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School Resources

6 principles of learning from Benjamin Riley

If you haven’t already done so, our webinar with Benjamin Riley from Deans for Impact on learning by scientific design provides a brilliant introduction to the research on learning science. While learning science research does not dictate one particular way to structure teaching and learning in schools, it does provide 6 key principles of learning, which should underpin instruction.

1. We learn new ideas in reference to ideas we already know

What we know affects what we can learn and how quickly as well as our ability to engage in higher order thinking. Consequently, it is important for teachers to think carefully about curriculum design and the content they want students to be engaging with, as well as to ascertain students’ prior knowledge before embarking on a new topic.

2. Learning can be impeded if we are confronted with too much information at once

Our working memories have limited capacity and can quickly become overloaded if we encounter too much new information at once. As each student has different levels of prior knowledge (i.e. the knowledge stored in their long term memories), this means that students will reach cognitive overload at different times and teachers will need to be able to scaffold and adjust tasks accordingly.

3. It is important to focus on what information means and why it is important as well as the information itself. Facts (information) represent the first stage of the learning trajectory known as shallow or surface learning. It is once we get to deeper learning levels 1, 2 and 3 that we start to engage in thinking and the playing round with concepts and ideas. It is important to remember that we need to progress through surface learning before we can engage in deeper learning. However, it is crucial that we provide opportunities for students to engage in deeper learning and to understand why the facts and ideas they are learning about are meaningful.  

4. Practice is essential for learning but not all practice is created equal

There are five key principles for how teachers should structure practice opportunities to lead to durable learning: it is necessary to push beyond one’s comfort zone when practicing in order to see improvement; practice should work towards specific goals; students need to focus intently on practice opportunities; receiving and responding to high quality feedback is integral to improvement; and practice should lead to the development of mental models of expertise. For more information on this principle, see Deans for Impact’s excellent publication Practice with Purpose.

5. Effective feedback is essential to acquire new skills

Feedback enables us to know how well we are going and what we need to do next to improve. High quality feedback must be timely, focused on the learning process, and provide specific information for how we can improve. Furthermore, students need opportunities to act on feedback.  

6. Motivation is essential (but not enough) and students need to feel safe and valued

Our emotions influence our ability to learn. Therefore, ensuring that students feel a sense of belonging and are engaged within the learning environment is a prerequisite for effective learning. However, motivation and engagement are not proxies for learning and it is essential that students are also presented with opportunities to engage in rich and rigorous learning opportunities and tasks.

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