Teach podcast

#34: Science of Learning with Dr. Cindy Nebel

June 6, 2023 | By



Listen as we discuss the Science of Learning with our guest expert Cindy Nebel, PhD from Vanderbilt University.  In this episode, we review the process of learning and highlight six tips educators can use to improve retention and understanding.  Whether you’re an educator looking for new ways to elevate your instructional strategies or you’re a student seeking to maximize learning, this episode brings a wealth of knowledge that you won’t regret (or forget)!

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Meet Our Guest! 

Cindy Nebel PhD is a senior lecturer at the Leadership and Learning Organizations doctoral program at Vanderbilt University.  She has broad interests in applying the science of learning to educational contexts.  She has presented the science of learning to students and educators from K-12 to medical school in the US and abroad, as well as for corporate and government organizations. Dr. Nebel is passionate about promoting dialogue between researchers and practitioners as an active collaborator of The Learning Scientists.

Show Segments

  • Intro, disclaimer, guest bio
  • Guest one-liner/book recommendation
  • Kashlak Case 
  • Origin of the Science of Learning 
  • How we Learn
  • Six Techniques to Improve Learning
  • Concrete Examples
  • Spaced Practice
  • Elaboration
  • Interleaving
  • Dual Coding
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Practical Approaches to using these Tips
  • Self Efficacy
  • Transfer of Knowledge
  • Take Home Points
  • Outro

Science of Learning Pearls

  1. We can use evidence based practices to improve learning!  Look for ways to incorporate spaced practice, elaboration, concrete examples, dual coding, interleaving, and retrieval practice into your teaching or studying.
  2. Naming the benefits of these techniques may help adult learners get the most out of them: “We are having quizzes because retrieval practice and spaced learning improve your long-term retention.”
  3. Proactive interference–when new information is presented but the learner isn’t able to retain it because previously taught information is taking priority–can impede learning in long lectures.  Taking breaks to move around or having learners apply the knowledge can dispel proactive interference.
  4. Transfer of learning is not humans’ strong suit; we don’t often recognize when prior knowledge might help with current situations. Try to match teaching sessions as closely as possible with professional situations (e.g. role play; use retrieval cues) to help knowledge transfer be more successful.

History of the Science of Learning 

Derived from the field of cognitive psychology, the science of learning began over 100 years ago through lab-based studies.  In the past 20 years, this cache of information from many studies has been applied in a more focused approach to improve medical education, K-12 classrooms, and more. 

How do we Learn? The Quick Answer to a Complicated Question

First, information comes into our working memory system.  This is where we think about things- connecting to prior knowledge, decision-making, and critical thinking.   Then, this information is stored in the long-term memory for later use.  We need to attend to information and then do something with it (in our working memory) to move it to our long-term memory.  

The 6 Evidence-Based Methods to Improve Learning

Dr. Nebel and her collaboration of cognitive psychologists have determined 6 specific strategies that have the most supporting evidence and usefulness (Nebel 2020):

  1. Spaced Practice 
  2. Elaboration 
  3. Concrete Examples
  4. Dual Coding 
  5. Interleaving 
  6. Retrieval Practice

Understanding How We Learn takes a deeper dive into the 6 teaching strategies discussed in this episode.  

Spaced Practice

Calling information to mind again several weeks after first learning it improves retention.  When material is studied shortly after it is presented, it is still active in our working memory and does not take effort to retrieve.  But reviewing material when it is no longer fresh can increase effortful thinking, which improves long-term retention.  Quizzes, writing exercises, or just reviewing material a few weeks later is an easy technique to incorporate spaced practice into learning (Benjamin 2010).


Expanding details around a concept is elaboration.  Asking “why” and “how” questions help build comprehension beyond a knowledge base of just simple facts.  This technique is not as valuable with novices (they need to have the information to answer the questions) but can help advanced learners create connections and solidify understanding (The Learning Scientists).  

Concrete Examples

Solidify an abstract concept with concrete examples.  Find multiple examples that are different from each other but specific to a concept to further understanding.  Using just one example can make the learner think that that one example is the thing that you’re talking about.  Instead, utilize multiple varied examples to allow learners not to associate the concept with one specific aspect, but to be able to see similarities or connections between examples (Rawson 2014).

Dual Coding

Combine visual and verbal information to improve retention.  Be selective of what is included to make sure it adds value.  Dr. Nebel notes that we naturally try to make sense of images and read words, so if there are unrelated pictures or too much text on a slide during a lecture, this can hinder students’ ability to listen to the verbal information being shared by the presenter.

Check out our whiteboard mini-lecture episode where we talk about using visual and auditory clues to synergistically improve retention and an additional post by Dr. Nebel on giving effective presentations using Dual-Coding from The Learning Scientists.


Interleaving is jumbling or alternating similar concepts to help compare/contrast.  Dr. Nebel gives the example of rashes of roseola vs measles.  These rashes can look similar.  Educators often may present 5 pictures of roseola followed by 5 pictures of measles.  Instead, mixing up, or interleaving, these pictures can help learners analyze and delineate them from one another (Van Hoof 2022).

