Taking Learning Seriously is a resource to help teachers better understand how students learn, and to use that knowledge to inform their teaching.

Whenever we read student papers, grade exams or listen to student discussions, we become acutely aware of gaps in their learning. Sometimes the problem has an obvious cause–students did not study enough. But more often than not, the causes are not obvious. Instructors and students do their best and yet learning gaps still exist. If we want to improve student learning, we need to probe the reasons why students stumble, why some concepts are difficult, how misconceptions form and interfere with new learning, and more.

In my view there are two ways we can approach learning about learning. One is to look for answers in existing research where there are plenty of useful findings relevant to our teaching. Unfortunately, research on learning is not written with practitioners in mind. To outsiders, it can be arcane and impenetrable. So, one thing I include on this site are translations of research findings intended for a college teaching audience–especially research that can be used to inform teaching decisions. The second approach is to investigate learning in your own classes by doing informal or formal classroom inquiry. This is the only viable option when there is no previous research on your specific problem. An increasing number of college teachers are engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning as a way to better understand how students learn. Some of the material on this site focuses on ways to do classroom inquiry so that teachers can explore the kinds of student learning problems that make a difference in their classes.

About Taking Learning Seriously

In 1999, Lee Shulman, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published Taking Learning Seriously, a wonderful article in which he introduced the higher education community to three key concepts about learning. A gifted storyteller, Shulman described these as pathologies of learning, called them amnesia, fantasia, and inertia, and went on to explain how these pose ever present threats to derail new learning and undermine teaching.

The technical terms for these pathologies are forgetting, misconceptions, and lack of transfer of learning, respectively. As many decades of research have shown, they are significant cognitive obstacles in learning. For example, students may demonstrate knowledge of a topic soon after learning it, but then forget it quickly (amnesia). The preconceptions and misconceptions students bring to a new learning situation profoundly affect whether and what they will learn (fantasia). And, even though students can demonstrate knowledge of a topic on one day, they may not be able to use it the next (inertia).

Shulman’s Taking Learning Seriously is an early example of using evidence from the learning sciences to explain and help overcome the challenges of teaching. More specifically, when we understand learning as a process and not simply as a product, we can develop teaching interventions to improve learning. In this approach, the solutions to student learning problems are not generic teaching methods, but specific strategies that target underlying cognitive problems. Some examples . .

Practice quizzes can be an effective buffer against forgetting, and support long term learning (Pyc, Agarwal, & Roediger, 2014).

When students have serious misconceptions about a subject, teachers can use refutational teaching strategies to promote conceptual change (Taylor & Kowlaski, 2014).

When teaching new concepts and skills, teachers can foster better transfer by emphasizing the conditions and contexts of applicability, i.e., where and when the new knowledge and skills can be applied (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010).

The TLS website is a resource intended for college teachers, but many ideas, strategies and approaches presented here are relevant at all levels of education. It focuses on how research in the learning sciences can be used to improve teaching and learning.