Saturday, April 4, 2015

How We Learn

Although learning has emotional, motivational, and developmental aspects, any of which might be more important than the cognitive aspect, I wanted to take a minute to focus on cognition this week. 

Arthur C. Graesser, editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology, has cataloged 25 cognitive principles of learning (see below). One that stood out for me as I read through the list was #21, the Goldilocks Principle: Assignments should not be too hard or two easy, but at the right level of difficulty for the student’s level of skill or prior knowledge.

On the one hand, the principle is clear and obvious, the “meet the student where the student is at” idea. On the other, it can be really difficult to achieve sometimes. I’m currently teaching a technical applications course in which students are creating brochures, newsletters, websites, and the like.  The problem I face is that it’s a gen. ed. requirement, and students come to the required course with a wide range of skill and experience with technology and with a wider range of interest/disinterest. I struggle to make the learning “not too hard, not too soft, but just right,” when every student brings a different technical background

Did any of the principles below resonate with you, whether because you struggle with it or disagree with it or because you agree and have developed a good way to address it?

 25 Cognitive Principles of Learning
  1. Contiguity Effects. Ideas that need to be associated should be presented contiguously in space and time.
  2. Perceptual-Motor Grounding. Concepts benefit from being grounded in perceptual motor experiences, particularly at early stages of learning.
  3. Dual Code and Multimedia Effects. Materials presented in verbal, visual and multimedia form richer representations than a single medium.
  4. Testing Effect. Testing enhances learning, particularly when the tests are aligned with important content.
  5. Spacing Effect. Spaced schedules of studying and testing produce better long-term retention than a single study session or test.
  6. Exam Expectations.  Students benefit more from repeated testing when they expect a final exam
  7. Generation Effect. Learning is enhanced when learners produce answers compared to having them recognize answers.
  8. Organization Effects. Outlining, integrating, and synthesizing information produces better learning than rereading materials or other more passive strategies.
  9. Coherence Effect. Materials and multimedia should explicitly link related ideas and minimize distracting irrelevant material.
  10. Stories and Example Cases. Stories and example cases tend to be remembered better than didactic facts and abstract principles.
  11. Multiple Examples. An understanding of an abstract concept improves with multiple and varied examples.
  12. Feedback Effects. Students benefit from feedback on their performance but the timing of the feedback depends on the task.
  13. Negative Suggestion Effects. Learning wrong information can be reduced when feedback is immediate.
  14. Desirable Difficulties. Challenges make learning and retrieval effortful and thereby have positive effects on long-term retention.
  15. Manageable Cognitive Load. The information presented to the learner should not overload working memory.
  16. Segmentation Principle. A complex lesson should be broken down into manageable subparts.
  17. Explanation Effects. Students benefit more from constructing deep coherent explanations (mental models) of the material than memorizing shallow isolated facts.
  18. Deep questions. Students benefit more from asking and answering deep questions that elicit explanations (e.g., why, why not, how, what if) than shallow questions (e.g., who, what, when, where)
  19. Cognitive Disequilibrium.  Deep reasoning and learning is stimulated by problems that create cognitive disequilibrium, such as obstacles to goals, contradictions, conflict, and anomalies.
  20. Cognitive Flexibility. Cognitive flexibility improves with multiple viewpoints that link facts, skills, procedures, and deep conceptual principles.
  21. Goldilocks Principle. Assignments should not be too hard or two easy, but at the right level of difficulty for the student’s level of skill or prior knowledge.
  22. Imperfect Metacognition. Students rarely have an accurate knowledge of their cognition, so their ability to calibrate their comprehension, learning, and memory should not be trusted.
  23. Discovery Learning. Most students have trouble discovering important principles on their own without careful guidance, scaffolding, or materials with well-crafted affordances.
  24. Self-Regulated Learning. Most students need training on how to self-regulate their learning and other cognitive processes.
  25. Anchored Learning. Learning is deeper and students are more motivated when the materials and skills are anchored in real-world problems that matter to the learner.
Arthur C. Graesser,  in “Inaugural Editorial for Journal of Educational Psychology, 2009, Vol. 101 (2), 259-261 Adapted from 25 Principles of Learning, by A.C. Graesser, D.F. Halpern, and M. Hakel, 2008, Taskforce on Lifelong Learning at Work and at Home.


  1. If by "two easy" Arthur Graesser means "too easy," I disagree with (him about) the Goldilocks Principle. As you rightly pointed out, it is not easy to figure out the right level of difficulty for all of your students. I think some assignments should be very hard, to challenge students; and some should be very easy, so as not to discourage them from trying at all. Most assignments should be neither too easy nor too difficult, if one can determine the right level of difficulty for all students. Without reasons or argumentation to support Arthur Graesser's cognitive principles of learning, it is difficulty to say whether they are sound or not (even if they are commonsensical).

    Safro Kwame

  2. (My error, not Graesser's, for the "two/too" typo. Sorry! Don't tell my students that I was such a bad proofreader; there goes my credibility.) In Graesser's book, he does provide the arguments and reasons for the principles. I'm sure it's available by Inter-library Loan for anyone who would like to get more detail. Even without further reading, though, I think faculty can usefully consider what they do to enhance the various types of learning that they intuitively believe to be useful. Such reflection makes us more mindful teachers, and mindfulness is correlated with effectiveness.

