What do we, university professors who are employed to teach others, know about learning? If your graduate training was like mine, it’s very little. We are a self-selected group of people, good at memorizing and synthesizing information from a very early age, for whom learning has almost always been easy and/or enjoyable. We tend not to think consciously about the mechanics of learning because for us they are routine. In the classroom, we try to model those individuals whom we have the most vivid memories of — that third grade teacher who taught us multiplication tables or the professor in our doctoral program who could deliver a spell-binding lecture without notes.
The vast majority of our students are actually very different. They still have not adopted (or in some cases, haven’t even been exposed to) the skills that facilitate learning.
There is actually a lot that is scientifically known about learning, and it would be nice if such knowledge was a standard component of doctoral programs, but it’s not. If you are looking for additions to your summer reading list, here are three books on the subject that I’ve found especially enlightening. All three examine the role of narratives, emotion, repetition, and context in learning. They are based on a large body of psychological and cognitive science research, and contain ideas that are quite applicable to the classroom:
Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2010). Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. The book is a compilation of his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for American Educator, available for free here.
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which I’ve referenced here, here, and here. Kahneman is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on cognitive biases, heuristics, and decision making.
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012). Duhigg is a journalist for the New York Times. This book is a straightforward, easy to read explication on the formation and effects of habits in human behavior.