Learning and Cognition: Prospects for Reform

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. . . . You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them . . . Stick to Facts, sir!”

Liberal education has served almost continuously as a counterpoint to the narrow, utilitarian, practical curriculum that Charles Dickens attempted to undermine in his indictment of the mid-19th-century English educational system.  Of course, as the late James Freedman has astutely observed, "students attend college not merely to memorize facts but to question assumptions, not just to absorb information but to awaken their critical capacities and to extend their creative sympathies." [2]  Liberal education's contemporary champions attribute its transformative influence to traditional emphases on critical thinking, analytical reasoning, verbal and oral communication, student-faculty collaboration, and a broad exposure to the arts and sciences that embrace the interconnectedness of knowledge and a commitment to engaged citizenship.  The rhetoric and testimony of personal and intellectual transformation is powerful but any meaningful understanding of how this process works or of how students actually learn remains largely anecdotal and ethereal.

Justice Felix Frankfurter once observed that a college is defined by four basic questions:  "Who shall teach?"  "What shall be taught?"  "How it shall be taught?" "Who shall be admitted to study?" [3]  The answers to these questions represent a window into highly contested contemporary debates about the structure of the professoriate, the relationship between liberal and professional education, the implications of online learning, and the importance of access, equity, and diversity on intergenerational mobility.  The Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program is interested in all these questions but in the context of this discussion, we would add a fifth question to the list – how do students learn? [4]

In spite of a substantial body of educational research about student learning, most faculty members are unfamiliar with the evidence, methods, and vocabulary regarding the study of human cognition.  Invariably, essayists and commentators ask a version of the same question:  "Why do [faculty] trained to demand evidence for every aspect of their research, enter their classrooms . . . using teaching methods that are supported only by intuition and habit?" [5]  The answers are annoyingly familiar and appear to be disconnected from the emergence of a new generation of teaching and learning centers or the substantial effort, dedication, and passion that most professors devote to their teaching.  Faculty members of different generations, including many that are adopting digital pedagogies and are committed to introducing students to a deeper understanding of their disciplines, are largely unaware of or indifferent to the recent findings of cognitive psychology.

Some faculty are understandably distrustful of educational research that seems detached from their disciplinary expertise or that they believe is a harbinger of a reformist K-12 commitment to standardized testing, merit pay, and skill development, to the detriment of the humanities. [6]   Others are intimidated by methods, arguments, and language that focus on concepts such as memory, knowledge transfer, and retrieval.  Assumptions about how students learn, what they bring with them into classrooms, laboratories, recital studios, lecture halls, seminar rooms, and residence halls are rarely considered.  A majority of faculty believe they are good teachers and report that their teaching skills are above average.  This partially explains why traditional approaches to teaching are passed along with little if any evaluation.  As a result, most faculty "teach the way they were taught." [7]

Even though 90 percent of faculty agree that developing students' critical thinking skills is "the most important aim of undergraduate education," [8] lecturing remains the most common pedagogical method, despite the fact that it has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective in developing students' higher-order thinking or a deep comprehension of subject matter.  Lecturing is an efficient means of delivering significant amounts of information; it is arguably the easiest form of teaching, and is comparatively cost-effective in terms of teaching large numbers of students.  Gifted lecturers often end their courses to standing ovations, an adrenaline rush, and outstanding course evaluations.  But the catch, as many scholars have noted, is that students retain very little of what they hear—less than 20 percent of the information a week later.  Student note taking typically captures a third of the material conveyed and is often inaccurate.  Most importantly, a lecture format provides relatively few opportunities to apply concepts, work collaboratively, receive feedback, and gain a deeper understanding of the material. [9]  The major take-away is that lectures work well for learning assessed with recognition tests, but are less effective in achieving understanding.

