10 Powerful Steps for Improved Learning

Brain Based Teaching and Teacher Workshops

How to Make Your Job Easier and Give Students an Amazing Gift
for a Lifetime:

It’s the “Gift” of “How to Learn”

Usually, we feature a column on how to be a better teacher, administrator or trainer. This month, we’ll pause for a moment and work at the other end of the process. What do STUDENTS NEED to be doing to become far more effective learners? Some of the research tells us things we already knew.

PART ONE: The Research

We all know that teaching kids HOW to get more organized for study is important. But there might be a few surprises that are downright counter-intuitive. For example, you’ll be surprised to find out that quizzing MORE OFTEN actually promotes learning. But that’s just one of the 10 powerful steps for improved learning. If you are in a position to share these with staff that can reach students, please share this upcoming list. The research for this month was collected by the following scientists:

Harold Pashler (Chair)
University of California, San Diego
Patrice M. Bain
Columbia Middle School, Illinois
Brian A. Bottge
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Arthur Graesser
University of Memphis
Kenneth Koedinger
Carnegie Mellon University
Mark McDaniel
Washington University in St. Louis
Janet Metcalfe
Columbia University

Typically, I use this area to fill your brain with the “why” behind all the action. This month, it’s posted, so you can look it up. The full research document is posted on the web. Only one of 50 of you either: 1) work with students in this capacity, or, 2) are hungry enough to look it up. The document can be downloaded here (pdf).

The research tells us that the following suggestions have reasonable scientific support for them. If something’s not a good idea, you won’t hear it from me. But wait, there’s more! The online research posted 7 ideas and I have added 3 of my own, for a total of 10.


Let’s get practical with what we learned from the studies above. First, I’m going to borrow heavily from the research of a group of cognitive scientists. I have added a few of my own suggestions to the list, so that you now have a “Top 10” list of the best learning strategies from the student’s point of view. If you don’t teach students HOW to LEARN, were you hoping that every student, in every class, already had some teacher who did this already? Not likely. Be an advocate for students every day.

Suggestion 1: Draw the problem and draw the learning. This key strategy helps with labeling of the problem, classifying the content and understanding key relationships. The research is building that this strategy helps many who are not very good at teasing apart the facets of a problem. Students should do two drawings: 1) preliminary, just as they starting to get an understanding, and 2) once they have a more complete understanding.

Suggestion 2: Alternate worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises. Have students alternate between reading already worked solutions and trying to solve problems on their own. As students develop greater expertise, reduce the number of worked examples provided and increase the number of problems that students solve independently.

Suggestion 3: Find pictures, models and graphics with verbal descriptions. Use graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures. This integration leads to better learning than simply presenting text alone. When possible, present the verbal description in an audio format rather than as written text. Students can then use visual and auditory processing capacities of the brain separately rather than potentially overloading the visual processing capacity by viewing both the visualization and the written text. Find the model of how the problems are to be solved.

Suggestion 4: Connect and integrate abstract (especially metaphors) and concrete representations of concepts. Connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept. Make sure to highlight the relevant features across all forms of the representation. Tie the learning into a person, idea or theme that is already familiar. This allows students to make the connections their brains need.

Suggestion 5: Use quizzing to promote learning. Prepare pre-questions, and require students to answer the questions, before introducing a new topic. Conduct regular study sessions where students are taught how to judge whether or not they have learned key concepts in order to promote effective study habits. Use quizzes for retrieval practice and spaced exposure, thereby reducing forgetting. Use a variety of quiz formats as a fun way to provide additional exposure to material to prevent boredom. Provide corrective feedback to students, or show students where to find the answers to questions, when they are not able to generate correct answers independently.

Suggestion 6: Help students prioritize and allocate study time efficiently. Teach students that the best time to figure out if they have learned something is not immediately after they have finished studying, but rather after a delay. Only after some time away from the material will they be able to determine if the key concepts are well learned or require further study. Remind students to complete judgments of learning without the answers in front of them.

Suggestion 7: Ask deep explanatory questions and use “think out loud” processing. These methods force better quality thinking and greater accountability. Encourage students to “think out loud” in speaking or writing their explanations as they study; feedback is beneficial. Ask deep questions when teaching, and provide students with opportunities to answer deep questions, such as: What caused Y? How did X occur? What if …? How does X compare to Y? Challenge students with problems that stimulate thought, encourage explanations, and support the consideration of deep questions. Ensure students learn more than just the “labels” (key words). Ensure they understand the “properties” (unique qualities and differentiating features of the terms, processes and events).

Suggestion 8: Space learning over time. Identify key concepts, terms, and skills to be taught and learned. Arrange for students to be exposed to each main element of material on at least two occasions, separated by a period of at least several weeks—and preferably several months. Arrange homework, quizzes, and exams in a way that promotes delayed reviewing of important course content.

Suggestion 9: Move the hands and body. A new body of evidence suggests that when we use our hands to gesture the learning, we learn MUCH better. We also know that when we act on the learning to try it out, we remember the learning better. This means do activities like “Think, pair, share and DRAW” instead of just talking it through.

Suggestion 10. Use other people’s brains (OPB). Teach students to make learning more social. This means 1) find an online expert in the topic and ask them questions, 2) teach the content to another person, or 3) find a web file, DVD or YouTube clip on the topic to learn from. Stop trying to learn everything alone. The world has much to share.

In closing, let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

The cited credit for this work goes to:
Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning (NCER 2007-2004). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ncer.ed.gov.

Don’t miss our teacher workshops:

Click here for all the details.

Creative Commons License photo credit: wonderfully complex

9 replies
  1. Eric J
    Eric J says:

    Glad you found the site!

    Regarding the notebooks, I have not looked for it, but any type of memory-ssaver will be good for student learning, whether it’s a PDA, iPad, notebook or ????

    More next month!

  2. Frazer
    Frazer says:

    “Use other people’s Brains” A wonderful concept to encourage students (and adults) to talk to each other about problems they may be having with problems. I guess that is why they are called problems. Social aspect of learning is so powerful.

  3. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Love your emails! It is so nice to know that some things I’ve been doing in my classroom for years (like incorporating gestures and movement) have research to back up why they seem to work! Of course, I also learn new ways to teach, so thank you! Next question, how do I get these emails sent to my daughter who is in college and preparing to become a teacher as well?

  4. Elia Paredes
    Elia Paredes says:

    Thanks a lot . Your information is very important. We could appreciate your course in Orlando. Do you think that it is possible to get your permission to translate your works to some teachers from my school? It is only to help them to know your information, not for any economic interest, and only for few colleagues.
    Thank you. Elia Paredes

  5. Patrice Bain
    Patrice Bain says:

    Hi Eric! I am one of the authors of the publication you discussed on 1/4/11. I would like to thank you for your kind remarks. I also wish to thank the teachers who are looking into this research. As a fellow teacher, I KNOW this research WORKS in the classroom.

    This is a very exciting time to be involved in education; I applaud you in your steps helping teachers. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply