Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion| Let’s use cognitive science insights for better learning

The average life expectancy in the US went up from 47 years in 1900 to 75 years in 2000—a 60% increase. During the course of the 20th century, we learnt a lot about how the human body works and how diseases originate and spread. We applied this new knowledge to develop modern and more effective modes of treatment, and even went as far as eradicating diseases like smallpox.

Shift gears from healthcare to education. Insights about how the human brain gathers and stores information have been accumulating for over a hundred years, beginning with the seminal work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. But there’s a distressing gap in mainstream education: good pedagogical practice—applying what cognitive science has taught us about how people learn—has often taken a back-seat to convenience, scale and tradition. The need for better learning points to a significant redesign of existing education systems.

There are several examples. First, we learn best in about 10-minute chunks. This appears to be related to the way we form short-term memories in the brain. If learning exceeds that time, the mind begins to wander. Lectures need to be extremely short to be effective. Recorded lectures, enabling viewers to pause, rewind or speed up a video, offer a base level of personalization, where students can learn at their own pace. By contrast, learning through regular in-person lectures does not offer this flexibility.

Second, when a learner is tested frequently about the material that she has just learnt, learning is better. This is called the “testing effect" and the use of it as a learning technique is referred to as retrieval practice. An interesting aspect of retrieval practice is the positive effect of effortful retrieval. So, for example, a learner who is given weaker cues for the test, and therefore struggles more to recall material, will learn better.

Third, testing is best when spaced out over weeks or months. This concept of “spaced practice" flies in the face of a prevalent and expedient approach of mass practice, in which a student might address a number of problems at the end of a chapter in a short span of time. This applies not just to academic learning, but also to sports and motor driving. Spaced practice has now been explained to some extent down to the levels of the proteins needed for long-term memory. Oddly, a key aspect of spaced learning is that relearning material is most effective just before the learner forgets the material.

Fourth, content is best absorbed when topics are interspaced with one another.A commonpractice in education is to take up topics in blocks: multiplication one day, say, followed by division a week later. The evidence from extensive research points to the benefits of interleaving practice. The benefits have been replicated in a range of subject areas, including mathematics and fine art.

Recently, cognitive load theory has helped put more flesh on Lev Vygotsky’s theory of scaffolding. Novices have fewer predefined schema—think of previously seen frameworks and patterns to match new knowledge with—to digest new information, and thus suffer from high cognitive load because the working memory available is limited. Novices thus need more “fill in the blank" problems. But as novices gain expertise and develop the schema needed to absorb information, they can be exposed effectively to more open-ended problems.

While French philosopher René Descartes argued that the mind and the body were independent of each other, recent scientific findings seem to bear out that learning and doing are closely correlated. Tactile experience, in which a student physically feels angular momentum, or gestures to capture a phenomenon, have been shown to result in better learning than if the learning is purely abstract. Prototyping technologies such as 3D printing, Lego Mindstorms, the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, App Inventor, and even the programming language Python, enable hands-on learning. The power at the fingertips of students to actualize their ideas, learn from real creation, seek feedback, and enjoy the pleasure of achievement is unprecedented—and will increase with time.

Project-based learning, problem-based learning and task-oriented learning are all techniques that give students more agency and purpose. Integration is another important aspect of learning, where projects and tasks can help. While learning through discipline-aligned courses can be effective, it can lead to siloed knowledge. Integration refers to connecting topics across silos.

Techniques such as game-based learning can lead a student through a series of tasks and create an environment where learning occurs naturally. An example is World Without Oil, an alternate reality game that leads players through a post-oil world, forcing them to think about the implications of an oil shock.

Clearly, we know far more about how we learn today than we did some decades ago. Yet, we are guilty of not applying these insights to education. To return to the healthcare analogy, this is no less alarming than a doctor prescribing an outdated mode of treatment despite knowing that a better and more modern one exists. Modern schools and universities must adopt newer pedagogical models and break away from centuries-old norms.

Kapil Viswanathan and Sanjay Sarma are, respectively, vice-chairman of Krea University and vice-president, Open Learning, at MIT

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