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Mental Tools to Master Any Subject

By Dr. Joshua Eyler, Ph.D.

A Now You Know Media Course Study Guide

Learning to Learn: Mental Tools to Master Any Subject


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Learning to Learn: Mental Tools to Master Any Subject

Turbocharge your learning capacity with easy yet powerful tools.

Can cognitive science show you how to learn more effectively? What strategies improve your short-
and long-term memory? How do the best teachers inspire you to think in new and different ways?
What are the most successful methods for retaining knowledge?

In Learning to Learn: Mental Tools to Master Any Subject, you’ll explore the expansive terrain
of human learning from many angles. Your guide is Dr. Joshua Eyler, an expert in the science of
learning and evidence-based teaching practices. Passionate and accomplished, Dr. Eyler will
revitalize your love of learning. With him, you’ll probe the biological, cognitive, and social aspects of
learning before discussing strategies and techniques for improving your individual capacity to learn.

You’ll discover that the science of learning offers benefits across the various facets of your life. In 12
lectures, Dr. Eyler’s multidisciplinary background shines through. He uses vivid examples to teach
you tools for maximizing learning in any number of academic, professional, and social settings. Here
are just a few of the things you’ll learn to do:
• Use stories to grasp complex concepts;
• Harness the power of your individual learning style;
• Enhance your memory with simple strategies;
• Channel your mistakes into educational opportunities; and
• Engage with subjects through both emotion and cognition.

Throughout the course, you will come to understand the connections between effective teaching
and successful learning. In doing so, you will become both a better learner and a better
communicator. Whether you’re a professional, a parent, or a lifelong learner, you’ll find invaluable
lessons to guide you along your learning journey.

Join in on this fun and illuminating look at how you can become a more skillful and well-rounded

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Learning to Learn: Mental Tools to Master Any Subject


Dr. Joshua Eyler, Ph.D., is an expert in the science of learning and in
evidence-based teaching practices. He is the Director of the Center for
Teaching Excellence at Rice University, where he also teaches the
humanities. After receiving his B.A. in English from Gettysburg College,
he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of
Connecticut in 2006. Dr. Eyler is the author of How Humans Learn: The
Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, which was published in
2018 by West Virginia University Press.

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Learning to Learn: Mental Tools to Master Any Subject



In this first lecture, we will explore a number of different perspectives on the concept of learning. Is
it possible to learn something without even trying? What happens to us biologically when learning
occurs? We’ll answer these questions and more as we begin to think about what it means to learn


Let’s begin with two moments of wonder, both of which illustrate the power and possibility of

• A baby petting the family dog for the first time

• A child in school for whom the pieces of a particular topic come together for the first time –
It could be subtraction, or reading, or the causes of the American Revolution, or one of
Newton’s Laws. As teachers, we refer to this as the “light-bulb” moment – when someone
truly understands an idea for the first time, and it is what sustains us in the moments when
teaching is difficult.

Both of these scenarios illustrate a phenomenon we can describe as learning, but what do we actually
mean by that term?

As it happens, the psychological study of learning is a relatively recent development, compared with
other fields. The serious study of learning really begins to take shape only in the mid-19th century.

Acclaimed psychologist Jerome Bruner has a really useful 2004 article on the history of the
development of theories about learning. Early on, he shows, scientists believed learning was
comprised of a succession of associations. We’ve come a long way since then, but it’s worth noting
that there are still some aspects of learning that are associative, and mnemonic devices are a good
example of this. We’ll return to Bruner in the next lecture, because he contributed so much to our
understanding of the conditions under which we learn most effectively.

By far, though, it was behaviorism that dominated our thinking about learning in the early 20th
century. Several famous scientists and psychiatrists used the stimulus and response method in their

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• Edward Thorndike (cats)

• Ivan Pavlov (dogs)

• B.F. Skinner (boxes – levers for rats and keys for pigeons)

• John Watson (Little Albert 1920; Johns Hopkins University; furry things/rats; loud noises;
scandal; advertising)

Eventually, scientists moved on from behaviorist approaches, unsatisfied with the reduction of
learning to our response to stimuli. More recent cognitive science approaches show that learning is
much more complicated, that many different areas of the brain are involved in storing and
understanding concepts and ideas.

