Integrating the science of how we learn into education technology

2 min read

For well over 100 years, researchers have labored to understand how humans learn and remember. But it's often not obvious how to use the findings of all of this research in educational settings.

Using the science of learning to improve education starts with identifying general principles, some of which grow out of a property of our brains: The more intensively we process information, the more likely we are to remember it. This implies that if we want people to learn something, we should induce them to focus on it, and consider its nature and its implications.

There are many ways to accomplish this. One is called the principle of desirable difficulty, which states that people learn best when challenged not so much that they get frustrated, and not so little that they are bored. But there's a problem: What counts as a 'just right' level of challenge differs for different people. Applying this principle in a traditional classroom setting is difficult. This is where technology can come in, using the principle of desirable difficulty to enhance learning by large numbers of students at the same time.

First, you need a way to collect data on student performance. For example, students can take a short quiz after each class session, and the questions could be coded according to exactly which skills are being tested. Second, small breakout groups can be designed to allow students to engage in active learning, such as group problem solving, role playing or debate, in part because these induce deep processing; critically, each breakout group activity can be classified according to which skills are being drawn upon. Third, each of the activities that students perform in breakout groups can be 'multilayered'; that is, they can be approached with more, or less, intensity.

Interactions within the breakout group could be designed to lead students (who are selected to be at comparable levels for the activity) to adjust how deeply they process the relevant information. This approach would scale very well and incorporates the social component that is so important in learning.

Technology opens up huge opportunities to use the science of learning in new ways. To take advantage of these opportunities, we need to have clear learning goals, measure each student's progress very specifically and shift to a focus on more active learning.


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