Stanford scholars untangle the science of learning

Stanford education researchers distill learning theories into practical solutions for classrooms.

Cramming the night before a midterm exam may help you get an A on the test, but it isn’t the best way to actually learn the material for the long haul. Highlighting in a book won’t help you remember important passages. Giving one example when trying to explain something is never as good as giving two. And rewarding certain behaviors can actually undermine motivation, not boost it.

There is a lot to learn about learning – and maybe even some things to unlearn. Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) gather up much of the science on learning and break it down for use in classrooms, homes or wherever else learning may take place. Their findings are contained in the new book, The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them, by Professor Daniel Schwartz, dean of the GSE, and researchers Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair. The content is drawn from a popular Stanford course taught by Schwartz.

Girl in robotics class

A new book by Stanford Professor Daniel Schwartz and researchers Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair explores the many ways in which people learn. (Image credit: Steve Debenport / Getty Images)

The authors said one of the main misconceptions about learning is that it is a single thing and there are only one or two ways to achieve it. In the book they present distinct types of learning and how to achieve them for every letter of the alphabet, beginning with A is for Analogy. They explain the theory, give the evidence and provide examples of how to incorporate the learning principle in practice.

Following are excerpts from interviews with the authors.

What makes one approach to learning better than another?

Schwartz: The brain does not have one central processing unit responsible for all learning. Different brain systems are dedicated to learning different kinds of ways. Part of the task of studying learning is to understand these systems and how they operate. Generally, people think the best way to get people to learn is to have them do a task over and over. They treat learning as strengthening a muscle, and you practice a lot. But I think of learning as more like a dance – you want to coordinate the systems to work together. Effective teaching is creating an environment where the dancing, the coordination can happen.

What’s your favorite letter?

Blair: J is for Just-in-Time Telling. It describes how to set up experiences for learners to engage with a problem and try to find their own solutions so they are better prepared to understand the expert solution and what it accomplishes. There are two reasons I particularly like this chapter: One is that it introduces new ideas about how to assess learning experiences, focusing on how well they prepare students to continue learning in the future, and two is that it points out how different kinds of learning approaches that are sometimes pitted against each other – like active learning versus lectures – can work together to support robust learning.

Tsang: J is a good one. I also like H is for Hands-on and Z is for Zzzzs. H talks about how to make hands-on activities effective for learning. You know the saying, “Keep your eye on the ball”? It’s really helpful for designing hands-on activities, as long as you can identify “the ball” – or the ultimate learning goals of the activities. Easier said than done. Zzzzs – sleep – is a fun chapter. We all know sleep is good. This chapter gives a little more shape to the idea. And sleep research itself is incredibly multifaceted, so there were lots of interesting examples to work with – from language learning to athletic performance to how our memories can be tampered with if we get too little sleep.

How did you select the 26 approaches?

Tsang: We brainstormed a bunch of ideas with sticky notes on a white board – there were probably 60 sticky notes altogether – and then shuffled, renamed and re-conceptualized based on the strength of the ideas, how they could be combined and which ones we wanted to write about. There was a lot of discussion about the difference between a learning topic and an actionable learning technique. Usually learning books are organized around topics but we wanted to switch it up and make the ideas more actionable.

Blair: There was a fair bit of shuffling as we tried to map them to the alphabet. It was easy at first, but then we had to get creative as letters filled up. That’s why sleep became Zzzzs so Self-Explanation could take S. Letter X was particularly challenging.

Schwartz: We were looking for principles that would be actionable. We want more people to be able to take the research and apply it. There tends to be a gap about what is studied and what is used.

How does learning fit into improving education?

Schwartz: I study learning, so I think it’s the single-most important thing in the world! But really, learning is, of course, necessary, but it’s not sufficient to focus only on learning to improve education. Education is an institution that encompasses more than learning. Learning is something that individuals or small groups of people do within – or outside of – the institution. People often get learning and education mixed up. There are a lot of social, political and economic factors that go into education and if those aren’t straightened out, then the opportunity to learn isn’t going to be there. So not all education can be about learning. But when we do have the opportunity to focus on learning, I want the science to be accessible.

Media Contacts

Brooke Donald, Director of Communications, Stanford GSE: (415) 722-2166, brooke.donald@stanford.edu

Daniel Schwartz, Dean of Stanford GSE: daniel.schwartz@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu