Gettin’ Jiggy with the Learning Research: 5 Findings and Thoughts On How To Apply Them

Diplora Labyrinthiformis (Grooved Brain Coral) Wikimedia Commons

How can research on learning inform the way we teach? Here are five insights from learning research that we can apply in the classroom. You can find others in these earlier posts.


When people experience anxiety, for example before giving a speech or taking an exam, the advice they frequently get is to “calm down.” But trying to calm down during a stressful situation requires converting a high-arousal state into a low-arousal state or, alternatively, simply masking the real emotion. Research suggests that we’re better off reframing our nervousness as a similarly high-arousal but positive emotion: excitement (Brooks, 2013). Simply saying “I’m excited” out loud can help to reduce nervousness and improve performance by turning a “threat” mindset into an “opportunity” mindset. Research shows that this simple trick can tangibly increase your feelings of excitement and reduce your feelings of nervousness. Tell your students to try it. It works!

Excitement YouTube (labeled for reuse)

Expressive Writing

When students are particularly anxious about a task (say a math test), their anxiety exacts a cognitive burden, eating away at working memory, and leaving fewer cognitive resources free for the task itself. Not surprisingly, this hurts student performance. Researchers have found that a simple intervention can reduce anxiety and improve student performance: ask students to write their thoughts and feelings about the anxiety-producing task before doing it (Park, Ramirez, & Beilock, 2014). Expressive writing helps students identify and process their anxiety, which allows them to regulate their emotions more effectively during the task itself. This frees up cognitive resources and — voila! — their performance improves. How can you apply these insights? Give students a few minutes at the beginning of class the day of a big test to write about how they’re feeling.

Buddha, Fig, Rest Pixabay

Exam Wrappers

The capacity to think about and regulate your own learning — metacognition — improves learning and performance. But metacognitive skills aren’t natural or inevitable: they have to be developed. How can you help students become more self-aware learners? Think about using“exam wrappers” (Lovett, 2013): short surveys students take immediately after completing an exam that ask them to reflect on how they think they did, how they studied, and whether they think their study strategies were effective. When students get their graded exam back, they get the wrapper too, and are asked to compare how they thought they performed with how they actually performed, to reflect on their study strategies, and write about what they’d do differently the next time. Completing these wrappers helps students get better at self-assessment and planning, which — alas — they are notoriously bad at doing (Dunning, 2007).

Exame National do Encino Medio Wikimedia Commons

If-Then Planning

There’s a raft of research that shows the benefits of setting goals. But setting goals and realizing them are two very different things. Research (Gollwitzer, Gawrilow, & Oettingern, 2008) shows that one thing that can help people achieve their goals is to anticipate possible obstacles and formulate “if-then” plans to guide them through the rocky shoals, should the need arise. If-then statements can be things like: “If I do poorly my first semester, then I will take a lighter credit load and get help from Academic Advising” or “If I get shin splints, then I’ll reduce my mileage and try cross-training.”) If-then planning can steer students towards more realistic thinking by helping them identify potential snags and prepare for them. If those obstacles emerge, students have more possible solutions at hand and are more likely to persist. One way to use if-then planning is to ask students at the beginning of the semester: “What are your personal goals for this course? What do you hope to achieve?” Then ask: “Can you anticipate any possible obstacles to your success in the course? What are they, and what will you do to overcome them should they arise?”


Research shows that students learn and retain knowledge better when they explain what they’re learning to themselves as opposed to simply absorbing the information (Chi et al, 1997). The process of reformulating and articulating the ideas helps students integrate what they’re learning on a deeper level. In fact, crafting self-explanations is more useful than repeating formal definitions or explanations from a text because students’ own explanations, however informal and fragmentary, require students to reconcile their prior knowledge with new information, rather than simply replacing it wholesale. So before tests and major assignments, suggest to students that they explain course content out loud to themselves — preferably where they won’t be viewed as nutty for doing so!

Talk to Yourself Hat Photo credit: Kate Hartman

The insights keep rolling in from cognitive and social psychology, as well as other fields that study learning. Stay tuned for more information, and please share your own favorite research results — or teaching strategies — with me!


Brooks, A.W. (2013). Get excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 143, 3, 1144–1158.

Chi, M.T.H., De Leeuw, N., Chium, M-H, & Lavancher, C. (1994). Cognitive Science, 18, 439–477.

Dunning, D. (2007). Self-insight: Roadblocks and detours on the path to knowing thyself. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gollwitzer, Peter M., Caterina Gawrilow, and Gabriele Oettingen. (2008). The power of planning: Effective self-regulation of goal striving. New York University: Manuscript.

Lovett, M.C. (2013). Make exams worth more than grades: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., eds. San Francisco: Sterling.

Park, D., Ramirez, G., and Beilock, S.L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 20, 2, 103–111.

Sherman, D.K., & Cohen, G.L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M.P.Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183–242.

Dr. Marie Norman is — oddly enough for a cultural anthropologist and learning expert — an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Institute for Clinical Research Education at the University of Pittsburgh. She has taught anthropology for over 20 years, worked in SoTL (the scholarship of teaching and learning) for 13 years, and in online course development for 4 years. She is the co-author of the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

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