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How learning science can help improve our impact

  • 7 min read
  • Learning

As enablers of change, we often want to help farmers learn new skills and practices that can boost their productivity, profitability and resilience. But how do we know what works best when it comes to teaching and learning? How can we design and deliver learning activities that are effective, engaging and relevant for diverse contexts and audiences? In this episode, we’re going to delve into how learning science can help us improve our impact.

And that’s where learning science comes in. Learning science is the interdisciplinary study of how people learn, based on insights from psychology, education, neuroscience and other fields. It helps us understand the cognitive, emotional and social processes that underlie learning, and how to apply them in different settings and situations.

Let’s look at some key findings from learning science that can inform and improve our extension approaches. We explored this to some degree in earlier episodes Five sure-fire ways to improve learning and Are learning styles helpful for extension (spoiler alert – they aren’t!). In this episode we’ll give some more practical examples of how to use these findings in our work with farmers and other stakeholders.  

Firstly, spaced repetition: review and repeat for better retention. One of the most robust findings from learning science is that spacing our retrieval practice leads to better memory and recall than cramming everything in one go. This is because our brains need time to consolidate and strengthen the neural connections that form when we learn something new. Revisiting the material after a while helps us reinforce those connections and prevents us forgetting. This is why when we crammed for high school exams it meant we got through the exam but now we don’t remember anything about those topics!

 In our work as enablers of change, this means that we should not expect farmers to remember everything we share with them in one workshop or field visit. Instead, we should provide them with opportunities to review and repeat the key concepts and skills at regular intervals, such as through follow-up sessions, reminders, and fun quizzes. Taking this learning journey approach (as opposed to a one-hit approach), we can help them retain the information for longer and apply it more effectively in their farming practices.

For example, if we have run a workshop on farm planning, we can send them a text message or a short email a few days later with a question or a tip related to farm planning. At the next group meeting or field day, we can also ask them to check in with each other on what they’ve learned. This works well when multiple people from a farming business attend our events, as they can be learning buddies.

The second technique we can use is retrieval practice: test ourselves to learn better. We covered this in an earlier episode as it is a critical finding from learning science. Actively retrieving information from our memory improves our learning more than passively reviewing it. This is because retrieval practice strengthens the memory traces of the information and makes them more accessible and durable. It also helps us identify what we know and what we don’t know, so we can focus on our gaps and weaknesses. If you’re wanting to learn something, put the highlighter pen away and use this technique instead. 

This means that we should not rely on lectures or demonstrations alone to teach farmers new knowledge or skills. Instead, we should encourage them to test themselves on what they’ve learned, such as through self-quizzing, peer-assessment or problem-solving exercises. This way, we can help them deepen their understanding and confidence.

For example, if we teach farmers about soil health indicators, we can ask them to recall as many indicators as they can without peeking at their notes. We can also ask them to explain why each indicator is important for soil health, or how they can measure it on their farms. We can also give them scenarios or case studies where they have to apply their knowledge of soil health indicators to diagnose a problem or recommend a solution. This is what is sometimes called Problem Based Learning (or PBL for short). 

A third finding from learning science is interleaving: mix up our topics for better transfer.  We talked about this in an earlier episode as well! Studies have shown that interleaving different topics or types of problems within a study session enhances our learning more than studying each topic in isolation. This is because interleaving helps us compare and contrast different concepts and strategies, and see how they relate to each other. It also helps us generalise and transfer our learning to new situations and contexts.

In our situation, this means that we shouldn’t teach farmers one topic or skill at a time in a linear sequence. Instead, we should mix up different topics or skills within a session or a workshop, such as by switching between riparian planting, pest control, soil health and assurance programs. This way, we can help them see the connections and differences between these different but related topics, and apply their learning more flexibly and creatively. It takes extra time on our behalf to prepare for this, but the science says it’s time well spent.

The fourth and final finding from learning science is feedback: give timely and specific guidance for improvement. Again, we’ve covered this earlier but it’s worth repeating because feedback really helps us learn! Feedback helps us correct our errors, refine our strategies and adjust our goals. However, not all feedback is equally helpful. Effective feedback should be timely, specific, actionable and supportive, so that it guides us towards improvement without discouraging or overwhelming us.

For enablers of change, this means that we shouldn’t just tell farmers whether they are right or wrong in their answers or actions. Instead, we should give them feedback that explains why their answer was right or wrong, what they can do better next time, and how they can achieve their desired outcomes. We should also give them feedback as soon as possible after hearing what they’ve said or observing something they’ve done, so that they can use it while the information is still fresh in their memory.

For example, if we ask farmers to take us through their farm plan, we can give them feedback on how they’ve used the process of assessing risks and identifying mitigations by pointing out what they did well and what they need to improve. We can also give them feedback on their outcomes, such as by using a modelling tool to show the impact of implementing the mitigations they identified on nutrient loss or greenhouse gas emissions. We can also give them feedback on their goals, by reminding them of their vision for their farm business.

So we think using learning science can help improve our impact. We’ve covered the key findings from learning science that can help us improve our extension approaches. We think these apply to ourselves, as well as with farmers and other stakeholders. Learning science can help us understand how people learn best, and how to design and deliver learning activities that are based on evidence. You can read more about what the latest learning science says by checking out the learning scientists online

We hope you enjoyed reading this Enablers of change episode on learning science. We’ve shared our thoughts with you, but we’d love to hear yours too! How do you use learning science in your work with farmers and other stakeholders? What tips or ideas do you have to share with us and our listeners? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation!

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