Scientists know a lot about effective learning and teaching. In the past several decades, cognitive psychologists and other learning researchers have performed thousands of studies on effective learning and teaching practices.
In some cases, research findings have gone against conventional wisdom or common practice. For example, varied practice (in terms of the variety of problems or exercises that the learner engages in) often results in more long-term learning than predictable practice. Research has also established that tests are quite powerful learning events — they are not just ways of evaluating student learning.
Often, the effectiveness of these techniques can only be established by evaluating the learner in a particular way. Varied practice often decreases performance in the short-term, but increases performance in the long-term. In other cases, the effectiveness of certain learning experiences can only be seen on tests that evaluate “transfer” — the ability of a student to apply what they learned to a novel situation — or only after other learning events (such as after a lecture).
Several research-supported ways to teach effectively are, therefore, counter to everyday experience, especially if we’re used to evaluating students through immediate tests on their ability to perform exactly as practiced. Given the daily challenges that teachers face and the conflicting information teachers often receive, we wondered: What do teachers believe about the effectiveness of various teaching strategies? Do they employ these techniques?
Several lines of evidence suggest that teachers might have difficulty identifying some effective learning and teaching strategies. A recent review of teacher training textbooks found that they contained little to no discussion of the large body of learning research, and even passed off ideas with little research support as hard science. Myths about learning — such as the idea of “learning styles” and there being “right-brained” and “left-brained” learners — also persist in the general population, in spite of experts’ repeated efforts to clarify the lack of support for such ideas in the literature. Many businesses also sell products to teachers and schools premised on these myths, promoting discredited — or simply nonsensical — ideas about learning.
We conducted a survey of more than 200 educators about several research-supported learning principles. While our findings are disconcerting, educators themselves are not to blame. Most teachers work hard each day in often very difficult situations. But clearly our systems of support for teachers must change to provide educators with more robust knowledge about effective teaching practices.