Book Review: Applying Science of Learning: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum

Applying Science of Learning: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum

Edited by Victor A. Benassi, Catherine E. Overson, and Christopher M. Hakala

The book in a nutshell: The title makes the book sound a bit daunting, but what the editors say about it clarifies its content and focus. “The overarching theme of this book is on the interplay between the science of learning, the science of instruction, and the science of assessment.” (Those three labels are attributed to Mayer.) A few definitions are helpful at this point. “The field of specialization known as the science of learning is not, in fact, one field. Science of learning is a term that serves as an umbrella for many lines of research, theory, and application. A term with an even wider reach is Learning Sciences (attributed to Sawyer). The present book represents a sliver, albeit a substantial one, of the scholarship on the science of learning and its application in educational settings.” (p. 1)

“Substantial sliver” may be an understated description for this 300-page, 24-chapter volume, and that’s not counting the introduction, which overviews the content and highlights various features of the work. Chapters appear in three sections that introduce important concepts, principles, theories, and research findings related to learning. The 14 chapters in part 1 address a wide range of topics, most of them aspects of learning, about which the typical college teacher knows little: the spacing and interweaving of study and practice, errorful and errorless learning, the expertise reversal effect, what practice tests contribute to learning, and why self-explanation supports learning, to name a few.

Often when faculty confront unfamiliar educational language they dub it jargon and too quickly disparage and then dismiss the work. To do so in this case would be a mistake. These chapters focus on aspects of learning that regularly confront teachers. For example, is it easier for students to learn something when it comes to them error free, as teachers usually deliver it, or is making mistakes something that enhances the learning process? What about working groups, in which other students can add confusion and misunderstanding? Doesn’t that get in the way of learning? Most faculty would be surprised to find out that the role of errors in learning has been studied at length, and what is known is clearly presented in the chapter on it.

Part 2 shares approaches to working with faculty on applying the science of learning in their classrooms, and part 3 “provides six examples of research that has been done in real academic settings and that applied one or more science of learning principles.” (p. 2)

What’s impressive about this book: All sorts of things, starting with the fact you don’t need to be an educational expert to read it. “We instructed authors to write their chapter so that teachers from any field or discipline could read and understand its content.” (p. 3) That doesn’t make the various chapters easy reading. The science of learning (like science in every other field) is complex, but this book makes it accessible and does so without diluting the content. It’s a book you have to work at reading, but what you learn makes it well worth the effort.

It’s impressive because the chapters are mostly written by researchers, and not just any researchers, but those doing work in the areas about which they are writing. You are learning about various aspects of the science of learning from experts.

It’s impressive because the chapters are uniformly structured, especially those in part 1. They start with an overview that defines the terms and previews the content. That’s followed by a discussion of the research, which is summarized and mostly presented in accessible language. And finally, each chapter addresses application issues—what it is teachers might consider doing based on what is known about this particular aspect of learning. Some of these chapters are among the best summaries and distillations of research I’ve read. And it is indeed rare when researchers explore the implications of their findings. They do so here with concrete suggestions that teachers can implement in their courses.

It’s impressive because although it is an amazingly well-integrated and coherent whole, you don’t have to read it from cover to cover. The chapters stand alone and those overviews at the beginning allow readers to decide whether the topic is of current interest, although I started several of the chapters thinking they might not be of interest only to discover I was wrong.

All these features make this the most impressive book on teaching and learning that I read in 2013. I cannot believe how much I learned, and I still haven’t divulged its most impressive feature.

What’s the most impressive feature: You can have this ebook for free. No kidding. It’s available for download at This amazing resource is being provided by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Hats off to them and a heartfelt thanks.

A bit from the book: Stephen L. Chew opens the second paragraph of a particularly useful chapter titled “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying” with this sentence: “For students to be critical thinkers, they must first be critical learners.” (p. 215) He identifies four things that critical learners must be able to do.

  • “They must be able to discern the critical concepts from the less important and tangential information.”
  • “They must develop a schematic understanding of the subject.” This means that learning does not stop with knowing the concepts. Whatever the student is learning must be developed into some sort of structure that links the ideas together.
  • “They must be able to retrieve and apply the information appropriately.” Knowledge isn’t much good if it can’t be used. Students have to be able to find the information they need to apply to the situation at hand.
  • “Their schematic understanding must be generative; it must lay the foundation for further, more sophisticated learning.”

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