A decade ago, David Pace, a historian of French intellectual history at Indiana University, published an essay in the American Historical Review, "The Amateur in the Operating Room:  History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning."  A gifted, dedicated teacher, Pace had become interested in Ernest Boyer's work, Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), particularly the scholarship of teaching, which emphasized the importance of applying the same rigorous standards of evaluation to teaching that are used in research. [10]   He recognized that even the most gifted instructors "reach a ceiling that they cannot break through without greater knowledge about the processes of learning" and he was struck by the "asymmetry" in faculty approaches to scholarship and teaching.  "Behind every act of teaching," Pace observed, "there are two forms of knowledge:  knowledge of the subject matter and knowledge of how it may be taught and learned. . . .  But the manner in which these two forms of knowledge are generated could not be more different, for the transition from amateur to expert that occurred long ago in the realm of research has not yet been completed in that of teaching." [11]   As teachers, even after more than a decade of emphasis on the assessment of student learning, most faculty still base their teaching strategies on random impressions, folklore, and the belief that teaching is primarily a charismatic activity that is difficult to measure.  Although Pace emphasized the importance of discipline-specific approaches, he urged faculty to address the broader context of student learning with an understanding of the "cognitive architecture behind a given response—the thought patterns, beliefs, misconceptions, and frameworks that students bring to instruction and that influence (and often determine) what they take from it." [12]

It is precisely because most faculty members invest considerable effort in teaching-related activities that their intuitive trial and error approaches seem so incongruous, especially when such practices are not systematically examined.  The title of an essay on teaching and learning published over a decade ago – "Biology is to Medicine as Psychology Is to Education: True or False?" [13] – illustrates a continuing, underaddressed problem.  The fact that biology has become the scientific basis for medicine, while cognitive psychology and learning research have not become the scientific basis for education is remarkable.  If we assume that diagnosis is an important element in analyzing student learning, including gaining an awareness of why a student is not progressing, and if we assume that the theories and practices of cognitive science provide effective insight into cognitive functioning, "it would seem obvious that [faculty] should study these disciplines to learn knowledge crucial for the practice of education." [14]  Sadly, this is not the case.

Recent evidence suggests that a broad-based, integrated curricular and faculty development initiative will reduce the asymmetry that exists between a faculty member's knowledge of subject matter and knowledge of how it should be taught.  Such a focus would contribute to a shared language about teaching and learning and further dispel the notion that excellence in teaching is incompatible with first-rate research.  The growing adoption by faculty of new digital pedagogies and the widespread recognition of the need for an inclusive commitment to faculty development suggests that this is a propitious moment to introduce faculty members to the scholarship of cognitive science.

A substantial amount of the evidence appeared over a decade ago in the National Research Council report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000).  The core principles have appeared in a variety of scholarly journals and in widely accessible higher education studies.  At the risk of oversimplification, here are some of the major findings as summarized by educational researchers: [15]

  • Students come to college with preconceptions about how the world works.  Effective teaching must include an evaluation of what students know in order to build on that knowledge.  The best predictor of what is learned at the completion of any course or program of study is what the student thinks and knows at the start.
  • In order to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate "retrieval" and application.
  • The single most important variable in promoting the long-term retention and transfer of knowledge is the frequency and practice of retrieval under varied conditions and over time.  For example, significant gains in learning occur when different types of assignments are combined, even though the initial learning may take significantly longer.
  • Academic motivation is related to epistemological beliefs about learning and about how learning works.  When students say they cannot do math, create art, write a literature paper, or work in the laboratory, most are saying that learning ought to be easy but is hard for them in these disciplines.  In such situations, faculty can help students articulate their implicit beliefs and simultaneously design approaches that, with the appropriate amount of student effort, incrementally build a foundation and appetite for additional learning.  The most effective faculty teach content and "scaffolding-relevant procedures" [16] simultaneously.
  • What students do determines what and how much is learned, remembered, and recalled.  What professors do in their classes, regardless of class size or pedagogical approach, matters far less than what they ask students to do.
  • Students learn when they actively monitor their learning, reflect on their performance, and consider other strategies that might strengthen their mastery and understanding.  Faculty can do a better job of helping students acquire these habits of metacognition. [17]

