Education Leadership Conference

Psychology professors often face a disconnect with their students: While they may think they’re building their students’ knowledge, research suggests that students retain only 8 percent of a teacher’s lessons after a week, said Art Graesser, PhD, co-director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis.

It’s not just that students can be inattentive or forgetful, Graesser told participants at APA’s 2010 Education Leadership Conference. Learners have little tolerance for overly complex or boring material. They settle for shallow knowledge rather than delving into material. They fail to ask questions and take confusion or frustration as a signal to give up. And while educators urge students to spread out their learning, said Graesser, “everyone knows they cram near exams.”

To help educators, the federal Institute of Education Sciences has distilled the science of learning, in which psychology is a fundamental discipline, and developed evidence-based principles they can apply in the classroom. (“Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide” PDF, 947KB) These principles include spacing learning over time, interleaving problem-solving exercises and worked solutions, combining graphics and verbal descriptions, integrating abstract concepts and concrete examples, giving quizzes, helping students allocate their study time effectively and asking students deep questions rather than the “who, what, when and where” kind.

APA and the Association for Psychological Science have developed a list of their own 25 principles, Graesser said. Asking students to generate material rather than just recognize answers, getting students to explain the reasoning behind their answers, and using stories and case studies can all facilitate learning, he said.

Providing feedback — especially immediate feedback — is another key principle, said Graesser. “Typically, students turn in papers and don’t get feedback until maybe a week or two later,” he said. “By that time, they’ve forgotten about it.” Computers can provide that instant feedback, he added.

Many of the principles have to do with what Graesser called the “Goldilocks principle”: Teachers should focus on material that is not too easy or too hard, but “just right,” he said, adding that difficult challenges tend to be remembered better.

“Some teachers try to make learning easy,” said Graesser, “but actually it’s when the world breaks down that most learning occurs.”

Graesser’s hope is that these principles will be woven into computerized teaching programs, which he predicts will play a major role in future lifelong learning.

“Unfortunately, if you look at the computer software of today, it’s often built by computer scientists who don’t know these principles of learning,” he said. “We’ve got to connect the dots.”

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.