NarayanKripa Sundararajan
The learning sciences — a toolkit to learn and understand

Learning sciences offer tools and frameworks that educators can use to intentionally design, implement and assess instruction and learning. The learning sciences can help us think critically about our own interactions, our behavior, our learning habits and preferences, and our choice of resource, be it a printed textbook or a digital tool.

There are several strategies that have been shown to improve student learning, and one of my favorite reads is a teacher-friendly summary that evaluates common strategies for their effectiveness.

I’d like to share my top four favorites (in no particular order):

Retrieval practice. Intentionally practice remembering what you learn. You can’t apply without knowing and understanding. A summative analysis of over 200 experiments conducted across 70 years says retrieval practice, i.e. when you force yourself to remember — whether it’s a quiz, a flashcard, or a game — you are more likely to remember and learn the content than if you were to flip through your notes a few times. This means when your partner quizzes you about their birthday, they are actually helping you learn and remember it.

Concept mapping. Our brains don’t store information like an analog library with lines of books in a row. Our brains are more like digital databases that cross-tag pieces of information. Concept maps are pictorial representations of how your brain cross-tags your knowledge. For a concept map to be especially effective for learning, it does two things.

First, it connects related concepts with arrows and second, it outlines how they are connected. It is hard. Learning takes effort. A summative analysis of over 140 comparisons of learning performance of students who either studied a concept map or made their own and students who did not concept map (and usually reread content) suggests — you guessed it — students who engaged in concept mapping are more likely to learn better.

Elaboration. Why? How? What does that look like? My absolute favorite thing to do is ask questions and then think about the answer. (Fine, I out myself as a nerd). Elaboration is another strategy that builds upon the idea that our brain cross-tags concepts and facts. The more relevant details you can attach to a concept, the more you help yourself remember the content.

Imagine every detail you know to be a hashtag. For example, when you read “animals,” were you able to conjure up several types of animals and examples of animals? I bet you did. All those words were cross-tagged with this one word — animal. The more you elaborate (the more hashtags you attach to concepts, if you will), the more likely you will be able to remember and apply the information in a variety of ways.

Spaced practice. Did you know that retrieval practice (and other learning strategies) are likely going to be more powerful when you give yourself time to forget a little before you learn again? This little timing trick is an evidence-based strategy called spaced practice. What spaced practice asks you to do is spread your learning over time. So if you plan to study a chapter with five key concepts, study one concept a day over five days instead of all five concepts in one day. This is true and helpful if your goal is to truly learn and remember, not if you just want to pass the test tomorrow morning. Just sayin'.

Understanding through the lens of the learning sciences 

So far, I’ve shared some ways learning sciences impact teaching and learning. For me though, the learning sciences has expanded my awareness of myself as much as it has taught me about teaching and learning. Curious how? Let me walk you through some of my “a-ha” moments of reflection on my educational experiences through the lens of learning sciences lens.

Safety first, learning second

I disliked being in middle school, especially since I was picked on as the chubby girl of color in a school that had few others who looked like me. One day, when things got a little rougher than usual, I plucked up my courage and raised a complaint to an administrator at my school.

Her response? “Bullying happens; deal with it.”

I’m hoping for the sake of my own and others’ kids that this is not the case anymore, but it had affected who I was and at that time, my confidence and consequently my grades. Turns out, bullying and racism are a few ways that a student’s emotional safety (i.e. feeling of safety) is threatened, which in turn tells the brain to focus on survival first — don’t get hurt, toughen up, get through the day — and not focus on learning.

This isn’t a rationalization of poor performance. Rather, it is how the brain is wired: to constantly evaluate for survival (physical and emotional safety), and any remaining cognitive resources are then dedicated to learning. Learning this doesn’t make the hurt go away. It does help me understand why my grades suffered. More importantly, learning about the role of emotional safety in learning helps me be more kind and aware of the interactions I have today.

The myth of learning styles

Eventually, I changed schools, made friends, and was in a happy place. Grades were better, but not the best. When I was in 10th grade, my father bought me a book about how to learn. In that book, I’d learned about “learning styles” for the first time.

The book told me to reflect and identify if I was a visual, aural or kinesthetic learner. It said I should find out and try learning in that manner to improve my grades. I remember vividly feeling disappointed because I couldn’t really see pictures helping me more than someone teaching me.

Nearly a decade later, as I engaged with the learning sciences, I learned that Learning styles is a myth. We are not, in fact, wired to learn better in one of three ways. Rather, we are wired to learn when we are presented with information in more than one way.

One of the things that makes me incredibly sad is when I see people who refuse to accept that learning styles is a myth and, more importantly, when they choose to lose or avoid opportunities to learn because they can’t accept that something they believe in strongly is false.

In the world of learning sciences, the idea of using more than one way, more than one modality, is called dual coding. With decades of evidence to support effective learning when combining text and images, it's a force to reckon with.

Why learning can be hard

Back to my story. My scores at the end of 12th grade dictated my entry into college — and which college could shape the launch of my career. I was fortunate to have many people who wanted to help me succeed. Teachers, friends, parents — everyone shared resources with me. I had Google, too, and many books, notes, worksheets, guides, videos, and websites to look for. How did I filter it all? Truthfully, I don’t remember if and how I did. What I do remember is that I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to focus, and in some ways, it made learning feel like an impossible task.

That feeling of being overwhelmed with the amount of content I had to process is what learning scientists refer to as cognitive overload. The idea, as explained in cognitive load theory, is that as humans, our brains have a limited working memory capacity to learn, i.e. we can take-in only so much information at a time.

Once we have taken in the information, we process it and connect it with other facts and concepts we already know, which are stored in long-term memory. When this integration has happened, we say we have learned. Turns out, learning can be hard, either because we don’t know enough about what we’re learning (low prior knowledge, related to intrinsic cognitive load) or because we have too many or poorly designed resources (extraneous cognitive load).

Usually, increasing the amount of knowledge takes time, and that is a product of learning. We could change the extraneous factors, though, and that is what a lot of learning sciences work toward: How can we design our resources and instruction to reduce barriers to learning or improve learning?

I could go on forever about other instances in my life that I’ve reflected upon and found a-ha moments thanks to the learning sciences. I'll stop here though because I want to share some references and hear from you.

Tell us. What does the learning sciences mean to you? Comment below, email us at courseofmind@iste.org or tweet to us @CourseofMind. We want to hear your story.

OK, here are some References for Nerds for you to look up on Google Scholar:

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Schroeder, N. L., Nesbit, J. C., Anguiano, C. J., & Adesope, O. O. (2018). Studying and constructing concept maps: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 431-455.

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659-701.


NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar) is ISTE’s learning science specialist and manages the Course of Mind project. She loves learning, learning about learning —  and sharing what she learned —  so much that she earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology and has published a few research articles. Now, she spends her time plotting how to spread the love of learning sciences wider.

This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.