4 Laws of Learning (and How to Follow Them)


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Teaching is a complex, multifaceted, dynamic profession. New ideas, new tools, and new strategies are coming at you all the time. On top of that, changing circumstances compel you to make adjustments to the way you normally do things.

With all of this spinning around you, it can be hard to find a clear path. There are so many factors that impact student learning, but when it comes to planning lessons—that 45- to 90-minute block of time set aside for instruction—what activities really move the needle on learning? To make those instructional decisions, it helps to have a compass, a set of principles you can return to again and again when you start to feel like you’re losing your way.

That’s what I have for you here: I looked at the research and managed to condense what I found into four “Laws of Learning,” broad guidelines that define solid teaching practices.

I’m certainly not the first person to do this: John Hattie’s work to rank various influences on student achievement has been groundbreaking, but I have often felt confused about what some of his terms actually mean. Plus, every time I mention him, I’m met with fierce pushback from people whose understanding of statistics is way more sophisticated than mine. There’s also Robert Marzano’s high-yield strategies, which I’m a big fan of, but I’ve learned a few things over the last few years that aren’t covered by those.

So here I’m offering my own list, shorter than Marzano’s, a LOT shorter than Hattie’s, and not nearly as comprehensive. But they’re good. And they’re backed by research. I’m not putting these out there as THE four laws. They are not the last word on teaching or the only thing you should ever consider when planning a lesson. But they’re heavy hitters, and if you find yourself feeling unsure about how to choose between all the different approaches and tools, returning to these four principles will absolutely put you on solid ground.

Law 1: Keep the GPS On

When we go on a trip, many of us use GPS navigation systems, which give us precise information about the route we should follow and how long it will take to get there. These systems give us constant updates along the way, so we always know how much progress we’re making.

As teachers, whether or not we provide instructional “GPS” can make a huge difference in how well our students learn. For best results, our instructional GPS should be on in these ways:

Learning Goals and Success Criteria: It’s vital to regularly communicate these so students know exactly where they are headed and what it will look like when they reach the goal. Multiple studies report that achievement increases significantly when students understand the learning goals and the criteria for success. (Dean et al., 2012).

  • Write goals in age-appropriate language and refer to them before, during, and after lessons.
  • Use rubrics to spell out success criteria. Single-point rubrics work especially well for complex assignments.
  • Provide models of different levels of success, so students get a clear picture of finished products.

Formative Assessment: Improving formative assessment leads to learning improvements for all students and reduces gaps between low- and high-achievers (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

  • Make formative assessment truly formative. It’s a measurement tool that shouldn’t count against a student’s grade. Check formative assessments quickly after they are given and use them to make instructional decisions.
  • Conduct formative assessment in different ways: quizzes, exit slips, class polls, and think-pair-shares are all ways to formatively assess student understanding.

Effective Feedback: Feedback is most effective when it draws attention to positive elements of student performance, addresses the success criteria, includes specific advice on improvement, is presented in small, manageable units, and is given soon after the student attempts the task (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2017; Shute, 2008).

  • Using Flash Feedback techniques like targeted response and microconferences allows you to give more feedback more efficiently.
  • Learning improves most when students are given feedback without grades (Black & Wiliam, 1998). A strategy like Kristy Louden’s Delaying the Grade allows students to focus on and learn from feedback before they receive grades.

Law 2: Classify, Connect, and Compare

As we learn, our brains are wired to group things into categories (Bruner, 1973; Jensen, 1998). When new information comes in, we sort it, compare it, and try to make sense of it based on similar characteristics. If we can work with this natural tendency in our teaching, we will boost student learning.

These strategies put this law into practice:

Concept Attainment: This strategy has students study Yes and No examples of a concept until they can begin to define that concept, then refine their definition by looking at more examples. Learn more about Concept Attainment here.

Graphic Organizers: Using these naturally gets students to classify, compare, and make connections between concepts. For graphic organizers to work best, teachers should explain their purpose, model their use, and for complex material, partially complete them (Hall & Strangman, 2002). Learn more about graphic organizers here.

