Marcus Lithander earned his master’s degree in cognitive psychology at Stockholm University, with a focus on how people can become better learners.
“A lot of people are over-confident and think they know more than they do,” he says. “Students often think they’re using better study strategies than they are.”
He put his knowledge to work at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), first as a teaching assistant and then as a course designer, helping to develop more effective online learning programs, including MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses.
In February 2017, a colleague invited Lithander to the Stockholm researchED conference. Lithander went to a talk by Yana Weinstein, an assistant professor of psychology at UMass Lowell and co-founder of The Learning Scientists – and was blown away.
“I thought, ‘She’s talking about the exact strategies I’m trying to implement at KTH,’” he recalls. “We do so much good research, and it never gets communicated. Yana’s study strategies are so simple. Her presentation was brilliant. I was kind of starstruck.”
Lithander spoke with her briefly afterward. Later, he learned that Weinstein was seeking Ph.D. students, and he applied. Six months later, he arrived in the United States as a Ph.D. candidate in applied psychology and prevention science.
“I came because of Yana – and because this is applicable knowledge,” he says. “I know it will be useful. It’s applicable in so many fields.”
While carrying a full load of courses, Lithander is also working as a teaching assistant and doing research with Weinstein on myths and misconceptions about learning that are common among teachers and students.
One key example, Lithander and Weinstein say, is the idea, popular among teachers, that students learn best when they study according to their individual “learning style.” Research in cognitive psychology shows just the opposite – that certain key strategies work for all students, they say.
Lithander says he and Weinstein are using a cognitive approach to figure out how best to re-educate teachers and students, first by debunking the myths and then teaching them evidence-based study strategies such as spacing out study times and practicing retrieval of key facts and concepts.
For example, students think that rereading a text or their notes is a good way to study for a test. It’s not, Lithander says. While they recognize familiar material, they have difficulty retrieving particular facts.
“Memory is like a giant self-storage unit. It’s easy to fill it with stuff, and often it’s easy to know if something is in there or not. But it can be difficult to find the right item at the right time,” he says. “To find a particular fact when you need to use it, you have to do retrieval practice.”
Lithander says that he, too, overestimated his abilities when he first arrived on campus. During his first semester as a teaching assistant, he tried to lead a research methods class off the cuff, without notes.
“I was overconfident,” he laughs. “It was new material, and I had to do it in English. The second semester, I practiced more.”