As our tools have gotten more advanced, we have added more data to our theories about learning.
For example, many neuroscientists use an fMRI machine to test their hypotheses about the way our
brains work. An fMRI is just like a regular MRI, except it’s used to collect data rather than to see
whether or not you’ve torn a ligament in your knee. The “f” here stands for “functional.” The fMRI
captures the blood flow to the areas in the brain that are in use when participants are asked to
perform different cognitive exercises. Though not a perfect instrument, fMRIs have helped us to
gain many insights about learning.

With all of this in mind, then, we can think about learning from a variety of perspectives:

• There is the biological!the changes that occur in our brains when we acquire new
knowledge. We’ll hear more about this process in a later lecture.

• There is the pragmatic!I didn’t know a piece of information before and now I do.

• There is the philosophical!When we learn our ways of seeing the world, ourselves, ideas
are transformed, never to be the same again. There is a great example of this in the movie

Sometimes we learn even when we are not trying to. This process is called “implicit learning,” and it
can happen in many different ways. According to some research, we often learn about categories
and about sequences in this way.

But for the most part, I hope, when we set out to learn something, we are trying to do so.

In each of these lectures, I will present a research-informed perspective on a particular aspect of

learning, and then connect this information to our own lives as learners and to the world of
education. Indeed, in terms of education, I will use examples of practice from great teachers I know
or am familiar with, but I will also talk about what we might watch for or advocate for in our
educational systems in order to put these principles of learning into practice for children in schools

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Teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Learning requires teaching, regardless of
whether or not we are teaching ourselves or we are being taught by somebody else. The relationship
between the two is absolutely crucial.


In the last lecture, I provided an overview of what we mean when we talk about learning, and in this
one, I want to address how learning happens.

One common way we think about learning has to do with its relationship to teaching. While we can
sometimes learn things on our own, we very often need a teacher to aid this process.

These are ancient building blocks of communication:

• Social interactions at the root of our development as a species – anthropologists have

suggested that some of the most important of these interactions would have been teaching-
like behaviors.

• One person showing another person how to do something, where to find something, etc., as
a way to build knowledge.

• Some other scientists go even further to suggest teaching and learning behaviors are shared
by other social species and lay at the foundation of our evolution. We see how this might be
possible when we observe parents and infants interacting.

• Imitation, which eventually leads to language acquisition.

We need other people in order to learn. This is true even of the most self-directed learners. There
are limits to teaching oneself.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian social psychologist whose major work is called Mind in
Society. It was published posthumously several decades after his death from tuberculosis. He was
contemporary of many well-known psychologists, but particularly Jean Piaget. Comparing Vygotsky
and Piaget is particularly important, because Piaget focused on the developing child as an individual,

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and developed concepts about learning like assimilation (classic example: all furry animals are dogs)
and accommodation (cats are not dogs) with this in mind.

Vygotsky, on the other hand, believed that social interactions were key to learning. He developed the
Zone of Proximal Development concept.

Jerome Bruner (1915-2016), whom I mentioned in the first lecture, added the idea of scaffolding to
Vygotsky’s ZPD.

There are several elements that make teaching relationship effective:

• Empathy

• Genuinely caring about the student as a learner and as a person

• An understanding of the student’s strengths and areas for improvement

• Having a broad knowledge of how learning works

Relationship is formalized in what we refer to as systems of education, and though it is the building
block of successful education, most educational systems themselves put up barriers or limitations
(standardized tests, over-structured curriculum, emphasis on behavior/obedience, grades, etc.) on
the work that is possible between teachers and students.

Students will often learn, not because of the regimented curriculum, but because a teacher found a
way to connect with that student, to meet the student on her or his own terms, and open doors to
future exploration.

As we progress through the lectures, it will be important to remember this vital role played by
teachers in learning.

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How does our brain take bits of information and build knowledge from them? How do we
remember something? Learning changes our brains, and we’ll explore the process in some detail.


