The science of learning is an expanding field that provides direction for educators and students alike. As research in this area begins to have a greater role in health professions education, it is easy to be overwhelmed with where and how to best utilize the findings to enhance student learning. Planning for the new year, it can help us to pause and ask:

How can we as educators help students shine as learners by incorporating evidence-based strategies in our curriculum and instruction?

As we begin the new year, incorporating principles from the science of learning can support greater student success. While there are many effective, evidence-based strategies we can encourage our students to use, three key concepts that we should strive to integrate in our teaching (and curricula) to maximize student learning include spaced and interleaved learning, desirable difficulties, and retrieval practice.

  1. Spaced and Interleaved Learning: Also known as “distributed practice,” is when students engage with the content they are learning at intervals over time. While the ideal interval for repeat interaction varies based on how long the content needs to be retained, the evidence suggests that spacing studying over time supports more durable learning and long-term retention. Interleaving refers to switching between ideas or concepts. Interleaving may mean reviewing microbiology and pharmacology in one “study session” as opposed to study only microbiology or it may mean reviewing cardiology when students are beginning to learn pulmonology and continuing to revisit concepts from each when they start the renal course. The evidence from the science of learning suggests that this switching can help with long-term retention as well as seeing links or connections between concepts.
  1. Desirable Difficulties: By incorporating conditions that make learning more “difficult,” we can aid in maximizing retrieval for our students. While it may sound counterproductive, varying the learning conditions, instead of keeping them constant and predictable, we can promote better retention. For example, if we provide a variety of cases or problem sets that force students to use their knowledge in novel ways or to discern different presentations of similar diseases, we can make learning more difficult – but lasting.
  1. Retrieval Practice: Often known as the “testing effect,” is a powerful way to enhance student learning and also help students become more effective in their approaches to studying. As Gooding et al. (2016) state: “Learners should be taught the value of retrieval practice and encouraged to study with practice questions, flashcards, or through repeated psychomotor practice.”

Students may approach content “equally” when they review meaning they re-watch an entire lecture or video on a topic or re-read the whole presentation or chapter. By completing practice questions or generating answers to learning objectives prior to reviewing, they can more accurately identify areas of strength within the content that they don’t need to spend as much time on – and they can narrow in on the content or skills where they do need to spend more time to acquire.

Through deliberate design within our curriculum and instruction, we can space learning and review of concepts across time and incorporate appropriate opportunities to push learners towards the integration of desirable difficulties while providing sufficient opportunities for retrieval practice. With this intentionality, we can encourage our learners to space their own review and move away from cramming and towards durable and successful learning.

As we enter 2021, we can help all our students learn better by incorporating evidence-based strategies into our teaching. What will you do to incorporate the science of learning into practice? Comment below to join the conversation!


Did you know that the Harvard Macy Institute Community Blog has had more than 245 posts? Previous blog posts have explored topics including harnessing the power of zoom for teaching and learning, mastering adaptive teaching in the midst of COVID-19, and supporting students and faculty through the application of learning sciences

Jennifer Meka

Jennifer Meka, PhD, MSEd (2.0 ’13; Educators ’16) is the Associate Dean for Medical Education and Director of the Medical Education and Educational Research Institute (MEERI) at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at The State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. Jennifer’s areas of interest include implementation of evidence-based educational principles and assessment for student learning. Jennifer can be followed on Twitter and contacted via email.