Koehler Academy

Connecting the Science of Psychology to Learning and Life

Connecting the Science of Psychology to Learning and Life

Connecting the Science of Psychology to Learning and LifeConnecting the Science of Psychology to Learning and Life

A Primer for the Science of Learning

Myths abound regarding the most effective strategies for knowledge acquisition. Learners often misunderstand how to best enhance learning for later recall. Students spend needless hours utilizing ineffective strategies, and parents feel helpless regarding how to best help an academically struggling child. 

Is the science of learning complex, or can a little bit of learning science go a long way?

Learning Myths

Throughout the popular educational folklore, many ineffective strategies are mistakenly believed to improve learning. Here is a list of five of the most common myths that we encounter in our quest to learn how to learn.

1. Highlighting and underlining are highly effective study strategies.

2. Rereading material significantly boosts memory of the text.

3. Matching our learning to our "learning style" is crucial for effective learning.

4. Basing your study strategies on whether you are right-brained or left-brained is essential.

5. Reviewing your notes significantly increases long-term recall.

The Cognitive Science of Learning

Decades of research from cognitive psychology provides a wealth of evidence-based information regarding how to improve learning. Six simple strategies have been identified as the most effective techniques to utilize for learning across multiple subject areas. Understanding these techniques can be transformative for anyone tackling challenging academic material.

What are these effective learning mechanisms? A group of cognitive psychological scientists—The Learning Scientists—have taken the time to describe these strategies within their informative book: Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. While I highly recommend their book and website for an in-depth understanding, the following information provides a concise overview.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice is a simple notion that we should not cram for an exam. Repeatedly, throughout the educational literature, the science is clear: Distributed practice over time is significantly more effective than massed practice. 

Successful long-term retrieval will improve if you study material thirty minutes per day for six days rather than three hours at the same time right before you need to recall the information. This is especially true for long-term recall.

Watch this quick explanation of Spaced Practice by The Learning Scientists:

Spaced Practice Video Clip


Interleaving is another way to boost your learning. Do not study one idea for too long. Not exactly rocket science, but it is an important way to facilitate the storage of ideas in your memory. The Learning Scientists describe the how-to’s of interleaving in this way:

  1. Switch between ideas during your study session. 
  2. Go back over ideas in a different order to strengthen understanding.
  3. Make links to different ideas as you switch between them.

Watch this quick explanation of Interleaving by The Learning Scientists:

Interleaving Video Clip


The term elaboration means to add something to a memory you have already formed. This technique moves the information to a deeper level within your memory system. Elaborative interrogation is a specific facet of elaboration in which you question yourself about the how’s and why’s and then produce answers to your questions.

Watch this quick explanation of Elaboration by The Learning Scientists:

Elaboration Video Clip

Concrete Examples

Developing concrete examples of a subject under study has been repeatedly shown to be a useful technique in the cognitive psychology literature. Taking abstract ideas and transforming them into concrete concepts that you can visualize aids learning. 

Watch this quick explanation of Concrete Example by The Learning Scientists:

Concrete Examples Video Clip

Dual Coding

Dual coding is utilizing both visual and verbal materials to enhance learning. This practice seems to be helpful to all learners. Dual coding works to facilitate later retrieval of information because humans process information through both a visual and verbal channel, so you increase your chance of remembering the information later on.

Watch this quick explanation of Dual Coding by The Learning Scientists:

Dual Coding Video Clip

Retrieval Practice

The final learning strategy is as simple as the first five. Retrieval practice is contemplating something you learned previously and bringing it to your present-time thoughts. It appears that merely moving information to our current thoughts strengthens our memories, making those memories more usable in the future. 

Retrieval practice is the most effective learning strategy of them all. If we learn to practice frequent retrieval, we will remember more successfully. 

Watch this quick explanation of Retrieval Practice by The Learning Scientists:

Retrieval Practice Video Clip 

Final Thoughts

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." — Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin's adage was insightful. Learning how to learn, guided by research-based methods, is a vital skill. Understanding the six simple strategies discussed above can elevate your learning and potentially pay dividends for a lifetime. 

Learn More

 If you are interested in learning more about the science of learning, the free materials provided by The Learning Scientists are helpful. In particular, this visual description of the six strategies is an easy guide to interpret. The Learning Scientist website also has free PowerPoint slides, bookmarks, and creative posters to describe the strategies and the research behind them in-depth.