There are many things we could say about the human brain, but it’s AMAZING! Also, in many
respects, it is quite evolutionarily conserved. This means that some of its structures have not
changed much over time, whereas others have developed quite a lot.

For a long time, a popular way of thinking about how our brains evolved was the model of the
triune brain – divided into reptilian, mammalian, and human. The idea here was one of commonality
and age. The reptilian brain, the theory goes, is made up of the brain stem and related structures and
that this is our inheritance from our long-ago lizard-like ancestors. The mammalian structures would
be the limbic system of the brain, which includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and
more – parts that are concerned with emotions, memories, and lots of other deeply rooted
behaviors. This, it was suggested, is what we share with all mammals. The neocortex then is what
really makes us human and evolved much later and was expanded to a much more significant degree
than any of our ancestors. This is where, in so many ways, cognition happens.

This model has been discarded, largely because it suggests that evolution was too clean cut. One part
of our brain did not just stop evolving and then another part suddenly began to do so. Different
components of our brain were continually evolving at the same time.

Practically, this means that our brains are capable of great inventions, new discoveries, beautiful
math, poems that make us weep, but we also still have deeply built in instincts for flight-or-fight
responses, for example. Learning is not located in one area only. It’s a partnership between many

Another evolutionary perspective on the brain is that it is concerned with survival and is ruthlessly
pragmatic in determining whether something will benefit it or not. Learning is a part of this.

Different parts of the brain have different functions:

• Pre-frontal Cortex (developed most profoundly in human beings over time) is Mission
Control for many learning tasks.

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• Neurons and Synapses (Zull) – fire together, wire together

• Memory – we will talk about this more in depth in a later lecture.

There are also many common misconceptions about the brain that we will discuss at a later time.

There are a couple of neurochemicals that have interesting effects on the brain:

• Dopamine – spike when there is an error from what we expected or predicted (such as
getting an answer incorrect)

• Oxytocin – complex role in helping to mitigate fear responses as well as potentially being
triggered when we hear stories with which we empathize (Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate

There is a dynamic process that is not something that can be boiled down to left brain/right brain or
some sort of weird brain exercises.

We will discuss what to look for in the classroom: teachers who use pre and post tests; de-
emphasizing grades (different models), etc.

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In order to learn well, we need sleep, food, hydration, and a feeling of psychological safety. We also
need an environment that is relatively distraction-free. We’ll talk about why all of these are


The following are necessary for productive learning:

• Sleep (many recent studies have shown that sleeping is important for consolidation of
memories – there may be a connection here with dreams)

• Food and water – especially glucose for brains

These are basic needs. We will also discuss Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943;
physiological; safety) and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s more recent work.

• Psychological safety – fear and anxiety; regulation of emotions

Finally, we cannot learn when we are distracted. We need to devote attention to a learning exercise.
When we pay attention, we allocate cognitive resources to the task at hand. Distraction divides these
cognitive resources, which therefore affects our attention levels.

Then, there is the myth of multitasking. It is a myth in two ways:

• First, we simply cannot do more than one thing at the same time. We can do what is called
task switching (between email and writing lecture notes, for example), but I can’t do one
while I’m doing another.

• Second, 100% of our attention cannot be divided among tasks in such a way that we are then
devoting 100% to one task and 100% to another. I’m no mathematician, but it’s easy to see
that this is impossible. Think of attention as an apple pie. With each task you add to your
cognitive load, you are taking a piece of that pie away – you are not adding more pies. So
when you divide your attention among several tasks, you are not giving your full attention to
any one of them.

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For yourself, limit distractions as much as possible. Some people like to have music on while they
study or learn something, and I completely understand the need to have some background noise
(Although I personally need complete silence, which is kind of annoying, but what can you do?).
Background noise is different from trying to actually listen to the music while you are working on
something else, though, so many advocate for using music that you know very well or wordless,
innocuous music to provide this background rather than new music or music you can’t help but sing
when you hear it (Like Me and Les Mis, for example – it’s impossible for me not to sing “One Day
More” when I hear it).

Also, a theme of this lecture is self-care. Learning matters, but you matter more, and it’s really hard
to learn anything when you need to attend to those basic needs.

