“What did you use?”

“What books did you read?”

“What would you recommend as a starting point?”

I received these questions after presenting at a recent faculty in-service at Northeastern Junior College about the process of how we learn and know new information.

The developments in cognitive psychology in the past two decades have revolutionized our understanding of how our minds work and what that means for the classroom. We are just now seeing that complex research translated into laymen’s terms for application in teaching.

I recommend the books below as places to start, some for a little deeper learning, and others as great supplemental materials.

“What would you recommend as a starting point?”


Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel

What happens when you bring a professional story teller and two cognitive scientists together? A readable, fast paced explanation of why facts matter and how to get them to “stick” with our students.

The principles of retrieval, interleaving, spaced practice, and the difference between fluency and deep knowledge are presented throughout the chapters as the book alternates between real life stories about learning and the cognitive science behind why it is so.

It also challenges many of our preconceived notions behind the why and how we learn.

For further reviews and info check out:

Brian Johnson’s Philosophers Notes

The Chronicle of Higher Education – Make it Stick



Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning

James M. Lang

Small Teaching is written for college teachers, by a college teacher. James Lang is the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, as well as being a monthly contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

His inspiration comes from the strategy of “small-ball” in baseball: using deliberate, small techniques of advancing runners such as stealing bases and sacrificial bunts, instead of relying on homeruns. If you do enough of these small strategies right, the combined impact is great.

Lang starts with an understanding: if you teach college classes, you are likely extremely busy. So his concept of “small teaching” focuses on incremental steps that can be incorporated within an existing course structure. Some of his recommendations take as little as five minutes at the beginning or end of class, but come with great learning benefits because each recommended strategy is based in research, as well as his own experience.

For teachers wanting great impact without completely overhauling their courses – or for those attempting changes during a semester – Small Teaching is a great place to start.

Hear more from Lang on this Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

Lang outlines many of his strategies in the Small Changes in Teaching series on The Chronicle of Higher Education.




Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom

Daniel T. Willingham

Willingham soaks this book in cognitive findings right up to its organization around big questions central to each chapter. A few of these questions include:

  • Why don’t students like school?
  • Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say?
  • Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?
  • What’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?

Why Don’t Students Like School? is a great combination of research and practical application.

For a fun, visual introduction to his book, check out this illustrated excerpt entitled Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking.

An additional review of the book can be found at Learning and the Brain.


Digging deeper…

The following books focus more space on the physiological and biological underpinnings of what is happening when we learn. They are the foundational texts that explain the results in the above books, but take more effort and background knowledge to access.

brain based learning


Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching

Eric Jensen







The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

James E. Zull








How the Brain Learns

David A. Sousa









How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

Susan A. Ambrose, et al.








Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Carol S. Dweck



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