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What is Learning Science?

How people learn has fascinated mankind for centuries. Socrates and Aristotle spent most of their lives investigating theories about learning and knowledge. In more recent history, researchers like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky influenced the education field by focusing on how humans learn. 

Experts currently studying how we take in, process and retain information and skills have discovered that the science of learning involves much more than a variety of instructional styles and modalities. Learning science is a complex, evolving combination of multiple disciplines. 

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Learning Science  

Several foundational disciplines inform the study of learning science. These areas of work and study involve at least six components: 

  • Cognitive science: This discipline investigates how the brain functions and how humans solve problems. Cognitive scientists study how the physical brain and the intangible mind work together.
  • Instructional design: Instructional designers create learning experiences and materials that help students acquire information as well as apply what they have learned.
  • Computer science: Computer scientists work as critical thinkers, analyzing algorithms and data, studying human-computer interactions, and solving problems involving security. They also discuss social and ethical issues in computing. They are concerned primarily with the software of the computer industry.
  • Linguistics: The word linguistics is defined most simply as the scientific study of language and includes language acquisition, language structure and how languages vary. The study of language investigates how languages influence our interactions with others, as well as how we view the world.
  • Psychology: As the scientific study of the mind and behavior, psychology includes research in human development, sports and health habits, and cognitive processes, to name a few.
  • Neuroscience: Focusing on the human brain, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, how it works, how it develops and what it does for the body. 

Education and the Science of Learning  

Just like scientists, experienced educators understand that what may seem to be a good idea in theory may not work in every classroom. They recognize how important it is to know their students. Good teachers take time to observe student behaviors, how students respond in collaborative groups and how collaboration differs from working on their own. Good teachers recognize learning styles and preferred modalities in their students and interact with them to determine what factors outside of school influence how they learn. 

In the same way, learning scientists observe teachers in the classroom, determining how they provide direct instruction and how their management systems affect their classrooms. Educational psychologist Jessica McKeown and linguist researcher Kathleen Richards write, "Just like good teachers target instruction by first assessing the landscape of diverse learner needs in their classroom and then finding resources to address those needs, we as learning scientists also begin by assessing the diverse needs of educators and students and digging into academic research to identify solutions that support these needs." 

Learning Science and Educational Technology  

Given the extraordinary pace at which educational technology is growing, teachers at all levels are challenged to monitor the classroom use of computers and tablets. Little long-term empirical evidence exists to support the notion that 1:1 technology will increase academic success. 

In fact, any early reports of positive benefits may simply reflect student excitement about getting to work on a computer or screen. Scholars Thomas P. Reber and Nicholas Rothen report, "Ultimately, it is actually unclear how much is gained by expensive [information-and-communication-technology-approaches] over cheaper traditional learning approaches that follow well established principles of learning and memory." 

Learning scientists have suggested several classroom practices for tempering the widespread influx of technology in the classroom.

Reber and Rothen state that "learning works best when it is distributed over time" and that students should be able to retrieve information they have learned consistently over increasing lapses of time. The researchers suggest the creation of in-app reminders, guiding students back to practice what they have learned as well as to remember how to use the app most effectively.

In addition to using the app to retain information, Sarah Sparks with Education Week suggests developing apps that prompt students to test how they use knowledge. While using self-directed apps for test prep, students would be exposed to new, related information. The app would then direct students to apply the information they just received to what they already know as they answer new questions. This would help students review for tests while honing their test-taking skills.

Reber and Rothen suggest including multiple modalities, such as sight and sound, when creating apps.

Most apps penalize for errors. Although students may be motivated to work hard to quickly correct those errors, the lack of personalized feedback limits online and app learning. Educators know it is as critical to reflect on learning and recognize effort as it is to reward success. Learning scientists suggest that app developers find new ways to encourage students to take risks and discover the importance of perseverance and discovery, even if it leads to making errors. Sparks has found that "studies suggest students benefit more from feedback that guides next steps, rather than simply pointing out or penalizing students for errors."

According to "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking" published in Psychological Science, it is far more effective to take notes with pencil and paper than on a laptop or tablet. Students who take notes with a keyboard concentrate on recording as much information verbatim as possible. The slower, physical act of handwriting combined with the cognitive act of synthesizing information contribute far more to retaining knowledge than simply typing every word a teacher says.  

The Importance of Learning Science

Learning science is teaching us how we learn and how we retain information. It is also exploring the importance of where and how students learn, how these factors enhance or inhibit learning, and how to best assess what students have already learned and what they need to know. It is helping teachers bridge the gaps between learning environments, student behavior and academic success, while also finding the best tools to give students opportunities to succeed.

Teachers at all levels and in all disciplines are learning how to use both the science of learning and educational technology for academic success. A Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Louisiana State University Shreveport will prepare experienced educators for what comes next as they gain new expertise and learn how to align their professional skills with best practices in educational research, testing, curriculum development and the principles of theory and learning. 

Learn more about LSUS's Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction: General Online program.


Medium: What Is Learning Science? Educational App-Development Needs to Be Informed by the Cognitive Neurosciences of Learning & Memory 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Are the Learning Sciences? And Why Do They Matter?

Education Week: Scientists to App Developers: Tap Learning Science to Be More Effective 

Psychological Science: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

YouTube: Cognitive Science: What Is It and Why Is It Important? 

Association for Talent Development: What Is Instructional Design? 

Computing in the Core: What Is Computer Science and What Do People Do Once They Know It? 

Linguistic Society of America: Why Major in Linguistics? 

Simply Psychology: What Is Psychology?

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