Everyone has a vested interest in education. With teachers, parents, administrators, taxpayers, politicians, employers, academics and students themselves all concerned about learning success, it is no surprise that the questions asked and answers proposed about which education practices are best differ widely.
Thankfully, teachers don’t have to rely solely on guesswork, tradition or ideology to inform their methods. That’s because researchers from the fields of psychology, education and learning sciences apply the tools of science to distinguish what works from what doesn’t.
I am a cognitive psychologist, which means that I use science to study mental processes. Cognitive psychologists interested in the science of learning take the basic building blocks of cognitive processes—how people perceive, learn, attend to and remember information—and build teaching and learning strategies that can be tested using the scientific method.
Research in my field is powerful for educators because it yields insight about what causes students to learn. That understanding allows teachers and administrators to apply evidence-based teaching and learning strategies flexibly in the classroom.
How Learning Science Happens
Cognitive psychologists interested in the science of learning use the laboratory-to-classroom model to conduct research (Weinstein & Sumeracki, 2019). We gather scientific evidence from basic laboratory, applied laboratory and applied classroom experiments, gaining from each more data to support the effectiveness, or lack of effectiveness, of the learning strategies being tested.
Our research most often begins in the basic laboratory level. Psychological research has a bad reputation for being sterile, extremely controlled and far removed from real-life situations. There is a grain of truth in that statement; basic laboratory research often is far removed from real-life situations. Experiments at the basic laboratory level often use extremely simple materials, such as lists or words or even nonsense syllables. The study material, the tasks and the timing of learning are all very tightly controlled. And the students in the experiment are often samples of convenience—namely college students taking Introduction to Psychology—who might be highly similar to one another. (Still, most U.S. college students take Psych 101 as part of general education, so these students are not quite as uniform as some might think.)
However, the research at this level is not intended to be immediately applied to classrooms. Instead, the overall goal is to understand what causes learning, and tightly controlled experiments are necessary for that. When designing our experiments, we ensure that the conditions are all extremely similar to one another except the particular learning process of interest. In this way, we can systematically vary the factors within the experiment and understand what processes cause learning, and which ones may impede learning.
Once we have strong evidence to suggest that some process, or learning strategy, does in fact cause learning, we begin to approximate the real-life setting without actually entering that setting. In the applied laboratory, we often use learning materials that are realistic, such as video lectures, portions of a textbook or diagrams. The way participants engage in the learning strategies is much more realistic, but we maintain control using the laboratory.
Finally, when we have strong evidence suggesting the learning strategies work well, we move into the applied classroom level. Now, the research is taking place in real-life classrooms and instructors are altering teaching as a part of the experiment. We still need to utilize control groups, which give us a basis of comparison to determine if the learning strategy is actually working well, but of course in real-life settings we lose a lot of the control we once had in the lab.
Building On the Basics
Why not jump straight to the applied classroom level, if that is where our true interests lie? There are many reasons. Applied classroom research is expensive and takes time, and we want to avoid tinkering with instruction before we have evidence to at least suggest it ought to help learning. Further, evidence from all levels are important, working together to allow cognitive psychologists to understand what processes will benefit learning in real contexts. The science of learning represents a large body of work, and individual experiments or even sets of studies should not be applied in isolation.
Importantly, because we understand what causes learning, we are able to provide flexible guiding principles that can be modified to meet specific needs once we are in the classroom. A cognitive psychologist will understand what aspects of a learning intervention are essential, and what aspects can be modified to meet practical constraints. We are also able to synthesize the research—or conduct new research—to answer practical questions across contexts.
Of course, cognitive psychologists are far from the only ones involved in education, and making a real difference will take a village of people who have a variety of perspectives. Researchers from many disciplines and teachers with invaluable knowledge of how our education systems work and experience with the practical constraints of the classroom need to work together to effectively apply the science of learning in schools.
Cognitive science alone won’t improve student outcomes. But research is the most solid foundation on which to build the future of improved learning we’d all like to see.