Grasping effective learning

A review of the past and future of learning from the Head of Open Learning at MIT

I like to read beyond the boundaries of the EAP discipline to gain insights into the way other disciplines (Learning Development in HE or Learning Technologies) are grappling with problems that I’ve experienced in syllabus design or teaching and learning. However, I don’t have time to read the primary research – there’s too much of it and it won’t be accessible to me as a non-specialist – so I’m always on the lookout for publications which digest the research for a general reader. I can then follow on from those with a more detailed look at specific aspects of interest. One such book came to my attention recently: Grasp by Sanjay Sarma, Head of Open Learning at MIT. The subtitle claims that the book explains the ‘science transforming how we learn’. I recommend this book for anyone grappling with the move to online learning.

Available at

The author interleaves his own personal learning journey with an exploration of the history of learning theories in the United States and elsewhere from the late 18th century onwards. He reviews what cognitive psychologists at MIT have discovered about the brain processes involved in memory and how these have been and might be applied to improving learning. He’s particularly passionate about learning for all and highlights the insidious process of ‘winnowing’ which acts to exclude less privileged children from higher education. He was himself very nearly excluded when he failed and had to resit a core course for his engineering degree. He reflects that at a certain point in his first university studies, learning became a chore and he couldn’t see a purpose in the real world of the abstract concepts he was supposed to learn.

The link between theory and practice came later when he got a job with a company that builds and installs products for the oil industry and went on a training course to work on a North Sea oil platform. The aim of the course was not to winnow out participants but to instil deep contextualised learning. During his training, he and the other participants were presented with simulations of engineering problems they would meet on the oil rigs and had to draw on their understanding of engineering principles to solve them. He came to understand that learning had to be contextualised and experiential for the concepts to make sense and be remembered.

You’ll need to read the book for the detailed evidence but Sarma outlines key principles to promote effective learning, helping people ‘to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively’ (p. 103).

  1. Human to human education is best but technology can support this (p. xxvi)
  2. Theoretical concepts need to be contextalised in real situations (embodied cognition) to be fully understood (p. 49)
  3. Experiential learning in communities of mentors or peers develops embodied cognition (p. 145-6)
  4. Effortful retrieval – having to work hard to recall concepts – helps to fix them in long term memory (p. 128)
  5. Effortful retrieval can be promoted through spacing recall, interleaving recall of different subjects, metacognition and regular testing (p.136)

When I read these kinds of books, I always try to find links to the courses and syllabuses I’ve designed to test whether I think the ideas would work in my context. I’m applying what Wallace & Wray (2011) refer to as ‘reasonable scepticism’ willing to be convinced but only if the authors can provide evidence for their claims and I can see this evidence in operation in my context. Looking at Access EAP: Frameworks, the organising principles for syllabus design in this coursebook, which are laid out in EAP Essentials, pp. 95 – 97, enable spacing through regular recycling of content and interleaving through integration of graduate attributes, e.g. critical evaluation, throughout the units. Metacognition is supported by Study Smart boxes, which outline frameworks for understanding the learning outcomes of the tasks. When using this book on the Pre-sessional English (PSE) Online programmes at Heriot-Watt University, regular testing was built in through self-study activities and feedback on short pieces of writing.

Teachers helped students to build class communities of practice through peer evaluation of spoken and written assessment tasks and through personal blogs. All assessment was contextualised within the students’ disciplines as they were required to choose a concept to research and then supported to present their findings to educated non-specialists, i.e. their teacher and peers.

Throughout Grasp, Sarma analyses the effectiveness of face-to-face and online teaching programmes, e.g. MOOCs, and concludes that an element of human contact is essential for learning but he asks the reader to consider which types of learning, e.g. spaced recall and testing, can be done using technology and which, e.g. developing metacognition, require support from a teacher or peers. In PSE Online at Heriot-Watt, the students were guided through preparation tasks using PowerPoint presentations with a teacher voiceover so that the short synchronous sessions could be devoted to metacognition, peer interaction and feedback. Student feedback comments showed the value of this approach:

Learning in advance, reviewing in time and learning to summarize is the most effective self-learning for anything. [student comment from evaluation survey]

Sarma, S. with Yoquinto, L. (2020). Grasp: the science transforming how we learn. London: Robinson.

Wallace, M. & Wray, A. (2011). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates. London: Sage.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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