How Today’s Students Learn

Original Publish Date: September 19, 2016
By Patrik Hultberg

I was recently asked the question, “How do today’s students learn?” It is an important question, but my initial answer was “the same way as students have always learned.” My cavalier response was influenced by my recent reading of books on cognitive psychology and learning. Clearly the brains of today’s students are identical to the brains of students in the past and therefore, strictly speaking, students today learn the same way as previous generations of students. To learn something students must still use their brains to receive and process sensory input; in fact, learning equals a change in the learner’s brain (Zull, 2002). Although my colleague was probably hoping for more practical advice, I actually think these thoughts contain the beginning of a more careful answer.

The brains of today’s students might be the same, but available technology and our knowledge of learning and pedagogy have changed drastically. These changes influence what students do, and what they should do, inside and outside of the classroom. Technology is very important; new technology has changed how students access and consume information. New technology may even change the interaction between students and the teacher, as well as interactions between students, in the classroom. However, changes in our understanding of the brain may be even more important for improved student learning.

Today we know that passively listening to a lecture, reading a textbook chapter, googling for an answer to a homework problem is not conducive to deep and lasting learning. These three common examples of student “learning” have one thing in common: they make learning easy. Students don’t have to engage their brains in these activities; instead students become familiar with information, which in turn creates an illusion of fluency, an illusion of knowledge. What we, as teachers, are beginning to understand is that “learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful” (Brown et al, 2014).

What should students do to make learning, in effect, more difficult? Cognitive psychology has many suggestions, let’s briefly review some practices that students can engage in to learn more in less time. Learning implies that a student will be able to store and in the future retrieve knowledge or skills from memory and deeper and better learning implies a greater ability to do so. Retrieval practice is therefore an important tool for deeper levels of learning. Effortful retrieval makes for deeper learning and greater retention (Brown et al, 2014). Two strategies that can be used to make retrieval more effortful, and therefore learning more durable, are spacing and interleaving.

Spacing, or distributive practice, is the act of distributing retrieval practice over time thus encouraging a student to schedule shorter study sessions over say a week (say days 1, 3, and 7), rather than spending the same amount of time cramming the night before an assessment event. It is an application of the Forget To Learn theory (Carey, 2014); that is, learning is strengthened when a student has time to partially forget the material before recall. Distributed practice (spacing) disrupts memory loss and improves long-term retention. Interleaving is the practice of mixing related but distinct material during learning sessions, forcing students to discriminate between problems and selecting the correct solution method given the context (Brown et al, 2014). This approach also facilitates forgetting and results in spacing, which leads to greater storage and retrieval strengths (deeper learning). Combining spacing and interleaving with self-testing allows students to further practice retrieval and such tests prevent any illusion of knowledge. These techniques all make learning more difficult as they force students to “think” (retrieve knowledge); they also compel students to notice how much they don’t know.

Three additional practices greatly enhance student learning: generation, elaboration, and reflection (Brown et al, 2014). Students practice generation by attempting to solve a problem or answer a question before being given the answers. By seeking answers, students explore alternatives and make possible connections. Generation makes the student’s brain more receptive to new learning (Brown et al, 2014). Students practice elaboration when they attempt to find additional layers of meaning in the material learned. Reflection is a combination of both retrieval of knowledge and elaboration of such knowledge. Reflection powerfully makes additional connections which allow students to strengthen their learning and skills.

Clearly these learning techniques are very different from students’ common approach to studying. They are also more difficult and mentally painful, so it is perhaps unrealistic to assume that every student will use these strategies voluntarily. If so, are there some things we as teachers can do to help? Well, yes, we can structure our courses in ways that encourages students to engage in behaviors that foster deep and durable learning.

There are certainly activities we should avoid doing; e.g. providing a steady stream of lectures only briefly interrupted by exams does not foster deep student learning. Perhaps we can use technology to make content delivery more efficient and thereby open up space in our face-to-face interactions with students for more meaningful activities. We can possibly pursue active learning activities that require students to generate and retrieve information and skills, as well as asking students to elaborate and reflect on the material. We can use various formative assessment techniques to encourage students to increase their brain’s storage and retrieval strengths (learning), as well as motivate them to read texts or watch videos. We can even structure our courses so that spacing and interleaving is an integral part of the student experience. In short, there are many ways we can encourage students to unwittingly use the many lessons about learning that cognitive psychology provides.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., and M. A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014.

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, New York, Random House, 2014

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2002.