How to Think: Where Should We Begin

The myth of learning styles and illusions of competence are manifestations of how little we understand how we actually learn. Both experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience have already provided important findings but these are often overlooked in education reform. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, helps remind us of some of the salient points now established by research on how we learn:

  1. We need to know when a piece of information is reliable or not.
  2. We must accept the fact that multitasking is not possible.
  3. We cannot build complex knowledge without information in our working memory.
  4. Stress is bad for learning.
  5. Focus is important so distractions need to be removed.
  6. Testing is good when it helps students to recall what they know and makes them aware of what they do not know.
  7. Working memory can easily get overloaded.
Reforms in education need to be guided. Unfortunately, most reforms are not. The reason why reforms are not based on evidence perhaps lies in another discovery made by educational psychologists. Klemm talks about this in a blog post five years ago:

Receiving 27 likes on Facebook underscores one of the paragraphs in this article:
This may also relate to an observation that has puzzled me ever since I wrote my original book on memory improvement. Students have not been as interested in what the book had to say as I expected. Nor do they show as much interest as I anticipated in attending my lectures on the subject. At one unversity where I recently gave a well-advertised talk on how to improve memory, not one student showed up -- only faculty. Older adults, in general, seem to realize they need to work on their memory. Students tend to think they are either just fine as they are or can't improve.
The study Klemm describes in this post comes from Kornell and Bjork, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The following is one of the figures from this study:

Above copied from
Kornell, N. and Bjork, R. A. 2009. A stability bias in human memory: overestimating remembering and underestimating learning. J. Exp. Psychol. 138 (4): 449-468.
The study participants are college students. Students are shown a set of paired words and are asked to predict how well they would remember the second word when cued with the first word on a later test. Students are likewise given the opportunity to study the paired words between each test. As shown in the above graph, the students are in fact improving in their performance with each study and trial. These are the points labeled "Actual". On the other hand, the graph also shows how poorly students perceive their learning. These are the points labeled "Predicted". At the beginning, there is clearly overconfidence. Students overestimate their ability to recall. This, however, is not the only problematic issue. Students are likewise not giving any credit to repeated studying. Students predict no improvement in their performance yet the test results are showing otherwise. We study to learn. This is a simple statement that is perhaps universally accepted, but when it comes to real practice, as shown in the study of Kornell and Bjork, students do not believe that studying enhances learning.

We are often overconfident in our initial capabilities and worse, we do not see how practice can improve our performance. Our own biases are usually the starting point in our thinking. Obviously, the first step in learning is realizing how unreliable our first source of information, our own self, is.