Teaching Profession

Future Teachers Are Unfamiliar With Basic ‘Learning Science,’ Report Finds

By Madeline Will — March 11, 2020 5 min read
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Aspiring teachers are unfamiliar with basic principles of learning science and should learn how to connect those principles to practice, according to a new report from Deans for Impact.

Last fall, Deans for Impact, a nonprofit group of education school leaders, created a network of six colleges of education that want to better integrate learning science in their curriculum and clinical experiences through a $1.5 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. During a two-year improvement cycle, the cohort will participate in site visits, gatherings, and virtual coaching from Deans for Impact.

To start, the six colleges of education administered a 54-question assessment about learning science last fall. The programs will administer the assessment again this spring and next to evaluate the progress that teacher-candidates have made.

Just over 1,000 teacher-candidates took the first round of the assessment, and Deans for Impact compiled their scores into a few takeaways. And while these results are not nationally representative, Benjamin Riley, the executive director of Deans for Impact, said there was not much variation across the six programs—suggesting that “it’s not radically inappropriate to generalize to the broader field.”

The principles of learning science are drawn from the body of research from cognitive science on how students learn. For example, here are some of the cognitive principles that Deans for Impact thinks teacher-candidates should know:

  • Students learn new ideas by building on their prior knowledge—ideas they already know.
  • Students need practice to learn new facts, but it’s best to space practice over time and alternate with different types of content.
  • Good feedback is specific, clear, and focused on improvement, and it’s essential to learning.
  • Giving students too much information at once can impede learning.
  • In order to deepen learning, students should think about what information means and why it’s important when trying to remember it.
  • Students are motivated to learn in environments where they feel safe and valued.

“A lot of people are talking about the science of reading,” Riley said, referring to the body of research from many decades on how children learn to read. “We know more than just reading. There’s a science of learning, and schools of education can do a lot about that. ... There’s not a single teacher who couldn’t benefit, I think, from knowing these principles.”

Gaps in Knowledge

For example, learning science says that the learner needs 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. But only 6 percent of teacher-candidates answered the question on that principle correctly.

Another principle says that just wanting to learn something does not increase the likelihood that it will be remembered. In other words, how students process the information matters more than students’ interest in the subject or their motivation to learn. Only 18 percent of teacher-candidates answered this correctly.

The results of the assessment show that there’s a “real conflation between student engagement and student learning,” Riley said.

For example, the assessment asked teacher-candidates what would be the most effective way to help students remember information about the branches of U.S. government. Only 13 percent chose the correct answer, “Have students take a once-a-week quiz for 10 weeks where they recall the facts from memory.”

Instead, 60 percent of teacher-candidates picked the answer, “Have students participate in a review game where they have to recall the facts from memory several times in one class period.”

For several questions, teacher-candidates chose instructional strategies that are not aligned with learning science principals, but that the candidates said seemed more fun and engaging. Teachers also referenced appealing to students’ learning styles, which is the idea that students learn more when information is aligned to their individual styles, such as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic.

Research has not backed up that concept. Yet a survey released last fall found that almost all teachers believe these persistent myths about learning, including learning styles.

There were some bright spots in this assessment. For instance, Deans for Impact found that teacher-candidates do seem to understand the importance of background knowledge when it comes to learning.

For example, 86 percent of teacher-candidates correctly said that students’ prior knowledge can help them substitute in information that’s not explicitly stated in the text, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will remember the meaning of the text. Similarly, 79 percent correctly identified that learners who are familiar with vocabulary words in text will be more likely to remember the meaning of the text.

Putting Principles Into Practice

Riley said Deans for Impact is working with its cohort of six teacher-preparation programs to redesign their coursework and clinical experiences to better incorporate these learning science principles. That could include giving teacher-candidates a chance to practice some of these instructional strategies—and then get feedback from an experienced teacher-educator or mentor teacher.

In the field, teachers tend to understand how to apply principles of learning science, even if they don’t know the scientific details themselves, he said.

“Experienced teachers who think a lot about their craft may not have ever been exposed to principles of learning science frequently,” Riley said. “But when you sit down and start talking about principles ... it often resonates, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been doing.’ They’ve figured out how to bring their teaching into harmony with some of these ideas.”

But giving more explicit instruction on learning science in teacher-preparation programs could be helpful for teachers when they first start out, he said.

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote for the American Federation of Teacher’s magazine last summer that it’s useful for educators “to know the basic science around children’s cognition, emotion, and motivation.”

“Why do I encourage you to think through whether your beliefs about kids align with findings from basic science? Because I think classroom practices based on those beliefs are more likely to succeed,” he wrote.

Still, experience matters, too, Willingham added.

“Your confidence should come from your professional judgement that the lessons are successful,” he said. “Not every classroom practice needs to be mapped onto empirical generalizations. ... [I]t’s not a deal breaker if a practice is not aligned with scientific evidence of how children learn.”

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.