Science of Learning Placards


We invite you to use and share the placards below.

We’ve created the placards below containing small snippets of information about the way we learn. Scientists have been studying how our memory works and how we learn for over 100 years. In fact, the experimental study of memory is traced back to the late 1800’s with the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist who is widely known for his work on the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.

As learners and educators, we can all benefit by using what science has revealed about how we learn to inform our learning and teaching practices. The placards below are meant to help us keep these findings fresh in our minds so that we can make strategic and evidence-base learning and teaching decisions.

1) Knowledge builds on knowledge

Learning new information requires a foundation of prior knowledge. For example, before we can learn to read and write, we need to learn the letters of the alphabet and their associated sounds. Before we can do calculus, or any kind of advanced math (by hand), we need to know the basics of math. Knowledge builds on knowledge – this is why it is easier to pick up new information when it is related to things we already know, and it is the basis of scaffolding as a teaching practice.

2) Making connections helps

Connecting new information with what you already know will enhance your learning. A great way to do this is by organizing the information in any way that makes sense to you – this will link it to a larger context and help you retain the information better.

So what does this mean for educators? Learning will be a lot easier if you make it explicit how this new information links to what your learners already know.

What are the implications for learners? Whenever you’re learning new information, find ways to connect it to your existing knowledge base.

3) We can’t rely on our impressions of our own learning

It is very important to pay attention to the criteria we use to assess our own learning. For example, even though the material we’re learning may feel familiar to us as we go over it, this sense of familiarity isn’t actually a good indicator of whether we’ll actually be able to recall the material at a later date. Instead, one of the best ways to judge our learning is by assessing how well we can summarize or explain the material to someone else, which leads to our next placard on retrieval practice.

4) Retrieving information from memory is an effective learning strategy

Retrieving information from memory is a more effective learning strategy than re-reading the same information. It is also an effective way to assess what material we’ve learned well and what we should study further.

5) Cramming doesn’t work

Cramming is one of the most popular study strategies among students, but it is not very effective for remembering information over the long run. Cramming (or massed practice) can be effective for the very short term (e.g., if you want to memorize a phone number so that you can call it in a couple minutes), but this is not real learning because the information is not going to stay with you. A relevant finding in the memory literature is the spacing effect – it refers to the finding that we retain information better over the long run when we space out repeated study sessions. Essentially, it is the opposite of cramming, where the same information is studied repeatedly within a very narrow or short time window. Here is a concrete example – if you had 20 hours to prepare for a test over the span of three weeks, past research tells us that you would be better off breaking up those 20 hours into multiple study sessions that are spread out throughout the three weeks (e.g., about an hour each day) as opposed to cramming all 20 hours of studying within the last two days before the test.