Dr. Megan Sumeracki is an associate professor of psychology at Rhode Island College and co-founder of The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive psychological scientists aiming to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students, teachers, and other educators. Her area of expertise is in human learning and memory, and in applying the science of learning in different contexts.
In this second episode in our series on learning science’s role in a learning business, Jeff talks with Megan about key ideas related to cognitive psychology, what they mean for learning providers, and tips for creating effective learning experiences that incorporate the science of learning. Specifically, they explore the concept of retrieval practice, ways to implement it, and the powerful impact it can have on learning.
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A Tenet of Effective Learning
[02:00] – What is one tenet of effective learning, supported by good research and science, do you wish was more broadly understood and supported by those designing and providing learning to adults?
Megan explains how learning strategies that make us feel like we’re learning efficiently might not produce long-term, durable learning, but strategies that feel more difficult and make us think we’re not learning as well actually produce long-term durable learning. Our own assessment of how we’re doing in the moment can’t be trusted.
For example, repeatedly reading content will make it feel familiar, and we think we won’t forget it in the future. Putting the content away and trying to produce it from memory (retrieval practice) is a better strategy for producing long-term, durable learning, though. It feels difficult, which tricks us into thinking we’re not learning the content as well.
Advice for Incorporating Learning Science
[05:47] – What advice do you have for a learning business looking to make good use of learning science in their offerings?
Megan recommends incorporating retrieval practice and spacing:
- Retrieval practice
Retrieval practice can be a quiz, a test, chatting about the content, or asking participants to bring to mind something and then having a few share.
Spacing can be tricky because professional development sessions tend to be condensed to one to a few days, but any way that you can spread the information out over time will be helpful. Possibilities include pre-conference reading, post-conference reminders for retrieval, and meeting virtually over time rather than physically.
[09:59] – If you’re looking for a partner to help you create and deliver learning experiences using tools grounded in learning science, check out our sponsor for this series.
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Learning Scientists’ Understanding of Adult Learning
[11:12] – How would you describe where we are with learning science right now? How well do learning scientists truly understand how adults learn at this point?
On one hand, Megan thinks we understand adult learning pretty well. In the last couple of decades, we have made leaps and bounds. Some strategies (like spacing) have been around as long as the field has been around, but we’ve learned a lot more recently about their durability and the ways that we can implement them.
The broader dissemination of information and trying to have conversations with those who are in the business of learning is new. Also, she says the field hasn’t done a great job in the past of communicating the science effectively.
There are areas where they don’t know as much and where there are still many open questions. A good scientist is going to acknowledge that and isn’t going to try to create a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Rather, Megan recommends being open to flexible guiding principles and then working to figure out what’s going to be the best approach in a specific context.
Megan says It’s actually quite difficult to predict exactly how a specific adult is going to learn specific content because there are so many variables at play. General rules of thumb exist, and those work well across the board—but there’s still a lot to learn.
The General Public’s Understanding of Learning
[13:57] – What’s your perspective on how broadly dispersed the knowledge about learning science is? Have you seen the reach of that knowledge expand during the time that you’ve been working as a learning scientist?
Megan shares that she and her former colleague Yana Weinstein-Jones originally created The Learning Scientists because they were disappointed in the avenues typically used to disseminate research—the research wasn’t getting read because of accessibility.
It’s unreasonable to expect those who are in these real, boots-on-the-ground learning contexts to gain access to these things, read it, and figure out how it applies in their settings…. The Learning Scientists project really was about trying to make learning more accessible and the science of learning more accessible.Dr. Megan Sumeracki
Cognitive Versus Behavioral Psychology
[17:39] – What is cognitive psychology, and where do you focus? How is cognitive psychology different from behavioral psychology when it comes to learning?
Megan explains behavioral and cognitive psychology:
- Behaviorism was a reaction to early schools of thought that focused on introspection and thinking about thinking and not a lot of observable behavior.
- Behaviorists don’t deny that mental processes are going on but think that, rather than study those processes directly, we can understand them by looking at at behavior.
- Behaviorists wanted to be taken more seriously as a science so they looked to see what they could verify in observable behavior.
- Behaviorists tend to believe humans are born as a blank slate, and that it’s really all nurture as opposed to nature.
