Getting Beyond Brain Games

A new book looks at how to apply the science of learning to college teaching

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 10, 2014

The February issue of National Geographic featured a cover story about "The New Science of the Brain." That same month, while I was watching the Super Bowl, a commercial for Lumosity promised to improve my brain by giving me games to play. Switching channels later that night I saw a promo for a new season of the reality-TV show Brain Games. And almost every day on my Twitter feed, I find new links to articles about how our understanding of the brain should affect our teaching.

In short, the brain is hot these days. And in addition to its many appearances in popular culture and politics (President Obama unveiled a brain-research initiative in 2013), it seems to be drawing the special focus of educators, who are trying to understand how all of the information that scientists are gathering about the brain might help us do our jobs more effectively.

As faculty members, we are given the task of helping human beings learn, and since learning happens in the brain, we should know something about how the brain works—or, more precisely, about how it learns. That makes good sense to me, and over the past several years I have been diving into the work of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists who write for the public, trying to understand more clearly what happens in the brains of my students. I enjoy reading about how memories are formed and skills are developed, or about fascinating laboratory experiments that unlock the secrets of brain structure and cognitive functions.

Unfortunately, though, while such research findings may teach us much about how learning works in a laboratory, they don’t always translate into clear instructions for the college classroom. And both educators and corporations may be drawing hasty conclusions about the implications of that research.

Lumosity, for example, tells me that I will get smarter while I am having fun playing games based on the science of neuroplasticity. But while scientists are telling us that we can improve our intelligence (one of the implications of neuroplasticity), they are not telling us that it’s fun and easy. To the contrary, almost every work of cognitive theory I have read argues that learning is—to use an ugly word that appears frequently in the literature—"effortful." Deep learning requires frequent retrieval practice and skill development over long periods of time.

In fact, as the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons point out in The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, playing brain-enhancing games like Lumosity’s makes you better at one thing only: playing brain-enhancing games. "In the now vast cognitive-training literature," they write, "almost none of the studies document any transfer to tasks outside the laboratory." Play those brain games all you want, but don’t expect them to make you any smarter.

Educators, too, need to tread carefully into the fields of brain-based research. Fortunately, some of the leading thinkers in the field have taken up the challenge of pushing their findings outside of the laboratory. They are testing their theories in real classrooms and in other learning environments, and spelling out the implications for teaching.

The best book I have seen on the subject is Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s an accessible guidebook from the cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, but its focus is on children’s learning in elementary and secondary schools, not on higher education. I want to use this column, and one that will follow next month, to spotlight two new books that I believe have the potential to break open this line of research for college faculty members and administrators. Although the two books could not be more different, both feature primary researchers in the learning sciences who are attempting to flesh out their findings for college and university professors.

The first of the two books comes with a somewhat daunting title: Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science Into the Curriculum. Edited by Victor A. Benassi, Catherine E. Overson, and Christopher M. Hakala, the book was published in January by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. The society and the book’s editors wanted to make the research widely available to academics, so they have published it as a free e-book.

Benassi, faculty director of a teaching center at the University of New Hampshire, is the principal investigator on two related programs, the Cognition Toolbox and Teaching and Learning With Multimedia. For the e-book, he and his co-editors approached researchers at the front edges of the field, asking them to write essays on the implications of their work specifically for higher-education faculty members. "We instructed our authors to write for teachers, from any field or discipline, who are unlikely to be knowledgeable about science-of-learning principles or their application," he said.

The resulting volume has three parts. Part 1 has more than a dozen chapters, each of which explains a key cognitive principle, offers some background on the experiments and studies that helped establish that principle, and then provides concrete recommendations for how it can be leveraged to increase learning in college classrooms. Part 2 features several chapters on how to help faculty members and students apply learning principles to their teaching or studying. Part 3 offers a half-dozen examples of researchers’ using cognitive-based interventions in their teaching and measuring their impact.

For most faculty members, the primary value of the book will probably be Part 1, where they will find overviews of basic principles of human learning that they might never have encountered, even after years of teaching.

For example, as I have argued in this column before, a substantial body of research has demonstrated that testing does much more than measure student learning. Testing has the capacity to boost students’ long-term retention of information and skills more than almost any other technique we know.

In a chapter called "Test-Enhanced Learning," three researchers at Washington University in St. Louis focus on that phenomenon. "Compared to simply rereading a given piece of information (or doing nothing at all)," they write, "actively retrieving information from memory improves the likelihood that the information will be recalled at a later time. The benefits of practice tests have been documented hundreds of times and the benefits of tests may last up to nine months after information has been initially learned."

But test-enhanced learning does not necessarily mean more tests. In the latter half of the chapter, the researchers outline multiple ways in which professors can take advantage of this learning principle, including quizzes, clickers, and frequent questioning in the classroom. Faculty members might find that their courses already involve plenty of test-enhanced learning even if they have not deliberately designed their classes with that principle in mind.

In a chapter called "Supporting Self-Explanation in the Classroom," a pair of researchers presents an overview of multiple studies in which students improved their understanding of a subject by engaging in "self-explanations"—speaking aloud to describe information to themselves—while they were studying, completing a task, or solving problems.

"Over two decades of research have demonstrated that explaining concepts while learning results in more effective problem-solving, more robust conceptual understanding, and better monitoring of learning," they write. That same research has demonstrated that instructor-prompted self-explanations can have the same positive impact as ones generated spontaneously by the learner, which means that teachers can help students take advantage of this principle in the classroom.

Parts 2 and 3 will appeal to those who already work in faculty development, or are more accustomed to reading the literature on human learning. The opening chapter of Part 2, for example, offers an overview of how to assess your changing teaching style using conventional methods of social-science research. Part 3 includes examples of professors who are doing just that, and might help others begin to add their own contributions to the field.

I must confess: Not every chapter will appeal to a general faculty audience. I came to the book as someone with a strong interest in the subject, and I still found some of the chapters tough sledding, less for the complex nature of the concepts than for the overly stilted or technical writing.

Some readers might find themselves put off by essays that don’t work hard enough to translate the research into useful implications, or don’t offer the quality of writing that animates the best crossover books on this topic. In other words, like almost every other edited collection, the quality of the essays is uneven.

But don’t let that deter you from exploring the book and seeing what you might learn from this carefully researched and important entry to the field. You might have to work your way through some rough patches in the text, but—as the theory of "desirable difficulties" suggests—having to work a little harder to learn something often increases our long-term retention of the material.

Next month’s column will consider the work of two cognitive psychologists who enlisted the help of a novelist to translate their research into readable recommendations for faculty members.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the teaching center at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.