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January 2021
How Learning Happens (2020): Seminal Works in Educational Psychology
How Learning Happens (2020): Seminal Works in Educational Psychology
Kirschner, P., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Routledge.

This text is not a story, nor is it the examination of a particular concept or construct, but rather, this text is a resource for anyone interested in some of the foundational research that guides the applied world of educational psychology. This focus is captured in the text’s subtitle: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean and practice. This focus is also captured in the Preface:

If we are to move towards a truly evidence-informed approach to designing and developing the best learning experiences for our students, then we must stand on the shoulders of giants and build upon their hard-earned discoveries that have been independently verified and which have achieved consensus and the wiring or scientific. (p. xii)

The text addresses 25 scholarly articles (or books) distributed across five categories: the brain, prerequisites for learning, learning activities, the teacher, and learning in context. Each article, in turn, is comprised of five sections: why the work is important, the article's abstract (or a paraphrase of it), a description of the research, the article's implications for education and the classroom, and takeaways.

The article-based chapters address topics such as expertise, cognitive load, depth of processing, intelligence, prior knowledge, dual coding, attribution theory, scaffolding, problem-solving, direct instruction, feedback, situated cognition, and communities of practice. Most of the authors will be familiar to those with a background in educational or cognitive psychology: Chi, Feltopvich, & Glaser; Sweller; Craik & Lockhard; Clark & Pavio; Ausubel; Zimmerman; Bandura; Weiner; Newell & Simon; Rosenshine; Brown, Collins, and Duguid.

For example, Chapter 10 addresses Weiner’s An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion (Psychology Review, 92, 548-573) foundational article on attribution theory. The chapter addresses why academic task success/failure attributions are importation (i.e., causal perceptions of task success/failure impact an individual’s future expectations and motivations for behavior), followed by an examination of the article’s abstract (i.e., common causal perceptions of task success/failure impact one’s expectancy and affect toward future success/failure which, in turn, impacts motivation toward those future tasks). The chapter then provides an overview of the main concepts within the article (e.g., the relationship between the locus [internal, external], stability [stable, unstable], and controllability [controllable, uncontrollable] of causes), as well as brief conclusions. The chapter ends with a series of takeaways (e.g., “the perceived cause of academic performance is as significant as the actual cause.”).

Overall Thoughts
I found the book a nice reminder of some of the essential and foundational articles within educational/cognitive psychology. Reading the various chapters led me to go back and re-read some of the original articles. There in, I believe, resides the value of the book. The book itself is not a replacement for reading the original articles. The chapter summaries are nice, but lack the depth, breadth, and context of the original articles. In addition, while the 25 articles selected are all foundational (although I would argue against including Chapter 17’s Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark article), there could easily be a version two or three of this text with another 25 or 50 foundational articles.

I am ultimately left with the question: Who should read this book? The text seems inappropriate in an introductory educational or cognitive psychology class, at the undergraduate or graduate level, as the chapters do not provide enough depth to adequately inform novice students of the topics at hand. It also seems inappropriate for an advanced educational or cognitive psychology class as those students should read the original articles. The text seems most appropriate for someone who is five or 10 years beyond their final degree to serve as a reminder of some of the essential ideas within the educational or cognitive psychology domain.
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Peter Doolittle
Blacksburg, VA 24060
pdoo@vt.edu