1 The Science of Learning

The Science of Learning (SOL) is an interdisciplinary field that advances our understanding of learning – how it happens, how it can be facilitated, how it is hindered. It consists of research from fields such as neuroscience, psychology, education, computer science and education technology and strives to better understand and optimize learning (Sawyer, 2006; Meltzoff et al., 2009). SOL influences the academic disciplines: humanities, social sciences, science, the arts – and encourages the use of active learning approaches. At its core, SOL is grounded in neuroscientific theories of learning. However, there is still much that needs to be understood about the brain and how learning happens. Further, understanding the complexities of learning from a biological perspective is challenging even for scientists. Therefore, the content used in the Illuminated project is a simplification and a generalization of selected concepts, studies and theories from neuroscience. The Illuminated project is a European project funded by the Erasmus+ Programme that brings together experts in education technology, teacher development and cognitive neuroscience to support teachers in designing better lessons by making use of knowledge from neuroscience. Two workshops for educators have been created centered around the theme of ‘neuroscience applied to learning design’ and are available as open educational resources at http://illuminatedproject.eu.

Advances in Neuroscience

Even with much left to learn about the functioning of the brain, significant advances have been made in our understanding of the brain and the biological basis of learning. An example of how far we’ve come in our understanding of learning and memory is recent work out of MIT. This is a headline from research done at Susumu Tonegawa’s MIT lab, Susumu Tonegawa can make mice remember things that never happened (Humphries, 2016). At the lab, they’ve been able to manipulate the memories of mice. What have they been able to do? They can watch a memory form. Track and label it. They can reactivate the memory at their will and cause the mouse to perform a behaviour. They can even manipulate the memory – creating a false memory – and then activate it to create a new behaviour (Tonegawa et al., 2015).  Although there is still a long way to go from lab to practise and from mice to humans, the mechanisms underlying learning and the demonstration of learning via behaviour are becoming much clearer. Enough has been discovered about how we learn that a number of publications have been written to highlight the most relevant findings for educators and how such findings can be applied to improve teaching practices [see references: Science of Learning – Introduction to Evidence-based Practices].

Learning Design

In addition to SOL, Illuminated materials align with Learning Design which is an approach that supports teachers in becoming designers of learning experiences. Learning Design often relies on technology that facilitates teachers in documenting, implementing, reflecting upon, and improving their learning designs over time (Dalziel, 2013; Mor, Craft & Hernández-Leo, 2013; Mor, Ferguson & Wasson, 2015). Designing for learning involves making decisions such as selecting types of learning tasks to use, scheduling content across lessons and within lessons, and determining optimal ways to present new information.

Science of Learning – Overview of Evidence-based Practices

The objective of the Illuminated project is not to teach biology or neuroscience but rather to introduce key concepts from SOL that can be functionally applied to teaching practices and used to inform learning design decisions. This involves introducing evidence-based strategies to support such decisions. In other words, to help teachers become familiar with strategies that are consistent with SOL and are supported by empirical evidence. A second objective is to hopefully pique interest among educators in SOL and how learning happens/and does not happen as it is a fascinating field of direct relevance to teachers. The overall concept of the Illuminated Project is to ‘illuminate effective teaching strategies with the science of learning.’ As it can be said that while “teaching is facilitated or hampered by different strategies in learning”, “learning is enhanced or impeded by different instructional strategies” (Hascher, 2010). Hopefully, Illuminated materials can provide additional insights toward investigating student struggles and optimizing learning. Further, the workshops try to enable educators to not only learn about evidence-based strategies but to also experience them as students would – as some of the strategies have been integrated into the design of the workshops.

Illuminated Concept & Need

Is there a need for Illuminated? Despite a growing consensus about the brain mechanisms underlying learning in the scientific community the same probably cannot be said about educators. Many educators have not learned about the mechanisms that underlie learning (Pomerance, Greenberg & Walsh, 2016; Beardsley, Martínez-Moreno & Hernández-Leo, 2020). As part of Illuminated, we conducted a science of learning survey asking educators about the basic concepts and terminology from the science of learning. Terminology such as neuroplasticity, neurons, synapses, etc. What can we say about the results? They were highly variable. The educators surveyed hold differing views on the basic concepts underlying learning and have different levels of familiarity with the core terms related to the biology of learning. This variability in beliefs on how students learn, makes it challenging to have a common foundation from which a collective knowledge base for educators can be built. Further, many schools are adopting inquiry-based methods (e.g. problem-based learning, discovery learning, experiential learning, constructivist learning, project-based learning) or are at least incorporating them into their practices. A synthesis of 72 empirical studies demonstrated that guidance is pivotal to successful inquiry-based learning. (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012; Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016). They concluded that inquiry-based learning approaches without guidance lack efficacy and underperform when compared to traditional classroom methods. It could be that the primary benefits of inquiry-based methods lie in how such approaches impact student motivation and emotion – both critical to learning. But guidance is needed to address the cognitive processes related to learning – processes that relate to how our brain’s function and that are common to all normally developed learners.


The Science of Learning
  • Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., & Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). Foundations for a new science of learning. science, 325(5938), 284-288.
  • Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. Cambridge University Press.
Advances in neuroscience
  • Humphries, Courtney. (2016, Oct. 14). Susumu Tonegawa studies how memories are stored and how they can be manipulated. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602558/tracing-a-memory/
  • Tonegawa, S., Pignatelli, M., Roy, D. S., & Ryan, T. J. (2015). Memory engram storage and retrieval. Current opinion in neurobiology, 35, 101-109.
Learning Design
  • Dalziel, J., Conole, G., Wills, S., Walker, S., Bennett, S., Dobozy, E., Cameron, L., Badilescu-Buga, E. and Bower, M.  (2013). The larnaca declaration on learning design–2013.
  • Mor, Y., Craft, B., & Hernandez-Leo, D. (2013). The Art and Science of Learning Design: Editorial. Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 21.
  • Mor, Y., Ferguson, R., & Wasson, B. (2015). Learning design, teacher inquiry into student learning and learning analytics: A call for action. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 221-229.
Science of Learning – Overview of Evidence-based Practices
  • Hascher, T. (2010). Learning and Emotion: perspectives for theory and research. European Educational Research Journal, 9(1), 13-28.
  • Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Gooding, H. C., Mann, K., & Armstrong, E. (2017). Twelve tips for applying the science of learning to health professions education. Medical teacher, 39(1), 26-31.
  • Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 1-4.
  • Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. IES Practice Guide. NCER 2007-2004. National Center for Education Research.
  • Schneider, M., & Stern, E. (2010). The cognitive perspective on learning: Ten cornerstone findings. The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice, 69-90.
Illuminated Concept & Need
  • Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., & Walsh, K. (2016). Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. National Council on Teacher Quality.
  • Beardsley, M., Martínez-Moreno, J. & Hernández-Leo, D. (2020). Comparing pre-service and in-service teacher perceptions of the science of learning. In 11th International Conference on University Teaching and Innovation (CIDUI): Beyond competencies: new challenges in a digital society.
  • Clark, Richard E., Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller. “Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction.” American Educator 36.1 (2012): 6-11.
  • Lazonder, A. W., & Harmsen, R. (2016). Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of educational research, 86(3), 681-718.

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