Retrieval Practice

Quizzes, questions, or talking about a topic brings it back to mind, solidifying the knowledge.   When someone tries to bring something to mind, it can also be a helpful metacognitive tool to understand the base of understanding or see what they don’t remember.

Check out The Benefits of Retrieval with Medical Residents by Dr. Nebel on pearls about retrieval practice for resident physicians!

Learning vs Engagement: Active Learning?

Engaging doesn’t always equate to learning.  Learning is always active, so describing “active learning” vs “passive learning” is a misnomer.  Dr. Nebel brings up that we can have a group of engaged learners who, despite being involved, may not learn anything new.  

How to Incorporate These Techniques into Daily Teaching

Any of these six learning tips can be used–and are currently employed–by educators across professions.  None of these are prescriptions; it is important for the educator to determine where these are most applicable/appropriate.

Dr. Nebel suggested spaced retrieval practice as one of the easiest things to incorporate.  If you are coordinating a curriculum, take 5 minutes at the beginning of session #3 to have learners write down everything they remember from session #1.  

Proactive Interference

For longer lectures, proactive interference can become a barrier to ongoing learning.  Proactive interference is when new information is presented but the learner isn’t able to retain it because previously taught information is taking priority (Kliegl 2021).   

Dr Nebels suggests tips to reset/dispel proactive interference: 

  • Take breaks to move around 
  • Have learners apply the knowledge:  pause the lecture and direct the learners to consider what they have learned to a problem or question.  “What are 3 ways that you can apply X concept on your own?”

How to Help Learners Use Science of Learning

Convincing learners to use these tools can be challenging: we all often resist new ways of doing things that take more effort.  But, Dr. Nebel reminds us, learning takes effort.  Some research suggests showing students the data behind the benefits of these learning techniques (the “why” we’re using them) might be a way to increase motivation and to get buy-in; however, Dr. Nebel notes the research is limited. 

Self-Efficacy and its Role in Learning 

Self Efficacy is our belief in our ability to do something.  It can be a very powerful motivator- if you don’t believe you could succeed at something, you are more likely to not put in the effort from the start.  Albert Bandura discussed self efficacy, leading to its rise in popularity in the 1970s (Bandura 1996). Self-efficacy can be a powerful tool, driving our effort in a particular subject or approach certain problems.  Timing is important; depending on the learner or situation, supporting a learner’s self-efficacy can have a profound effect. 

There are several ways to improve self-efficacy and therefore, improve learning:

  1. Utilize previous experiences: if you have been successful before, you can be successful again 
  2. Build small wins: drive learning with answerable questions 
  3. Use experiences of others: using others who have been successful as examples can be a powerful motivator
  4. Physiological/psychological state: we are less likely to believe in ourselves when we are hungry, tired, burned out etc. 

Research shows you can manipulate students’ self-efficacy which was associated with improved grades (Koponen 2021).  

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning is taking the knowledge from the classroom to the work site.  Dr Nebel highlights that humans are naturally bad at recognizing when prior knowledge might help with current situations.  She suggests trying to match teaching sessions as closely as possible with professional situations- ie role play- to help knowledge transfer be more successful.

Take home points

Never let this be one and done- listening to a podcast once will not impact your approach significantly.  Learning requires multiple touches, so visit The Learning Scientists, our show notes, or other resources to practice spaced learning and retain more information!

Other StuffLinks

  1. The Learning Scientists– Dr Nebel and her colleague’s website/blog/podcast
  2. The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris
  3. The Benefits of Retrieval with Medical Residents
  4. More on Dual-Coding Learning Scientists 

Goal and Learning Objectives


Listeners will familiarize themselves with the science of learning and consider how to integrate facets of it into their classroom and clinical teaching.

Learning objectives

After listening to this episode listeners will…

  1. Recognize the science that makes up the foundation of learning
  2. Enumerate evidenced-based approaches to improving knowledge transfer and retention.
  3. Compare and contrast approaches of a novice vs advanced learner to optimize retention.
  4. Implement strategies to improve learning as a clinical teacher.


Dr. Nebel reports no relevant financial disclosures. The Curbsiders report no relevant financial disclosures. 


Nebel C,  DeLaat A,  Heublein M, Kryzhanovskaya E. “#34  Science of Learning. The Curbsiders Teach Podcast. https://thecurbsiders.com/teach.  June 6, 2023.

Episode Credits

Hosts/show notes: Era Kryzhanovskaya MD ; Molly Heublein MD ; Andrew DeLaat DO
Script/Producer: Molly Heublein MD; Andrew DeLaat DO
Infographic/Cover Art: Andrew DeLaat DO
CME: Era Kryzhanovskaya MD
Editor: Molly Heublein MD (written materials); Podpaste (audio editing)
Guest: Cindy Nebel PhD

CME Partner


The Curbsiders are partnering with VCU Health Continuing Education to offer FREE continuing education credits for physicians and other healthcare professionals. Visit curbsiders.vcuhealth.org and search for this episode to claim credit.

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