From neuromyths to the science of learning
Emilee Strohl was about to face a daunting but common challenge that all teachers will one day face. The college junior was working in a sixth-grade classroom as part of her teacher-preparation program at UNC Charlotte when she encountered a student struggling to understand algebraic expressions.
This sort of moment can challenge even the most veteran of teachers, to say nothing of a novice teacher-in-training such as Strohl. But a little knowledge can be a powerful thing. As part of her preparation at UNC Charlotte, Strohl was learning about cognitive science, so she knew that one of the best strategies to build a student’s understanding of a new concept is to show them examples that illustrate what it is, and “non-examples” of what it isn’t.
She showed the middle schooler several examples and non-examples of algebraic expressions, and together they talked through them.
“I asked her what similarities and differences she saw in examples and non-examples. When I did that, I was eliciting thinking that helped her to connect the dots of what an algebraic expression is and why,” Strohl said. With a better understanding of the boundaries of the concept, they returned to the initial problem.
“She was able to identify and explain which one was an algebraic expression and why,” Strohl said. “I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the day.”
She was putting the science of learning in action.
From neuromyths to evidence-based instruction
The “science of learning” is a broad term that refers to research from cognitive science about how humans learn new information and employ their knowledge. Over the last two years, UNC Charlotte faculty and staff have incorporated learning-science principles across their coursework, so that future teachers such as Strohl understand how to effectively teach students by connecting new information to their prior knowledge (to pick just one example).
“My approach to instruction has changed a lot since I entered the program,” Emilee explained. “I used to believe in learning styles. I learned that from a teacher I had in middle school who made us do a test to determine if we were kinesthetic, auditory, or visual learners.”
Gradually, her belief in that common neuromyth was replaced by an evidence-based understanding of how students learn.
Now, her approach is to build student knowledge sequentially and deliberately. To do this, she starts by administering a pre-assessment to evaluate students’ prior knowledge of a topic. This helps her to not fall prey to her own biases about what students may or may not know. (A common mistake teachers make is to assume that they and their students share the same background knowledge.) If she finds that students don’t have the background knowledge they need to grasp the lesson, she’ll build that information into the lesson design first.
“This approach is equitable because the lesson design acknowledges that everyone has a different starting line, and it’s designed to help every student to reach the same finish line,” Strohl said. “No one is not going to be able to meet the objective.”
Her coursework on learning science has further helped her see the existing knowledge that her students bring to the classroom, and connect new concepts to what they already know – a practice which cognitive science suggests will help students remember long-term.
“Learning is like a puzzle – you’ve got to have a prior piece to attach it to,” she said.