Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide/How do students learn?

Introduction edit

Many educators believe that the best way to learn is by having students construct their own knowledge instead of having someone construct it for them. This belief is explained by the Constructivist Learning Theory. This theory states that learning is an active process of creating meaning from different experiences. In other words, students will learn best by trying to make sense of something on their own with the teacher as a guide to help them along the way.

Since all sensory input is organized by the person receiving the stimuli, it cannot always be directly transferred from the teacher to the student. This means that a teacher cannot "pour" information into a student's brain and always expect them to process it and apply it correctly later. For example, think of a time when you were taught something in a lecture-type class. Then contrast that against a time when you had to prepare to teach someone else something. You will probably agree that you learned the material better when you were preparing to teach the material. This is because you constructed the knowledge for yourself.

We can learn through a variety of inputs, but the amount of learning we retain may differ based on the medium. Here are some examples: listening to lecture, reading, audiovisual, demonstration, discussion group, practice by doing, teaching others. Can you think of other formats through which you learn? Which modes of learning produce the highest retention rates for you? Are there certain topics that can be taught only in one format?

It should also be recognized that a person's prior knowledge may help or hurt the construction of meaning. People's prior knowledge comes from their past experiences, culture, and their environment. Generally, prior knowledge is good, but sometimes misconceptions and wrong information can be a hindrance. Sometimes time must be spent correcting prior knowledge before new learning can occur.

Learners are sometimes described as kinesthethic, auditory, or visual. A visual learner is a learner who learns by what they see, a kinesthetic learner is someone who learns by what they do, and an auditory learner is someone who learns by what they hear. However, research has not supported this idea of discrete modes of learning for different people--basically the research suggests that all people learn through all these different means, even though some people are stronger in some areas. A best practice would be to be aware of incorporating as many avenues of learning as possible--we can add more hands-on activities to our lesson plan, some listening exercises, or perhaps a video clip. Even if we are just talking we can use imaginative language that may help the students visualize the principle we are teaching.

Principles of Learning edit

Several Laws of Learning have been proposed. These are not "laws" per se, but are principles that have been found to strongly influence the learning process. Look through this list and determine whether you think these laws apply to any student at any grade and in any subject area, or if some seem more useful than others. How can you specifically apply these laws of learning in your classroom? How can you apply them right now to your own learning? For additional details and discussion, see the Wikipedia article on Principles of Learning and the Educational Psychology Wikibook chapter on the learning process

  1. Law of readiness Students learn more easily when they have a desire to learn. Conversely, students learn with difficulty if they're not interested in the topic.
  2. Law of effect Learning will always be much more effective when a feeling of satisfaction, pleasantness, or reward is part of the process.
  3. Law of relaxation Students learn best and remember longest when they are relaxed. Reducing stress increases learning and retention.
  4. Law of association Learning makes sense (comprehension) when the mind compares a new idea with something already known.
  5. Law of involvement Students learn best when they take an active part in what is to be learned.
  6. Law of exercise The more often an act is repeated or information reviewed, the more quickly and more permanently it will become a habit or an easily remembered piece of information.
  7. Law of relevance Effective learning is relevant to the student's life.
  8. Law of intensity A vivid, exciting, enthusiastic, enjoyable learning experience is more likely to be remembered than a boring, unpleasant one.
  9. Law of challenge Students learn best when they're challenged with novelty, a variety of materials, and a range of instructional strategies.
  10. Law of feedback Effective learning takes place when students receive immediate and specific feedback on their performance.
  11. Law of recency Practicing a skill or new concept just before using it will ensure a more effective performance.
  12. Law of expectations Learners' reaction to instruction is shaped by their expectations related to the material (How successful will I be?).
  13. Law of emotions The emotional state (and involvement) of students will shape how well and how much they learn.
  14. Law of differences Students learn in different ways. One size does not fit all!

Dimensions of Learning edit

Teaching and learning occur in dynamic environments. In these environments, teachers, students, materials, textbooks, technologies, and social structures are all related and interactive. Learning and teaching occurs across five basic dimensions:

  1. Confidence and independence- Being confident about your own skills and abilities is important when learning something new. You are able to understand what you can and can not do to the fullest extent.
  2. Knowledge and understanding- The knowledge we gain and how we come to analyze and understand it. When learning something new, how you perceive and try to make sense of it is important.
  3. Skills and strategies- This is the "know how" of the group. Knowing how to do something is a big part of learning because this will lead to successfully knowing how to handle any situation that comes up.
  4. Use of prior and emerging experience- Drawing on your own experience and connecting it to your work. Making sure the student knows that teachers have experiences too will help them embrace and learn from the experiences that present themselves around them.
  5. Critical reflection- Reflecting back on your work, writing, etc. can change your perspective on so many things. It can make you a better writer, or a better person. Critical reflection is a great tool for those who are unsure of their skills or abilities.