  3. Number 23- Discovery Learning is one that resonates with me, I also find it to be the most difficult to guide students towards. Many traditional teaching methods focus on simply giving students information as opposed to guiding them towards discovering the information and principles on their own. I think that in those instance where we can guide our students towards discovery, learning becomes more meaningful. The final one is also a key principle and again often challenging because it takes creativity and innovation to constantly connect materials and skills with real world problems or applications.

    1. Gloria, agreed. Research on memory and how the brain works supports your point that learning is more meaningful when students discover the answers on their own. I think the more we can set problems for students that we don't know the answers to the more we help them move towards discovery-based learning. (But that's a lot harder than setting up something that guides them towards an answer we already know they should find. (This teaching is a lot more difficult than other fields like, say, assessment! :)

  4. I believe that an individual’s learning process is aligned to using one’s own thoughts in various ways identified by memory, reasoning, recognizing values, and making a decision. The more information that we are exposed to the more focused would be our reasoning, value recognition, and individual decision.

    Therefore, one’s abilities to discover new knowledge would depend on one’s skills at mastering item number 8, ‘Organization Effects’ at a base level of learning growing into an innovative phase of generating answers and new knowledge as described in item 7, ‘Generation Effect’.

    I encourage my students to become familiar with such knowledge bases as psychology, economics, and recently neuroscience and creative writing, having been inspired by the illustrious Ben Carson and Langston Hughes. These days, students create their own subject notes and use it to identify or develop answers beyond memory recall.

    Ganga Ramdas

    1. Last sentence should read 'my students'. Pardon.

      G. Ramdas

    2. Excellent idea, Ganga. Getting students to go beyond just remembering facts and instead develop skills in putting facts in a framework so that they can process and use those facts meaningfully is the essence of lifelong learning, I think. I would make one addition. You say, "The more information that we are exposed to, the more focused would be our reasoning, value recognition, and individual decision." It seems to me that the teacher can help that focus by modeling thinking, by suggesting frameworks, by scaffolding learning. Just having the information out there isn't necessarily going to ensure that students learn from it. Could it sometimes lead to information overload?

    3. Linda, I agree with the use of frameworks or your better metaphor 'scaffolding'.

      Just five minutes ago (4/10/2015 - 1.50 pm), one of my organizational behavior students related how she used concepts and theories from this course in supervising and training other employees who she hired, mostly temps.

      Her story was vivid, providing a different type of organizational environment from those I worked in, banks, universities, and family businesses. The elegance of her story was so picturesque and real that she effectively used both her experience and creativity in narrating her message to the organizational behavior class. The story was holistic, seeding the elements of the left and right sides of her brain.

      She related how she used her conceptual memory to attach meaning and relevance in different situations with both employees and customers who she encountered on her job.

      Information overload is a glamorous term for the incomplete comprehension of the real world. 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. We need everyday discovery of new knowledge without being overwhelmed.

      Miss Briana Hawkins works as a bartender-supervisor and trainer in Philadelphia. She effuses joy in her academic and practical work. I identified her almost perfect score in a multiple choice test that she had never seen before in the complex field of organizational behavior.

      Indeed, Miss Hawkins in one of Lincoln's jewels glinting shades of orange against a backdrop of blues on our campus.

      Ganga Ramdas

  5. Number 22,Imperfect Metacognition is where you have higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning. It is known that Students rarely even have an accurate knowledge of their own cognition, so therefore their ability to calibrate their comprehension, learning, and memory should not be trusted. I do agree with this statement somewhat but not quit because i believe that you can do whatever it is that you put your mind to with a lot of practice and technique in your learning habits. If you work hard you can succeed in anything you do. Never say never.

  6. Shakira, I like your philosophy! It's true that students often either over- or underestimate their skills, but that should not make us lower our expectations of what they can accomplish, with their energy and our guidance.

  7. Coming from a current undergrad student, we learn better from a teacher who relates to us, learning from a teacher who relates to how you think as a person and teacher who understands your frequency of thoughts. All these methods are ok but if your teachings do not accommodate the student then there will be nothing learned because the student will not be interested. Every person has the ability to tap into things and do things that they thought were not possible for them to accomplish such as learning math or learning how to swim, but it takes the right teacher who the student can relate to and feel comfortable with to bring that untapped ability out of them and that is a big part of how we learn. Kind of like the Neophyte Prophyte type of thing.

    -Demetrius Johnson

  8. Linda-

    I agree with the Goldilocks Principle, assignments should not be too hard or too easy, but at the right level of difficulty. I believe anything can be taught to individuals, so if students feel like an assignment is too hard maybe they are not grasping the material, that's when the teacher steps in to change lesson plans so students can understand. On the other hand, being too easy is not helpful and does not challenge students. If a teacher fully explain the concepts, objectives, and provide students with enough examples, then the assignments will be just right. Since you are teaching a technical application class, students would mostly benefit from examples, as stated in Principle 11, multiple examples. This course seems pretty straight forward, but I think students should have technology provided to them in class if it is more helpful. If most of the concepts involve using a computer then students should be in a lab/computer setting to be more interested in the topic.

    I strongly believe Principle 15, “the information presented to the learner should not overload working memory”. I am a current undergrad student who has an average A- grade point average. I was enrolled in a biology I lab course and the professor gave out a diagram (the hardest diagram I ever had to copy); the task was that students had to look at a guide diagram and transfer it to a blank diagram. The diagrams were entirely different and extremely difficult. I never thought transferring information would be so hard. As an Accounting and Finance major, my talent is the ability to collect and transfer information. Students should not learn concepts and practice problems, then receive test with information they never seen before. I do not think test should be verbatim to homework assignments but they should be similar and able to comprehend.