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10 facts about learning that are scientifically proven and interesting for teachers by Donald Clark

1. Spaced practice
Perhaps the most significant fact we know about learning, yet it is almost completely ignored by the ‘curse of the course and classroom’. We learn through practice, little and often. Ebbinghaus proved it in 1885, and almost everyone in the learning profession has studiously ignored it for well over a century. Demster reported this sad state of affairs in American Psychologist (The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research, 1988). We forget things quickly and that the most effective way to prevent this forgetting is to practice at spaced intervals over time. Knowledge is easy to learn but hard to retain. Forget this and you condemn yourself to, at best to unnecessary effort in learning, at worst failing to learn much at all – the true story behind most learning effort.

2. Cognitive overload
This well know phenomenon is extremely common in teaching and training. A lack of understanding about how memory works leads to a lack of preparation of material in terms of size, order and engagement, leading to weak encoding, a lack of deep processing then poor retention and recall. Almost all courses are too long, present material in the wrong way and lead to unnecessary forgetting. Simplify to prevent cognitive overload.

3. Chunking
Perhaps the easiest and simplest piece of learning theory to put into practice. Chunking means being sensitive to the limitation of working memory. Less is more in learning and distilling, rather than enhancing, elaborating and creating lots of distracting noise, is a virtue in teaching. Unfortunately the ‘song and dance’ act in the classroom is often cacophonous.

4. Order
The order you learn things is critical to how they will be stored and recalled, yet education and training continues to jumble and confuse content. This is critical in language learning, science, maths and indeed, every subject. Learn things in the wrong order and you’ll end up having to unlearn.

5. Episodic and semantic memory
Once you understand that the things we learn are stored differently, i.e. we have different types of memory, then you’ll be more sensitive to the necessary differences in teaching. We still have far too much reliance on text (semantic) for subjects that need a visual (episodic) approach. You see this everywhere, from text heavy PowerPoints to whiteboards, manuals and hand-outs.

6. Psychological attention
Learning does not take place without psychological attention, so setting up classrooms and scenarios that inhibit attention, or distract from learning, is massively counter-productive. I fear that much so called ‘collaborative learning’ falls into this trap. Cramming 30 plus teenagers into a small, airless classroom is no way to encourage attention. There are at least 30 other human distractions, the windows and daydreaming to content with. The bottom line is that most learning is best done on your own or one-to-one.

7. Context
We know that recall is enhanced by learning in the physical context in which one is expected to perform. Yet most teaching is done in alien environments – classrooms ad training centers. We have plenty of proof that work-placed learning needs to be massively increased and non-contextual classroom teaching decreased.

8. Learn by doing
From William James and John Dewy through to Kolb and Schank, we’ve had a torrent of theory showing that we learn lots by doing, yet much teaching and training is locked into a over-theoretical, knowledge and not skills, model. There is a barely a subject around in schools ad training that wouldn’t benefit from a boost in experiential learning.

9. Understand ‘peer’ groups
The work of Judith Harris (The Nurture Assumption) will change the whole way you look at parenting and teaching. Her revolutionary scientific work showed that most books on parenting and teaching overestimate the influence of parents and teachers, and under-estimate the role of genetics and peer pressure. There are some real and practical steps one can take to avoid the obvious traps. These are largely ignored in education and training. Read the book.

10. Murder the myths
This is perhaps the most useful piece of scientific advice for teachers and trainers – dump the snake oil techniques. These include learning styles, playing music while you learn, Brain Gym, left-right brain theories, NLP, stating the objectives at the start of a course…the list goes on.

Many teaching practices are in direct opposition to the psychology of learning. When it comes to education and training, the professions have doggedly chosen unproven pedagogy over prove psychology. This is why so little progress has been made, and why huge amounts of extra funding leads to such razor thin, marginal improvement. There are literally dozes of proven findings in the science of experimental psychology that are largely ignored. This is what the Bristol study I referred to in my Paxman piece is so worrying.