Science of Learning

Many teaching recommendations are based on findings from the science of learning, which has its basis in educational and cognitive psychology. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) also often draws from and is framed by key concepts in these fields, yet for teachers and researchers outside these disciplines, the search for appropriate literature can seem very time-consuming.

If you are new to this literature, the following secondary sources may be helpful as “entry points.” Scroll to the accordion list for research and meta-analyses on common topics of interest for faculty.

Books and Articles:

  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Chew, S.L., & Cerbin, W.J. (2020).The cognitive challenges of effective teaching.The Journal of Economic Education, DOI: 10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J.M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Eyler, J.R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Lang, J.M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.

E-Books and Websites:

  • SoTL Annotations provides a crowdsourced annotated bibliography on dozens of teaching and learning topics.
  • Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site.
  • Improve with Metacognition offers information and commentary about using the principles of metacognition in the classroom.
  • RetrievalPractice.org explains and promotes retrieval practice as a key aspect of learning.
  • Learning-Theories.com and instructionaldesign.org offer descriptions of many common learning theories and thus can be a good place to start. Proceed with caution, however, as not all the theories described are well supported by research. Use these sites to learn more about the theories, then follow their suggested resources to read more.
  • Taking Learning Seriously includes information, learning guides and teaching tools focused on translating cognitive science into practice.

For a deeper dive into the science of learning literature, consider these recommended articles and books:

  • These sources are a good place to start if you’re investigating common learning strategies and student learning behaviors.

  • Self-regulated learning is directed by the learner, who develops strategic goals, initiates productive learning behaviors, and reflects on the outcomes. The cognitive aspect of self-regulated learning includes metacognition, where a learner plans for, monitors, and reflects on their own learning and studying.  

    • Zimmerman, B.J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: an overview. Educational Psychologist 25, 3–17. doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep2501_2
    • Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417–444. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823
    • Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1-2), 113-125. doi: 10.1023/A:1003044231033
    • Pintrich, P. R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 385-407. doi: 0.1007/s10648-004-0006-x
    • Kuhn, D. (2000) Metacognitive Development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5),178-181. doi: 10.1111/1467-8721.00088
    • Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners. Herndon, VA: Stylus.
  • Learning first requires attention, yet many things compete for our students' attention. These sources describe research on attention and multitasking.

    • Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 100-106. doi: 10.1002/acp.1561
    • Bantoft, C., Summers, M.J., Tranent, P.J., Palmer, M.A., Cooley, P.D. & Pedersen, S.J. (2016) Effect of standing or walking at a workstation on cognitive function: a randomized counterbalanced trial. Human Factors, 58, 140–149. doi: 10.1177/0018720815605446
    • Finley, J. R., Benjamin, A. S., McCarley, J. S. (2014). Metacognition of multitasking: How well do we predict the costs of divided attention? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 158–165. doi: 10.1037/xap0000010
    • Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning. Psychological Science, 28(2), 171-180. doi: 10.1177/0956797616677314
    • Wammes, J. D., Ralph, B. C., Mills, C., Bosch, N., Duncan, T. L., & Smilek, D. (2019). Disengagement during lectures: Media multitasking and mind wandering in university classrooms. Computers & Education, 132, 76-89. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2018.12.007
  • Evidence suggests that intentionally embedding challenges and ill-defined problems into the curriculum can increase student learning, even when students fail to solve those problems. These articles lend credence to the axiom “making mistakes is part of learning.”

  • Practicing retrieving information from memory, whether through self-quizzing, teaching a friend, or another means, has been found to increase performance on assessments, especially when separated into several sessions. See these articles for an explanation of this idea, called “retrieval practice” in the cognitive psychology literature:
    • Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21,157–163. doi: 10.1177/0963721412443552
    • Rawson, K., Dunlosky, J., & Sciartelli, S. (2013). The power of successive relearning: improving performance on course exams and long-term retention. Educational Psychology Review, 25(4), 523-548. doi: 10.1007/s10648-013-9240-4
    • Koh, A. W. L., Lee, S. C., & Lim, S. W. H. (2018). The learning benefits of teaching: A retrieval practice hypothesis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(3), 401-410. doi: 10.1002/acp.3410
    • Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 281-288. doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2013.06.001
    • Szpunar, K. K., Khan, N. Y., & Schacter, D. L. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313-6317. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221764110
    • Karpicke, J. D., & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language, 67, 17–29. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2012.02.004
    • Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35(4), 989–998. doi: 10.1037/a0015729
    • Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 849. doi: 10.1037/a0035934
  • Motivation is a complex concept, but many behaviors and cognitive processes associated with the motivation to learn can themselves be learned. To read more about motivation research see:
    • Pintrich, P.R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review 16, 385–407 (2004). doi: 10.1007/s10648-004-0006-x
    • Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), 28-36. doi: 10.1080/00461520903433596
    • Vallerand, R. J. (2000). Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory: A view from the hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 312-318.
    • Lazowski, R.A. & Hulleman, C. (2016). Motivation interventions in education: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602. doi: 10.3102/0034654315617832
    • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.. 
    • Chen, P., Powers, J. T., Katragadda, K. R., Cohen, G. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). A strategic mindset: An orientation toward strategic behavior during goal pursuit. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117(25),14066-14072. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2002529117
    • Duane F., S., & Jenefer, H. (2008). Control, motivation, affect, and strategic self-regulation in the college classroom: A multidimensional phenomenon. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(2), 443–459. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.100.2.443
    • Kumar, R., Zusho, A., & Bondie, R. (2018). Weaving cultural relevance and achievement motivation into inclusive classroom cultures. Educational Psychologist, 53(2), 78. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2018.1432361

For more information about how the science of learning can inform your teaching or SoTL projects, please contact Hillary Steiner, Associate Director for SoTL and Associate Professor of Psychological Science.

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