We will discuss what to look for in the classroom: teachers who use technology as a tool for learning
but not just for its own sake.

The best teachers understand that they are working with human beings who bring their lives, fears,
loves, hopes, and dreams into their classrooms and to mitigate any anxiety students might have by
being open and empathetic. This does not mean lowering standards and diminishing rigor. It simply
means utilizing pedagogies of compassion.

Teachers should also be aware of the prevalence of math anxiety, test anxiety (some research shows
up to 40% of school-age students have some form of test anxiety), writing anxiety, and so forth.
Giving students low-stakes opportunities to develop skills in these areas is important (opportunities
for making errors and learning from them – more in a later lecture…).

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Generally speaking, the term metacognition means “thinking about thinking.” In practice, though, it
refers to the ways in which we think about our own learning processes. Mastering some basic
metacognitive strategies can go a long way toward enhancing our learning overall.


Meta is a prefix from Greek – a sense of “beyond” or “above.” Metaphor = beyond the surface
meaning, in a sense. Metafiction – Don Quixote, for example. It takes on a reflexive tone with
concepts like this. Metacognition is the same thing – something that moves beyond simply thinking
into the realm of thinking about thinking.

Understanding how you yourself learn – I for example, cannot learn a darn thing if I cannot see it. I
need to read it, watch it done, or some combination of those two things. And then I need to try it
myself. I have a really hard time putting the pieces together when someone is explaining it to me
without any visual cues.

This brings me to…. no to learning styles (Dan Willingham) and yes to learning strategies.

Saundra McGuire, wrote Teach Students How to Learn:

• Active Reading

• Taking notes (she says by hand)

• Teaching someone else a topic

If you have past experience with problem solving, ask yourself, “Does this look like something I’ve
seen before?” Use what you’ve already mastered to move forward with challenging problems. This is
equally useful in math as it is with complex literature.

Break big conceptual problems into pieces – where can you find your access points? How have you
approached problems like this in the past?

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What to look for in the classroom: breaking into pieces applies here too; use multiple strategies and
have students articulate those strategies. Another idea is to have students explain each step of the
process for solving a particular problem.

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Memory is an important part of learning. In this lecture, we’ll investigate spaced practice and
interleaving, two research-based strategies for remembering and working with more information.


Although learning is much more complicated than simply remembering details, we still need to
know information and to be able to draw this information out of our long-term storage.

Memory Concepts and Resources:

• Short-term and working memory

• Long-term memory (lots of ways – imbued with emotional experience, for example, but also
being tied to a conceptual framework, which we’ll talk about in a later lecture)

• Effect of Cognitive Load (intrinsic vs. extraneous)

• Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel (failure of re-reading
over and over again, reading highlighted notes, cramming [massed practice])

• Bjork, desirable difficulties

• Interleaving (switching topics) – in a study, people retained less than massed practice on
immediate assessments, but retained the same amount a week later, whereas other group
dropped from almost 90% to around 20%

• Spaced Practice (elongating time)

• Mix up strategies

What to look for in the classroom: teachers who discuss different kinds of study strategies with
students – not just assuming that students will all learn in the same way.

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Continuing the theme of the last lecture, we will explore two more strategies for effectively
remembering important information: the testing effect and developing a conceptual framework.


Below are more Memory Concepts and Resources:

• Testing effect – again, the work of Roediger and McDaniel (from the book Make It Stick).
Frequent, short quizzes on material rather than cramming or rereading work is significantly
better for remembering that information. In other words, don’t try to memorize, try to
recall. It is encoded more deeply.

• Generating answers – provide a prompting question, and have students try to remember the
answer. (Use the “testing effect” and the “generating answers” together to maximize

• Mnemonic devices – use to help trigger the memory to recall information (ROYGBIV – red,
orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet – the colors of the rainbow).

• Working memories – can hold quite a lot of information, but an essential way to move it
into long-term storage is to develop a conceptual framework into which we can place it; the
SO-WHAT (what ties the information together).

• The key physics example – students in the eighties and nineties could score an “A” on their
physics exams, but they could not answer simple questions when asked by their teachers.
They were trying to memorize information to pass a test.

