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Key Findings from How People Learn

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The information presented in this evidence-based practice is adapted from How People LearnHow Students Learn: Science in the Classroom, and How People Learn II

“One of the hallmarks of the new science of learning is its emphasis on learning with understanding. Students often have limited opportunities to understand or make sense of topics because many curricula have emphasized memory rather than understanding. The new science of learning does not deny that facts are important for thinking and problem solving. However, the research shows that “usable knowledge” is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts. Experts’ knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts, it is conditionalized to specify the contexts in which it is applicable, and it supports understanding and transfer to other contexts rather than only the ability to remember.” –How People Learn

Key Finding 1: Engaging students’ prior knowledge is critical to learning

A fundamental insight about learning is that new understandings are constructed on a foundation of existing understandings and experiences. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works which shapes significantly how they make sense of what they are taught. If their initial knowledge is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. Students have conceptions about natural phenomena, and those conceptions influence their learning. When consistent with ideas accepted by the scientific community, this “prior” or “informal” knowledge forms a strong base on which to build deeper understandings. Many learners’ preconceptions, however, are inconsistent with accepted scientific knowledge. These preconceptions are generally ideas that are reasonable and appropriate in a limited context, but students inappropriately apply them to situations where they do not work. Students often hold tenaciously to these ideas, and their preconceptions can be resistant to change, particularly using conventional teaching strategies. Prior knowledge can also lead to bias by causing students to not attend to new information and to rely on existing schema to solve new problems. These biases can be overcome but only through conscious effort. The research on conceptual change indicates that students change their ideas when they find these ideas to be unsatisfactory, that is, when their present ideas do not sufficiently describe or explain an event or observation. Further, they change their ideas when they discover alternatives that seem plausible and appear to be more useful. Other research suggests that whether and how learners change their ideas depends on what they view as evidence for or against a competing idea.

Implications for Teaching

Draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that students bring with them.

  • Abandon the model of the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge and instead think of students’ heads as filled with a myriad of wonderful ideas and experiences relevant to the science being taught. Actively inquire into students’ thinking, creating classroom tasks that will reveal student thinking. Then plan ways to help students find the scientific conceptions useful and meaningful so they can change their initial conceptions to accommodate the new ideas.
  • Students need opportunities to explore their own ideas, to appreciate the limitations of their ideas, to understand how scientific explanations are different from their own, to make sense of scientific explanations, and to use this learning process to revise their everyday conceptions to ones that are more scientifically accurate and that make sense to the learner.
  • The use of frequent formative assessment helps make student thinking visible to themselves, their peers, and their teacher. Given the goal of learning with understanding, assessments of all types must tap students’ understanding and develop their ability to use and apply knowledge rather than merely repeating facts or performing isolated skills.

Key Finding 2: Organizing knowledge into conceptual frameworks is essential in developing scientific understanding

To develop understandings that truly change the way students think about the world around them, students must (a) have a deep foundation of usable knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) be able to organize that knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. Concepts are given meaning through experiences with multiple representations that are rich in science ideas and details and through experiences with multiple phenomena that the ideas help explain.

The scientific concepts take on meaning as students ask questions, plan and conduct investigations, and use these scientific concepts in explaining a variety of real-world situations and phenomena. Students can be supported in building conceptual understandings of the Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Concepts by actively engaging in processes of scientific inquiry, including the Science and Engineering Practices. Opportunities to learn science as a process of inquiry involve drawing from first-hand data and observations and using knowledge of the data and science ideas to reason about the phenomena under study. This process can be used to challenge and build on students’ initial ideas and everyday experiences of the world. It also helps them develop an understanding of the enterprise of science as a whole and the nature of scientific knowledge.

Implications for Teaching

Teach science in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of knowledge of science ideas.

  • Superficial coverage of all topics in science should be replaced with in-depth study of fewer topics that allows key science concepts to be understood.
  • Teachers need in-depth knowledge of the nature of scientific inquiry, scientific discourse, and the relationship between the science concepts and real-world phenomena they will teach.
  • Plan three-dimensional learning experiences where students build language, develop process skills, and deepen understanding of scientific concepts through the use of Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas.

Key Finding 3: Learning to monitor one's own thinking and understanding is essential in learning to think like a scientist

Students need to learn to recognize when they understand and when they need more information. They need to be able to know when to ask questions such as, “What kinds of evidence do I need in order to accept particular claims?” “How can I build my own theories of phenomena and test them effectively?” Good learners articulate their own ideas, compare and contrast them with those of others, and provide reasons why they accept one point of view rather than another.

A metacognitive, or self-monitoring, approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by engaging them in setting and understanding learning goals, monitoring their progress in achieving them, and developing the ability to reflect on their own thinking and learning processes. Research underscores the value of student self-assessment in developing their understanding of science concepts, as well as their abilities to reason and think critically. It is only when students are taught and given opportunities for self-assessment that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve.

Helping students understand the tendency of us all to attempt to confirm rather than rigorously test (and possibly refute) our current assumptions is one example of a metacognitive approach to science instruction. Through metacognition students reflect on their role in inquiry and on the monitoring and critiquing of one’s own claims, as well as those of others. Applying a metacognitive habit of mind helps students compare their personal ways of knowing with those developed through centuries of scientific inquiry.

