The Science of How we Learn

Here are some notes taken of a book I read recently as part of my professional learning. Very interesting and easy to read. You will be interested to see how many of these points relate to teaching with comprehensible input. My notes are a bit over the place, but hopefully you will find some hidden gems!

Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn

by John Hattie and Gregory Yates

Notes from Reading:

Teachers become more effective when they can see learning though the eyes of students.

Expert teachers are not the same as experienced teachers. Expert teachers are able to achieve deeper outcomes.

The human brain does not naturally want to think. Avoiding failure is a strong motivator for humans. Paying attention and knowledge gaps – we pay attention only if the gap is perceived as bridgeable in the short term. Chasms are not motivating!

We are curious about new learning when:

  1. the knowledge gap is relevant
  2. there is a means by which it can be closed

We don’t think about new learning unless there is a link between the effort we have to make and our success.

The quality of thinking drops away once the cognitive load increases beyond 4 items.

Teacher knowledge of content has little relationship with the attainment level of students.

‘Curse of knowledge’ – the more you know about something, the more difficult it can be to see the learning from another’s viewpoint.

Empathy gap – if you can’t put yourself in the place of another.

It is important to interact with at-risk students in a non-coercive and friendly manner. Interesting study (teachers spent time chatting and playing games with students out of class times) showed that with closer r’ships, teacher views of students changed. A close relationship is important for trust.

Students value being treated with

  1. fairness
  2. dignity
  3. respect

‘blink effect’ students evaluate a teacher after 10 seconds!

DELIBERATE practice is needed to learn. Guidance, instruction, goal setting and feedback leads to deliberate practice.

Studies show attention drops off after 10 minutes!

A students’ pace of processing in reading is so important for their learning. Slow processing can even have an impact on oral listening skills. Pace of reading needs intensive, self-directed practice to improve.

Repeated reading – with repetitions, reading improves dramatically in fluency and prosody.

MULTILIT (Macquarie Uni) proven very successful with poor readers.

Students want to know how to improve so they can do better next time.

Show students examples of each level of success (success critieria).

Feedback is POWERFUL when students know:

  1. what success looks like
  2. how to reduce the gap between here and there
  3. where to go next

Praise does not help you to learn!


People learn more with praise X

People need praise to establish and maintain self-worth X

NO! Don’t confuse praise with feedback!

Give more informational feedback and less praise!

Kids need to know when things are difficult and that it is normal for new things to be hard sometimes.

“Know thy impact” The more teachers know about their impact in the classroom, the more benefits their students have. Get feedback from your kids!

Personal ‘discovery learning’ does not lead to learning.

Kids need direct instructional language. Also learning through observation is very powerful. (observing is better than doing)

direct interpersonal knowledge – transmission very powerful YES!!!

discovery learning NO!!!

Social transmission as evolutionary driver – we are built to learn from others.

Most people remember what is said first (primacy) or last (recency).

No use performing a skill already acquired. Deliberate practice is for improvement of a skill. You cannot improve the skill if the mind is elsewhere. THE HUMAN MIND IS UNABLE TO GENUINELY FOCUS ON TWO ACTIVITIES AT ONCE. If you do this, the skill is being exercised but NOT improved. This means no listening to music or playing games while learning. No meaningful learning or skill development will take place.

Deliberate practice is:

  1. effortful
  2. goal-structured
  3. actively monitored

There may be a plateau of learning, this is normal.

Practice time should be about 20 minutes.

Expert teachers:

  1. set goals and use challenges for students
  2. monitor student learning and use feedback to alter teacher decisions
  3. draw on strong curriculum knowledge

6 Principles of Acquisition

  1. Human learning is slow. It needs time, goal orientation, supportive feedback, accumulated successful practice, frequent review. Needs to be meaningful, relevant and timely.
  1. Concentration spans are short. 15 – 20 minutes before mind wanders. There is no Mozart effect! Young kids even shorter span of attn.
  1. Distributive practice more effective than massed practice/cramming. Blocks of 15-30 minutes are most effective.
  1. Prior knowledge effects are powerful. Far easier to build on what kids know. If new knowledge cannot be linked to prior knowledge, it is quickly shed. Meaningfulness stems from prior knowledge. Advance organisers can be useful for this.
  1. Your mind responds well to multimedia input. We are all visual learners and audio learners!! We all learn well when inputs are multi-modal. Strong learning occurs when words and images are combined. ALL students learn most effectively through linking images with words.
  1. To learn, your mind has to be active. Get kids to respond somehow.

