Teaching the Science of Learning to Students – Part 2, Do College Students Transfer their Use of Effective Learning Strategies?

Teaching the Science of Learning to Students – Part 2, Do College Students Transfer their Use of Effective Learning Strategies?

By Megan Sumeracki

This is a two-part blog series. In Part 1, I told some personal stories about why we started the Learning Scientists Project, and highlighted some important issues related to evidence for the six strategies producing effective learning and evidence that students can transfer their use of these strategies. Now, 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.

We know from decades of scientific research that the six strategies – retrieval practice, spacing, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples, and dual coding – improve learning. In fact, that is precisely why we talk about these six strategies in particular; they have strong evidence to support their effectiveness. (Note, the strongest evidence is for retrieval practice and spacing.) However, if we want to teach students how to use these strategies in school so that they can then effectively use them during independent learning to improve academic achievement, then what we are looking for is transfer of a learning strategy. How to best do this is still an open question; we do not yet know the best way to deliver information about effective study strategies that leads to students utilizing and learning more from these strategies. Becuase this is such an important applied question, my research program has, in part, been focusing on ways to teach students about the science of learning to hopefully promote transfer of the use of the learning strategies.


We are approaching this in two ways. First and foremost, Yana and I have been able to obtain some grant funding to create an intervention and research the effects of the intervention on student grades. We received some funding from IDEA to test the intervention on a small scale in three sections of Intro to Psychology classes. We have also received funding from the Overdeck Family Foundation to further develop the intervention and test it on a larger scale in a randomized control trial of first-year seminars at Washburn University. These studies will give us information about whether the intervention helps students increase their reported use of the strategies and increase academic success compared to those who do not learn about the science of learning through this intervention.

(Note, they are still learning about college success, but in the way that most college students do in a first-year seminar. In other words, they are receiving instruction as normal. One might wonder, why not just give everyone the intervention if these strategies work? The reason is that we don’t know if this intervention works. We don’t yet know if this helps students transfer the learning strategies to then improve academic success.  Given that transfer is so difficult, we need to investigate what methods of delivery work to get students to change their study behavior for their other classes!)

Second, I have received some funding from the Center for Research and Creative Activity at Rhode Island College to develop a first-year seminar around the science of learning, teach the seminar myself at Rhode Island College, and then share my experiences and course development materials with other instructors at Rhode Island College (and potentially other instructors as well). In Phase 1 of the project, I gathered a group of faculty from Rhode Island College with diverse experiences relating to first-year teaching, experiential learning, and general education along with 2 other cognitive psychologists applying cognition to education from other institutions in the North East. The group met for a full day in the summer to talk about the six strategies for effective learning, how we might integrate the science of learning into first-year seminars, ways of teaching about this topic to try to promote transfer, and potential classroom activities and assigned projects for students to become engaged with the science of learning. I am now in Phase 2 of the project, teaching my first-year seminar on the science of learning.


The semester is not yet over, but I have made a number of observations while teaching a class of first-semester college students all about the science of learning. While this is in no way a controlled study, it allows me to examine the class and student reactions in detail as an instructor, and this information can potentially inform ways to improve the intervention for future controlled experiments. Here are the difficulties I have observed:

Many students, at least by the time they get to college, seem to be resistant to new study strategies.

This is not to say that all students are resistant, or even that students refuse to try something new. However, it does seem as though students are skeptical of new strategies and how they might work for them. Even with a class discussion about learning styles and showing data both on learning styles and the effectiveness of the strategies in many situations, I am sensing some hesitancy.

Teaching students how to use the strategies is more difficult than I thought it would be.

It is highly likely that my own surprise is coming from a “curse of knowledge.” I am extremely familiar with the strategies, and can readily go from the posters and PowerPoints describing the strategies to the actual use of them. The students sometimes have questions that I had not thought of.

For example, when teaching about concrete examples, I explained that the students should make the link between the different examples to make sure they understood the underlying structure. A student asked me what “making the link” meant. Even when given two concrete examples about the same idea, what to do with these two examples was not immediately clear. We needed to go through together and practice what “making the link” might look like a few times. This is something I think we need to enhance within the intervention.

Another example happened while I was teaching about retrieval practice. I asked the students to write out clues that they could use to practice retrieval. Many of the students wrote far too much down, and then when they were practicing retrieval it ended up being more of a copying exercise. The students did actually notice this on their own and reflected upon this point. However, it still was not clear to the students exactly how to create clues. We may need to come up with more explicit instructions about how to do this (and more research may be needed).

Many of the students seem resistant to studying when they do not have exams coming up, and find it difficult to persevere with the strategies on a regular basis.

After we practiced using a given strategy in class, I gave my students an assignment to use the strategy to study for one of their other classes. I give them an assignment sheet where they can practice the strategy on two topics from other classes, and they bring those papers to me for an assignment check. We then discuss whether they felt it was useful and why or why not. While some students work very hard on these assignments and are really engaged with the strategy and trying to use it, others seem to only write a little bit. Technically it appears that they have used the strategy, but it does not seem as though they really worked at it on a deeper level. When I ask them whether the strategy was helpful, many say it was maybe helpful but that they do not have an exam coming up. I will need to work on these assignments to try to create a structure that will help the students use the strategies on a deeper level, though I’m not yet sure what this might look like.

The students seem to notice surface features of the strategies or behavioral actions. They have trouble recognizing processes.

For example, my students have talked in class about summarizing information or creating an outline, students recognize that this involves writing. However, they seem to have trouble seeing the difference between creating an outline and summarizing in their own words based on what they remember, and rewriting their notes by copying because both involve “rewriting”. Having in-class discussions in class have been very helpful with this.  It makes sense to me that students would notice the surface details of the study strategies more than the underlying processes. Novices often notice surface details and have difficulty etracting the underlying structure (see this blog). It will likely take more than just single presentations to help students really understand the underlying structure of effective learning strategies and what processes they should use to improve their own learning based on science.

Overall, teaching about the science of learning is has been rewarding, but more difficult than I originally thought. These experiences just highlight the need for more research so that we can more confidently say what is likely to help students and what is unlikely to help students.