Debunking 3 Learning Myths: Strategies for Teachers

Supporting students effectively can be a confusing and intricate task. To navigate this complexity, we form simplistic theories and unscientific beliefs about what aids learning. However, scientific research on learning has debunked many of these beliefs, revealing that some of our most common assumptions about learners are incorrect. These misconceptions about learning can lead us to waste instructional time and effort, or even hinder students’ learning.

In the following sections, I will debunk three prevalent myths about learning and reinterpret these ideas based on the most up-to-date evidence.

Myth 1: Every Student Has a ‘Learning Style’

Many educators believe that students have individualized learning styles, and that tailoring instruction to match their preferred style optimizes their learning.

Learners often express a preference for specific modalities of learning. For example, some students may identify as “verbal” learners, while others claim to learn best through visual information. Some theories expand on these learning styles, encompassing concrete or abstract learners, active or reflective learners, and analytic, creative, or practical learners. Numerous unscientific tests are available online that assign students a learning style, and schools can even purchase expensive tests to categorize students into different style categories.

However, there is no good evidence to support the existence of stable and useful learning styles in students. Additionally, there is zero evidence that students learn better when information is presented in accordance with their preferred mode of processing. Research suggests that attempting to tailor teaching to match each learner’s preferred mode of processing is a waste of time and resources.

Evidence-based concept: Instead, research suggests that students learn, retain, and utilize new information better when they process it in multiple different ways. Processing information through multiple and varied forms, including multiple senses, abstract and concrete representations, diverse examples, and varied activities, creates elaborate and detailed memories. This enhances long-term retention and generalization of knowledge.

Using it in the classroom: Students who learn fractions by using math symbols, words, visuals, and kinesthetic experiences are likely to master fractions better than students who only employ a single approach. Similarly, students learning French translations are more likely to acquire the language if they encounter translations through sight, sound, touch, and taste.

Myth 2: Testing Should Only Be Used for Assessing Student Learning

Teachers and students often perceive tests as a necessary evil, solely employed to assess what students do and do not know. While tests are indeed crucial for evaluating mastery, their utility extends beyond assessment.

Evidence-based concept: Numerous research studies indicate that tests do more than simply assess memory—they actually change memory. Tests serve as a form of memory retrieval, prompting students to recall information from long-term memory to answer questions. Retrieving information from long-term memory alters memory in a way that makes the information resistant to forgetting in the future. In fact, repeated practice in retrieving information from long-term memory is one of the most effective methods for ensuring lasting retention of information.

Moreover, practicing retrieval helps students organize information, apply learned concepts to new problems, assess their understanding, and even learn more from upcoming lessons.

Using it in the classroom: Teachers can incorporate retrieval practice in numerous ways, which also serves as a method for assessing student mastery. For example, students can engage in “brain dumps” at the end of a class, recalling everything they remember. They can try to solve a question from a previous week using only their memory, create a mind map from memory based on a text, answer questions using personal whiteboards, or draw illustrations of main ideas from a lesson from memory, among other techniques.

Retrieval practice benefits learning regardless of whether it is graded or ungraded, and whether corrective feedback is provided or not (although more feedback is better). This approach is effective across various ages and disciplines. The only essential requirement is that students retrieve the information from memory, as opposed to simply rereading, repeating, highlighting, or copying information. If we want students to be able to retrieve information in the future, it makes sense for them to practice retrieval now. After all, practice makes perfect.

Myth 3: Easily Learned Concepts Are Easily Remembered

Teachers and students commonly believe that if ideas are quickly or easily learned, they will be remembered in the long term. This widespread belief, known as “easily learned, easily remembered,” influences the choices teachers and students make regarding learning activities. Learners opt for study techniques that enable rapid acquisition of new information, such as rereading or recopying notes, instead of attempting retrieval. They may also focus on a single concept at a time rather than intermixing similar ideas, and practice an idea in a single session rather than distributing practice across multiple sessions.

Evidence-based concept: Research shows that techniques promoting speedy acquisition of ideas often promote speedy forgetting as well. In other words, easily learned concepts are often quickly forgotten.

Using it in the classroom: Introducing “desirable difficulties” during learning can aid long-term retention of information. Slowing down the learning process can yield better results in terms of long-term retention than easy acquisition.

For instance, practicing retrieval during learning increases errors and requires more effort compared to rereading or recopying notes. However, it leads to significant learning benefits over time. Similarly, students who answer a series of math problems of the same type in a row (blocking instruction) make fewer errors during learning than those who interleave different problem types (interleaving instruction). Yet, students who answer a mix of different problems ultimately remember more. Finally, while studying a concept in a single session (massing instruction) may feel easier and faster than spreading out the learning across smaller, distributed sessions (distributed instruction), the latter approach offers substantial benefits in the long run.

Important caveats should be considered. Struggle alone is not necessarily beneficial. Introduction of unnecessary complexity or withholding instructions may increase learners’ struggle without significantly supporting learning. However, struggle during learning can be productive when learners grapple with essential aspects of a problem. For example, struggling to differentiate between similar math problems is productive because it helps learners develop skills in distinguishing similar problems. Similarly, retrieving information from long-term memory is productive struggle, as it prepares learners to retrieve information effectively in the future.

To ensure that students understand the benefits of this extra effort during learning, teachers can help them interpret struggle as a sign of learning and view wrestling with ideas as indicative of growth, rather than limitations in their abilities.

Supporting students’ learning presents a complex challenge. While we often form intuitive notions of what works best, these intuitions can sometimes be misleading. Correcting learning myths and aligning our practices with evidence-based approaches can lead to more effective and efficient instruction.