6 Principles of Memory Retention

  1. To recognise is easy, to recall is hard
  1. Primary and recency rule!! (We remember what is taught first and last)
  1. Rates of forgetting differ. It depends on the type of learning. The mind sheds isolated facts very rapidly.
  1. Memory is a highly constructive process. It is dependent on the focus of attn at the time of learning.
  1. What is forgotten can still help down the track. We can learn material a second time around very rapidly.
  1. Memory is subject to interference. (second language interferes when learning third)

5 Aspects of Handling Information Overload

  1. Learning can be stressful and make you feel uncertain. Negative feelings can creep in once capacity is exceeded.
  2. Students tend to be overconfident in what they think they can learn, but they underestimate the time and practice it takes.
  3. Once overload is reached, the ability to take on board new information is reduced.
  4. Overload is caused by:
    1. -low levels of prior knowledge
    2. -deficient use of mental strategies/inappropriate coping strategies
    3. -unrealistic expectations
    4. -poor instruction, failure to engage
    5. -unfavourable learning conditions
    6. -assessment apprehension
  5. How much info can be held?

4 items if new, 8 if relatively familiar

To move items from short-term mem to long-term mem, try CRIME:

C – chunking – organise into patterns

R – rehearsal (reciting, labelling)

I – imagery (picture it)

M – mnemonics

E – elaboration (linking new items to old)

Declarative knowledge – expressed through words

Procedural knowledge – expressed through actions

Gestures in Teaching

When students gesticulate and use their hands as they speak, their understanding of what they are saying can move to a deeper level, and their overall performance on academic tasks can be enhanced.

Gesticulation assists our mental processes entirely positively.

Cognitive load

We have a limited working memory. We can store about 7 bits of info.

2 – 4 elements at a time to learn. This is lost within 20 seconds unless rehearsed. But there are no limits when info is retrieved from long-term memory.

Pre- instructional experience is valuable for novices:

eg flipped learning, backward design, whole picture before specifics, success criteria for series of lessons is important BUT when teaching knowledgeable people it is far less effective.

We learn better when we listen and see images.

Clear and usable techniques for memorisation can and should be actively taught in classroom situations. eg pegboard scheme

Memorising Strategies

  1. Pegword schemes : one is to bun, two is to shoe, three is to tree etc
  2. Story chaining: invent a story to link disparate items
  3. Method of loci: use imagery of places to position items along a walk
  4. Acrostics: Call in the COPS (Capitals, Organisation, Punctuation and Spelling) Medical emergency (blow to the head or stroke) get the person to START – Smile, talk, arms raised, tongue poke
  5. Acronyms eg NAPLAN
  6. First letter cues: rhythm helps your two hips move
  7. Specific word associations: principal/principle. Principal is my pal, potassium – one tea with two sugars

Specialist mnemonics – for foreign language words. Linking new words to meanings in long-term memory. eg Ranidae frog – sounds like rainy day – it lives in a rainforest. Spanish rojo (red) sounds like ‘raw’

To learn a new word:

  1. Stare at the word
  2. Pronounce it slowly and correctly 3 times
  3. Think of a keyword (to link it with)


‘There is not any recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you teach your students any better than not knowing their learning style.’

NO evidence suggesting that learning styles can predict learning in any meaningful manner.

“…it is nonsense to hold the idea that some of your students can be classified as visual learners whereas others…are auditory learners.”

“…be wary, and distrustful, of any theory-based scheme that informs you there are different types of students sitting in your class that need to be taught in different ways.”

To increase students’ confidence

Use active teaching strategies:

  1. Use lots of ‘can do’ language, ‘everyone will learn’ etc
  2. active, direct teaching in short bursts, teach skills clearly, use of prior knowledge, good methodologies, etc
  3. ensure all S engage with materials. Move from easy to hard. Use scaffolds so all S can move fwd

Use active motivational strategies:

  1. Help students ‘own’ their academic work. Ensure they all have something they are proud of.
  2. Focus on effort rather than ability. Explain that effort comes in temporary, but infinitely renewable.
  3. Emphasise how current challenges relate to past problems. I know you can do this because you did a similar one last week.
  4. Use high levels of feedback with corrective function. Don’t overdo praise.
  5. Get to know your students.
  6. Directly teach healthy attributions. No ‘I can’t do this’ stuff! If failure needs to be explained, cite: a) lack of input (not paying attn., missed lessons, concept not taught well), b) lack of practice, c) a gap in knowledge, d) lack of effort or e) goals way too high without bridging goals
  7. ABILITY IS NOT FIXED! Ability is the result of effort. Learning takes time, much longer than we expect. Reset goals to achievable levels.
  8. Discourage social comparisons. Highlight personal progressions that improve over time.

When it comes to learning, multitasking DOES NOT EXIST. If attention is split, learning cannot occur. Students should be discouraged from thinking they can do two things at once, if one of those activities is LEARNING.









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