“Ask the Cognitive Scientist” Columns Highlighting Empirical Generalizations and Their Applications

American Educator Issue

Empirical Generalization


Summer 2002

Memory is longer lasting when study is spaced out over time, rather than bunched together.

Teachers can revisit taught material to provide spaced practice.

Winter 2002–2003

Early learning is inflexible and transfers poorly to new contexts.

Set realistic expectations for transfer in early learning and plan for extended practice for knowledge that you expect to transfer broadly.

Summer 2003

Students remember what they think about.

Every lesson should be viewed through this lens: “I know what I hope students will think about during this lesson. Is that what they are actually likely to think about?”

Winter 2003–2004

That something seems familiar merely means you’ve seen it before, but students can mistakenly believe that familiarity means the content is committed to memory.

Students should be taught to test themselves to assess whether they know something.

Winter 2005–2006

Praise is meant to motivate, but there are many ways praise can backfire.

Praise should be sincere, earned, noncontrolling, and focused on the process rather than outcomes.

Spring 2006

Reading comprehension, problem solving, and other high-level thinking skills depend on subject-matter knowledge.

Knowledge learning is cumulative and so should start early in schooling.

Winter 2006–2007

Instruction in reading comprehension strategies boosts reading comprehension, but practice of the strategies does not bring added benefit.

Reading comprehension strategies should be taught, but with no more than perhaps 10 lessons.

Summer 2008

Cognitive development does not occur in discrete stages.

If a child is not cognitively ready to take on particular work, it’s not because she has not yet reached the right developmental stage. It’s because she doesn’t have the background knowledge to make sense of the work.

Winter 2012–2013

Sleep is important for learning, and U.S. teenagers do not get enough sleep, in part because of hormonal changes associated with puberty.

Changes to their surroundings and their habits can make teenagers less dependent on hormonal cues that it’s time to sleep and more dependent on environmental cues.

Summer 2016

Grit—passion for long-term goals and the stamina to pursue them—is associated with success.

Because an important part of grit is passion, teachers or parents can’t choose what a child will be gritty about. Researchers are just starting to explore ways to encourage grit.

Summer 2018

There’s no evidence that students learn best according to their preferred learning style.

Parents who advocate for teaching to their child’s preferred learning style should gently be informed of the lack of evidence for this theory.


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American Educator, Summer 2019