Teaching the Science of Learning to Students – Part 1, Why We Started the Learning Scientists Project

Teaching the Science of Learning to Students – Part 1, Why We Started the Learning Scientists Project

By Megan Sumeracki

This is a two-part blog series. In Part 1, I tell some personal stories about why we started the Learning Scientists Project, and highlight some important issues related to evidence for the six strategies producing effective learning and evidence that students can transfer their use of these strategies. In Part 2, I will share some of the collaborative work I have been doing to create first-year seminar materials to help teach the science of learning to first-year college students, what I have learned anecdotally, and the many questions we still have.

When Yana and I started the Learning Scientists, it was because we wanted to make the cognitive psychology research on learning more accessible to increase its ability to have real positive impacts for students around the world. Essentially, we have aimed to break out of the typical walls of academic research and talk about research and education with many relevant parties, and not just our fellow researchers (though of course those conversations are extremely useful, too). For me, this project started 1.5 years after finishing my PhD (2014), and while it has been incredibly time consuming it has also felt like a breath of fresh air. It fits so well with the reasons I became a cognitive psychologist in the first place.

How I Started Applying Cognition to Education

Personally, I got into cognitive research as an undergraduate student because I was interested in education. There were two experiences that shaped my career while in college. 1) I gained research experience in a variety of labs both at Purdue University where I went to school and at other Colleges through various programs (e.g., NSF REU). 2) I became a substitute teacher. Once I finished the first half of my BA I was eligible, in the state of Indiana, to become a substitute teacher. 

Dr. Jeff Karpicke and I, after I won a Purdue award for my research in his lab.

Dr. Jeff Karpicke and I, after I won a Purdue award for my research in his lab.

By the beginning of my junior year in college I was getting ready to apply for the research focused honors program at Purdue University, and had started subbing K-12 on days when I didn’t have classes -- I went to great lengths to block them off so that I would have 2 full-days off at a time. I loved being in the classroom and working with students, and I loved issues related to education. I applied to conduct my honors thesis in Jeff Karpicke’s Learning Lab, where I started conducting my own applied research on learning. I fell in love with the research, and continued to pursue training in cognitive psychology and applications to education. I had found my passion, and wanted to have a role in changing education. I wasn’t sure yet how to do this, but at that point I thought I could go to graduate school and then get a job in policy and make some real changes. (Many college students have lofty ideas about their careers, right?)

Graduation day (May 2009) with my sister in front of my favorite fountain at Purdue.

Graduation day (May 2009) with my sister in front of my favorite fountain at Purdue.

I graduated from Purdue University. with my BA in 2009 and headed off to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and then back at Purdue.

My husband Sam and I, hiking in Utah.

My husband Sam and I, hiking in Utah.

Yana and I: A cheers to the Learning Scientists project!

Yana and I: A cheers to the Learning Scientists project!

I trained in cognitive research and finished my PhD in 2014. While I was in graduate school, I did get involved in service with the American Psychological Association and learned a lot about policy change, networking, and overarching service to the field. I then went on the academic job market, like most PhD students in my field do. I sought tenure-track jobs that would allow me to focus both on research and on teaching, both in my lab working closely with student researchers and in the college classroom. I was on a tenure line for one year at Utah State University Eastern in Price, Utah where I met my now husband Sam. I then took my current job at Rhode Island College as an Assistant Professor.

Fast forward now to January 2016, when the Learning Scientists was born. I was starting my second semester at Rhode Island College. I was enjoying my treck on the tenure track, but I was starting to wonder if my application efforts were as successful as I thought they might be when I was in college. I knew I had to publish journal articles, an essential component of our jobs as academics. However, they are primarily only read by other researchers. Further, I didn’t even have access to all of the journal articles that I would find relevant to my work through our Library and obtaining them any other way is extremely expensive. They’re also dense; there was a reason I spent nearly a decade in college and graduate school learning how to conduct research and understand the massive body of literature in my field. Serendipitously, Yana was grappling with similar issues, and we started utilizing social media together to communicate about research and education.

Transfer of the Six Strategies for Effective Learning

The reason we focus on the 6 strategies for effective learning is that a number of researchers combed the cognitive psychology literature applied to education and identified strategies that had the most evidence to support their effectiveness, and these 6 strategies appear to have the most evidence. We can say with a fair amount of certainty that the 6 strategies improve learning. Of course, there are always situations where the strategies will be more or less effective, and our goal is to provide flexible guiding principles for teachers and students. Just because we have a fair amount of evidence suggesting these strategies work does not mean that the research on these strategies can stop.  We are always learning new ways to fine tune the strategies and test how well they work in various situations with various students.

These strategies are not new; for example, the first paper we can find on retrieval practice was published in 1909 and Ebbinghaus studied spacing in the late 1800s. And yet, most of them have not been mainstream in education. Yana and I were very intruiged by a National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) examining teacher training textbooks for instruction on these 6 strategies. What they found was that very few textbooks covered any of these strategies. If teachers are not learning about these strategies during college training, then it is no wonder they are not making it into the world of education. So, we sought to create materials to help explain how students and teachers can use the strategies to improve learning. One of our main goals is to help students learn how to use these strategies effectively to guide independent learning.

The strategies themselves have a great deal of scientific evidence, and if we can somehow motivate students to use them effectively and seek help when appropriate then student learning should improve. However, the best way to actually teach the strategies to the students and motivate them to use them effectively is still an open question. Essentially, we are trying to get students to learn about how to effectively use the strategies on their own and then transfer those skills to their own independent learning, thus increasing overall learning.

There is very little research on transferring learning strategies like this, and we honestly do not yet have a procedure for teaching the learning strategies to students that we know produces this transfer. What we learn tends to be very contextualized, and achieving transfer of knowledge or skills is extremely difficult (for example, see part 1 and part 2 of a blog series about the difficulty of transfer). Yet understanding this question is important if we wish to make real impacts on student learning. But, we need data!! Thus for the last couple of years, one of the big focuses of my research program has been aimed at helping students understand effective learning strategies and trying to help them utilize them on their own.

Next week, in Part 2, I will discuss some of the collaborative work I have been doing to create first-year seminar materials to help teach the science of learning to first-year college students both at Rhode Island College where I teach and at other institutions. I will also share what I have learned anecdotally, and the many questions we still have.

Rhode Island College in Providence, RI

Rhode Island College in Providence, RI

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