How to Learn about Learning Science

How do you learn about learning science? Recommendations for people to follow, books to read, and other resources.

I have written before about how research informs my work. As instructional designers, LXDs, and other L&D professionals, I think it’s important for us to learn how to design more effective learning experiences. Our work should be informed by research and evidence. But, how do you learn about learning science, especially if you don’t have a graduate degree in instructional design? These are my recommendations for people to follow, books to read, and other resources.

How to Learn about Learning Science

As a reminder, I use Amazon affiliate links for books. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but I earn a small commission when you purchase from my links. What I earn in affiliate revenue helps cover the cost of hosting my blog and running my email list.

How I learn about learning science

First, a little refresher on my background. I have a bachelors degree in music education and zero formal training in instructional design. I don’t have a graduate degree in instructional design or anything else.

Because I’m an “accidental instructional designer,” I spend a lot of time reading and learning on my own. While I do sometimes read papers in peer-reviewed journals, I don’t have easy access to an academic library or database.

Research translators: Who to follow

Fortunately, in our field we have a number of “research translators” who help share and explain the research. These are the people who spend the time slogging through all those academic papers and then translate the findings for people working in the field.

If you’re interested in learning more about learning science, these are some of the top people I trust and rely on. You can follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter, their blogs, and elsewhere. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a solid place to start.

  • Clark Quinn
  • Patti Shank
  • Julie Dirksen
  • Will Thalheimer
  • Karl Kapp
  • Mirjam Neelen
  • Connie Malamed
  • Jane Bozarth

Other newsletters, blogs, and resources to follow

I always recommend that people new to the field join the Learning Guild, especially since the basic membership is free. That gets you access to their research library and other resources. In addition to their own research, the Guild does a good job overall at filtering out the really questionable claims in their speakers and authors.

The Learning Development Accelerator (LDA) is a newer group, but focused on evidence-informed practices in L&D.

In addition, check out the Learning Science Weekly newsletter. I also read the Learning and the Brain blog, although that focuses more on education than workplace training.

While I don’t explicitly focus on research as much in my own writing, I have written several posts with research summaries on specific topics.

Books

I try to read a few books from the field each year. I tend to focus on either books by practitioners with a heavy practical emphasis or books with good research support.

Sometimes, those books lead you to other research. For example, I recently started reading Donald Clark’s Learning Experience Design. I’ve already found a citation to research on scenario-based learning that I wasn’t aware of, so now I have something else to review.

Clark Quinn

Clark Quinn has written several books on learning science (and all of his books are grounded in research, even if that isn’t the primary focus).

Patti Shank

Patti Shank’s most recent series of books is all focused on summarizing research and identifying specific tactics to apply to learning design.

Additional learning science books

These are some additional books on learning science that I recommend.

Conferences

At conferences, especially Learning Guild conferences, you can find some great speakers whose work is grounded in research. While conferences can be a mixed bag, my own experience mirrors what Judy Katz shared on Twitter in response to a dismissive comment about people “basing their knowledge on conference speakers and not valid research.”

Those are far from being mutually exclusive. When I go to conference sessions I look for speakers who ground their work in research — @usablelearning @Quinnovator @JaneBozarth @DrJenMurphy @KristenLearning @ChristyATucker @kkapp — because they teach things worth learning.

-Judy Katz @jdyktz

If you seek out speakers who you know share research, you can find some great sessions. Like Judy, I tend to seek out people I know share reliable information. I always try to find some new people I don’t know too, but I look for reliable speakers first.

Some folks read a menu down the right side for prices, I read a conference menu down whichever side the speakers’ names are on. The topic is important, but less so if the speaker isn’t someone I trust to deliver something more substantial than, say, anti-intellectual hot takes.

-Judy Katz @jdyktz

Cautions

Even though we are fortunate to have a bunch of really solid, trustworthy sources in our field, we should also be cautious. Our field has a bunch of myths and superstitions, as well as ineffective-but-traditional practices and exaggerated claims.

We should be cautious of any claims related to neuroscience, for example. Sometimes what people label as neuroscience or “brain science” is really cognitive science. Sometimes people make claims that are really ahead of what the evidence really tells us. In 20 years, maybe we’ll have more useful information from neuroscience. But right now, unless it’s also connected to cognitive science, most of what we have learned from neuroscience doesn’t help us with practical instructional design questions.

We should also be cautious of trusting any individuals too much. I listed people at the top of this post who I trust and respect, but they’re all human. Anyone is capable of making mistakes. It’s easy to get caught up in who is popular without always digging deeper. Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner have called this “eminence-based education,” with a focus on prominent people rather than evidence.

There are no magic bullets in learning science. The research is often contradictory and confusing, and what works in one situation or with one audience doesn’t always apply elsewhere. That doesn’t mean we should give up on learning science, but we should always be cautious of anyone who proposes a single solution to solve every problem.

Your favorite resources?

Did I miss any of your favorite resources, books, or people to follow? Leave a comment or reply to my email with your suggestions.

6 thoughts on “How to Learn about Learning Science

  1. Learning Pirate, one of the only learning scientist out there with credentials in neuroscience and a board of advisors who are all academics, researchers and scientists themselves.

    1. Thanks, that’s a new name to me. For anyone else looking, here’s her website: https://www.learningpirate.com/

      I see that she does keynote speeches, but I don’t see anything that she’s written or that she shares freely (i.e., not a lead magnet). I don’t even see any books (which would obviously require payment).

      I’m skeptical about claims related to neuroscience for the reasons I noted above, but I also see that she talks about cognitive science. So, there’s a possibility that she’s working at that intersection, especially given her board. But, as far as I can tell, the only way to learn from her is to go to a conference where she’s giving a keynote. Am I missing some other place where she shares resources and people could learn from her without paying $1500 for a conference?

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