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The State of the Art in Learning Science Part 1

The State of the Art in Learning Science Part 1

Among the various industries that have been fundamentally disrupted and reconstructed during the coronavirus pandemic, education may be the most widely talked about. As billions of children around the globe and their teachers were forced to transition without notice to an untested remote learning environment, the idea of learning was redefined on the fly. While the pandemic has proven that in-person learning options remain essential for many children, the explosion of innovations in learning science promises that how students learn any subject at any level will be fundamentally different than before 2020.

Learning science, or the study of how people learn effectively, has existed for centuries in some form or another, but as with many fields learning science has become increasingly effective and comprehensive with the advances of the Internet and new technologies like data science and artificial intelligence. From testing methods of instruction and retention, to identifying the best ways for technology to augment traditional learning, the state of the art in learning science has continued to evolve rapidly and only moresoe during the past year.

So what do new discoveries in learning science tell us about the role of teachers, students, and academic coursework in the future? What important discoveries around learning should you know about as you begin to study coding, or any other future career or skill? Let’s look at some of the most recent developments in learning science, and how they should inform your plans for learning to be a programmer or any other career path over the coming years. For this article, we will focus on understanding what type of learner you are, and how that should inform the way you choose academic programs and tools to make your studies more efficient and effective.

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What Learning Science Tells Us About Learning And Learners

One of the most important discoveries that learning science professionals have championed over the past decade especially is the idea of learner categories -- specifically, the different methods of instruction that work best for a particular student (regardless of background or field of study). The traditional classroom for much of the 20th century relied on what philosopher Paolo Freire called the “banking model” of education -- a teacher would lecture on topics and concepts that were considered important by the larger academic community, and students would be responsible for hearing, memorizing, and utilizing this knowledge (usually through testing or projects meant to demonstrate aptitude).

However, modern learning science questioned this long-time model of instruction by questioning why certain learners seemed to struggle significantly in traditional school environments, but perhaps flourished when given an internship or apprenticeship that required hands-on work. As learning scientists studied different methods of instructing in different environments, it soon emerged that there actually specialties or classifications of learners, and that mixing methods of instruction could best help students truly grasp concepts and use them throughout their lives. 

While different learning scientists have named and broken down the categories separately, there are four general learner categories that are widely identified by all learning scientists:

Auditory Learners 

These are one of the two types of “traditional” learners -- those who do best by hearing instructions or lectures, and then synthesizing that information in their preferred way (through notes or essays, for example). Auditory learners do best when content is delivered either live or via recording in a way that lets them hear the instructions and information.

Reading/Writing Learners 

The other type of traditional learner, a reading/writing learner, does best when provided with textbooks or notes that explain instructions or review important concepts. The traditional model of education in America has largely prioritized this type of learning (the modern textbook industry behemoths like Pearson and McGraw-Hill being proof), and while this type of learning is largely inescapable in some subject areas, modern learning science has begun to push back against making this the primary method of instruction in any learning environment or subject.

Visual Learners 

Visual learners find the most success when actually viewing important notes and concepts - whether through diagrams, videos, live demonstrations, or infographics. Visual learners work best by “seeing and then doing”. While they may lose attention or focus simply listening to a lecture or reading a chapter in a textbook, visual methods tend to increase retention and application of course concepts over a longer term.

Kinesthetic Learners 

Kinesthetic learners are students who do best when “learning by doing” -- actually doing experiments, building models, collaborating on projects, or apprenticing/interning to actually apply skills and concepts in simulated or real-world environments. In programming classes, kinesthetic learning is the explanation behind “code playgrounds” and other projects that ask programmers to actually try and build something to experience playing around with live code.

Which Learning Type Are You?

So why is it important to know these learning types? Well, as a student of any subject, identifying which method works best for you is essential to choosing the right program for learning, as well as evaluating different learning options. 

  • While most academic programs offer instruction that incorporates methods geared toward all four learner type, if you are a kinesthetic learner, finding an academic program that emphasizes hands-on learning can be a significantly better option (and return on your investment of time and money) than one that focuses more on traditional lecture and textbook assignments.
  • As more and more learning apps and individual learning tools have emerged (and as mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have evolved and offer more features), choosing the right learning app should also be guided by the best method of learning. Some learning apps simply compile lectures and textbook chapters, while others structure learning around games or challenges that require you to actually do and not just learn. Knowing your learning style can help you evaluate the feature set or premium packages of any learning app.
  • Knowing your learner type can also help you better understand why you struggle in certain academic settings. For decades, students who couldn’t focus during an extended lecture or textbook-heavy class were often considered “deficient” -- until modern learning science discovered that the problems may have been around the rigid instruction methods. If you have found traditional courses a struggle in the past, then choosing more modern and innovative methods might help you unlock your inner learner!
  • Building off that point, when choosing an academic program or learning app, finding one that promises a mix of instructional methods can be a game-changer and a far better value for your time and money. At an information session, ask questions about the balance of lecture time vs hands-on learning, or browse the app’s features to see if it includes challenges or competitive methods for testing what you know. These new features are proven by science to enhance learning and retention, so apps or programs that champion them should be at the top of your list.

How Learning Science Can Help You Learn Better 

Two other major findings have rattled education thanks to progress in learning science over the past few decades:

Research On Attention Span And Focus 

In 2010, research raised some interesting questions and presented equally interesting conclusions around how learners’ attention span and focus worked in academic settings. Students in a college class were given a clicker, which could record moments where attention wandered in real-time, providing the researchers with measures of attention in a natural academic setting.

These researchers found three interesting things: 

  • The most frequently reported length of attention lapse was 1 minute or less, meaning students often suffered short breaks in attention as opposed to long ones. 
  • Second, lapses in attention occurred more frequently than prevailing research at the time suggested. Most learning science had been centered on the idea that “the average attention span is 15 minutes”, but the student metrics were more randomized, and not correlated to 15 minute chunks that would support this finding.
  • Additionally, the researchers found a relationship between attention and active learning, or “student-centered” pedagogies. The two most commonly employed active learning methods were demonstrations and questions. There were fewer attention lapses reported during demonstrations and questions than during lecture segments. There were also fewer reported lapses in attention during lecture segments in the period immediately following either a demonstration or a question, when compared to lecture segments that preceded the active learning methods.

The last finding is what supports the importance of knowing your learning method and the methods of learning apps or academic programs. “Multimodal learning” (which mixes the four methods” was found to be specifically better for keeping students focused and informed, and thus, getting more out of a class or lecture. Beyond just being easier for students to learn by providing methods in their learner area, programs that focus on active learning and participation actually are better for keeping you engaged also.

This research also interestingly contradicted the idea that “more tech means less attention” -- the researchers were able to conclude confidently that attention span issues were a product of the type of instruction/method of learning, not because of external factors like technology use on a daily basis. This is important, because it means it is even more important for you, no matter what you are planning to learn, to focus on the methods of instruction and learning over the content being covered as part of a particular course program or academic package through an online platform.