What can foundations do to help college and university faculties embrace and implement these findings?  The good news is that most professors have an abiding interest and commitment to student learning, in spite of the fact that they may only be vaguely familiar with recent educational research.  The vast majority of faculty recognize that their pedagogical approaches owe more to instinct, supposition, experience, and "feel" than to any systematic or rigorous analysis of their effectiveness in the classroom.  Most professors acknowledge the vast differences that distinguish their rigorous, systematic, ongoing critiques of their scholarship from the intuitive, tried-and-true pedagogical practices they observed as students and subsequently adopted as instructors.  As Derek Bok suggests, "the conflict between the evidence and the faculty's underlying commitment as educators is simply too uncomfortable to be left unresolved."  But faculty must still be convinced that their teaching methods are not producing the results that they believe they are.  "The critical questions . . . are whether academic leaders will actively seek to identify existing weaknesses and how they can best go about doing so." [18]

There are a number of promising signs that inspire cautious optimism.  The widespread institutional adoption and vigorous critiques of such measurements of student learning as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which focuses on exemplary educational practices, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which seeks to measure critical thinking and writing, represent an evolving maturation of a faculty-driven assessment movement.  The strategic investment of foundations and higher education associations in faculty and curricular development that focuses on student learning represents another sign of change.  In order to advance this work, a broad spectrum of faculty must be introduced to the most thoughtful scholarship on learning and cognition and encouraged to study these major findings in the context of relevant empirical evidence.  One of our objectives is to persuade faculty that student learning reflects a series of micro-steps, mental operations, and analytic processes that must be examined systematically.

Unlike the schoolmasters in Bleak House who treated their students like "little vessels . . .  ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim," [19] recent generations of faculty have generously embraced their students’ potential as apprentices and collaborators and have adopted pedagogies that are much more student-centered, and inquiry- and problem-based.  But even the welcome embrace of new pedagogies does not constitute a revolution in teaching, especially when most faculty are largely unaware of how to give students a deeper conceptual understanding of the material in their courses.  Establishing a strong, evidentiary case for pedagogical change that convinces faculty to connect instructional methods to the latest educational research is the next great challenge.


[1] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Cambridge:  Riverside Press, 1869 edition), p. 7, accessed March 30, 2014 at http://books.google.comReturn to text.

[2] James O. Freedman, Idealism and Liberal Education (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 145-148.  Return to text.

[3] Justice Felix Frankfurter, Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 357 U.S. 234 (1957), quoted in David M. Rabban, "Academic Freedom, Individual or Institutional?" Academe 87:6 (November-December 2001), 17.  Return to text.

[4] For a general introduction, see Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).  Return to text.

[5] Robert L. DeHaan, "The Impending Revolution in Undergraduate Science Education," Journal of Science Education and Technology 14:2 (June 2005), 264.  Return to text.

[6] Derek Bok, Higher Education in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 214.  Return to text.

[7] Diane F. Halpern and Milton D. Hakel, "Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond:  Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer," Change 35:4 (2003), 37-38.  Return to text.

[8] Lion F. Gardiner, Redesigning Higher Education:  Producing Dramatic Gains in Student Learning (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1994), p. 2 and Linda De Angelo, Sylvia Hurtado, et al., The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 2007-2008 HERI Faculty Survey (Los Angeles: University of California, 2009), p. 1.  Return to text.

[9] Bok, pp. 186-188 and Gardiner, pp. 46-50.  Return to text.

[10] Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1990), pp. 23-24.  Return to text.

[11] David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room:  History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," American Historical Review 109:4 (October 2004), quoted material, 1171-72, 1189.  Return to text.

[12] Ibid., 1184-1185.  Return to text.

[13] Nora S. Newcombe, "Biology Is to Medicine as Psychology Is to Education:  True or False?"  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 89:2 (Spring 2002), 9.  Return to text.

[14] Ibid., 11.  Return to text.

[15] Halpern and Hakel, 38-41 and John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and John R. Anderson, et al., for the National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, D.C.:  National Academy Press, 2000), pp. 14-27.  Return to text.

[16] Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work:  An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching," Educational Psychologist 4:2 (2006), 79.  Return to text.

[17] Linda B. Nilson, Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010), p. 4.  Return to text.

[18] Bok, pp. 202-203.  Return to text.

[19] Quoted in Freedman, p. 148.  Return to text.