GUEST POST: Where Do You Get Your Information From About How Students Learn?

GUEST POST: Where Do You Get Your Information From About How Students Learn?

By: Dan Williams

Dan (@FurtherEdagogy) a Further Education teacher who writes an evidence-based blog on teaching. A shorter version of this article appeared previously on TES.

For most, this question may seem an odd one. But sound evidence-based practice requires teachers to discriminate, apply and evaluate a variety of sources in order to answer such questions. Do you do that?

Oliver Caviglioli and the Learning Scientists  recently collaborated on Twitter to determine what sources of information are used by teachers to find out about how students learn (read more about their Twitter collaboration here and here).

The result of this exercise was a continuum of sources, which Oliver represented in the following infographic:

Infographic by Oliver Caviglioli

Infographic by Oliver Caviglioli

This article intends to explore the benefits and limitations to each of these sources.

Intuition and Experience

Highly subjective, people's intuition often derives from a desire to find patterns and connections in randomness. Sometimes people overestimate their intuition and prevent themselves from making sound decisions. Take the roulette player who observes 5 reds come in one after another: he believes that there is little chance that a red can come in again, so places his bet on black. But of course, the odds are still the same regardless of how many came before. Liken this to the classroom, we use our intuition and experiences to guide us in situations that we face day-to-day. Being time-short means that teachers don’t have the opportunity to contemplate decisions; rather, we might act in the moment when it comes to thinking about how students learn best.

One group of researchers  proposed that people process information in two different modes (1): one identified by terms such as rational, analytical and deliberative, and the other by terms such as experiential, automatic, intuitive and natural - the latter being a dangerous concoction of highly subjective approaches.

Conversely, experience can support us contextually, particularly when less objective sources are available to us. Moreover, intuition may useful for opening yourself up to new ideas that rational thinking may not allow.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Sessions

Though some CPD sessions are informative and outside experts can act as agents for change (see this summary for a review of the literature on CPD effectiveness), there are a lot of snake oil salespeople out there. These individuals work in their own best interests to promote ideas and resources, providing us with biased information (often not informed by research) about how students learn. Furthermore, there remains limited evidence to support the impact of one-off CPD sessions on teaching and learning (2). However, if the CPD session is well informed and part of an ongoing community of practice, then this is where it is likely to have most value.

Communicating with Peers

Teacher Learning Communities are held in high regard by evidence-based practice guru Dylan Wiliam, who advocates this over the traditional sheep-dip approach to CPD. But does communicating with peers alone really tell us about how students learn? Probably not, but in trialling strategies that are informed by more objective sources (see below), it is certainly worth working with peers in communities of practice to determine how students learn best in your context.

Media and Blogs

This very article poses some bias towards particular sources. The very nature of blogs and media outlets is that they provide all in education a voice - some more authoritative than others. Blogs can be produced by anyone, and can perhaps reinforce bad practices by propagating myths. Having said that, with both media and blogs, the information is current and highly accessible, so why not use them as a starting point to find out what we know about how students learn?

Popular Education Books

There are thousands of books on the shelf that serve to provide us with information on how students learn. As with blogs and media outlets, the challenge we face is deciphering which are the most valid and reliable books. Of course, once you get past this gargantuan task, even with the best books you still have the bias of the author and editor to tackle. In spite of this, the thing that makes popular books desirable is their authors’ ability to make the research accessible.

Education Journals

There is an array of individual peer-reviewed studies available covering a broad range of age groups, subjects,countries, and research questions. These individual studies have been synthesised by other researchers such as John Hattie and Robert Marzano, who have drawn upon the thousands of studies to extract general principles about how students learn best. These huge “meta-analyses” (analyses of many studies together) can produce  an ‘effect-size’ for different factors related to learning (e.g.: feedback, homework, and ability grouping, in order from large to small effect size) . The idea is that the bigger the effect size, the more important that factor is to learning. This sounds very useful in theory, but other researchers have critiqued the methods used to determine these effect sizes, questioning the validity of the whole approach. Despite this, it is difficult to completely dismiss the findings of such large-scale analyses - just don’t take them as standalone irrefutable evidence.

Cognitive Journals

Out of all of the abovementioned, this resource is the only one that focusses on the processes involved in learning – and that is what we’re here for, isn’t it? The studies reported in these journals try to isolate the variables associated with typical classroom experiences and are generally laboratory-based (or start off laboratory-based and then scale up to the classroom), so the results of these studies are pretty much as objective as we can get. Key principles of learning science can easily be applied to the classroom, but it can be problematic trying to interpret some of the more basic findings.


In determining how students learn best, we should try to use as many of the aforementioned sources as possible, preferably relying more on the objective sources. If we can draw upon the information gleaned from each source, and amalgamate them to determine the most effective strategies to support our learners, then surely that’s what we should be doing?

Here’s an example: Laboratory studies from cognitive science inform us that distributed practice is a highly effective way to increase long term retention (3). Classroom experiments also corroborate this, with medium effect sizes of spaced practice found across 63 studies (4). My experience tells me that cramming delivery into short blocks does little to help my learners remember the content at the end of the year, and my peers would agree. So having gathered this information, next year I shall now try distributing practice and evaluate the findings at the end of the academic year.

So, how will you use the evidence to find out how students learn?


(1) Denes-Raj, V., & Epstein, S. (1994). Conflict between intuitive and rational processing: When people behave against their better judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 819-829.

(2) Goodall, J., Day, C., Lindsay, G., Muijs, D., & Harris, A. (2005). Evaluating the impact of continuing professional development (CPD) (No. Reference: RR659). London: Department for Education and Skills. Retrieved from

(3) Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.

(4) Donovan, J. J., & Radosevich, D. J. (1999). A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don't. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 795-805.