- Cognitive psychology says we can’t ignore the things that are going on in our minds, and so we do need to study mental processes while also studying observable behavior.
- Cognitive psychology studies our perceptual systems. For example, how do we see and then recognize a chair as a chair, and how is it that when we see a new chair that we’ve never seen before, we don’t have trouble identifying that that thing is a chair and placing it in that category?
- Cognitive psychology also includes the study of memory, learning, problem solving, and understanding knowledge representations.
Megan focuses on applying cognitive psychology to educational settings and, along with others, engages in a lab-to-classroom model. They start in the lab, where they can maintain control, and then move closer to real environments. Finally, they go into the actual environments (e.g., classrooms) and look to see whether or not the processes that they had people engaging in are causing learning.
Memory and Learning
[23:21] – How do you describe memory’s relationship to learning and memory’s role in learning?
When she teaches her learning course, Megan often asks students what the difference between learning and memory is. Their response is that learning is the process of getting the memory. She admits she doesn’t know the answer to her own question because we often talk in spatial metaphors—we’re trying to get things into our head, or, if we can’t remember something, we’re trying to find a memory, and we might search for it.
While there has to be some remnant of the past, that doesn’t mean it has a single, specific location in the brain. Rather, networks and systems are involved neurologically. Humans can show evidence of learning without realizing it. It’s a lot more complicated than we think, but Megan agrees that learning is a process of acquiring information that we are able to use in the future. But whether or not we can use it in the future and how much we’re actually able to produce consciously is only part of the story.
[25:45] – What is retrieval practice, and what are some examples of it?
Essentially, retrieval practice is simply bringing information to mind and then hopefully producing it in some way. You technically don’t have to overtly produce it in order to bring it to mind. You can just consciously bring it to your mind, and Megan has some research suggesting that covert retrieval (bringing it to mind without producing it) might be just as effective as overt retrieval, but that’s with very simple materials.
Research with more complex materials (like what you would learn in an actual context) suggests it’s difficult for us to only mentally articulate it for retrieval. In that context, producing the material by writing it, drawing it, or saying it is helpful.
Retrieval helps us learn in multiple ways, and, from a practical perspective, Megan says it doesn’t really matter which way or ways we target—they all sort of pile on together.
Some ways retrieval practice is beneficial include the following:
- Retrieval practice produces a feedback about what you know and what you don’t know, and that feedback might allow you to then learn.
- Retrieval practice allows you to study more effectively and efficiently. You can allocate resources more judiciously; you can review things that you might not have reviewed had you not realized you couldn’t remember it.
- Retrieval practice gives an instructor information about what the individuals who are trying to learn know (or don’t), which enables the instructor to then provide more targeted instruction.
- Retrieval practice also provides a direct effect—bringing information to mind produces learning in and of itself.
One way to engage in retrieval practice in educational settings is to give frequent low-stakes tests or quizzes (the low-stakes aspect helps with test anxiety). Retrieval practice can also be drawing what you remember or sketching a concept map. Also, having learners explain content to one another in small groups without the aid of the material right in front of them is another approach to retrieval practice.
Listen to Dr. Megan Sumeracki share what retrieval practice and hiding broccoli in brownies have to do with one another. To learn more, see the related blog post, Retrieval Practice: Hiding Broccoli in the Brownies.
[30:28] – What are ways to support retrieval in recorded presentations?
To increase retrieval opportunities and effectiveness in an asynchronous setting, Megan recommends something like, “Pause this video and think about X.” Explicitly talk about retrieval and the importance of it. Then to motivate learners to do the retrieval work, ask them to bring their responses to the next synchronous session or ask them to type into the chat (where applicable). Without a prompt to show evidence of the retrieval work, learners may just think about it in their head for a second, and that’s where covert retrieval doesn’t work as well.
It also may be helpful to send out text messages after a learning experience with reminders to practice retrieval; such an approach also provides some spacing. Giving learners prompting questions and having them talk through them in breakout rooms can also be effective. Although Megan notes that collaborative retrieval is tricky because everyone has their own retrieval structure; collaborative retrieval is an area where cognitive science still has a lot of room to grow.
Megan also inserts quiz questions in her videos that students have to answer, and they get immediate feedback about whether their answer was right or wrong. Another useful aspect of retrieval practice opportunities is that they break up content and help learners stay engaged, maintain attention, and stay focused.
