How students learn best: An overview of evidence from cognitive science and the most effective teaching practices
Teaching practices that are aligned with how students learn improve educational outcomes for all students. Empirical evidence gained over recent decades has provided important new insights about the learning process common to students across learning contexts. These processes explain why some teaching practices are more effective than others.
In this paper, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) provides an overview of evidence‑based teaching practices found to enhance educational outcomes for all students. The paper connects the understanding of how students learn best with practical implications for teachers. AERO has also developed a model of learning and teaching that aligns effective and efficient teaching practices with how students learn at various phases of the learning process.
This paper and model of teaching and learning are relevant for teaching school-aged students across all Australian classrooms. They recognise that the mechanisms of learning are the same for all students. Some students experience persistent difficulties or differences in processing information that necessitate more frequent, intense and sustained scaffolding and support, but all students benefit from evidence‑based practices that align with the processes of acquiring, retaining, retrieving and consolidating learning.
In this paper, we explore 4 key areas that shed light on the student learning process and how effective teaching aligns with these processes to maximise progress and outcomes.
1. Learning is a change in long-term memory
There are 2 types of memory that process information during learning: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is the mental workspace that students use to actively engage with the facts, concepts and procedures they encounter, while long-term memory stores this knowledge for future use. As students learn, they identify relationships and connect knowledge in long-term memory to develop increasingly complex mental models. Students processing new information will learn most effectively when taught by someone with expert knowledge.
2. Students process limited amounts of new information
Working memory has a very limited capacity, so learning is maximised when the amount of new information students process at any one time does not overload it. Providing students with new information in manageable parts or steps, with guidance, feedback and opportunities to practise helps them to connect and retain it alongside related prior knowledge in long-term memory. Guidance, scaffolding and opportunities to practice also support retention of learning, particularly for those students with further limitations and differences in their capacity for processing information.
3.Students develop and demonstrate mastery
Developing mastery requires students to first store knowledge (including facts, concepts or procedures) in long-term memory and then recall and arrange it in meaningful ways. As these mental models grow, reflecting students’ understanding, they learn about and begin to recognise the relationships between facts, concepts and procedures. With repeated and varied practice, students’ ability to recall and apply their learning fluently, and to transfer their knowledge to new situations, increases. Once knowledge is consolidated in long-term memory, students can retrieve and combine it in varied ways to test possible solutions to unfamiliar problems and generate creative ideas. Students’ capacity for critical thinking, creativity and problem‑solving is greatly enhanced when they have relevant background knowledge consolidated in long‑term memory to draw on.
4. Students are actively engaged when learning
Transferring information from working memory to long-term memory requires students’ focused attention and active engagement in a supportive and responsive learning environment. Students are motivated to engage when they understand their effort leads to success, develop positive dispositions towards learning, and have positive relationships with teachers. The experience of success is motivating. Students who feel culturally safe, supported and have a positive sense of belonging within their learning community are also more actively engaged in their learning. Engagement and focus on learning are further increased when students understand the expected behaviours and routines of the learning environment, as well as the intended goals of their learning. The most effective teaching practices foster a supportive learning environment and enable students to focus their attention to successfully acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their learning.
AERO is developing further resources for teachers and school leaders that expand on the practices discussed in this report. These resources will build on our existing Tried and Tested series, which covers education practices that have been proven to make a difference to learning outcomes for children and students. AERO has also partnered with Ochre Education to provide teachers with hundreds of free curriculum resources created by teachers for teachers. Ochre lesson resources support effective, evidence-based practices and address the learning expected in the Australian Curriculum.
If you have any feedback on these resources on how to better understand student learning and the implications for teaching, please let us know via our feedback survey.