If It Ain’t There, It’s Broke!

Paul A. Kirschner*

* What you read here is a very concise representation of two theses performed in the context of an OU Master educational sciences. Kristel Vanhoyweghen and Tim Surma, mentored by Dr. Gino Camp and myself, carried out a part of the replication of a research I reported earlier (in Dutch) and which also appeared on my blog 3-Star Learning Experiences: An Evidence-Informed Blog for Learning Professionals (What Every New Teacher Needs to Know, May 2016, also in Dutch). So this blog has four authors.

Should our teachers (and future teachers) understand how their students learn? This question seems rhetorical, because if the task of teachers is to promote student learning, then the planning, execution and evaluation of their lessons will be more effective when teachers themselves know how and when their students learn best. More than a hundred years of cognitive research has provided a wealth of information on effective and efficient learning strategies that are widely used to promote student learning. And most of all, they are inexpensive, easily deployable and immediately applicable, across different subjects, ages, knowledge or skills. The big non-rhetorical question here is now: Why aren’t they being used?

What are these learning strategies?

The Learning Scientists covered six effective learning strategies: (1) distributed practice: spacing studying over time, (2) retrieval practice: actively recalling information to mind, (3) elaboration/posing probing questions: explaining and describing ideas with many details (4) interleaving/variability of practice: switching between ideas while studying (5) concrete examples: using specific examples to understand abstract ideas and (6) dual coding: combining words and visuals. Downloadable materials can be found on their website in various languages. Other sources that clearly describe the science of learning for teachers are

Every new (and of course also every experienced) teacher should know, understand, and apply these research-informed strategies. The moment where future teachers first address this essential content is teacher education.


Do future teachers learn these strategies through their training?

Last year, an American research conducted by the independent NCTQ (National Council on Teacher Quality) reported to what extent textbooks used in teacher education included the six most essential learning and instruction strategies. The results were distressing: from the 48 analysed textbooks, no single textbook contained a minimal description of all six learning strategies mentioned above. At best, textbooks referred to (incomplete) parts of one, maximally two strategies. You can read more about the results in this comprehensive report or through an earlier blog post.


Inspired by this study, we wanted to know how the situation is in the Netherlands and Flanders. What about textbooks and syllabi in Dutch and Flemish teacher education? To find out, we collected the textbooks and syllabi that were used in teacher education for secondary teachers and carried out a content analysis on two learning strategies that have long proven their value in cognitive psychology: distributed practice and retrieval practice. These two strategies have been extensively investigated and their effects have been demonstrated in the laboratory, but also in classroom settings;

  • Distributed Practice (spacing studying over time) means that you can better space the study and practice in time (i.e. over a series of short study sessions) instead of stuffing all studying into one long period (i.e., cramming). For a thorough discussion of the strategy, read Carpenter et al.
  • Retrieval practice (actively recalling information to mind) implies that by retrieving information from ones memory through low-stake tests, a person will better and longer remember the information. Retrieval practice (testing as a learning strategy!) should not be confused with formative assessment (testing to monitor progress during the learning process) or summative evaluation (testing of the outcomes of learning). More information can be found in this article by Roediger and Karpicke.

In this respect, it should be assumed that future teachers get a thorough description of these strategies in his or her education. Unfortunately, however, the reality proves us wrong.

ainttherebroken3  ainttherebroken4

source: posters from www.learningscientists.org

What about Flemish and Dutch teacher training?

As in the US, the results for Flanders and the Netherlands are not encouraging. We found only three textbooks in which both strategies were thoroughly explained. With an accurate description, we mean that the material includes (1) a clear definition of the strategy, including an explanation of why this strategy is effective, (2) guidelines for practical implementation in classrooms, explicitly linked to the strategy, and (3) references to primary scientific research on the strategy.