• Anatomy – use conceptual framework to relate different parts of the body to each other,
rather than simply trying to memorize a list.

• History – instead of memorizing dates and their events, teach the historical importance of
those dates, key players, and outcomes.

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• Spelling – unite lists of words and definitions, as well as passages with those key words to
maximize the learning process.

• Multiplication Tables – use a combination of memorization and application in math


Focus on developing the concept before you think about memorizing information.

What to look for in the classroom: the best teachers will not isolate information from concepts.
They will not simply provide lists, but will give readings out of which to draw information that needs
to be remembered. They will develop case studies, role playing exercises, stories, and more to weave
the two together.

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In order to effectively learn something, we must be curious about it. We must have a stake in
learning the answers to our questions. We must first wonder before we can discover.


• Use different strategies and components of the learning process (brain teasers, Rubik’s cube,

• Consider this nursery rhyme:

As I was going to St. Ives,

I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

• Puzzles provide a kind of motivation.

• Whole fields have been fueled by trying to find answers to problems that were unsolved. For
example, think of Pasteur and his development of vaccinations (microorganisms as causes of

• Curiosity, fascination, wonder, what Ken Bain calls “beautiful problems”

• In my book, I think a lot about curiosity – what it is, where it came from, how we seem to
be driven by it.

• Questions and inquiry, especially for children – our curiosity drives us to solve problems.

• Meaningful questions – questions that actually mean something and are relevant to us drive
us to learn.

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• Exploration – we find meaning for ourselves by exploring (reading the encyclopedias as a


• Freedom to explore – the vast access to information on the internet both helps with and
serves as a deterrent to productive exploration (evaluating sources).

• We need to give ourselves freedom to explore for some of these questions to emerge.

• Some of this means intellectual risk-taking – it’s through taking those risks that we learn
(asking difficult questions).

What intrigues you about the subject? How can you find ways to build on this?

What to look for in the classroom: inquiry-based learning projects; discussion-based teaching;
presenting key questions in a field; presenting unsolved questions.

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We need to find ways to transfer knowledge to new and sometimes unfamiliar situations. To do so,
our learning must be embedded in real-world problems and contexts.


I mentioned in an earlier lecture that our brains are ruthlessly pragmatic, focused on what it best for
them at any given moment.

As a part of this, good at determining authentic learning environment from an artificial one. This
means we learn best in situations that seem as real as possible, with the right tools in environments.

Learning to change the oil in a car is a good example. You can hear about it all you want, but until
you start to actually do it, it is difficult to learn. This notion of application is absolutely key. Can we
really use what we learn?

Here are some additional key concepts:

• Transfer (a major goal of learning and a major hurdle to clear; class to class and school to the
world outside the classroom!think about a medical student moving from learning about a
procedure to performing it on an actual human being; PRACTICE and FEEDBACK are
thus key to transfer; the issue here is called task switching.)

• Using the tools of the discipline (history, psychology, engineering)

• Building frameworks of understanding; critical thinking; etc. (teaching students how to write
academic arguments, for example)

• Another way to do this is through emotional engagement with the material.

• Emotion and cognition (in tandem; regulation is key)

• Evoking emotions (sadness, humor, joy)

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Always be thinking about application. Even if you’re learning something highly theoretical. How
does it apply? Action helps us learn better.

What to look for in the classroom: teachers who provide context. Why do we need to know this
(math)? Where do we see this in the real world (physics)? How might we use these skills (historical
primary source)? Also discuss emotion.

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One of the easiest ways to learn a concept is to embed it in a story. By creating a narrative
explanation, we utilize one of our brain’s oldest strategies for making sense of the world.


One way to engage emotions in learning and to help people connect to the material is through
stories. One of the oldest forms of learning is through storytelling (though not lecturing); cave
paintings of Lascaux, ancient literature, parables that we see in Biblical accounts.

Our brains and stories – we crave stories, and their effects last for a long time. Why? As I mentioned
in an earlier lecture!Paul Zak, oxytocin, empathy, connection; also research at Emory!neural
changes that show how stories stick with us.

