Psychology of Learning

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Overview

Psychology of Learning

INTRODUCTION

Backed by decades of research, a movement is afoot to rethink how students learn inside and outside of classrooms. As a result, momentum is building to introduce students to fresh ideas that will help them confront their anxieties about homework, tests and their own ability to learn, making them more motivated learners along the way.

INTRODUCTION

Backed by decades of research, a movement is afoot to rethink how students learn inside and outside of classrooms. As a result, momentum is building to introduce students to fresh ideas that will help them confront their anxieties about homework, tests and their own ability to learn, making them more motivated learners along the way.

This isn’t New Age sermonizing. Instead, many teachers, researchers and education advocates are reconsidering their perceptions of how students best digest complex information while developing life skills at the same time. Grit, mindsets, trauma-informed learning and social-and-emotional learning are some of the concepts that experts contend are crucial to academic and professional success at the K-12 and postsecondary levels.

These terms — and the principles and practices they describe — can be challenging for journalists to report on and write about. This guide aims to help clarify the distinctions between the various efforts schools are making to apply the psychology of learning to how students are taught.

BACKGROUND

Cognitive scientists and psychologists are deeply curious about what compels people to behave certain ways and how environments affect people’s decision-making skills. This research has been cited frequently in the drive to develop students’ college-and-career-ready skills, prompting new questions about what resources students really need. These inquiries are fueling awareness of the challenges faced by students who have grown up poor, lived in abusive homes or neighborhoods, or otherwise have struggled to fit in.

Students from wealthier households are more likely to possess psychological qualities that will enable them to learn more readily, not because those features are in their genes but because wealth is correlated with parents who can provide stable finances and who hold advanced degrees. Additionally, these parents can offer their children access to similar adults who can foster a community of academic rigor. Still, research suggests that even well-off kids can benefit from homing in on the concepts the psychology of learning research prescribes.

Be advised: Definitions overlap for some of the key terms in the psychology of learning field. The scholarly cul-de-sac that’s home to research about grit and mindsets is also part of the neighborhood of studies that examines the effects of trauma. There are essentially, however, three broad sections for these research realms that are increasingly being applied to the academic success of students: growth mindset, grit and motivation.

GRIT, GROWTH MINDSET AND MOTIVATION

Arriving to class regularly and on time, completing assignments and studying: These are important behaviors that researchers say students should learn early on. The desired result of fostering students’ ability to perform these tasks is that they will embrace the larger concepts — and benefits of — grit, mindsets and motivation. Once in college and the workforce, students’ instructors and supervisors will expect them to understand that finishing tasks, asking for support and participating in discussions are crucial.

Grit and perseverance

Grit refers to the self-discipline to work toward a long-term goal, remain focused and complete assignments despite setbacks. The term has been popularized by University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth. To show grit’s impact, one study asked students 12 questions about their learning habits, such as whether they complete tasks they’ve started and whether new ideas or assignments distract them from previous ones. Their answers correlated with the students’ grades later on, suggesting that levels of grit can affect academic performance.

Merely assigning heavy workloads is an ill-advised approach to building grit or tenacity, scholars say. Instead, research suggests that educators can promote grit by having students buy in to the importance of their work, helping them develop sound studying habits, and instilling in them the notion that they belong in an academic community. Others argue that grit doesn’t offer anything new to the research space and that its effect on learning has been overstated.

Growth Mindset

How grit is nurtured connects to another popular psychological concept – growth mindset, i.e., individual students’ belief that through effort, their academic success will improve. Studies have shown that students with growth mindsets are more likely to perform the work needed to learn complex material and can score nearly a letter-grade higher than similar students who don’t demonstrate this quality. The research also has shown that growth mindset can be taught through low-cost interventions.

That’s not to say, of course, that a sound approach is just chanting at the start of class that students with a growth mindset will succeed. Instead, scholars like Carol Dweck from Stanford University say students should be taught to learn from failure, that rewarding students’ effort when that effort was weak or poorly executed does them no favors, and that almost all learners suffer from feelings that they may not be born with the talents to excel at a task.

However, Dweck and other researchers say, practicing sound studying habits and consulting with peers, mentors and instructors are important steps toward building a growth mindset – and developing solid footing in whatever a student is learning. In recent years several curricular add-ons, like Brainology, have been created to guide teachers toward boosting their students’ growth mindsets. Still, a community of skeptics worries that the popularization of growth mindset may prompt educators and administrators to blame students for lacking this quality. 

Other Academic Mindsets

Helping students understand that their talents aren’t fixed is just one of several “academic mindsets,” a research and policy term that includes other beliefs that advocates say teachers should aim to instill. Students with these mindsets believe that what they are learning is relevant, that they belong in an academic setting, and that they can actually succeed at the appointed tasks.

