Application of Theory

Now we return to the questions we posed at the start of the chapter: How can theories of learning and instruction inform the development and design of curriculum, interventions, and assessments? How can school psychologists be aware of new approaches to learning and instruction as they become available? What follows is a summary of the description and application of the theories above around these central points. Overarching key learning and instruction tenets, as well as recommendations for practice, are embedded within this discussion.

How Can Theories of Learning and Instruction Inform the Design and Development of Curriculum, Interventions, and Assessments?

Various psychological theories on learning, and associated research, emphasize the presence of basic universal cognitive mechanisms, like attention, perception, and working memory, paired with an emphasis on developmental processes. Developmental perspectives acknowledge the use of different strategies over time and context and the variability within and across individuals. Application of this theme should result in flexibility in both instructional and assessment approaches. We have worked to make the case in this chapter that such flexibility should be informed by the following tenets: learning rests on basic cognitive mechanisms, learning is contextualized, learners use different strategies at different times, which can be behaviorally observed, and one theoretical explanation may better serve a specific learner outcome than another.

Learning Rests on Basic Cognitive Mechanisms

An understanding of these mechanisms informs identification of individual differences, particularly associated with challenges and atypical abilities. Given the above discussion regarding the multiple components of information processing (i.e., gateways, memory, comprehension), and the types of limitations of the learner that could be due to cognitive load, it is important that educators (i.e., teachers, administrators, and, importantly, school psychologists) keep such individual differences in mind. For example, additional time may be dedicated to learning about new types of assessments developed to measure individual differences in learning. For instance, one new assessment has been developed that focuses on identifying the types of individual reading comprehension differences for struggling readers. In particular, Carlson and colleagues have developed an assessment called the Multiple-choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment (MOCCA) that targets the types of errors that readers make during reading (Biancarosa et al., 2018; Carlson et al., 2014; Davison, Biancarosa, Carlson, Seipel & Lui, 2018; Seipel, Biancarosa, Carlson, & Davison, 2018). These errors specifically include the types of inference generation skills; thus, MOCCA identifies not only that a reader struggles with comprehension, but how. This is one component of cognition that educators may invest in learning more about how to best identify such cognitive mechanisms. Recommendation for practice: Identify the functioning of learners’ basic cognitive mechanisms.

Learning Can Reveal Biases

Understanding the components of learning through the lenses of basic cognitive mechanisms can also unveil other issues with regards to understanding the learner. For instance, the role of bias (whether consciously present or not) can affect how both the learner takes in information and the perspective the teacher brings to each learning situation. This perspective from the learner and teacher can rest on how cognitive processing and memory (e.g., in the fonn of attention, storage, and retrieval) are encoded. That is, during development, and through experience, the learner (and eventually the teacher) processes information as part of the nature, structure, and sources of knowledge (Greene, Sandoval, & Brâten, 2016). Because of individual differences and experiences or background knowledge, bias may occur; thus, how information is received, processed, encoded, and remembered could impact the outcome of learning. How might that inform decisions as a school psychologist? How does that affect the learner’s self-awareness? Recommendation for practice: Mitigate bias by learning about recent research in the field, as well as seeking out feedback from fellow colleagues and educators for double checking decisions being made. In addition, investigate a learner’s background knowledge in the particular area to assess whether bias could be a contributing factor.

Learning is Contextualized

Students, teachers, and school psychologists are situated in contexts that are specific, changing, multi-layered, and interactive. This can cause the identification of individual differences to be quite challenging. An overarching implication of theories of learning and instruction is the importance of attending to how these contexts impact performance, engagement, and decision-making. One process involved in attending to the role of context is to determine the size of the problem at hand (i.e., this could be quite varied per learner and varied per context). Thus, when it comes to learning and instruction, the size of a problem can range from micro processes (e.g., the basic cognitive mechanisms outlined above) to macro environmental factors (e.g., school climate). Recommendation for practice: Incorporate several opportunities to learn from classroom-based lectures, to collaborative learning, to small groups, to individuals across multiple contexts.

Learners Use Different Strategies at Different Times

Learners may need to use different strategies at different times during one context to the next. In addition, as students develop, strategies may need to be updated or added on. Types of strategies that some students use can look like incorporating what teachers model (e.g., via thinking aloud), pausing during a task to reflect (e. g., connecting to previously learned information), or using different types of mnemonics (e.g., thinking of patterns that may help remember specific information). Similar to information mentioned above, staying up to date on recent research in fields of cognition and memory can help teachers, school psychologists, and administrators choose the best instructional methods, curricula, and assessments that best encourage students to use the most appropriate strategies across different contexts. Recommendation for practice: Acquire, use, and provide a flexible set of approaches to solving problems that becomes more mature, or expert-like over time.

One Theoretical Explanation May Better Serve a Specific Learner Outcome than Another

Imagine a case like Katie’s. Whereas a DI approach may provide a decent explanation for the ways she best learns to overcome challenges associated with reading comprehension, Overlapping Waves Theory may best explain her intermittent use of productive strategies in math class as she begins to learn to solve a new set of math problems. Knowing this, school psychologists can respond when a theory is not adequately explaining an outcome (even when they think it should) by looking for and identifying a theoretical explanation that is a better fit for explaining. This step is important for making empirically sound, or theory-based, decisions for curricular, intervention, or assessment design. Recommendation for practice: When existing explanations of phenomena fail to fit data, expand your search space to find empirically supported explanations that do and to continue to make empirically based treatment decisions.

How Can School Psychologists Be Aware of Theories of Learning and Instruction, as Well as New Approaches to Learning as They Become Available?

Educators are very busy, and responsible for many day-to-day aspects to provide the best possible learning environments for their students. An ongoing challenge in many fields, but especially in education, is staying up to date with recent research and recommendations for instruction. One group that has provided helpful recommendations for research-based instructional methods is the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funded through the U.S. Department of Education, and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). IES and AIR provide various levels of support and funding for research grants, practice guides, and websites that summarize developed programs for instruction and assessment. For example, the Center for Response to Intervention offers a wide range of information and recommendations for best practices in how best to assess and improve learning for students in K-12. Research in cognition, memory, and learning, as well as other fields, is vetted using specific and rigorous criteria for programs to appear on this site.

School psychologists need to know about these ongoing resources; thus, it is the responsibility of researchers in the field to commit to creating relationships with schools, school districts, and the educators within. We see the field moving in a more collaborative direction given the recent calls for applications and funding. For instance, for the last several years, IES has released such calls for partnership grants that involve an important development of relationships between research and practice in order to best inform new directions in how best to improve learning for students at all levels. In addition, professional development offered by researchers to teachers can also be received by school psychologists and/or guided by school psychologists based on their unique understanding of current research. Such collaborations can help educators, especially school psychologists, remain abreast of advances in theories of learning and instruction, and importantly of evidence in support of their successful application.

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