When we looked at the materials combined per teacher education institute, we found that only three teacher education institutes provided accurate written study material (across the two strategies) to their students. Unlike the American research, no lines or paragraphs were quantified. However, we observed that if the strategies are discussed, this was done in a very brief way. Distributed practice was slightly better covered than retrieval practice, but both were very limited. Results in Flanders and the Netherlands were similar. Finally, we found that a number of doubtful principles without scientific evidence (such as learning styles and multiple intelligences) were given more attention than proven strategies.

On the basis of this research, there are a lot of things we can’t conclude. We must not forget that we only examined one empirical indicator of educational quality (i.e., the written study materials). For example, each lecturer could discuss these learning strategies through PowerPoint presentations or articles disseminated over the course of the year, etc. However, our starting point / premisse was that the materials that a teacher used would be a good indicator of what was or was not discussed in the courses as textbooks and syllabi often guide teaching content, lesson planning, and the choice of learning objectives. We also can’t conclude that Flemish and Dutch teachers are not well educated: teacher education is about much more content than the two learning strategies we investigated. We found books and topics that are invaluable for future teachers and the diverse profession as a teacher, such as dealing with diversity in the classroom, implementation of ICT, classroom management, and much more. However, the results remain what they are, namely that information on the most relevant methods that teachers should know to optimise the learning of their students is too often missing or incomplete in the teaching materials in teacher education.

Who can learn which lessons from this research?

Teacher Education Institutions should select (or design) textbooks or syllabi where essential instructional and learning strategies are accurately and completely presented. It is a time-consuming activity for teachers/lecturers to be engaged with scientific research in the many branches of educational sciences. That is why we advocate for an extensive scientific knowledge base, which gleans the most essential insights and provides guidance to a readable guideline with references to primary research. The sources mentioned above can serve as a starting point.

We believe that it is impossible for students to discover the most effective learning strategies by themselves because often these strategies clash with their intuition (and also that discovery learning isn’t really the most effective or efficient learning strategy in itself J). Among others, Bjork (2011) and Mayer & Fiorella (2008) argued all that ‘learning to learn’ should not be a part of a hidden curriculum that future teachers are expected to magically discover by ‘every day trial and error’. Future teachers are also ‘novices’ in the teaching profession and do not know what they do not know yet. Even experts (apparently) regularly make faulty claims when it comes to evidence-informed learning strategies, not to mention commercial edu-companies and Eduquacks! We can’t expect inexperienced future teachers to discover these strategies themselves in the, for them, yet difficult accessible jungle of cognitive science. Hence, an easy-accessible knowledge-base of the learning sciences seems essential. Paul posted the basis seminal sources here.

Authors of Textbooks and Syllabi need to represent essential topics more accurately. A geometry textbook, which pretends to give an overview of triangles, is incomplete if it ignores the Pythagorean theorem or treats the theory only in the sideline with one or two sentences. However, these gaps and omissions can be addressed by a number of small interventions. The meta-studies above can guide authors in improving the accuracy of their texts.

Further, educational policy-makers could provide a clear evidence-informed framework for intermediaries, such as authors of textbooks, to support the curriculum of teacher education. Our findings should appeal to national and local research bodies to support teacher education as an evidence-informed profession.


Educating high-quality teachers implies the use of qualitatively strong learning materials, with sufficient value attached to (learning) strategies that work. Our teachers deserve this, and even more, our pupils / students in the next generations deserve teachers who know how they learn and how to help them learn better. This article will hopefully contribute to increasing such awareness for an evidence-informed practice, while simultaneously calling for action to fulfil this responsibility.


Bjork, R.A. (2011). On the symbiosis of remembering, forgetting, and learning. In A.S. Benjamin (Eds.), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 13). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H. K., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369–378. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-012-9205-z

Deans for Impact. (2015). The science of learning. Retrieved from http://www.deansforimpact.org

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Willingham, D., & Nathan, M. J. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, (October), 47–53.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. http://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 717–741. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9348-9

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., & Mark, M. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. Retrieved from http://software-carpentry.org/2011/12/organizing-instruction-and-study-to-improve-student-learning/

Roediger III, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242–248. http://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, (Spring), 12–20.


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