[35:22] – It sounds like there’s an element of retrieval that’s effective even without feedback. For example, if I’m musician playing the piano and hit a wrong note, then that’s some feedback telling me I need to go back and practice that again. Before I actually get to the point of playing at the piano, is there something happening in terms of retrieval that’s contributing to learning, even before I get any sort of feedback from the instrument?
When you produce information, you have a certain level of confidence, and that confidence could drive how well you think you’re doing. You can think you’re doing really well, or you can think you’re not, but that level of confidence does not necessarily correspond to accuracy. You can be confidently wrong.
Practicing retrieval helps even when you don’t get the corrective feedback. However, adding corrective feedback can make it particularly effective, and, if you consistently retrieve the wrong information, you strengthen that, which is not helpful for learning.
Further Explorations in Learning Science
[39:44] – What interests you in what we don’t about learning science? What question would you love to see answered?
Megan shares that she’s become very interested in motivation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic teaching that she has been doing. She’s also interested in intrinsic and extrinsic interest, something she says the field knows about, but she personally wants to learn more about. She’s also interested in individual differences and how they can shape the way an individual learns in specific contexts.
Learning styles are still popular among a number of individuals, and it’s an extremely pervasive myth that matching instruction to an individual’s learning style is going to help them learn. That’s not true. Individuals do have preferences. You might prefer to listen to a podcast or watch a video over reading something. You might prefer online versus in-person, or you might prefer in-person versus online, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way you’re going to learn better.
What matters is the processes that you are engaging with, and certain materials tend to be better…. So those individual differences don’t seem to matter in terms of learning. I do think that anybody can learn online or in person. We just have to make sure that the processes that they are engaging in online or in person are top-notch.Dr. Megan Sumeracki
Megan is interested in those individual differences and how they affect how we learn. She says cognitive psychologists who are experimentalists don’t tend to look at individual differences as often as some other areas of psychology, but she thinks they should be doing more of that.
[43:00] – Do you have any tips or tricks to increase motivation to learn in adult learning settings?
Megan elaborates on the concept of metacognition, which is the idea of knowing what you know and determining how well you’re learning in a particular context. There’s some research (not published yet) looking at interest and how it affects learning and your metacognitive judgments of how well you’re learning. The researchers found that having a greater self-reported interest in the material led to increased judgments of learning—so they thought that they were learning it better—but it did not affect actual learning. (The research deals with “captive” learners, i.e., those who don’t have a choice about being there versus participating in a similar offering.)
They engaged in X amount of time of some specific learning strategy. So it didn’t matter whether they were interested or not in terms of actual learning because they all engaged in retrieval practice at a certain level. So it’s actually kind of good news. You don’t have to be overly interested. As long as you know that you have to learn the content, even if you’re not interested in it, if you can buckle down and use the science of learning to say, “Here’s the strategy that’s going to be effective,” it will be effective.Dr. Megan Sumeracki
The good news is learners don’t have to love every minute of a course or experience in order to learn. But, if the audience isn’t captive, and they have a choice, how do we increase interest and motivation? Megan admits she’s doesn’t know the answer, although maybe somebody else in the field does. She suggests asking participants if they enjoyed the experience and what they enjoyed so you determine what they found engaging, which might be a key to motivating others. However, she cautions not to mistake enjoyment for learning.
[46:42] – Wrap-Up
Megan Sumeracki is co-founder of The Learning Scientists, which she manages with three other smart, motivated women who love science and data: Carolina Kuepper Tetzel, Cindy Nebel, and Althea Need Kaminske. We encourage you to learn more about her and her colleagues’ work at learningscientists.org and on Twitter as @AceThatTest. On The Learning Scientists Web site, you’ll find a blog, a podcast, and downloadable materials that can help expand your team’s, your facilitators’, your learners’, and your own understanding of effective learning strategies.
In particular, we’ll call out a blog post by Megan called “Elaboration As Self-Explanation.” The post comes from a particular experience with high school teachers, but the benefits of self-explanation—and the tactics for encouraging it—apply to adult lifelong learners as well. And don’t forget to check out their resources on six strategies for effective learning that we highlighted in the previous episode.
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[48:48] – Sign-off
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