Inductive Learning: This strategy has students group chunks of content into categories and label the categories prior to learning about a new topic. Once their minds are primed from doing this work, they are then presented with the content in a more traditional way. Learn more about Inductive Learning here.

Law 3: To Learn, We Need to Churn

Between the time when we introduce skills and knowledge to students and the time when we assess their mastery of those skills and knowledge, they need to process that material in some way.

Some lesson plans call this processing guided practice or independent practice, and these terms make sense if we’re talking about skills. They are less logical with knowledge-based content, because you can’t “practice” information, but students still need to interact in some way with the material they learn.

To cover all bases, we’ll use the term churn, the act of agitating or breaking something up (like liquid in a blender). If we want students to learn something well, we need to give them an opportunity to churn that material up.

Here are just a few ways to add churn to your lessons:

Movement: Adding gestures to learning activities results in more enduring learning (Cook et al., 2010), and physical activity is correlated with improved academic performance (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011). This post covers many different ways to add movement to instruction.

Note-Taking: A lot of research supports the use of note-taking to boost learning (summarized here). Look for opportunities to add note-taking to your instruction.

Cooperative Learning: Having students work cooperatively consistently yields higher levels of achievement than either competitive or independent learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994). Some great cooperative learning strategies are Jigsaw, Reciprocal Learning, and Chat Stations.

Law 4: Better to Retrieve than Receive

In so many teaching situations, our instinct is often to push information into students’ brains. And although it is absolutely necessary for students to take in the material in order to learn it, and to “churn” it as we covered in Law 3, once the information has been delivered and processed, there are other things we can do to make sure that information is locked into long-term memory.

When it’s time to study our material—to review it for a test, for example—what many teachers and students tend to do is simply re-read it. Teachers prepare study guides with bulleted lists or study concepts, and students review their notes or readings.

A much more effective approach to studying is retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the act of recalling information without the aid of a text; in other words, quizzing ourselves on the material. The more we can build retrieval practice into our instruction, the better our students will get at recalling the information and concepts we’re trying to teach them. (Learn more here.)

Here are some ways to add retrieval practice to your classroom:

  • Low-Stakes Quizzes: Give students regular quizzes on your course content. Because these quizzes are meant to be practice, they should either be ungraded or given a minimal amount of points.
  • Flashcards: Teach students how to create and study flashcards, then set aside class time for them to study.
  • Brain Dumps: Give students a few minutes to write down everything they can remember about a topic they’ve learned in your class, then let them check their response for accuracy and completeness with the text, a classmate, or both.

Go Deeper

 

My online mini-course, 4 Laws of Learning, is a self-paced course that helps you really learn these principles and apply them to your teaching.

 
 

Here’s what the course includes:

  • Four video-based modules, one for each law, with detailed explanations of specific strategies for implementing the law in your practice
  • More research to support each of the four laws
  • Guided notes you can work with while you watch the modules
  • A quiz after each module to check your understanding
  • A reflection at the end of each module to help you make specific plans for applying the laws in your own teaching
  • A tools for remote learning feature that lists tools you can use to apply each law in remote teaching situations
  • A 22-page PDF of summary notes that includes all the key points from the course and a full bibliography of the research.

The course is available to single users, groups of five or ten, or a whole-school license if you want it for every teacher in your building. Learn more about the course here.

 

References

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2017). Spotlight: Reframing feedback to improve teaching and learning. https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/research-evidence/spotlight/spotlight-feedback.pdf

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998, October 1). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan Online. https://kappanonline.org/inside-the-black-box-raising-standards-through-classroom-assessment/

Bruner, J. (1973). Beyond the information given: Studies in the psychology of knowing. W.W. Norton.

Cook, S. W., Yip, T. K., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). Gesturing makes memories that last. Journal of memory and language, 63(4), 465-475.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback. ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111001/chapters/Setting-Objectives-and-Providing-Feedback.aspx

Donnelly, J. E., & Lambourne, K. (2011). Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Preventive Medicine, 52, S36-S42.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. ASCD.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Holubec, E.J. (1994). New circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom and school. ASCD.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153–189. http://myweb.fsu.edu/vshute/pdf/shute%202008_b.pdf


 
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