Implications for Teaching

The teaching of metacognitive thinking should be integrated into the science curriculum.

  • Help students understand the discourse that scientists use as they make sense of their data and observations – both their internal dialogue and external communication with a community of scientists. Students need to learn how scientists think and reason and compare that against their own thinking. For example, students should learn to ask questions such as, “How do we know that?” “What’s your evidence?”
  • To help students monitor their developing understandings, engage them in reflecting on their learning, their changing ideas, and their remaining questions and wonderings. A lesson summarizing activity, for example, might prompt students to reflect on how their ideas have changed and why. Alternatively, the class might pause after a science discussion to reflect on ways they did and did not think and communicate in scientific ways during the discussion.

Key Finding 4: Culture fundamentally shapes all aspects of learning

Culture is a product of the way individuals learn to coordinate desirable and useful activities with others. It is expressed in many ways, including:

  • through the actions, expectations, and beliefs of individual persons;
  • physical elements such as artifacts, tools, and the design of physical spaces;
  • norms for interacting with others, both verbally and nonverbally; and
  • beliefs and ways of looking at the world that are shared with others.

Students’ experiences and cultural influences shape their understanding of their world and how they learn. Students bring these cultural perspectives into the classroom environment. Learning does not happen in the same way for all people because culture is influenced from the beginning of life. Integrating different cultural practices is a key learning challenge, and culture is a matter not only of what people learn but also how they learn.

Understanding of the cultural nature of learning and development means that what takes place in every classroom -- the learning environment, the influence of educators, and all students’ experience of school -- cannot be fully understood without attention to cultural influences. A part of what is accomplished when educators attend to the influence of culture on the classroom environment and the perspectives students bring to their learning is that learners are better supported in taking charge of their own learning.

Implications for Teaching

  • Effective instruction depends on having an understanding of the complex interplay among learners’ prior knowledge, experiences, motivations, interests, language, and cognitive skills; educators’ own experiences and cultural influences; and the cultural, cognitive, and emotional characteristics of the learning environment.
  • Create an optimal learning environment to support the productive variation of unique perspectives, strengths, and skills among learners. This can be done, in part, by providing room for learners to interpret tasks and assessments in ways that broadly leverage their individual strengths, experiences, and goals.
  • Culture shapes every learning environment and the experience of each learner within that environment: learners who find the classroom environment unfamiliar, confusing, unwelcoming, or unsupportive will be at a disadvantage.

Key Finding 5: An individual's motivation, goals, beliefs, values, interests, and identities play an integral role in learning

Conscious learning requires sustained effort. To learn intentionally, people must want to learn and see the value in accomplishing what is being asked of them. Numerous factors and circumstances influence an individual’s desire to learn and the decision to expend effort on learning. Engagement and intrinsic motivation develop and change over time; they are not properties of the individual or the environment alone, and they are strongly influenced by cultural and developmental processes.

To learn, students must see the value in accomplishing what is being asked of them. Motivation to learn is fostered for learners of all ages when they perceive the school or learning environment as a place where they “belong” and when the environment promotes their sense of safety, agency, and purpose, for example through learning experiences that students find relevant and valuable.

Educators may support learners’ motivation by attending to their engagement, persistence, and performance by:

  • helping them to set desired learning goals and appropriately challenging goals for performance;
  • creating learning experiences that students value;
  • supporting their sense of control and autonomy;
  • developing their sense of competency by helping them to recognize, monitor, and strategize about their learning progress; and
  • creating an emotionally supportive and nonthreatening learning environment where learners feel safe and valued.

Implications for Teaching

  • It is important to engage the learner in directing their own learning by providing targeted feedback and support in developing metacognitive skills, challenges that are well matched to the learners’ current capacities, and support in setting and pursuing meaningful goals.
  • Recognize that each student brings a unique combination of assets to the classroom and that every student’s learning is fostered in an environment that takes those assets into account. Curricula and instructional techniques should be universally designed to support all learners in achieving academic learning goals.
  • Assessment is a critical tool for advancing and monitoring students’ learning in school. When grounded in well-defined models of learning, assessment information can be used to identify and subsequently narrow the gap between current and desired levels of students’ learning and performance. 

“People are willing to work harder to learn the content and skills they are emotional about, and they are emotionally interested when the content and skills they are learning seem useful and connected to their motivations and future goals. Conversely, emotions like anxiety can undermine learning by causing worry, which depletes cognitive resources and activates brain regions associated with fear and escape rather than with academic thinking.” –How People Learn II

“The capacity to understand and direct one’s own learning is important not only in school but also throughout life. When learners are self-regulated, they have more control over the strategies and behaviors they use to learn. Self-regulation allows them to more effectively direct their cognitive activity by voluntarily setting learning goals, identifying methods for achieving them, actively pursuing those methods, and tracking progress toward the goals. Regulating one’s learning requires monitoring of activities, thoughts, and emotions and making the adjustments necessary to achieve goals. It also is facilitated when the expectations of educators accommodate learners’ interests and developmentally appropriate work, so that learners take responsibility for their goals and perceive that they have the power to make important decisions related to their mode of learning.” –How People Learn II

Additional Information

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