Recent findings from cognitive theories about learning and thinking can revolutionize teaching. This PPT introduces the new concepts and explains how teaching must change to accommodate how students learn best.
Teach to How Students Learn Best
Carole L Hamilton
This presentation shares new findings in
cognitive science and empirical studies
that can help students learn more
effectively and with greater retention.
Accommodating these new insights
will require a new approach to
teaching—one that is more rewarding to
teachers as well as students.
Teachers work hard—but don’t
always teach how to think.
“Our common teaching-learning-testing
strategies are rooted in outdated
assumptions about how children and
adolescents learn.” (VanSledright)
“Classrooms are too often places of ‘tell and
practice’…In such classrooms, little thinking
is happening.” (Ritchhardt, Church, and
Why do we we still base our lessons on a 19th
century understanding of how people learn?
Here are the three insights from cognitive
science that can revolutionize your teaching.
1) People like to think and learn best when they
figure things out themselves, rather than being
2) We think by analogy. Information is more
easily retrieved from memory if it is attached to
3) Students must engage meaningfully with the
Threshold Concepts in our disciplines that
students find difficult to master.
1. People Like to Think
“People like to think—or more properly,
we like to think if we judge that the mental
work will payoff with the pleasurable
feeling we get when we solve a problem.”
Do we allow our students to wrestle with
2. We learn by analogy. Analogy
is “the Core of Cognition.”
3. Students must engage
meaningfully with the Threshold
Concepts that are central to our
Threshold Concepts are the central,
defining truths in a given discipline,
the ideas that open a gateway to
deeper understanding. These
are the essential, indispensable
elements, the understandings that
transform the novice into a true
practitioner of the field.
Organize your course around
“The fact that experts’ knowledge is
organized around important ideas or
concepts suggests that curricula should
also be organized in ways that lead to
conceptual understanding.” (Donovan,
Bransford, and Pellegrino).
Do we allow students to fully understand
threshold concepts when we move
quickly from topic to topic?
Students have to discover Threshold
They start by defending their ideas.
They work together to draw a model
that represents their theory.
The best diagrams make an analogy.
The key is that students do the thinking.
And they express their theory or
thesis using an analogy.
“Fitzgerald believed that society, in
an attempt to create the American
Dream, merely created a façade of
frivolity, lavishness, and happiness
behind which they could hide their
inadequacies and sorrow.” (11th
grade AP English class)
The students’ analogy of a façade
organizes information from and about
The Great Gatsby” in a way they will
Threshold Concepts Change
Students’ Way of Thinking
They begin to think more like
practitioners in the discipline than
like novices. They begin to see
important implications of the
concept that enrich their
In fact, once students pass
through that gateway of
understanding, there is no going
back to prior beliefs.
Implementing these ideas requires
Organizing the course around
Changing lessons so that students
spend more time making and
Building in time for students to develop
Want to Learn More?
You can buy my book, Read My Mind:
Teaching to How Students Learn on Amazon
Kindle, for $3.99. The book explains these
concepts in more depth, offers sample
Threshold Concepts and student challenge
lessons from many disciplines, and includes
excerpts from cognitive science findings
about how students learn best.
Carole L Hamilton
Donovan, M. Suzanne, John D. Bransford, and James W.
Pellegrino. How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice.
National Academies Press. 2000. Print.
Ritchhardt, Ron, Mark Church, and Kristin Morrison. Making
Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding,
and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass. 2011. Print.
VanSledright, Bruce A. Assessing Historical Thinking and
Understanding: Innovative Designs for New Standards.
Routledge. 2013. Print.
Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School? A
Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How The Mind
Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass. 2010.