Bringing the Science of Learning to Homeschooling

Evidence-based strategies to help your children learn effectively.

Posted Jul 22, 2019

ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Homeschooling Parent
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Myths abound regarding the most effective strategies for knowledge acquisition. Learners often misunderstand how to best enhance learning for later recall—spending needless hours utilizing ineffective strategies. Many parents feel helpless regarding how to help an academically struggling child.

Is the science of learning complex, or can a little bit of learning science go a long way?

Learning Myths

Throughout the popular educational folklore, many ineffective strategies are mistakenly believed to improve learning. Here is a list of five of the most common learning myths:

1. Highlighting and underlining are highly effective study strategies.

2. Rereading material significantly boosts memory of the text.

3. Matching our learning to our "learning style" is crucial for effective learning.

4. Basing your study strategies on whether you are right-brained or left-brained is essential.

5. Repeatedly reviewing notes significantly increases long-term recall.

The Cognitive Science of Learning

Decades of research from cognitive psychology provides a wealth of evidence-based information regarding how to improve learning. Six simple strategies have been identified as the most effective techniques to utilize for learning across multiple subject areas. Understanding these techniques can be transformative for learners tackling challenging academic material.

What are these effective learning mechanisms?

A group of cognitive psychological scientists—The Learning Scientists—have taken the time to describe these strategies within their informative book: Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. While I highly recommend their book and website for an in-depth understanding, the following information provides a concise overview.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice is a simple notion that we should not cram. Repeatedly, throughout the educational literature, the science is clear: Distributed practice over time is significantly more effective than massed practice.

Successful long-term retrieval will improve if learners study material thirty minutes per day for six days rather than three hours at the same time right before you need to recall the information. This is especially true for long-term recall.

Watch this quick explanation of Spaced Practice by The Learning Scientists:

Spaced Practice Video Clip

The takeaway: Encourage learners to study in small time frames each day to improve later recall. 

Interleaving

Interleaving is another method to boost learning. Learners should not study one idea too long—not exactly rocket science. However, it is an important way to facilitate the storage of ideas in long-term memory. The Learning Scientists describe the how-to’s of interleaving in this way:

  1. Switch between ideas during a study session.
  2. Go back over ideas in a different order to strengthen understanding.
  3. Make links to different ideas as you switch between them.

Watch this quick explanation of Interleaving by The Learning Scientists:

Interleaving Video Clip

The takeaway: Encourage learners to explore a specific topic for a short time and then switch to others while trying to connect the information. Bonus: This technique has also been shown to be effective in athletics.

Elaboration

The term elaboration means to add something to a memory a learner has already formed. This technique moves information to a deeper level within our memory systems.

Watch this quick explanation of Elaboration by The Learning Scientists:

Elaboration Video Clip

The takeaway: Suggest that your learners continually ask about the how’s and why’s related to whatever they are studying at the time. 

Concrete Examples

Developing concrete examples of a subject under study has been repeatedly shown to be a useful technique in the cognitive psychology literature. Taking abstract ideas and transforming them into concrete concepts that can be visualized aids learning.

Watch this quick explanation of Concrete Example by The Learning Scientists:

Concrete Examples Video Clip

The takeaway: Using concrete examples is a powerful way to manipulate difficult, abstract information and transform it into something that will be easier to visualize and remember at a later date. This strategy is simple to encourage and can often be fun—especially developing silly concrete examples with our younger learners.

Dual Coding

Dual coding is utilizing both visual and verbal materials to enhance learning. Dual coding works to facilitate later retrieval of information because humans process information through both a visual and verbal channel. 

Watch this quick explanation of Dual Coding by The Learning Scientists:

Dual Coding Video Clip

The takeaway: Encourage learners to create drawings of the concepts they are learning. From the parental/instructor perspective, use both images and words to describe the subject under study. 

Retrieval Practice

The final learning strategy is as simple as the first five. Retrieval practice is contemplating something previously learned and bringing it to present-time thought. Merely moving information to our current thoughts strengthens our memories, making those memories more usable in the future.

Watch this quick explanation of Retrieval Practice by The Learning Scientists:

Retrieval Practice Video Clip

The takeaway: Have learners create tests or concept maps from memory. Or, have them verbally explain what is learned in a particular class to a family member or friend.

Final Thoughts

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." — Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin's adage was insightful. Learning how to learn, guided by research-based methods, is a vital skill. Understanding the six simple strategies discussed above can elevate your children's learning and potentially pay dividends for a lifetime.

If you are interested in learning more about the science of learning, the free materials provided by The Learning Scientists are helpful. In particular, this visual description of the six strategies is an easy guide to interpret. The Learning Scientist website also has free PowerPoint slides, bookmarks, and creative posters to describe the strategies and the research behind them in-depth.