10 Important Learning Studies From 2017

It’s been an exciting year in education with big advances in educational technology and instructional design, from new implementations of virtual reality to fascinating insights into everything from motivation and creativity to tried-and-true learning strategies.

Each year we like to keep track of all the latest research that confirms some of the things we already suspected about learning, uncovers new and exciting evidence about how we acquire and retain new information, and, on occasion, even throws into question some of our firmly held beliefs about the most effective ways to learn.

So as another busy year of learning comes to a close, we thought we’d line up some important research studies from 2017 that parents, teachers, and learners everywhere should know about.

1. Learning styles probably don’t exist

The idea that there are different “learning styles” and that each learner should receive instruction in his or her preferred style of learning—be it visual, auditory, or tactile—has gained popularity in recent years. Despite its increasing popularity, there’s no scientific evidence to support the theory that teaching students according to their individual learning styles achieves better results.

Earlier this year, 30 leading academics in neuroscience, education, and psychology signed a letter to the Guardian voicing concerns about the popularity of this approach in schools around the world. In the letter, “learning styles” are described as a common neuromyth that does nothing to enhance education. The scientists note that this approach to learning is not only ineffective but may even be damaging as it can discourage learners from applying or adapting to different ways of learning.

2. Robots increase engagement in online learning

In the first study of its kind, researchers from Michigan State University used innovative robots with mounted video screens to help online students connect with their instructors and fellow students.

They found that online students who used robot learning felt more engaged and connected to the instructor and other students in the classroom. Unlike with regular video conferencing, where multiple students are displayed on a single screen, robot learning enabled students to move virtually through the room and even maintain eye contact with their instructors and fellow students.

With the number of blended-learning classrooms expected to eventually make up 80 percent or more of all university classes, these findings are encouraging and demonstrate how technology can make it possible for online students to join discussions and participate fully in the classroom.

3. Listening is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language

Whether you’ve just moved to a new country and need to learn the language or just want to expand your knowledge or update your skills, learning a new language is no easy task. But research reported in Scientific American recently shed light on how we learn languages as well as a simple trick to make it easier on ourselves.

One study in particular found that listening to new sounds silently can help you learn a new language faster than if you listened to new sounds and practised saying them yourself at the same time.

In the study, Spanish speakers learning to distinguish between different sounds in the Basque language performed worse when they were asked to repeat the sounds during their training. So even if you’re not fully paying attention to it, turning on the radio or a podcast in the language you’re trying to learn may help you to learn it faster.

4. Sleep helps us use our memory in the most flexible way possible

We already know that sleep is good for us, and numerous studies have shown that getting enough sleep is vital to healthy brain function. Even so, a new study from the University of York highlighted yet another reason to make sure we’re getting plenty of sleep each night.

The researchers from York’s Sleep, Language and Memory (SLAM) laboratory found that sleep makes our memory more flexible and adaptable because it strengthens both new and old versions of the same memory. When we retrieve a memory, it’s updated with any new information that may be present at the time, but rather than rewriting that memory, the brain stores multiple versions of it.

So sleep helps us use our memories more adaptively and efficiently, because it enables us to update our understanding of the world and adapt for the future.

5. Brain training exercises aren’t worth your time

In recent years, so-called “brain training” programs and apps have increased in popularity, and you’ve probably seen claims about how they can boost everything from your memory and attention span to cognitive flexibility.

Unfortunately, if you’re using one of these apps or games in the hopes that it will improve your cognitive function, you might be sorely disappointed. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania found that brain training programs have no effect on decision-making or cognitive function beyond the practice effects on the training tasks.

What does this mean? Basically, while brain training programs will probably help you get better at the specific tasks you’re practicing, your general cognitive abilities won’t improve and the benefits aren’t easily transferred to other areas of learning.

6. Practice really does make perfect

Ever heard the saying “practice makes perfect?” A study from Tel Aviv University recently proved that it’s more than just a nice thing parents and teachers say, but you might not even need as much practice as you think to reap the benefits.

The study suggests that instead of blasting our brain with repeated practice, it’s possible to use shorter but more efficient reactivations of a memory to learn.