These five elements are known as the dimensions of learning. They cannot be treated individually; instead, they are dynamically interwoven. They describe the basic elements that must be part of every classroom learning (and teaching) experience. Students learn best when these five dimensions are addressed and incorporated into every teaching/learning experience.

Positive Attitudes and Perceptions About Learning edit

Attitudes and perceptions affect students' ability to learn. Learning occurs best when the development of positive attitudes and perceptions is made part of every learning task. Students learn to think positively about themselves, their peers, and the material they are learning.

Here are some suggested classroom behaviors and practices:

  • Establish a relationship with each student in the class.
  • Practice positive classroom behavior.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work together in cooperative groups.
  • Establish and communicate classroom rules.
  • Use a variety of ways to engage students.
  • Provide appropriate feedback.
  • Teach students to use positive self-talk.
  • Provide clear performance levels for tasks.
  • Provide activities that are appropriate for all students (diverse, exceptional, and special need students) are able to participate in.

First Principles of Instruction edit

M.David Merrill, is an instructional effectiveness consultant. Merrill focuses on five effective instructional principles:

  1. Demonstration principle: "show me" Learning happens more effectively when students observe and show.
  2. Application principle: "let me" Learning happens when students are allowed to use their knowledge to solve problems on their own. (multiple choice is discouraged)
  3. Task-Centered principle: Learning happens when students are engaging in solving real-life problems.
  4. Activation principle: Learning is applied when students acknowledge and incorporate past experiences into the learning process. (not just jumping in)
  5. Integration principle: Learning happens more effectively when new knowledge is incorporated into day-to-day lives.

Acquiring and Integrating Knowledge edit

A graphic organizer is a chart, outline, or web of ideas or concepts organized into groups or categories. For example, a nutrition graphic organizer might have the word Food written in the center of a sheet of paper. Around that key term would be categories of food such as Fruit, Vegetables, Dairy Products, and Grains. Around each of those categories would be written selected examples. The category of Fruit might have plums, cherries, apricots, and apples written around it. A graphic organizer illustrates how ideas are related to each other. We know that students build new knowledge by relating it to prior learning and experience. Additionally, we know there are different types of knowledge students can learn. This knowledge is best learned by making connections between what is known and what is to be learned.

Here are some suggested classroom behaviors and practices:

  • Help students understand what it means to construct meaning.
  • Have students use graphic organizers to organize information.
  • Have students create pictorial representations of information.
  • Help students construct models.
  • Point out common errors and pitfalls.
  • Help students set up a practice schedule.

Example of a KWL (What I KNOW, What I WANT to KNOW, What I LEARNED) Graphic Organizer:


What I know


What I want to know


What I learned

Write the information about what the students know in this space. Write the information about what the students want to know in this space. After the completion of the lesson or unit, write the information that the students learned in this space.

Extending and Refining Knowledge edit

For learning to be effective and meaningful, students should be provided with opportunities to use knowledge in practical situations. Processing knowledge for greater understanding can be done through activities designed to help them apply that knowledge.

Try some of these classroom behaviors and practices:

  • Compare. How are these things alike?
  • Classify. Into what groups could you organize these things?
  • Induce. Based on this information, what is the likely conclusion?
  • Deduct. What predictions can you make, or what conclusions can you draw?
  • Analyze errors. How is this information misleading?
  • Construct support. What is an argument that will support this claim?
  • Abstract. What is the general pattern underlying this information?
  • Analyze perspectives. What is the reasoning behind this perspective?

Using Knowledge Meaningfully edit

Students learn best when they need knowledge to accomplish a goal they consider important. Six kinds of thinking processes can be used to encourage students to use knowledge meaningfully:

  1. Decision-making
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Invention
  4. Experimental inquiry
  5. Investigation
  6. Systems analysis

Productive Habits of Mind edit

Teachers can help students develop the mental habits that will enable them to learn on their own. Instruction to foster habits of mind includes both short-term and long-term practices.

Here are some suggested classroom behaviors and practices:

  • Think critically. Be and see accurately. Be open-minded.
  • Think creatively. Push the limits of one's knowledge. Find new ways of looking at a situation.
  • Self-regulate. Be aware of one's own thinking. Evaluate the effectiveness of one's own actions.