In my pre-kid life, I was a practicing school psychologist, educational researcher, neuroscience lab research assistant, and college lecturer. I should note that I was not all those things at one time! All of these positions aided my understanding of human learning, which has benefited me greatly as I transitioned to the role of mom and homeschooling facilitator.
As a school psychologist, I often worked to develop interventions for learners who were struggling to be successful in school. To design these interventions, I worked with teachers to define the specific problem(s) the students were encountering. This clarification usually included some formal data collection, observations of the students, and interviews with teachers, parents, and other specialists working with the child.
With the data gathered, I had to pull from my knowledge base in different domains of psychology to develop strategies that aligned with the operationally defined problem. Frequently, these academic interventions were simple techniques that would yield outstanding results!
Very recently, I had an “aha moment” when talking to another homeschooling parent about learning. I realized many parents might have limited knowledge of human learning principles. My next thoughts were focused on figuring out how I could share what scientists have uncovered about human learning with other parents.
So, here we go…
Research from cognitive psychology provides a wealth of information regarding how to improve learning. Based on decades of scientific studies, we know there are only a handful of techniques that you need to understand to enhance learning in multiple subject areas. Understanding how to successfully use these strategies can be life-changing for anyone tackling challenging academic material.
Well, you ask, “What are these magical, mysterious mechanisms?” Lucky for us, a group of psychologists called The Learning Scientists have taken the time to thoughtfully describe them within their informative book: Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. While I highly recommend their book and website, I will give you an overview.
What exactly does that mean? Do I need to have a certain amount of square footage in the room where I am studying? Um…no. Fundamentally, spaced practice is a simple notion that we should not CRAM! (Ooh, I so remember those painful nights spent reading ten chapters for Intro Biology in college for my test the following day.)
Over and over again throughout the educational literature, the science is clear: Distributed practice over time is significantly more effective than massed practice. What does that mean? Well, you are much better off in terms of successful long-term retrieval if you study material 30-minutes per day for six days rather than 3-hours all at the same time right before you need to recall the information. This is especially true for long-term recall, which is the goal, isn’t it?
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Watch this quick explanation of Spaced Practice by The Learning Scientists:
Spaced Practice Video Clip
As homeschoolers, we are usually MUCH LESS constrained by time and the crazy rushing around of life…usually. Because of this, we can encourage our kids to study in small time frames each day to really boost learning!
Again, this is a weird term. Interleaving is another simple method to elevate your learning: Don’t study one idea for too long. Not exactly rocket science, huh? But it turns out that it is an important mechanism to facilitate storage of ideas in your memory. The Learning Scientists describe the how-to’s of interleaving in this way:
- Switch between ideas during your study session. (DO NOT study one idea too long.)
- Go back over ideas in different orders to strengthen understanding.
- Make links to different ideas as you switch between them.
Watch this quick explanation of Interleaving by The Learning Scientists:
Interleaving Video Clip
Ok, so by now, I hope you are seeing that these techniques can be super-useful as a homeschooling parent! Make sure you let your kids know that they shouldn’t study one topic too long. Encourage them 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.
The term elaboration may be familiar. It merely means to add something to a memory you have already formed. This technique moves the information to a deeper level within your memory system. Elaborative interrogation is a specific facet of elaboration in which you question yourself about the how’s and why’s and then produce answers to your questions.
Watch this quick explanation of Elaboration by The Learning Scientists:
Elaboration Video Clip
Again, it is easy to see how we can use this science of learning principle within a homeschool setting. Suggest that your kids continually ask about the how’s and why’s of why things work as related to whatever they are studying at the time. Many of them may already do this without prompting!
Developing concrete examples of the subject under study has been repeatedly shown to be an effective technique in the cognitive psychology literature. Taking abstract ideas and transforming them into concrete concepts that you can visualize aids learning.
In their text, The Learning Scientists have an excellent example for vocabulary—learning the work scarcity. They suggest thinking about an airline company when you want to reserve a flight several months in advance. The prices are quite inexpensive. As the flight date nears, the seats fill up, and the cost of tickets goes up due to scarcity. This is a concrete way to understand an abstract concept.
Watch this quick explanation of Concrete Example by The Learning Scientists:
Concrete Examples Video Clip
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 easy to encourage in our homeschoolers and can often be a fun way to work with them. It is especially fun to develop concrete and silly examples with our younger learners!
One pervasive educational myth is the idea that we should be taught according to our preferred learning style. If you want more information on this myth, see this article. Instead of learning styles, we should be thinking in terms of dual coding. Is dual coding the notion that people partner to design a video game? Not quite.
Dual coding is utilizing both visual and verbal materials to enhance learning. This practice seems to be helpful to ALL learners. Dual coding works to facilitate later retrieval of information because humans process information through both a visual and verbal channel, so you increase your chance of remembering the information later on.
Watch this quick explanation of Elaboration by The Learning Scientists:
Implementing dual coding in our homeschools can be done easily by encouraging kids to make drawings of things they are learning. From the parental/instructor perspective use both images and words to describe the subject under study. You want to encourage activation of both the visual and verbal learning channels as you are teaching them new information.
The final learning strategy is as simple as the first five. Retrieval practice is contemplating something you learned previously and bringing it to your present-time thoughts. It appears that merely moving information to our current thoughts actually 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
So, how can you encourage this strategy in your homeschool? Suggest that your kids take a blank piece of paper and write out everything they know about the given topic. Pretty basic, huh? Or, have them create tests or concept maps from memory. One of our favorites strategies within our homeschool is to check for understanding of the material by verbally explaining (to a family member, friend, or maybe even a dog) what is learned in a particular class on that day.
I highly suggest that parents interested in learning more about how research in cognitive psychology can inform homeschooling practices take a look at the free resources provided by The Learning Scientists. In particular, check out this awesome visual description of the six strategies. I also want to be clear that I have only mentioned the very tip of the iceberg in terms of these strategies. The Learning Scientist website has free PowerPoint slides, bookmarks, and creative posters to describe the strategies and the research behind them in-depth.