Some students will pursue any subject matter teachers assign them, while others need subjects explained using terms and themes they recognize – and an effective teacher will be able to spot the students who will benefit from that added context. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a scholar at the University of Southern California, has shown that students can learn better if they feel emotionally invested in their academic work. For example, a student who wants to be a dairy farmer may take an interest in social studies after learning about political lobbying, and may absorb biology better through learning about animal breeding.

Sometimes it also helps students to see that failure is part of the process of learning. Duckworth, for example, has shown her students the rejection letters she’s received from peer-reviewed journals.

Learning strategies

Should students read and re-read the information in a textbook or create flashcards? Is it more effective to spend hours or days reviewing a single concept or to cycle through related but different concepts in the same amount of time? Those decisions highlight different learning strategies, and often students and teachers maintain a poor grasp on what works and what’s a waste of time, according to some researchers. Benedict Carey, a science writer for The New York Times, wrote a whole book on learning strategies. Paul Bruni, a former teacher, and Daniel Willingham, a psychologist, wrote an easy-to-use summary of the learning techniques that research have found to be effective.

The concepts in this section have been the subject of numerous peer-reviewed studies and many of them can be found at PERTS – a research laboratory at Stanford University dedicated to applying academic research in real-world settings. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching also has published a glossary of noncognitive concepts.

SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Numerous academic groups and nonprofits have helped shape the public’s understanding of social and emotional learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is perhaps the leading organization for SEL research and evaluations for schools to use, although scholars at Harvard, Yale and elsewhere are associated with this area of research as well.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been researched for decades, and more schools are adopting its tenets. In Boston, the school district hired its first assistant superintendent of social and emotional learning in fall 2015. SEL describes the ways in which individuals combine their emotions, thoughts and behaviors to be attuned to their needs and the needs of others. Efforts to teach awareness of SEL include guiding students to being able to recognize emotional cues from others, practice self-discipline and interact with fellow students or colleagues considerately. SEL isn’t limited to schools: Parents and communities also play a major role.

Awareness of SEL principles can help students make better decisions, from avoiding drugs and committing crimes to preventing bullying — if efforts to instill the principles are implemented effectively, research suggests. The behaviors that SEL programming encourages are also conducive to improved academic performance, like graduating high school or completing college, scholars say.

Skills like getting along with others “are the abilities that make other kids like you, and make teachers like kids,” said Mark T. Greenberg, a professor of Human Development and Psychology at Penn State in a 2015 New York Times article. “And when kids feel liked, they’re more likely to settle down and pay attention, and keep out of the principal’s office, and reap the benefits of being in a classroom. And this builds over time; it’s like a cascade. They become more bonded with peers and healthy adults and they become more bonded to school as an institution, and all those skills lead them, independent of their I.Q., to be less at risk for problems.”

2011 meta-analysis that included more than 200,000 students from primary and secondary schools found that SEL programming had numerous positive effects, including an average of 11-point gains on standardized tests. High-quality SEL academic content also can have economic benefits: For every dollar schools spent on SEL programs, there’s an $11 return on investment, according to a 2015 study by Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Several approaches are underway to both bring these ideas to the classroom and ensure they are adopted in ways that are beneficial to students. Stephanie Jones, a scholar on SEL at Harvard University, is using the kernel approach, which relays to schools the 12 or 15 approaches for implementing SEL and lets them choose the few that work best for their students. Here’s example of a kernel: “Using a turtle metaphor, child holds self, breathes through nose, and engages in verbal or sub-verbal self-coaching to calm down.”

According to CASEL, school-based activities to enhance the social-and-emotional competencies of students can include:

  • Using conflict-resolution activities or dialogue exercises so students can apply SEL tenets to new situations;
  • Students help to create classrooms rules;
  • Through games and sports, students practice developing cooperation and teamwork;
  • Students apply a current or historical event to a set of questions that require them to problem-solve together;
  • Pairing younger and older students for mentoring purposes.

Another major scholar, Marc Brackett of Yale University, has created the RULER approach and teaches it to schools, for a fee. 

TRAUMA AND BIAS

A common critique of the ideas of grit, growth mindset and SEL is that students who grow up in troubled environments are depicted as being at fault for the traumas they have endured – and aren’t rewarded for navigating the complexities of poverty, unstable homes and violence. Students who are tardy after witnessing their parents’ arrest or working late to support their families should not be seen as lacking grit or emotional maturity, such experts argue, in part because those students may be showing those very qualities in their lives outside of school.

More schools are responding to the particular hardships such students face, taking pains to not paint them as deficient, but instead recognizing their needs for individualized attention and care. One set of approaches schools can adopt is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a program of school interventions recommended by the U.S. Department of Education and used in every state.

