Psychology of Learning

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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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.