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How to get students to use the Learning Strategies that we're so excited about

Last Summer, I visited a friend whose son was about to take his exams. We found ourselves in one of those familiar conversations you get into as a teacher-friend. “So, tell Tricia what you are doing to revise for your exams.”

He replied, “We had an assembly about how to test ourselves and plan revision.” Our heads nod in approval. Further probing led me to conclude that he had also learned about spaced practice and other effective techniques. “And,” he added, “we got a workbook.”


“Oh,” my friend lamented, “I found that crumpled in your bag. I’m not sure what I did with it.”

My friend’s son: “Doesn’t matter. I won’t use it.”

Now, I’m not against revision assembles (as one strategy), but when I asked my friend’s son if his teachers used the strategies, he said, “No.”

This might be common, but it’s not universal. The buzz on twitter and in blogs generated by promises cognitive science is almost palpable from where I sit. Right now, educators are excited by the growing understanding of how we learn, how our memory works and how to put this understanding into practice. The popularity of such excellent sites as the Learning Scientists and the record numbers of interested teachers at ResearchEd conferences, prove that our profession sees promise in this research.

But do I hear the whoosh of a magic wand swinging in the distance? To avoid these learning strategies being the latest victim of ‘myth busting’, it’s worth stepping back and considering where the pitfalls occur.

I suggest an integrated approach that fuses mindset and memory.

First, what are the challenges?

Too much Information: We are flooded with information about what works and what doesn’t in education, with ‘experts’ and educators pleading their cases and slamming others

Not enough time: Teachers feel there isn’t enough time to get through the content let alone spend more time implementing strategies that students can do—in theory—on their own

Lack of student buy-in: Students do not take the advice on board. Many of the strategies that researchers say work best for memory, feel like the worse, meaning they feel awkward or more effortful. Elizabeth and Robert Bjork in a recent TES podcast address this as a difficult challenge for the implementation of the research.

What can we do?

We face these challenges head-on when we support students with the mindset and metacognitive skills needed to actually implement the steps espoused in those best-intended assemblies. We need to get students to think about their learning in order to learn from their thinking. In doing, educators should:

  1. Learn about memory . . . because it makes you a better teacher.

  2. Teach students about memory . . . so that they have control (and you have buy-in) .

  3. Model the strategies . . . so they see it in action and know we value them.

Over the next few blog articles, I am going to address some of the key things I think teachers need to Learn, Teach and Model. I’ll start with Retrieval Practice, which cognitive scientists agree is probably the most beneficial strategy for learning over the long term. Teachers, on the other hand, would probably agree it’s one of the hardest to get students to do correctly and consistently.

Upcoming Topics:


For a deeper dive into understanding memory and how we learn, I recommend the following books, courses and sites that have informed my own pedagogy and training.

  • Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T Willingham (2009). Josey Bass

  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel (April 2014) Belknap Pressk

  • How We Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain's potential by Benedict Carey (2015) Macmillan

  • Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher

  • UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab (link to video where you will find a series of talks)

  • TeachersCollegeX: EDSCI1x The Science of Learning-What Every Teacher Should Know (online course)

  • The Learning Scientists

If you like, please tweet and add @triciatailored
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