The Science of Learning

Co-authored: Noemi Guiot

New generations have novel ways of consuming information and learning, like the internet, social media, and more. Just look at what Tiktok is doing to content these days. But even today, so many reading formats are very similar to what they were 500 years ago.

At Upword, we believe that creating summaries is a critical skill for todays’ knowledge workers. We also acknowledge that Creating summaries is a learning skill. That’s why we decided to blend the science of learning into our product from an early stage. We can apply learning science to the way our minds absorb information and, from that, how we can use that knowledge to optimize our summary creation.

Learning Science aims to develop effective learning methodologies and solutions, backed by research in cognitive neuroscience, learning analytics, data science, behavioral economics, and educational psychology. Through all of these disciplines, learning science aims to enhance our ability to acquire and process information. Learning science enables one to take advantage of strategies and methods, backed by concrete research, to make taking in and retaining new information easier and more effective. These strategies focus on how we encode and consolidate information in the brain in order to construct the most effective learning methods.

Even though Generative AI technologies like ChatGPT will have a massive effect on learning and content consumption, it won’t change these fundamental ways of how our brain operates in that sense.

John Sweller, a world-renowned Australian educational psychologist, has been very influential in the field of learning science. His most well-known work is the Cognitive Load Theory, which states that our short-term memory* has a limited capacity, and therefore, one should avoid overloading it with information that is irrelevant to learning. We need to focus on the key ideas.

When we consume content either too much at once or in an unstructured format, this increases our cognitive load. Too great a cognitive load causes us to have difficulties understanding the text, resulting in re-reading the same material. This overload causes readers to feel tired and unfocused. It also makes us slower. Optimizing cognitive load, allows you to read better and faster.  

Practically, this theory suggests that we must be very selective with regards to the texts we use. Any information that is not related to what we are trying to learn will take space in your short-term memory that could have been allotted to something more relevant, furthering your learning.

Walter Kintsch, an American psychologist, is another key figure in the field of learning science. Kintsch's research has shown that our prior knowledge has a very significant effect on the way we are able to learn. Linking new information with information that has already been consolidated creates associations with the new information, which not only make the new information easier to store but also make it easier to retrieve later.  So every new reading and learning experience must have some kind of context for enhanced performance.

To combine Sweller and Kintsch's research, texts that are ideal for learning should overlap with our prior knowledge sufficiently so that the brain can make connections with the information. This will ensure enough short-term memory capacity to be able to create new memories.

Stephen Kosslyn, Upword's Chief Learning Advisor, has dedicated his life to the science of learning. Kosslyn received his Ph.D from Stanford University and continued to work at Harvard University, Stanford University, and Minerva University, receiving  distinctions and awards for his influential work in the field. Up until 2018 he was the Chief Academic Officer at Minerva, which offers learning programs that rely on the science of learning. From such experiences, Kosslyn formulated five principles** that underlie effective learning, which we draw on at Upword. Stephen Kosslyn is one of the top experts in learning and cognitive science - and a huge asset for us at Upword.

In the next blog post, we will focus on how we chose to apply these scientific methods.  We have developed helpful features using these methods to create an effective learning experience.  One of our future blogs will also be expanding on Stephen Kosslyn's Five principles of active learning and how they are implemented in our features. See you soon.

"Your brain has a capacity for learning that is virtually limitless, which makes every human a potential genius."
— Michael J Gelb

*Memory can be divided into short-term memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory records about 15-30 seconds of information—about 7 items, after which, it is either forgotten or moved into long term memory. Long-term memory holds memories that have been consolidated and can later be accessed (through recognition or recall).

**(1) deep processing, (2) chunking, (3) building associations, (4) dual coding, and (5) deliberate practice as brought by Stephen Kosslyn in his latest book, Active Learning Online:   https://www.amazon.com/Active-Learning-Online-Principles-Courses/dp/1735810703