In the study, participants were shown five computer-based visual recognition tasks that lasted just a few milliseconds each. These brief periods of performing a task helped to create and encode a memory of the tasks in subjects’ brains. They then participated in three additional practice sessions spread out over three days, during which the memory of the initial task was briefly reactivated.

The researchers point out that these brief reactivations of memory can yield a full typical learning curve and we may be able to leverage a new form of learning known as “reactivation-induced learning.”

7. Cognitive cross-training enhances learning

Although brain-training games on their own may not be the way to go, there are certainly things you can do to enhance your cognitive skills. A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that in the same way athletes use cross-training to enhance their physical abilities, we can enhance our cognitive skills by exercising our brains in multiple ways.

The study, carried out over 18 weeks, looked at 318 healthy young adults and used a combination of physical exercise along with computer-based cognitive training and electric brain stimulation to promote skill learning. The researchers measured specific cognitive skills like memory, attention, and switching between tasks.

They found that the group which received cognitive training along with physical fitness training and brain stimulation performed significantly and consistently better than the group that received only cognitive training.

8. Students don’t use self-regulated learning strategies effectively

Most university students are familiar with self-regulated learning strategies, but despite knowing about them and their effectiveness, new research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that many students still don’t take full advantage of these strategies.

Self-regulated learning (SRL) strategies include things like goal-setting and structuring learning content, self-evaluation, putting rewards in place, group reflection, and note taking.

The study found that although most students can correctly identify common SRL strategies, they don’t know how to put them into practice or when to use specific techniques. In fact, only a third of students who could correct identify a learning technique as beneficial admitted to actually using that technique in their own learning.

With this in mind, the researchers note that it’s important for learners to receive more hands-on training on how to use SRL strategies and understand that these strategies could enhance their learning outcomes and even save them time.

9. Learning with music changes our brain structure

Although listening to music while you study can sometimes be distracting, there are still reasons to consider it. A recent study from the University of Edinburgh found that using musical cues to learn a physical task may actually help to develop an important part of the brain.

To study this, the researchers had one group of volunteers learn a new task with musical cues, and another group without. By using MRI scans, they were able to demonstrate that the music group had increased structural connectivity between the parts of the brain that process sound and control movement, whereas the no-music group’s brain scans showed no changes.

It’s the first study of its kind to provide experimental evidence that using music for learning can actually lead to changes in the white matter structure in the brain.

10. Exercise can help you learn a foreign language

It’s been a good year for language learners. Another recent study found that the process of learning a new language as an adult can be facilitated by physical exercise.

The study, which was recently published in PLOS One, looked at college-aged Chinese men and women who were learning English. Some students were given rote memorisation tasks to complete while riding exercise bikes at a gentle pace, while others completed the same tasks without exercise.

After each lesson, both groups completed a vocabulary quiz, and it soon became clear that the students who had ridden bikes during their lessons were consistently outperforming those who simply sat still. So if you feel like you’ve recently hit a wall with your language learning, a leisurely stroll or cycle in the park could be just what you need.

Of course, this is just a small selection of all the important research carried out this year, so if there are any particular learning studies you’ve come across this year that fascinated you or challenged what you thought you knew about learning and memory, let us know about them in the comments.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

4 Responses

  1. David says:

    Thank you Marianne! You have mentioned quite interesting points

  2. Fweddie says:

    Just sensational,

    Thank-you, Marrianne

  3. Ann Thompson says:

    Glad you qualified your comments on “learning styles” with a “probably”. I have been teaching for 50 years – 35 of those as a remedial specialist – and have definitely worked with students who, for instance, comprehend content much better when they hear it – even though they have excellent reading (decoding) ability. I also know bright students who cannot tolerate the light from screens and would rather read from books than use a computer. While the notion of “learning styles” may have been over-generalized, I would have to deny my own experience in order to agree with your academics. Kids who have subtle visual, auditory and/or co-ordination anomalies may truly need differentiated instruction to succeed. I think the problem in education is that we tend to want an easy yes or no decision on teaching techniques. Children are much too complicated for the simplistic philosophies of educational leaders.

  4. Cho says:

    Practice, practice, practice and practice – key to ace-ing! Great read.

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