Facts are important! At least for thinking well

In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? influential University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham (2009) writes, “Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem-solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” The science of learning is providing more and more evidence that if we want students to be able to think critically and reason and problem-solve, they must have a base of background knowledge to think about. In other words, students (and their teachers and, indeed, everyone) can only think critically in areas in which they know something about the topic. Building background knowledge is integral for students to be able to practice critical thinking and learn to reason and problem solve. What’s more, these often called ‘higher-order’ thinking skills do not necessarily transfer between disciplines and therefore each discipline, or subject, requires its own background knowledge.

Our understanding of thinking indicates humans have little working memory capacity. Knowledge, therefore, must be retained, or encoded, to long term memory to permit students to use it successfully. Students that must focus on the background knowledge are using up preciously limited working memory and unable to attend to the higher-order thinking. Knowing the background knowledge on a topic means working memory is free to be used for critical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving.

Developing background knowledge in a particular discipline requires some work. It requires practicing and repeating information until we retain it and have it encoded to our long-term memory where it is readily useful when called upon. Encoding this information is best done through a process of retrieval learning and random, spaced practice. Perhaps the best type of retrieval learning is performed through self-testing (Roediger et al. 2011) and this is where our learning modules can take the effort out of preparing self-tests as our modules are packed full of practice tests. What’s more, students may have difficulty ensuring that the knowledge and questions they create for their own study are accurate and without misconceptions, plus related to the curriculum being studied. Our modules do this; that is, they are focussed on the curriculum, and not only is the information accurate, our practice tests provide elaborative feedback and linkages within the curriculum.

To read more about the effective use of science for studying check out this page on our web site: https://www.kctlearning.ca/science-based-learning


Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30 41.

Roediger, Henry & Putnam, Adam & Sumeracki, Megan. (2011). Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55:1-36.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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