Four Science-Based Principles Educators Need to Know

These four principles come from behavioral science. Behavioral science is the study of the causes, consequences, and influences of people’s behavior. Its triumphs are behind recent Nobel Prize winners such as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, Obama’s Executive Order to get more Behavioural Science in government, and the rising successes of behavioral economics and data science. It is an integration of ideas from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, economics, and business.

What most of us want to know is how do you put behavioral science into practice? How do we use behavioral science to help ourselves and other people achieve their goals and gain a sense of mastery over a subject or domain?

Here are 4 data-driven principles of learning taken directly from behavioral science.

1. Make it practical. Theory is great, but if you can’t put an idea to work for you it’s worthless. People who only think about an idea for an isolated teaching session are not going to be able to make the rubber meet the road when it counts.

Evidence shows that if people want to make a change, they need to create implementation intentions, detailing exactly how they will incorporate those changes into their lives.

Implementation intentions are the science behind Brain Tracy’s book, Eat the Frog and David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Expert educators get people actively discovering those details for themselves. When people can express exactly how they can use something to create change in their lives, then it becomes a tool they can use to do work on the world.

2. Expose misunderstandings. Years of research in all kinds of settings show that, no matter how clear you try to be, if you just tell people what to do, many of them will misunderstand you.

Expert educators expose misunderstandings and then correct them.

Educators can’t do this without asking students what they know and then listening to the answer. This is why exposing misunderstanding is also related to the test-effect, which is a powerful and real improvement of knowledge caused by retrieving information and then correcting mistakes. Test-and-correction works whether people get the answers wrong the first time or not. That’s because it rewires the brain to build pathways for knowledge retrieval.

People routinely underestimate these effects. They don’t like tests because they don’t like being evaluated. But educational tests don’t need to be about performance evaluation, they can be about improving understanding. People know they are learning when they get something wrong one day and get it right the next. That creates an empowering sense of mastery.

3. Organize information into self-supporting networks. People are overwhelmed with information in all aspects of their life. This is especially true in the workplace. Bad organization, whether it’s in an email or a presentation, just adds to the noise. Educators should not be a contributor to the overwhelming body of disorganized information people run into every day. Evidence shows that people can digest somewhere between 4 and 10 pieces of information in an article, or a session, or a day. If those ideas support one another, they can become narratives, or related-ideas that bring one another to mind, making them easier to digest and later remember and implement. The job of the educator is to boil the information down to what matters most and organize it in a way that people can see how it all fits together.

Any trainer can make a list. Expert trainers build constellations of ideas that bring one another to life, not just with lines on a presentation slide, but with real connections!

So organize your ideas and organize what’s inside of them, then organize them again and again until they are efficiently succinct, memorable, and related to one another.

4. Make it personal. Whatever information you’re trying to teach, in order for it to come alive for your students, it has to connect to what they already know and care about.

If learners can connect new knowledge to what they already care about, they add their enthusiasm and their own personal knowledge to the content they want to learn.

Can you imagine anything more influential? In reality, it is even more powerful than that. When students create content that is related to what they already care about, they reinforce all the ideas I’ve mentioned above: they make it ‘practical’, they test themselves and expose their misunderstandings, and it forces them to organize, explain, and elaborate the information you want them to know. These four principles are the way experts become experts.


Hills, T. T. (2015). Crowdsourcing content creation in the classroom. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27(1), 47–67.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 20–27. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003

Evolving author of “Does my algorithm have a mental health problem?”, “Why do we die?” and “The dark side of information proliferation.”

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