Where do you get your information from about how students learn?


This post was originally written for the TES (edited and featured 0n 25/06/16)

For most, this question may seem an odd one, but according to Dr Gary Jones, sound evidence based practice requires teachers to discriminate, apply and evaluate a variety of sources of evidence in order to answer such questions, so have you?

@OliverCavigliol and @AceThatTest recently collaborated on Twitter to determine a continuum of subjective to objective sources of information that may be used by teachers to find out about how students learn. This article intends to explore the benefits and limitations to each of these sources:


Intuition and Experience

Highly subjective, people’s intuition often derives from a desire to find patterns and connections in randomness. Sometimes people overestimate their intuition and prevent themselves from making sound decisions. Take the roulette player that observes 5 reds come in one after another, he believes that there is little chance that a red can come in again, so places his bet on black. But of course, the odds are still the same regardless of how many came before. Liken this to the classroom, we use our intuition and experiences to guide us in situations that we face day-to-day. Being time-short means that teachers don’t have the opportunity to contemplate decisions, rather they act in the moment when it comes to thinking about how students learn best. Denes-Raj and Epstein (1994) propose that people process information in two different modes, one identified by terms such as rational, analytical and deliberative, and the other by terms such as experiential, automatic, intuitive and natural – The latter being a dangerous concoction of highly subjective approaches. Conversely, experience can support us contextually, particularly when less objective sources are available to us, moreover, intuition may useful to open yourself to new ideas that rational thinking may not allow.


CPD Sessions

Though some CPD sessions are informative and outside experts can act as agents for change (http://bit.ly/1THQQS7), there are a lot of snake oil salespeople out there. These individuals work in their best interests to promote ideas and resources, not really providing us with unbiased information about how students learn and often not informed by research. Furthermore, there remains limited evidence to support the impact of one off CPD sessions on teaching and learning (http://bit.ly/1Zfh2XS). However, if the CPD session is well informed and part of an ongoing community of practice, then this is where it is likely to have most value.


Communicating with peers

Teacher Learning Communities are held in high regard by Dylan Wiliam, who advocates this over the traditional sheep-dip approach to CPD, but done alone, does it really tell us about how students learn? Probably not, but in trialling strategies that are informed by more objective sources, it is certainly worth working with peers in communities of practice to determine how students learn best in your context.


Media and Blogs

This very article poses some bias towards particular sources. The very nature of this publication provides all in education a voice – some more authoritative than others. Blogs can also be produced by anyone and perhaps reinforce bad practice. Having said that, with both media and blogs, the information is current and highly accessible, so as a starting point, why not use it to find out how students learn?


Popular education books

There are thousands of books on the shelf that serve to provide us with information on how students learn. The issue we face is deciphering which are the most valid and reliable sources. Of course, once you get past this gargantuan task, you then have the bias of the author and editor to tackle. In spite of this, the thing that makes books more desirable is their ability to make the research accessible.


Education journals

On the topic of research, there are an array of individual peer-reviewed studies available covering a broad range of age groups, subjects and countries. These have been synthesised by both John Hattie and Robert Marzano, who have drawn upon the thousands of studies to determine how students best learn, producing an ‘effect-size’ for each of the strategies. There are some that have critiqued the methods used to determine the ‘effect-size’, however, questioning the validity of such an approach. Despite this, it is difficult to completely dismiss the findings of such large scale studies – just don’t take it as a standalone piece of evidence.


Cognitive science journals

Out of all of the abovementioned, this resource is the only one that focusses on the brain – that is what we’re here for isn’t it? These studies try to isolate the variables associated with typical classroom experiments and are generally laboratory based, so are pretty much as objective as we can get (of course, there is neuroscience, but this is a developing, yet murky area). Key principles of the learning science can easily be applied to the classroom, but it can be problematic trying to interpret these.



In determining how students learn best, we should try to use as many of the aforementioned sources as possible, preferably using more of the objective sources. If we can draw upon, and amalgamate the information gleaned from each to determine the most effective strategies to support our learners, then surely that’s what we should be doing?


Here’s an example:

Cognitive science informs us that distributed practice is a highly effective way to increase long term retention (http://bit.ly/1sO8Pzv). Classroom experiments also corroborate this, with the effect size of spaced practice being 0.46 (http://bit.ly/1VsEUIv). My experience tells me that cramming delivery into short blocks does little to help my learners remember the content at the end of the year and my peers would agree. So having gathered this information, next year I shall now try distributing practice and evaluate the findings at the end of the academic year.


So, how will you use the evidence to find out how students learn?


2 thoughts on “Where do you get your information from about how students learn?

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