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Welcome to the second issue of Learning Science Weekly, the smarter way to stay on top of updates related to the science of learning and how it can be applied in corporate and customer education. In this email, our editors and contributors* will share content that can help you create evidence-based learning experiences that drive real-world results.

This week, we’re recapping some new-ish articles and revisiting some old favorites. Let us know what you think, and what you’d like to see next week, by emailing

Online Coursework: What Doesn’t Work

In a 2019 study of massive open online courses (MOOCs), researchers Egloffstein, Koegler, & Ifenthaler found that many of them didn’t follow best practices in instructional design (such as my favorite, the First Principles from Merrill -- read on for those). They report that the reviewed courses “showed substantial shortcomings with regard to an adequate individualized support of learners and the implementation of collaborative elements” (p. 95). In addition, MOOCs did not often adapt the problem-centered and case-based approaches that are so widely recognized as effective in business-related training. If you’re interested in MOOCs, this is a rich report -- definitely check out the full study. 

Key Takeaway: Successful online learning requires learner engagement and individualized attention; don’t just chuck content online and expect it to go well.

Read More: Instructional Quality of Business MOOCs: Indicators and Initial Findings

Quote of the Week

“The best MOOCs may not be those that attempt to comprehensively introduce students to a topic but those that attempt to provide students with a map and compass of the network of online resources available for learning about such a topic.” -- Veletsianos, Reich, & Pasquini, 2016 

Read More: The Life Between Big Data Log Events: Learners' Strategies to Overcome Challenges in MOOCs

Blast from the Past

If you, like me, stumbled onto this whole adult learning thing accidentally, then you might not have heard of Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction, developed all the way back in 2002 and published in the journal, Educational Technology Research and Development. Never fear: we’re here to recap a few of his theoretical principles. (Note that there’s plenty of research that supports Merrill’s theories.) 


Merrill posits that learning is promoted when: 

  • Learners are engaged in solving real-world problems

  • Existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge

  • New knowledge is demonstrated for the learner

  • New knowledge is applied by the learner

  • New knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world


Merrill tells us that, when comprehending a new task, the learner needs to understand four things: 

  1. The problem

  2. The tasks required to solve a problem

  3. The operations that comprise the tasks

  4. The actions that comprise the operation


Key Takeaway: Showing students a specific demonstration of the whole task -- a worked example, so to speak -- will help learners remember and apply information. 


Read More: First Principles of Instruction

Bonus! Using the First Principles of Instruction to Make Instruction Effective, Efficient, and Engaging 

Unicorn Sighting! 

In a new segment we’re calling “Myths and Legends,” we’re debunking some common misunderstandings with science. This week, we’re focusing on learning styles, a topic that just won’t go away. We’re referring, of course, to the common belief that people’s brains are wired to learn a specific way: by hearing information (auditory learners), by seeing instruction presented visually (visual learners), or by doing something physical (kinesthetic learners). This theory, presented by Fleming & Mills in 1992, is commonly accepted wisdom, and many people tasked with learning and development have since relied on their understanding of learning styles to vary the modality of their instruction. The problem is, there’s no real evidence to support this theory of learning styles; on the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence debunking it. So, why does this myth continue to be so pervasive? 


Catherine Scott, a senior research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, explains in her article from 2010: “We know ‘what works’ and what are the attributes of highly effective teaching, but evidence-based practices lack the ‘sound bite’ appeal and easy marketability of learning styles theory. Learning styles as an idea chimes well with the individualist value system of our culture…but there is no credible evidence that it is a valid basis for pedagogical decision-making.” 


What’s Real: Developing content for a variety of “learning styles” is a practice that’s not based on sound learning science. 


Read More: The Concept of Different “Learning Styles” is One of the Greatest Neuroscience Myths

Do You Remember… 

In the May 2020 issue of Learning and Motivation, researcher Lin Guo at Syracuse University reports on a recent study examining how timing of learning new content impacts students’ memory. Specifically, Guo conducted a study (n=102) of freshmen language learners to see how the frequency of studying previously learned content before learning new content affected retention of the prior content. Guo’s findings indicate that spacing out testing and learning new content could increase the students’ memory capacity, and that repeated review of the prior content could strengthen learners’ memory and content retention. 


Key Takeaway: Instructors should refrain from engaging learners in new content immediately after testing prior content. 


Read More: Timing Matters: The Interplay of the Retrieval Frequency and Temporal Distance between Retrieving a Prior List and Encoding a New List in Vocabulary Retention 

What We’re Reading

How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine…for Now by Stanislas Dehaene. I haven’t gotten too far into the book, but the introduction is fascinating. A quick skim of later chapters reveals this gem: “Let students sleep. Sleep is an essential ingredient of our learning algorithm. Our brain benefits each time we sleep, even when we nap.”

So, the next time you’re caught nodding off during an unending Zoom call, just tell everyone that you’re optimizing your learning. 

Editors & Contributors


*The current editorial "board" (we're using that word loosely): 

Julia Huprich, PhD
Learning Scientist @ Intellum

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