Stories themselves engage what it means to be human. Many have a familiar narrative arc (outline
narrative structure).

Here are some additional key concepts:

• Archetypes – encapsulation of the fundamental human condition

• Moral lessons as in Grimm’s fairy tales – many to frighten the heck out of kids (Hansel and

• Goes again back to the conceptual framework needed to move information to long-term

• Tell a story – L. Frank Baum, Maud, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Dorothy Gage

Try to find the story beneath the facts. Why does it matter? Alternatively, can you build a story from
the facts that will help you remember it.

What to look for in the classroom: the skills to learn from story but also teaching through stories. It
is also important to tell stories as a part of conveying content knowledge.

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Errors and failure are often stigmatized as being in opposition to learning, but we often need to be
wrong before we can be right. Learning is not a linear process, and it is often comprised of many
false starts before we find ourselves on the path to success.


There is a stigma about making mistakes, but this is a feature of the learning process, not a bug.
When we do research, for example, we rarely find success right away. We struggle, change directions,
etc. Sports are similar. So is learning a new language.

Unfortunately, our educational systems are set up in the opposite way. We do not often let students
make mistakes and – even more than this – they are often given one chance on high-stakes exams to
perform maximally, which is very hard to do. This kind of system discourages the kind of
exploration and intellectual risk-taking that actually leads to meaningful learning.

We make mistakes all the time, in all kinds of ways. Kathryn Schultz has a really great book called
Being Wrong, where she shows evidence of the many different ways we make errors on a regular basis.

Often, she says, these mistakes are due to our brain’s quick assessment of probability rather than
possibility – what is most likely to have happened rather than what are the different options for what
might have happened. This sometimes serves us well, but can also lead to error.

Our brains are attuned to locating errors and correcting them, even making meaning from them.

Additional ways that we learn through making mistakes:

• Curiosity experiments. Back to dopamine!experiments with trivia questions, what

happened when gave wrong answer, and activity in dopaminergic areas of the brain.

• Different mechanisms of the brain drawing cognitive resources to error.

• The key here is that we need to use these mistakes as learning opportunities, and our brains
seem to be especially keen to hold onto the learning we gain from these mistakes.

• Feedback

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• Setting up intentional failure

• Pitching the level of challenge appropriately, though

• Destigmatizing

• Grades and testing culture

We need to challenge ourselves in order for the learning to matter.

What to look for in the classroom: teachers who understand the value of mistakes and who use low-
or no-stakes assignments and assessments to cultivate an environment where students feel like they
can take risks.

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What does the future hold for our understanding of learning? We’ll look at some new directions for
research on learning and the relevance of this research for education.


• Devices – phones, tablets, laptops. This future is essentially here, but it’s worth pausing to
think about how these can productively be used for learning as opposed to being
mechanisms of distraction from learning.

• Examples: online tools used as classroom response systems (clickers), educational games, the
ability to share documents online that maximize collaboration.

• Ways to manage technology do not involve banning it, which puts students at a
disadvantage. We should integrate technology into the classroom to expand our access to

• Artificial Intelligence – can supplement the way we learn (can connect students with
information that may be available about a topic).

• Adaptive Learning – a program that adjusts the level of challenge based on your answers to
questions; it adapts with the learner.

• Competency-based education – allows the learners to learn at their own pace.

• Similar principles apply to recent uses of Virtual Reality (can help students develop
conversational skills in a particular language).

• Learning at a distance – the idea of using technology to replace opportunities that were once
only available in physical classrooms – especially online vs. hybrid, synchronous vs.
asynchronous, research issues.

• Connecting socially – this is fundamental to learning.

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• The future of learning is the present of learning is the past of learning – it comes down to
great teaching and well-designed learning environments.

• My own teachers – high school earth and space science teacher (answered a question that I
had for years); others who encouraged me; Chris Fee (focused on students where they are).

I wish you good luck and good learning!

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Susan Ambrose, et. al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart

Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of

Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Benedict Carey. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It

Happens. New York: Random House, 2014.

Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek. The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony

with Your Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013.

Joshua Eyler. How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. Morgantown:

West Virginia University Press, 2018.

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