Insights from the Science of Learning for Education

Applying relevant findings from the science of learning to curriculum and materials development will enhance the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes. There is strong evidence that “active learning” approaches enhance learning generally (NRC 2000; Handelsman et al., 2005; Knight and Wood, 2005; NRC 2011a). A critical component of active learning is that the learner, rather than the instructor, is at the center and focus of all activities in the classroom, laboratory, or field. Learner-centered environments are more likely to be collaborative, inquiry-based, and relevant (Brewer and Smith, 2011). There is still a place for shorter, carefully structured lectures, but the instructor becomes primarily a guide providing effective learning materials and expertise as needed. Michael (2006) summarizes several characteristics of active learning processes:

  • Having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and how they are using those ideas.
  • Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a particular discipline (this process is also called “metacognition” (NRC 2000).
  • Attaining knowledge by participating or contributing.
  • Keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking, and problem solving.

As this list suggests, there are numerous teaching strategies to support active learning, ranging from in-class problem solving to case studies to learning from original investigations which they design in whole or in part. The variety of strategies enable active learning approaches that can be implemented in classes of any size, including large, lecture-based introductory courses.

Several findings from the learning sciences can inform education about dual use issues.  For example, to be well understood, factual knowledge must be placed in a conceptual framework. Framing learning in the sciences as four intertwined strands of proficiency provides a sound basis for creating effective teaching and learning experiences across all levels of education, including the primary grades (NRC 2007, 2011b):

  • Understanding scientific explanations;
  • Generating scientific evidence;
  • Reflecting on scientific knowledge; and
  • Participating productively in science.

This model emphasizes the integration of learning about process and content in effective instruction. There are many opportunities for learners to engage with conceptual material, while being deeply involved in laboratory work. Thus laboratory work is not an add-on or distraction from content mastery, but rather one of many pathways to both factual knowledge and deeper conceptual understanding (NRC 2005). Social and ethical responsibility, as well as biological content, can readily be integrated in laboratory learning, whether it is a formal undergraduate laboratory experience or graduate-level research (NRC 2009a; NAE 2009).

Building in time for reflection, as called out in the third strand above, is an essential component of effective approaches to learning. To date, this is the only practice that has been demonstrated to result in student gains in understanding the nature of science (NRC 2005, 2008). Reflection involves the opportunity to engage in the exploration of understandings with other learners and a teacher, and in giving students opportunities to become more aware of their own levels of learning.  Numerous studies have demonstrated the value of “metacognition” or self-monitoring in learning. Many effective teaching and learning strategies engage the learner in metacognitive practice. As discussed below, active learning, properly implemented, encourages metacognition. Given the complexities of the social and ethical dimensions of dual use and other issues in the responsible conduct of science, it would be important to include time throughout a course for various forms of reflection—ranging from deliberate breaks in lectures that provide such opportunities to exercises both in and outside of class or laboratory that structure and guide reflection—in new curricula.

Understanding is constructed on a foundation of existing conceptual frameworks and experiences. Prior understanding can support further learning. In some cases, however, it can also lead to the development of pre- or misconceptions that may act as barriers to learning. Prior understandings also can be influenced by culture, which has implications for the development of dual use curricular materials for an international audience (NRC 2008). The importance of engaging learners’ prior understanding as they encounter new material is another key insight from the science of learning (summarized in NRC 2000) with direct implications for education about dual use and related issues.

Conceptual change often requires explicit instruction and takes time. In many current education systems, learners are often faced with too many disconnected ideas too quickly to be able to take meaning from them and change a previously held conception. And the literature on learning suggests that humans are not adept at making connections between disparate fields or types of knowledge unless they are specifically helped to do so through education (NRC 2000).

Curricula can be designed to engage students in key scientific practices: talk and argument, modeling and representation, and learning from investigations (NRC 2008). Designing a course or module with learning goals and measurable outcomes are the first steps in curriculum design, as opposed to the current system practiced by many faculty of selecting a textbook, designing the course syllabus and assignments, constructing exams, and then describing learning goals and outcomes based on those earlier steps.

This “reverse design” process (Wiggins and McTighe 2005) ensures that learning outcomes inform instructional and also assessment strategies both by explicitly articulating and then integrating them into curriculum development at the outset. Assessment can be both formative and summative. Formative assessment is usually informal and low stakes (i.e., assessment exercises either do not count or comprise only a small percentage of students’ grades) and is offered regularly throughout the learning process, providing feedback for both the teacher and learner on progress achieved. In contrast, summative assessment, conducted at the end of a learning and teaching experience, provides information to students about their learning gains and to faculty and programs about the overall success of the effort. Both formative and summative assessments can be used to inform subsequent restructuring of the curriculum. Concept inventories, critical thinking rubrics, and curriculum-specific, pre- and posttests are examples of summative assessment tools. Without assessment that is closely aligned to learning outcomes, it is difficult to gather evidence about the effectiveness of curriculum.

In addition to considering ethical and intellectual development, attention to the learners’ culture and environment is also important for effective curriculum development. As discussed above, prior understandings will affect how an individual interacts with the materials, and learning is enhanced when the learner perceives its relevance to them. The need for relevance underscores the importance of making materials adaptable to local settings and individual circumstances, for example by providing instructors with a range of suggestions for adapting a common curriculum to their own settings.

Source:  Modified and updated from Challenges and Opportunities for Education about Dual Use Issues in the Life Sciences, NRC 2010:37-42. [add link]


Brewer, C. and D. Smith. eds. 2011. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund. 2006. Scientific Teaching. San Francisco: Freeman and Sons.

Knight, J. K. and W. B. Wood. 2005. Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biol Educ 4:298-310.

Michael, J. 2006. Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Adv Physiol Educ 30:159-167.

National Academy of Engineering (NAE). 2009. Ethics Education and Scientific and Engineering Research: What’s Been Learned? What Should Be Done? Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded Edition). Washington, DC: National Academies Press

NRC. 2005. America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NRC. 2007. Taking Science to School. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NRC. 2008. Ready, Set, Science! Washington, DC: National Academies Press

NRC. 2009a. On Being A Scientist. 3rd Edition. Washington: National Academies Press.

NRC. 2011a. Promising Practices in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Summary of Two Workshops. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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