We know a lot about how people learn and the strategies and principles that promote learning and retention, but much of it gets stuck in translation between research and practice. Through the Cognition and Student Learning program, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) supports projects that try to bridge that gap. Pooja Agarwal has been a researcher for multiple Cognition and Student Learning projects. She was also a Harry S. Truman Foundation Scholarship recipient, which gave her the opportunity to work as an intern at IES for a summer. She received her PhD from Washington University of St. Louis and is currently an Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music and founder of RetrievalPractice.org. Here she shares some reflections on how IES and its grants programs have influenced her career and the field, culminating in a book she recently published with collaborator Patrice Bain, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning.
Fifteen years ago, I was double majoring in cognitive neuroscience and elementary education at Washington University in St. Louis. One semester, I was taking a psychology class on human memory on one side of campus and a class on K–12 social studies teaching methods on the other side of campus. I felt frustrated that the psychology class was too esoteric, thinking that’s not how memory works in the “real world.” Meanwhile, I felt the social studies methods class was too anecdotal; we were being told to teach the way the professor taught without any evidence to support their methods.
Around the same time, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) was born, bridging the gap between research and practice. I was enthralled by the legislative authorization bill (yes, I was that college student). The more I read about IES, the more I was convinced that transformation of the education system through research was not only possible–it was starting to happen. Simply put, this was my coveted “lightbulb moment.”
Subsequently, I spent a summer as an intern at IES, and the following fall, my mentor Henry L. Roediger, III (“Roddy”) and colleagues received a Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) grant from IES (2006-2010). This opportunity was a perfect fit with my growing passion: I would be embedded in K–12 classrooms leading rigorous research on learning and memory.
Our research centered around extending a laboratory-based principle, retrieval practice, into the classroom. Retrieval practice is the process by which learners recall or retrieve information they have previously learned, which subsequently improves their long-term retention for that information. For example, do you know the fourth president of the United States? Your mental struggle is referred to as a “desirable difficulty,” which will help you remember the name of the president (it’s listed at the end of this blog).
Our first experiments on retrieval practice were conducted with Patrice Bain, a 6th grade world history teacher at Columbia Middle School in Columbia, Illinois. Initially, we compared student performance after lessons with brief quizzes vs. lessons without quizzes. Importantly, Patrice’s curriculum stayed the same; we simply included frequent retrieval practice. In one set of experiments, for example, retrieval practice boosted grades from a C to an A level, with benefits lasting nine months later, until the end of the school year. By year two, we were collecting data on a scale we never had in the lab, in various grade levels and content areas. We were fortunate to continue our research with a second CASL grant (2011-2014), publishing numerous peer-review publications, presenting at academic conferences, and creating a practice guide for educators on the research and implementation of retrieval practice in the classroom. I recently completed a review of the literature on retrieval practice, screening more than 2,000 abstracts and narrowing them down to 50 selected experiments. The majority of experiments demonstrated that retrieval practice consistently boosted student learning, regardless of type (for example, multiple-choice or short answer), spacing over time, or education level.
To get this information into the hands of educators around the world, my fellow cognitive scientists and I have written and disseminated 6 practice guides available in 6 languages, which have been downloaded more than 100,000 times. I continue to develop a community of more than 15,000 educators around the world via social media (Twitter and Facebook), a weekly newsletter, and articles and podcasts. Of course, our own research on retrieval practice informs my own teaching as a college professor on a daily basis.
Most recently, I co-authored a book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, with aforementioned collaborator Patrice Bain. Educators are given the impossible challenge of seeking out good research, making sense of it, and applying it in the classroom. It is impossible because this research isn’t accessible–literally and figuratively. In line with IES’s mission, we aimed to increase access to cognitive science research and make it applicable for today’s classrooms.
In Powerful Teaching, we focused on four teaching strategies we call Power Tools: retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition, all of which are supported by research from the CASL grants program.
- Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads.
- Spacing boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time, so learning is not crammed all at once. In this way, forgetting is a good thing for learning.
- Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics, encouraging discrimination between similarities and differences.
- Feedback-driven metacognition boosts learning by providing the opportunity for students to know what they know and know what they don’t know.
The four Power Tools are flexible, practical, and quick to implement. By focusing on just a few carefully selected strategies, educators are empowered to harness cognitive science, without being stretched too thin. We have found these elements–accessibility and feasibility–to be critical if educators are to implement research-based strategies in their classrooms.
I say all this because I want to emphasize that IES–and the people behind the scenes–is much more than a granting agency. IES provides opportunities and support for applied research in education that can inform practice and make a difference in the classroom. Sometimes, all it takes is a lightbulb moment to spark a transformation.
Endnote: The fourth president of the United States was James Madison.
Pooja K. Agarwal, PhD (@RetrieveLearn) is a cognitive scientist, conducting research on how students learn since 2005. She is the author of the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Pooja is also the Founder of RetrievalPractice.org, a source of research-based teaching strategies for more than 15,000 educators around the world.