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What Does Research Say About Learning?

One of the most fundamental questions of education -- how we learn -- shapes what we do and why. So what does the research say about how we learn? Let's take a closer look.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
  • Student Tips
What Does Research Say About Learning?

One of the most fundamental questions of education -- how we learn -- shapes what we do and why. When it comes to understanding how we learn, we need to consider lots of factors, like the existence of learning styles, the concept of monotasking, and active learning.

The answers might surprise you in their simplicity. Learning requires engagement and practice, and lots of both at all learning levels. How does that look?

Let's take a deep dive into the concept of learning and explore the research in the field.

The research questions the existence of learning styles...

In the April 2018 issue of The AtlanticOlga Khazan explained the popular debunking of the theory that people have visual or auditory learning preferences.

She explained that research from the 1990s proposed that every person has natural tendencies toward one of four quadrants: visual, auditory, reading or kinesthetic, or VARK, for short. The concept spread, but with little scientific backing.

In 2015, The Journal of Educational Psychology published a paper that found no correlation between a person's favored learning style and their performance on reading or listening comprehension tests.

While the concept of VARK appeals to many teachers and many embrace it, Khazan highlights several other recent studies that show learning requires you to focus on something to learn it -- and has nothing to do with your 'style'.

...but supports a few other methods

While learning styles may not matter, a few other things will. Spaced Practice, the concept of essentially not cramming, but learning something in slow chunks of time and space, actually works.

In a blog from the University of Melbourne last year, cognitive psychologist Yana Weinstein explains, "Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it. That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory."

That spaced learning creates synapses among brain cells.

Retrieval Practice, another method for learning, flies in the face of reading and re-reading notes repeatedly. In retrieval practice, hide your notes and write or draw everything you remember. Then go back and fill in the blanks. Keep doing it until you remember what you are supposed to. It works.

Metacognition, or actually thinking about how you learn, helps you learn, too. How can you improve your ability to think about your thinking? Practice, of course. Reflecting on your practice is a start. Soon, you'll become a whiz at figuring out what you don't know and taking it from there. That's the idea, anyway.

Multitasking isn't so great

In our fast-paced world, it feels like all we ever do is multitask, but it turns out multitasking is not fantastic for learning. You can't learn when your brain is pulled in a million different directions.

Want to learn better and faster? Focus on one thing at a time. Keep that focus. If you have to, tune out of other tabs and social media channels.

Put blinders on when you're trying to learn something and keep at it without distraction. You will be more efficient -- and learn what you intend to.

It cautiously endorses flipped learning...

Flipped learning is a pedagogy -- an approach to teaching -- in which the traditional learning structure is flipped. Instead of teachers delivering content to students in the classroom and students completing homework to assess their understanding of the delivery, in a flipped learning environment, students study and 'learn' the concepts at home and practice them together in the classroom with the teacher acting as a guide or facilitator.

While there are a lot of holes in the research, cursory studies suggest that flipped learning benefits students and increases their overall engagement in courses. This doesn't apply to every scenario of course.

...and clearly supports active learning

Flipped learning is one 'active' learning pedagogy that may work. Educational research has found active learning -- where students are involved, engaged, asking questions, positing solutions, and working together -- works.

In this model, learning doesn't come from a lecturer. Information might come from a lecture. The real learning happens when students process that information and demonstrate ways that they can use it. It applies to every subject, across disciplines. And it works.

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