Science of Learning Course for College Student Success

This spring semester I am excited to be teaching a new course on effective learning.

The course, Psychology 150: Science of Learning for College Student Success is designed for any undergraduate student to learn how to learn, a skill that is surprisingly absent from any student curriculum, k-12 and college students respectively.

Psychologists in the field of learning science have been honing in on best practices for learning for over a century. Unfortunately, it is only quite recently that these learning methods have been introduced to students and educators. The references below provide wonderful resources on the science of learning. Picking up any one of these would provide clear and accessible information on how the knowledge gained through learning science can lead to breakthrough changes in learning. Two of my favorites are Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain and Understanding How We Learn by researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.

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While these resources can be quite useful for motivated learners, for many students who have been using the same study and learning methods for years (e.g., reading and re-reading their notes, highlighting key concepts; see this Scientific American article on learning strategies that do and do not work) many learners will require deliberate practice and consistent enforcement of useful learning strategies. For example, long-term memory for new information requires that we think about the knowledge and retrieve it often from memory. Students who are told they need to retrieve what they are learning by testing themselves may greatly benefit from classroom practice.

In PSYC 150 my students will be introduced to learning methods but will also work with course peer-tutors to apply the methods to what they need to learn in their other college courses. In addition, the course will emphasize my LEARN method which incorporates cognitive knowledge, learning strategies, and information on healthy practices outside of the classroom.

Planning a new course is not easy and getting additional resources from my university has been even more difficult. I have other trailblazers to thank though for establishing the course. Cognitive psychologists Ed DeLosh, Anne Cleary, and Matthew Rhodes have been teaching a science learning class now for several years. Rather than getting resources to teach the course at the university-level the best chance for success is to incorporate it into a department. Psychology is a natural fit, but other students need the opportunity too. So I recommend incorporating similar modules into first-year experience courses and to build learning content workshops into already established centers for academic success. These bottom-up strategies take some creative thinking but are starting points to a larger university buy-in.

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  • Pick up any of these mentioned resources and start reading – see what ideas you can begin using now!
  • Talk about new learning strategies with another student or educator and hold one another accountable for trying some out.
  • If you teach a class, find a way to introduce ideas from the LEARN method or or into a few days of class instruction.


Agarwal, Pooja & Bain, Patrice. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. 10.1002/9781119549031.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Mitchell, M. J, & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What Works, What Doesn’t, Scientific American Mind 24, 46 – 53.

Oakley, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2018). Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School, New York, NY: TarcherPerigee Book, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Weinstein Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2018). Understanding How We Learn A Visual Guide, London, UK: David Fulton/Routledge.

To nap or not to nap, IS that a question?

Have you ever heard someone say they were a bad napper?

I have not and can remember my undergraduate days when one of my first thoughts after turning my alarm off was, “when can I take a nap today?” I wasn’t necessarily staying up too late or pulling all night cram sessions – although that did happen. However, I can look back now and see that I wasn’t practicing behaviors of good sleep hygiene.  The Mayo (1) has a lot of good advice for getting a good night’s sleep. You’ve heard of some of them I’m sure:

  • Create a restful setting.
  • Use your bed for sleep and not work or T.V.
  • Go to bed and wake up on a schedule.
  • Sleep for about 7 hours.


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A common sleep recommendation is to limit naps! Wait, what?

Anyone who has struggled to get children to nap should be laughing so hard now they might be crying. As a parent of two young boys, I cherish times when they both settle down for an afternoon nap. Certainly, children should be getting more sleep than adults, but how tempted am I to nap with them? Mayo (2) explains that adults who nap should pay attention to the length of their nap. They suggest that going past 90 minutes in a nap is a deal breaker. After 90 minutes you typically progress into deeper sleep. Spending too much time or not enough in deep stages can cause you to feel terrible after you wake.

I have been teaching my students about the role of sleep in forming memory for a while now. Psychologists Georg Muller and Alfons Pilzecker were among the first to suggest that what we learn changes overtime, and sleep can account for some of this change by improving long-term memory (3). They found that participants learning short sets of “non-sense” syllables (e.g., FOV) would recall syllables randomly, over time, even when these syllables were no longer being tested. They called the ability to remember without intention, “perseveration.” Consider not being able to stop thinking about an embarrassing event, long after you were embarrassed; this is perseveration. Muller and Pilzecker called this process of consistently remembering consolidation. This word makes me think of taking all the leftovers in my fridge and planning to eat what is still good and throw out what is too far gone each week. Consolidation is an important process to remembering.

When we make new memories, the hippocampus is heavily relied upon. Overtime, memories begin to rely predominately on the cortex and in turn, less on the hippocampus. It is not that the knowledge “moves” from one place to the other. It is that as time passes, we tend to use and connect long-term memory with other memories. (4) This image from research by Gordon and Diekelmann depicts how information at learning relies on activation of the hippocampus, but, after sleep and retrieval, activation shifts to the cortex.

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In the two sets of diagrams labeled “Cortex” and “Hippocampus”, the dark shaded “neural connections” in the hippocampus at first wakefulness are solid colored but become clear circles during sleep. In turn, during sleep, the neural connections in the Cortex become a darker shade and their dotted lines link together. The bottom line is that memories are dependent on sleep AND consistent retrieval to facilitate learning.

Back to napping. Taking a nap longer than 90 minutes can leave you feeling unrested and may keep you from falling to sleep later that night. But are there benefits to taking naps for learning? Researchers have been making the case that naps, no longer than 90 minutes may help. Work from Axel Mecklinger’s and colleagues (5), describes benefits in declarative memory after naps. Declarative memories are those you are aware of learning. For example, I can teach you facts about glaciers in a lecture, show you pictures of glacial melt, and ask you questions about your learning. You are consciously aware of your learning and you intend to remember this new information about glaciers.

What happens during napping less than 90 minutes that seems to help with memory? Mecklinger’s work focuses on sleep activity, spindles specifically. Consider holding a spool of twine. As you firmly grip on the spool with one hand, you use the other to find the twine’s end. You pull. With a quick jerk of the twine, you release a long piece high into the air. You pull gently, and the twine comes slowly out of your fingers. A sleep spindle looks like pulling twine off a spool. As we sleep our brain produces ups and downs of energy called oscillations. These are shorter and slower or higher and faster (like different pulls on the twine) as we sleep. Mecklinger has found that spindles occurring when we are not in Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) produce vibrations crucial for memory consolidation.

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There is much more we need to understand about sleep and memory but for now, take a nap! Keep it shorter than 90 minutes though. This might be all you need to improve things you just learned and keep you feeling rested and ready for new learning!