expert teachers indicated strangely low levels of feedback observed
during classroom instruction (Ingvarson & Hattie, 2008).

Third, when students ware asked what feedback they experienced in classrooms, many reported the level as being low to virtually nil. For
instance, Nuthall (2007) tracked young children across extended periods and found they received considerably higher levels of feedback from their peers than their teachers (and most of the peer feedback was incorrect). For many students, feedback from teachers is indexed in terms of only several seconds per day. Group-level feedback is largely irrelevant to those that have mastered an objective, and often is ignored by those that have not. The teacher believes he or she has provided feedback, but many within the class are bored, tuned out, or simply focusing on other things in their life more important at the time. That students ‘tune out’ when teachers administer generic or group-level feedback is well known (Hattie & Gan, 2011).

Corrective feedback can be carried out within the context of positive teacher-student relationships, especially when the teacher displays a positive and respectful attitude toward student efforts, and communicates that such errors are natural steps along the path to mastery. Such positive relationships (not only between teacher and student, but among students) is often a precursor to building the trust needed to not merely tolerate, but welcome feedback that is specific and understood. The notion that excellent teachers express expectations in accord with incremental learning approaches, rather than treat fumbling efforts as indexing fixed ability, has been well documented under the rubric of teacher expectancy effects (Cooper, Hinkel, & Good, 1980; Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012; Rubie-Davies, 2007).

4. “Giving students too much information at once can impede learning.”

Working memory is limited in duration and capacity and only several chunks of information are processed simultaneously (Cowan, 2001; Miller, 1956; Peterson & Peterson, 1959). Processing too many interacting pieces of novel
information can easily overload working memory (Sweller, 2010). If these pieces of information are essential for understanding, then meaningful learning might not occur. Learning with worked examples may prevent extraneous search-based activities and generate productive intrinsic load essential for constructing missing schemas (“worked examples effect”).

5. “In order to deepen learning, students should think about what information means and why it’s important when trying to remember it.”

Research has shown that background knowledge in a certain subject plays a significant role in how students acquire new information. For example, according to the expertise reversal effect (see Lee & Kalyuga), instructional design should be based on learners’ background knowledge and skills. To construct a coherent representation of relevant material, novice learners
depend heavily on guidance from instructors because they lack existing prior knowledge structures (also called schemas) in which to connect the new information. Because novice learners often lack background knowledge relationships between concepts, educators must spell out the information
explicitly to ensure their academic success. That said, individuals with strong background knowledge on a topic benefit from reduced guidance as they have sufficient knowledge to construct their own coherent representation of the material.

6. “Students are motivated to learn in environments where they feel safe and valued.

Broadly defined, positive school cultures are conducive to professional satisfaction, morale, and effectiveness, as well as to student learning, fulfillment, and well-being. The following list is a representative selection of a few characteristics commonly associated with positive school cultures:

  • The individual successes of teachers and students are recognized and celebrated.
  • Relationships and interactions are characterized by openness, trust, respect, and appreciation.
  • Staff relationships are collegial, collaborative, and productive, and all staff members are held to high professional standards.
  • Students and staff members feel emotionally and physical safe, and the school’s policies and facilities promote student safety.
  • School leaders, teachers, and staff members model positive, healthy behaviors for students.
  • Mistakes not punished as failures, but they are seen as opportunities to learn and grow for both students and educators.

(Deal and Peterson, 2016)

7. “Learners need to actively think about information in order to remember it — simply being repeatedly exposed to the information is not enough to create a long-term memory.”

Metacognition is the set of processes involved in monitoring and directing one’s own thinking (Flavell, 1976; NRC, 2001). Students benefit from metacognition because it enables them to reflect on their own
approaches to learning, accurately assess what they do and do not know, and make better choices as a result (e.g., Butler & Winne, 1995; Zimmerman, 2001). Metacognition is key to being an effective self-directed learner.

8. “How students process the information matters more than students’ interest in the subject or their motivation to learn.

Initial knowledge acquisition
Beginners need feedback based on content knowledge while striving to build basic knowledge and vocabulary. They need assurance and corrective feedback, often in the form of discriminations such as correct versus incorrect, or right versus wrong. They need to know they are heading in the right direction, and that they are using the right vocabulary within the right context. They will appreciate also a level of encouragement in confidence building. They require teachers’ recognition that they are genuinely getting somewhere along the path to greater understanding. Their mental efforts will involve a good deal of memory load, which can be a huge source of stress. Of major importance to beginners is
(a) the feeling that they have been able to recall a relatively complete set of knowledge elements, and
(b) that they will not be caught out displaying glaring omissions relative to what is known by other people.

Applying knowledge
Intermediate learners have acquired basic concepts but need help linking ideas together, seeing relationships, and in extending and elaborating upon the basic ideas. They need assurance that they are applying the right methods and strategies in the right place. Since they are starting to move beyond the information given, they need to know if the inferences they have been making are seen as valid ones by a more knowledgeable or senior agent such as a teacher. They appreciate positively phrased suggestions for alternative strategies (For instance, “strong use of adjectives in just the right spots“ “good use of the acceleration principle, but other principles could play a role here”, or “a beautifully well-constructed argument, but have you thought of what this implies for the future?”).

Advanced mastery level
At more advanced levels, helpful feedback takes the form of supporting the self-regulated learner such that sincere efforts to extend and apply knowledge even further are actively recognized. The recognition here is that the outcome or product achieved is of such quality as to approach the highest level of achievement possible.

9. “Learners who are familiar with vocabulary words in text will be more likely to remember the meaning of the text.

Vocabulary is best taught with a variety of complementary methods, both direct and incidental, designed to explore the relationships among words and the relationships among word structure, origin, and meaning. Reserve in-depth vocabulary instruction for a few words that are important for understanding the text and subject matter at hand. During vocabulary and spelling instruction, ask students to pronounce words slowly and accurately, with appropriate syllable stress. (Moats, 2019)

This is a lot to digest, but I assure you it would be worth your time to consider it all.


http://scienceoflearning.jhu.edu/science-to-practice/resources/what-teachers-need-to-know-about-the-science-of-learning-and-what-they-dont What Teachers Need To Know About The Science Of Learning — And What They Don’t Natalie Wexler, 09/18/2019

Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web
site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Prior Knowledge is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning Susan A. Ambrose, Northeastern University and Marsha C. Lovett, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014

When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction Courtney M. Clark and Robert A. Bjork, University of California, Los Angeles, 2014

Expertise Reversal Effect and Its Instructional Implications
Chee Ha Lee and Slava Kalyuga School of Education, the University of New
South Wales, 2014

Using Feedback to Promote Learning
John A. C. Hattie, University of Melbourne and Gregory C. R. Yates, University of South Australia

The Influence of Guiding Questions on Skilled- and Less-Skilled Readers’ Understanding of Written Discourse
Jennifer J. Stiegler-Balfour, University of New England; Victor A. Benassi, University of New Hampshire; Heather Tatsak and Andrea Taatjes, University of New England

Shaping School Culture, 3rd Edition. Terrence E. Deal, Kent D. Peterson. ISBN: 978–1–119–21019–1 August 2016 Jossey-Bass

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, Louisa C. Moats, American Federation of Teachers, 2019



Mark Rosenbaum

Mark Rosenbaum is a retired teacher, teacher union president, principal, Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, and University Instructor on Long Island, NY.