Tyrone Howard, a University of California, Los Angeles scholar, said at an EWA event in 2015 that growth mindsets and social-emotional skills may be more relevant to students who already have their basic needs met. For example, a typical grit questionnaire would ask a student whether “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one,” and “setbacks don’t discourage me.”

But Howard suggested that a questionnaire more sensitive to trauma might instead pose alternative questions such as, “I always have bus fare to get to school,” “whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor,” or “I have at least one teacher who cares about me.” He believes schools should have more mental health experts to assist students in need.

Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization headed by Pamela Cantor, offers professional development for teachers and administrators to support students affected by trauma in several cities on the East Coast. 

Other researchers look at how teachers’ efforts to build their own empathy for students can reduce suspension rates and generate more respect for students who are viewed as troublemakers. But sometimes teachers can be the agents of stress in students’ lives. Jason Okonofua, a Stanford scholar, has explored how teachers’ implicit biases about students can harm black and Latino students, particularly in matters of discipline.

HOW TO MEASURE 

Measuring these attributes is the next frontier in translating the psychology of learning into techniques to help students learn in school. The Every Student Succeeds Act has opened the door for districts to experiment with evaluating schools based in part on students’ behavioral and emotional development. Last year the U.S. Department of Education issued grants to select schools for the ”implementation, evaluation, and refinement” of these concepts. Also, the group Transforming Education has partnered with several large urban districts in California to create a measurement for tracking the extent to which students display these academic and emotional behaviors.

Major assessments will be measuring these skills, too. The makers of both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and PISA have announced plans to include questions that gauge students’ social-and-emotional abilities. Federal researchers have been monitoring social-and-emotional skills in young children for several years.

But a paper written by Duckworth and David Yeager, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, warned against assessing teachers or basing other high-stakes decisions on student growth in academic behaviors. They argue that tools for measuring those qualities aren’t sufficiently fine-tuned to tell whether individual teachers are communicating relevant ideas. A Brookings Institution analysis goes further by saying little consensus exists over what in the social-emotional domain should be measured, and how. Some researchers also worry about the accuracy of self-reported data on grit or mindset.

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In Texas school districts, it’s often the men who are calling the shots. Shelby Webb of The Houston Chronicle explores why it’s the case that in a state where three out of four teachers are women, only one of five superintendents are female. Click here to bypass the story’s paywall.

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Learn about Finland’s transition toward a school schedule that merges multiple subjects into extended learning blocks, a move that could be the exception to the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Education Week’s Madeline Will has the story.

Melinda D. Anderson explains in The Atlantic how the “stress of racial discrimination may partly explain the persistent gaps in academic performance between some nonwhite students, mainly black and Latino youth, and their white counterparts.”

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(Harper)

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The ascent of Duckworth’s buzzword owes a lot to her prior doubts about her own grittiness. Clearly, she had talent—a characteristic that Duckworth defines as “how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort.” It’s what enabled her, in her 20s, to hopscotch from one station in the meritocracy to another: Marshall Scholar at Oxford (where she picked up a neuroscience degree), speechwriting intern at the White House, management consultant at McKinsey, and finally science teacher at a charter school.

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The approach has been misinterpreted by some to mean simply praising effort.

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Why Motivation and Deeper Learning Matter
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How to Motivate Students — or Not
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How to Motivate Students — or Not

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Interventions in the Classroom: What Works, What Doesn’t — A Demonstration
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Interventions in the Classroom: What Works, What Doesn’t — A Demonstration

What does it take to get a kid to care about school? A wave of research is producing quick interventions that motivate students to learn, with hundreds of schools adopting curricular tools designed to boost students’ growth mindsets. How do young learners respond to these efforts to reshape their views about themselves in the context of school? How can educators employ these tricks while teaching core subjects like math or English?

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Deeper Learning, Smarter Testing

Linda Darling-Hammond speaks to reporters at a seminar on motivation at Stanford in November. (Photo credit: EWA/Michael Marriott)

Since 2003, more information is produced every two days than the total sum of information produced between that year and the dawn of time, the CEO of Google said in 2010.  Easily web-accessible facts, names and articles have grown exponentially, so much so that some say students can’t be taught like they were in the past, when rote memorization was the gold standard for learning and information wasn’t at almost everyone’s fingertips.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Growing Minds, Changing Math Classes

Jo Boaler speakers to reporters during EWA's seminar on motivation held at Stanford University in November (Credit: Stanford University/Marc Franklin)

As the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” plays out over the music video, the lyrics are a bit different:

“We will make mistakes…our method’s gonna break…not a piece of cake…we’re gonna shake it off, shake it off…”

It was in this video Stanford University Professor and author Jo Boaler says she was compelled to do something she didn’t want to do. “They made me rap,” she said. When her undergraduate students challenged whether she had a growth mindset about her rhyme skills, Boaler said to herself, “Oh my gosh. I’m gonna have to rap.”

Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Grit Isn’t Enough

Tyrone Howard, a professor and associate dean at UCLA, speakers to reporters about student trauma at EWA's seminar on Motivation Nov. 11, 2015. (Photo credit: EWA/Michael Marriott)

The first time I heard a preschooler explaining a classmate’s disruptive behavior, I was surprised at how adult her four-year-old voice sounded.

Her classmate “doesn’t know how to sit still and listen,” she said to me, while I sat at the snack table with them. He couldn’t learn because he couldn’t follow directions, she explained, as if she had recently completed a behavioral assessment on him.

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

Carol Dweck Explains ‘Growth Mindsets’

Carol Dweck addresses reporters at EWA's seminar on Motivation on the Stanford University campus, Nov. 11, 2015 (Photo credit: EWA/Michael Marriott)

One of the most popular ideas in education today is also one that is often misunderstood. While Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” has a emerged as a meme for motivation less than a decade after the publication of her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” the Stanford psychology professor is worried about its misapplication.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

To Improve Learning, More Researchers Say Students Should Feel Like They Belong in the Classroom

Camille Farrington speaks to reporters at EWA's seminar on motivation at Stanford, Nov. 11, 2015. (Photo credit: EWA/Michael Marriott)

About a third of the students who started college in 2009 have since dropped out, joining the millions of young adults who never entered college in the first place.

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teaching ‘Grit’: How Students, Schools Can Benefit

Over at EWA Radio, we explored the debate over how so-called noncognitive factors like “grit” influence student achievement, and how schools are rethinking approaches to classroom instruction as a result. (You can find the full episode here.I thought this was a good opportunity to revisit a recent guest post by Daveen Rae Kurutz of the Beaver County Times, looking at our “deep dive” session into these issues at EWA’s recent National Seminar:

EWA Radio

What Grit and Perseverance Could Look Like in the Classroom
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(Flickr/Steven Depolo)

Nestled within the new-agey sounding concept of “noncognitive factors” are fairly concrete examples of what parents and educators should and shouldn’t do to prepare students for the rigors of college and careers. Gleaned from research into brain development and human behavior, a toolkit is emerging on how to make the best of the scholarship focused on qualities like grit, persistence and learning from mistakes.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Wrong Answers Lead to the Right Outcomes

Moderator Ki Sung (L) listens as Camille Farrington (R) explains the role non-cognitive research plays in schools. (Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EWA)

In a second-grade classroom outside of Palo Alto, Calif., students were sharing their answers to a math quiz. A young boy named Michael held up his answer, and, as was customary, his classmates showed their verdict on the answer – thumbs up or thumbs down.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Students, Teachers Don’t Study The Way Science Says They Should

Henry Roediger listens as Bror Saxberg answers a reporter's question at EWA's 68th National Seminar in Chicago. (Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EWA)

Most students don’t study using methods backed by scientific research, panelists at the Education Writers Association’s deep dive on the science of learning told reporters in Chicago at the association’s 68th National Seminar.

“Why do people find learning so hard?” asked Henry Roediger, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who participated in the April event.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Littlest Learners See Boost with Less Stress, Active Dads

Lillian Mongeau of The Hechinger Report (left) moderates a conversation with Natasha Cabrera and Geoffrey Nagle at EWA's National Seminar in Chicago in May 2015. (EWA/Mikhail Zinshteyn)

Saturday nights in the newsroom we keep an ear tuned to the scanner. After dark it becomes this portal to all nightmares, a listening post to a relationship war zone.

At first, calls of beatings, knifings and guns drawn ramp up the adrenalin. But eventually, the drone of the dispatchers and pure repetition dull the impact. About 40 percent of all cases at the District Attorney’s office in my county relate to domestic violence.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Motivation May Not Improve Student Scores, While Girls Still March Forward

By Jorge (originally posted to Flickr as School girls) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At schools around the globe, girls outscore boys, and bored students are better test-takers than their more motivated peers. These topsy-turvy observations are the latest findings in a report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution, research that is part of a long-running series that aims to put a finger on the pulse of academics in the United States and abroad. 

Key Coverage

The Science of Smart

Researchers have long been searching for better ways to learn. In recent decades, experts working in cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience have opened new windows into how the brain works, and how we can learn to learn better.

In this program, we look at some of the big ideas coming out of brain science. We meet the researchers who are unlocking the secrets of how the brain acquires and holds on to knowledge. And we introduce listeners to the teachers and students who are trying to apply that knowledge in the real world.