Summary, notes, and critique of the science of learning

… written by “Deans for impact”, see


  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and process new information?
  3. HOw do students solve problems
  4. How does leearning transfers to new situations inside and outside classrooms?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are the common misconceptions about how students learn?

So let’s take the answers one by one:

How do students understand new ideas?

There are three things here:

  • We learn new things by relating to what we already know and remember
  • If we are faced with too much information, this hinders our learning
  • Our mastery of new concepts proceed through stages, there is nothing about age or automatic or magical about that

The most important takeaway point here is that, we learn and understand new ideas by relating to what we already know. So, essentially our knowldege is incremental, and we progress from one stage to another. As a result, we need to design our teaching curriculum such that things progress in an orderly manner and we make sure x is covered before x+1 is covered, where x indicates the level of complexity. Also, as you teach, or as you learn, make sure you are not overwhelmed with too much facts all at once. Split it, in step by step, or one thing after another, easy and well-known things first.

How do we learn, process, and retain new information?

Two points:

  • Give context or meaning to it
  • Practice deliberately with graduated challenges

Any new information, not only should relate to what we already know, but also what is the overall meaning? What is the context? Then, there is practice. Such practice needs to be repeated and graduated and deliberate practice.

Say I want to learn how to play guitar. I need to work with the chords, easy ones first, then increase the challenge, and do it _everyday_, everyday once I master X then increase the level of challenge.

As another example, in a classroom, if I want to teach evidence processing, start with simple examples, then pose a low-stake quiz and check how much people remembered. Then increase the level of complexity.

How do we solve problems?

  • Start with facts and heuristics
  • Constructive task focused feedback is essential for problem solving

Problem solving is an area where a novice (think of a guy who does not even know what questions to ask) progresses to a stage of being an expert, but in the middle, he stages through a process of becoming a competent practitioner, so that he or she can solve problems with confidence. But the theory tells us that they will need facts and heuristics to start with. Then, once those are consolidated, with deliberate practice and graduate challenges, they will move to the stage of competency. In between, they need feedback.



Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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