Panel: What makes learning effective?


I had the honor of participating in two panel discussions at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on December 4 and 5. This panel’s central question: What makes learning effective? In preparing for the panel, I put together these notes.


  • Jeff Dieffenbach, lead staff director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative
  • Our mission is to fund, connect, and disseminate learning effectiveness research
  • Our scope is birth to pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning
  • (The research addresses learning effectiveness questions at the learner, instruction, and policy levels.)
  • (My background includes 10 years as a school board member and 15 years in educational publishing strategy, sales, marketing, and product management.)

Lots of things make learning effective

  • We frame those things in terms of a learner-instruction-policy “triangle”
    • Learner: prior knowledge, motivation, interest, physiological readiness
    • Instruction: content, delivery, assessment
    • Policy: law, access, funding, management, measurement

We know things about attention span, spacing and interleaving, value of expressive vs. receptive, learning with peers, and much more.

Echoing a question from the Jack Lynch session Monday morning, while there’s an incredible amount that we don’t know about what makes for effective learning, there’s a lot that we DO know but don’t apply.

What we know about learning

Learning revolves around the movement of information from sensory receptors to short term memory to long term memory back to short term memory and out to our various ways of expressing ourselves.

What do we know?

  • We forget things … and we can minimize that forgetting by taking advantage of reinforcement over time
  • Long blocks of monolithic learning don’t work … so we can shorten the blocks and interleave subjects
  • Pre-testing improves outcomes
  • Interspersed testing/retrieval learning improves outcomes
  • Peer learning improves outcomes
  • Worked examples improve outcomes
  • Grit is real and improves outcomes
  • Growth mindset is real and improves outcomes
  • Preferred “learning styles” (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) don’t translate to better outcomes

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