Welcome to Exploring How Students Learn, a collection of resources related to college student learning. This site highlights research findings and theoretical perspectives about learning that have direct implications for improving college teaching.

Why focus on learning? Despite our best efforts as teachers, students do not always achieve what we hope. Even when students are well prepared and engaged their knowledge may be fragmented and superficial, their skills underdeveloped, awkward, and halting. We need a deeper understanding of how students learn and think that can inform our teaching practices. To illustrate, consider two contrasting examples. One shows how the common classroom practice of testing could be used to improve student learning not just measure it, and the other illustrates how erroneous ideas about learning could make teaching worse.

Test Enhanced Learning.  A 2011 study reported in the journal, Science, found that students who studied material one time and then tried to recall it outperformed students in several other study conditions. The researchers compared the performance of students who: 1) studied the material one time, 2) studied the material repeatedly, up to four times, 3) studied the material one time and then immediately tried to recall it and 4) studied the material and made concept maps of it. One week after the study phase all students took the same test over the material. As the graphs to the right show, students who studied the material and then tried to remember it (retrieval practice) outperformed all the other groups on the final test. This research indicates that teachers could improve student learning by using tests as a study technique and not simply to measure learning for grading purposes. Moreover, with the right kind of encouragement students might be persuaded to adopt rigorous self testing as a study strategy.

The Cone of Experience. Active learning is touted as a superior alternative to more passive forms of learning. The Cone of Experience (aka Cone of Learning), is often used to justify the use of active learning strategies. Take a look at the diagram (click on it to see a larger image). The triangle (cone) lists different methods of learning (e.g., reading, watching a movie, participating in a discussion, etc). The left hand side of the diagram indicates the percentage of information that people remember from each of the methods listed in the pyramid. And the right hand side distinguishes between active and passive learning methods. 

This model is widely disseminated; it even appears in some textbooks on teaching. Yet, there is no research basis for it. More to the point, it is just plain wrong. For instance:

    1. The percentages are fabricated. There is no research demonstrating that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and so forth. Someone made up these percentages. Coincidentally, look at the test enhanced learning graph above. Note that students who read the material and then immediately tried to remember it, were able to recall 70% of the information a week later. Not bad for passive learning.

    2. The idea that some forms of learning are active and others are passive is wrong headed. A method is not active or passive; any method of learning can be carried out in an active or passive way. What matters is what and how the student is thinking during the learning activity. It is possible to read actively, analytically and strategically--ask any historian, poet or literary scholar. Conversely, it is possible to do a dramatic presentation (one of the active forms in the model) in a completely rote, superficial, and mindless way. It would be unfortunate if teachers used this model as a blueprint to decide how to teach, without recognizing the flawed assumptions and fabricated data on which it is based.

One final word about these two examples. The test effect has been known by researchers for almost 100 years, and yet it is unknown by practitioners. On the other hand, the Cone of Experience, which is based on erroneous ideas about learning and fabricated data, continues to circulate widely among practitioners.

Subpages (1): About this site