Action Overview: How Students Learn

Action: Explore how students learn

This set of resources is designed to help educators look at the research on the learning processes of students so that the ideas from the research can inform decisions that educators make in designing instruction and curriculum.


The previous two actions of this Instructional Practices strategy examined the beliefs of educators and their current instructional practices. This action puts the focus on the learners. We will consider the ideas that come out of research about how students learn and the implications for instruction. The participants will engage in a jigsaw activity that explores a few articles that present various aspects of student learning. The ideas from this action will inform the vision for science instruction that is developed in the last action of this Instructional Practices strategy.

Why is examining how students learn important?

Evidence from research suggests that teachers employ mental models of how students learn when they teach (Beijaard & Verloop, 1996). In this sense, every teacher — implicitly or explicitly — employs a theory of learning as they make instructional decisions. It seems logical for the mental model to be based on our best available scientific understanding of how learning occurs. Similarly, emerging evidence suggests these models influence how teachers teach (Lohse-Bossenz et al., 2015).

It is important for educators to examine whether their instructional practices are based on the processes of learning that their students use. As educators examine the research about learning from the field of cognitive science, they may find that their practices do not match those findings. For example, they may find that instruction that is based on facts only utilizes a student’s short term memory, hence that knowledge might not aid the student in problem solving.

If educators in an organization do not have a common understanding about how students learn, they may have difficulty interpreting and diagnosing lack of achievement by some students. They may also be hindered in developing a common vision for instruction and developing plans for improvements.

Examining the research about student learning may provide the following benefits:

· Understanding of how a student’s culture influences their learning
· Understanding of learning difficulties that students may have
· Identification of teaching practices that are not compatible with the needs of students and characteristics of the learning
· Understanding of the role of informal learning in academic achievement
· Understanding of the social and emotional needs of students
· Avoid the tendency to label students based on inaccurate perceptions of what they can learn
· Challenge the notion that some standards cannot be achieved by all students

What are some findings from research on how students learn?

The activity below will explore a sampling of research from cognitive science that can inform educators about how students learn.

1. The Science of Learning contains six key questions related to how students learn, with principles from cognitive science that help answer them, and lists some practical implications for teaching that follow from these scientific principles. The key questions are:
· How do students understand new ideas?
· How do students learn and retain new information?
· How do students solve problems?
· How does learning transfer to new situations?
· What motivates students to learn?
· What are some common misconceptions about how students think and learn?
2. Self-Theories addresses the notions (“mindsets”) that students and educators may have concerning their ability to learn and grow in their abilities. This impacts the motivations of students to tackle challenges and how teachers can help students set and address goals.
3. How People Learn I -Key Findings from the National Research Council (1999) looks at implications for teaching of cognitive research at that point. In particular it recommends that instruction utilize the prior knowledge of students, develop a deep conceptual framework for student understanding, and help students monitor their own thinking.
4. How People Learn II Summary from the National Research Council (2018) updates the research and looks at the following areas that impact instructional practices:
· influences of culture, experiences and social interactions
· processes of learning, especially as related to brain development
· utilization of knowledge and reasoning to develop mental models that can be used for problem solving
· factors that affect motivation to learn and how motivation may be improved.

Suggested Activities

The portal provides an activity to help educators explore research on How Students Learn.


Deans for Impact. (2015). The science of learning. Austin, TX

Mindset Works. (2017) Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution.

National Research Council (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. National Academy Press.

National Research Council (2018). How People Learn II: learners, Contexts, and Cultures. National Academy Press.