Book review: The Science of Learning

Two authors present '77 studies every teacher needs to know' – their choices may be arbitrary but it is an enjoyable read

Christian Bokhove

Book review: The Science of Learning, by Bradley Busch and Edward Watson

The Science of Learning: 77 Studies that Every Teacher Needs to Know

Authors: Bradley Busch and Edward Watson
Publisher: Routledge
Details: 188 pages; £18.99
ISBN: 978-1138617704 

This book collects 77 articles on what the authors designate as “science of learning” in one convenient and nicely formatted volume. Each article is presented over two pages, with a short summary of the content and some related research and the implications for classroom practice. 

The authors say they have three aims with the book: to bring together these articles in one book for people who otherwise don’t know where to look; to provide such content without needing a costly subscription; and to make these sources more accessible, as they can be quite difficult to read. In my opinion, they succeed with all three.

Articles are grouped according to a few themes, ranging from “memory”, through “teacher attitudes, expectations and behaviours”, to “parents”. This already shows that themes are not just "the science of learning", and I did wonder what the rationale was for this particular set of themes. For example, studies on instructional science would not have been out of place. 

There are quite a few articles related to mindset, for learners and for teachers, perhaps related to the background of the authors: “InnerDrive is a mindset coaching company working in education, business and sport.”

Nevertheless, I understand authors have to make choices, and each choice to an extent will be somewhat arbitrary. Naturally, there then will be articles I would miss: for example, when covering “memory” I expected a solid article about memory architecture (such as Baddeley and Hitch) in addition to those on spacing, interleaving and Ebbinghaus.

What is pleasing to see is a good, interesting mix of articles in this book. While reading it, I could only be in awe of these research achievements. Several studies I had only vaguely heard about before, especially the numerous ones from personality and social psychology (is that the science of learning, though?), so I learned a lot. All except four articles come from journals, with two working papers, one book and a book chapter. Because of the themes, there is some overlap in findings, sometimes highlighted in the “related research” section as well. 

The articles themselves are generally summarised effectively, with some visualisations. The classroom implications are useful but sometimes stay very general: for example, “It will depend on the nature of your cohort and the subject you teach” or “Important we teach our students what does and doesn’t work”. Nevertheless, the classroom implications make the studies more concrete for a teacher. 

Despite the introduction offering the disclaimer that one source can’t provide the answer, I think it is a bit unfortunate that the articles are framed around the title “The one about…” This seems to imply that there is a seminal text for that topic. That is not only risky, but it also doesn’t do justice to sensible critiques of the studies and topics mentioned. Sometimes critical comments are helpfully mentioned under “related research”, such as in the marshmallow task in study #13. 

It would have been useful if those had been real references to articles. For instance, in study #56 it says that it supports “the findings of one of the largest ever reviews on procrastination” without saying what review this is. This occurs several times. In some other cases, I expected more up-to-date critiques; for example, those studies on mindset and grit, Pygmalion effect (study #9 see this study) and seductive allure (study #55).

Where the book works well, though, is when links between studies are highlighted: for example, the studies (#13 and #31) on marshmallows and the role (teacher) trust might play in delayed gratification, or studies on note-taking (#32) and note-taking on laptops (#72). Sometimes I would have followed a slightly different order, such as in study #34 where study #70 is called “previous research”, or where Ebbinghaus is being covered quite late in the book, when articles on spacing and interleaving are mentioned earlier on. 

I suppose that some of these aspects relate to the print medium. Perhaps an online database with related articles and threads that can be updated over time – new studies or updated insights regarding existing studies – could help. Admittedly, though, the strength of the book also lies in its limited set of articles. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. The book finishes with tips for the different themes, serving as a summary. I think it is reasonable to say that if we did all those things, it could help education. And that is not a bad claim to fame.

Dr Christian Bokhove is associate professor in mathematics education, University of Southampton

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