- Teachers should think less about how to teach and more about how students learn.
- Studies have identified potent enablers of learning such as varied repetition, prompt feedback, and mental elaboration.
- Teachers can put these principles to work when they build courses, assignments, and tests.
When I was a new assistant professor, I invested much time and energy thinking about one question in particular: How should I teach? At some point, I realized it would be more productive to consider a different question: How should I help my students learn? The shift in perspective was subtle, but it paid big dividends for me and my students.
Once I decided that the focus should be on their learning and not my teaching, I began to read and think systematically about how people learn.
Principles of Learning
The ways in which people acquire knowledge (multiplication tables, for example) and acquire skills (shooting free throws, for example) follow many of the same rules.
One rule is that people learn faster and better with varied repetition. Children who practice the piano twice a day are almost always better piano players than children who practice once a week. The same is true of speaking a foreign language, solving quadratic equations, and writing persuasive essays.
Because motivation can lag when one is asked to do the same thing over and over, it’s best to vary the task so as to maintain interest. Learning to play the piano is more fun when you practice different songs instead of the same song 10 times in a row.
A second rule is that people learn faster and better when they receive frequent feedback on their performance. (A corollary to this rule is that prompt feedback is more effective than delayed feedback.)
Sometimes feedback is built into the task—riding a bicycle, for example—but often it is not. Learning to punctuate properly is almost impossible without helpful feedback from a teacher or a word processor.
The value of feedback is illustrated by the testing effect. To the surprise of many, taking a test on studied material leads to better learning than studying the material a second time.
In one experiment, students read a prose passage. Some of the students read the passage a second time (the study group) while others took a quiz on the information in the passage (the test group). When tested a final time, either two days or one week later, the test group performed significantly better than the study group. “Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it” (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006, p. 249).
A third rule is that incentives can play a crucial role in the classroom. Incentives don’t affect learning per se, but they often have a major impact on performance. Because students have a lot going on in their lives, they sometimes need an incentive to make schoolwork a top priority.
Never underestimate the importance of being motivated. Psychologist Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (2011) analyzed the scores of 2,000 test-takers, some of whom received a reward (money or candy) if they performed well on an intelligence test. The possibility of a reward boosted IQ scores by about 10 points on average!
Incentives need not be tangible rewards. The point is simply that most students need a good reason to do certain things like attend class and complete assignments.
A fourth rule is that people remember material better when they mentally elaborate on its content. Information is much more likely to be remembered over time if the learner actively connects the to-be-learned material with information the learner already knows.
An example is the self-reference effect. Information related to the self is more thoroughly processed and integrated, which makes it more memorable. If you want to remember a concept, generate some kind of connection between you and the concept, like explaining why you experienced cognitive dissonance yesterday.
Applying Principles in the Classroom
Teachers can expose students to key concepts more than once and in different contexts (varied repetition). In my beginning psychology course, I explain top-down processing in connection to the perception of ambiguous stimuli, the diagnosis of mental disorders, and the psychology of stereotyping.
Teachers can quiz students weekly and reveal the correct answers immediately. In this way, students receive prompt and frequent feedback. They also have an incentive to complete assigned readings and pay attention in class.
High school and college teachers can use some version of a 5/3/2 essay exam. Students receive five questions a week before the exam. The instructor randomly selects three questions that appear on the exam, and students answer two. Most students like this format because (a) there are no surprises and (b) they can choose which questions to answer.
Teachers can construct assignments and test questions that require mental elaboration and leverage the self-reference effect. Here’s an example from my college-level social psychology course.
Imagine you are a member of a jury in a murder case. The jury must reach a unanimous verdict. When deliberations begin, you suspect a handful of jurors do not agree with your opinion. Given what social psychologists have learned about group dynamics, social influence, and attitude change, how can you increase the likelihood that the entire jury will eventually vote the same way as you? 
Finally, teachers can take a page from video-gaming companies. Video gaming is a learned skill, and many gamers perform at a very high level. The makers of popular video games like Angry Birds and Super Mario exploit basic principles of learning. Players receive instantaneous feedback on their performance. They also gain expertise through repetition with variation. And leveling up is rewarding!
Video gaming is fun because players enjoy making progress and take pride in developing a specific skill set. Why don’t we teach academic skills like writing and mathematics the same way?
 When I posed this question to ChatGPT, it generated a bland, nonresponsive answer that lacked social psychological content. ChatGPT said, “present evidence,” “avoid personal attacks,” “be open to compromise,” and other generic bromides.
Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D., Lynam, D. R., Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (2011). Role of test motivation in intelligence testing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(19), 7716-7720.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255.