Science of Parenting: All about Learning

AMES, Iowa – Learning and forgetting often go together, and not just during summer vacation. But when children learn something well the first time, even if they do forget, relearning is easier. This month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach examines how children learn and how teachers and parents can adapt teaching to fit learning and memory.

J. Ronald Gentile, distinguished professor emeritus of educational psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo, discusses learning along with program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, and “parent-on-the-street” Mike Murray. The 30-minute podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or can be subscribed to in iTunes. It’s the final long-form podcast in the Science of Parenting series.

children in libraryStudents often are the first to admit they won’t remember what they learn in school, J. Ronald Gentile said. “They’ll say ‘why do we have to learn this stuff anyway? I’m just going to forget it.’ That’s a good question and there is only one good answer — because relearning it is faster. That means you had to learn it really well the first time.”

If students learn the material well the first time but forget, they can take advantage of their prior learning when it’s time to relearn the material.

“But if you never learned it really well to begin with, then your prior learning is not sufficient. Now when you encounter it the second time, you’ll say ‘we’ve never had this before. My teacher never did this before.’ Everybody knows that’s not true, you did have it before. You just don’t even remember you had it, let alone learned anything from it,” Gentile said.

Knowing that students forget, “a good teacher starts out by refreshing their memory, by activating their prior knowledge before starting into the new lesson,” Gentile said. “Some teachers do find ways to hook into each student and motivate them to do all the things that they need to do to learn to a high level.”

This is mastery learning, Gentile said. “The only way you can really feel good about your learning is when you can see yourself really improving — you master something — proving you have competence in some area that you didn’t have it in before.”

Parents can take this approach when helping their children with homework, he added. Talk to their teachers to find out what material must be learned to a high level. Ask to see assignments and monthly goals.

“Every course has essential elements and these must be learned,” Gentile said. “There should be no mystery about the basic building blocks of every course.”

Science of Parenting Resources for Parents

Through the Science of Parenting blog, at, ISU Extension and Outreach specialists share and discuss research-based information and resources to help parents rear their children. Parents can join in the conversation and share thoughts and experiences, as well as how they handle parenting responsibilities. Beginning in July, the Science of Parenting blog also will offer a three to five-minute podcast on the monthly blogging topic.