Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Research demonstrates that an effective way to enable students to improve learning outcomes is to help them develop the skills to think deeply about what and how they learn (Hattie, 2009). If students are to successfully transfer what they have learnt to new situation and problems then they have to develop a deep understanding of the content they have studied (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  There are three levels at which something can be learnt and understood; surface, deep and constructed understanding. That is we can know information at a surface level, repeating facts but not truly understanding them.  A deeper level of understanding of a concept is developed when we are able to transfer it to new situation making relational connections between two or more concepts or being able to elaborate or extend the concept (Hattie, 2009).

Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Barron & Darling-Hammond (2008) report on the growing body of research that shows students who engage in constructivist inquiry learning; project-based learning, problem-based learning and design-based learning benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to gains from traditional types of instruction, as well as demonstrating a deeper understanding of concepts and an increased ability to take what they know to new situations and problems.

Current cognitive research suggests that there is a general intelligence or general cognitive ability,  that is the ability to think logically, apply knowledge from one context to another, demonstrate deep understanding of a concept, be creative, ask surprising questions and go beyond the given (Philip Adey, Csapó, Demetriou, Hautamäki, & Shayer, 2007).  The concept of a general intelligence is in opposition to the widespread idea that there are multiple intelligences (i.e. Gardner’s  M.I.).  Abby, et al. (2007) argue there is little evidence to support the concept of multiple intelligences.  Research has demonstrated that general intelligence has plasticity; it can be influenced and transformed by the environment. Adey, et al. (2007) state that if teachers  know that they can help students throughout their formal schooling period continually to raise their ability to process information then this must be what teachers should be striving for. It is by far the most efficient use of schooling time, to concentrate on raising intelligence levels so that students become generally more effective learners.

Adey, et al. (2007) list the following as an action plan for raising general cognitive ability.

  1. Learning activities must be generative of cognitive stimulation, i.e. they must have the potential to create challenge rather than being comfortably within the reach of the learner’s current processing capability.
  2. Learning should be collaborative in the sense that learners learn to listen to one another, to argue and to justify, and become accustomed to changing their positions.
  3. Continually raising awareness in students of metacognitive processes

factors in the concept, such as the organization or the quantity of information that cause difficulties in representing and processing;

connecting the present concept to others already in their possession, as they differentiate it from other concepts, and even as they decide that some concepts need to be abandoned;

transferring control of the thinking and learning processes so that the student gradually becomes self-reliant and self-regulating, rather than depending on the teacher continually to monitor and guide his or her thinking.

Adey and Shayer (1994) developed cognitive acceleration programs  incorporating three principles presented as ‘pillars’ to build their lessons around; cognitive conflict, social construction, and metacognition. The cognitive conflict was a problem presented to students to solve. Students were then placed in collaborative groups for discussions around the problem and finally asked to reflect on their thinking and understanding.  Adey and Shayer (1994) have been able to demonstrate tangible gains in both academic outcomes and cognitive development.  They also demonstrated that these gains were not limited to the subject the cognitive acceleration was focused around, but influenced students metacognition and outcomes across all their subjects (Philip Adey, 2004; Shayer, 1997, 1999).

Adey, P. (2004). Evidence for Long-Term Effects: Promises and Pitfalls. Evaluation and Research in Education, 18(1), 83-102.

Adey, P., Csapó, B., Demetriou, A., Hautamäki, J., & Shayer, M. (2007). Can we be intelligent about intelligence?: Why education needs the concept of plastic general ability. Educational Research Review, 2(2), 75-97.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Shayer, M. (1997). The Long-Term Effects of Cognitive Acceleration on Pupils’ School Achievement, November 1996. Report: ED408195. 16pp. Mar.

Shayer, M. (1999). Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education II: Its Effects and Scope. International Journal of Science Education, 21(8), 883-902.


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I couldn’t agree more. Asking children to reflect on how they learn and what they have learnt is part and parcel of good teaching. To ask them what they feel they need to learn next also empowers them to be more in control of their learning and also help the teacher build the next learning experience.

    It is also true that children need cognitive challenge in their learning. All to often teachers provide learning that is com
    fortable that doesn’t extend thinking.

    It is a challenge for teachers, however, to meet the needs of all the pupils and extend each and every one of them.

    Paul (topteacherast) UK

    • Thanks for the thoughts Paul,
      Yes teaching is a challenge, teaching is more an art than a science. To be a good teacher means you need a wide range of strategies and the ability to apply the right one at the right time with the right student. To master this teachers need to know their students, having built a learning environment of trust, where students provide the feedback the teacher needs.

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