IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Research on Adult Literacy: A History of Investment in American Adults

 

Reading is fundamental, but it is also difficult to master, taking thousands of hours of instruction and practice. Roughly 52 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 16 may struggle with everyday literacy tasks. Of these adults, approximately 20 percent may perform at very low levels of literacy. For adults who are still mastering of this skill, the task can seem overwhelming.

Luckily, IES-funded researchers have been working towards solutions for adults with low basic reading skills and are creating and refining assessments, curricula, and software. These innovations aim to help adult learners, the instructors and tutors who work with them, and the programs that support them.

As part of our commemoration of National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week (September 20-26, 2020), we would like to recognize the history of adult literacy research at IES and its National Center for Education Research.  

Since 2004, IES-funded researchers have been developing assessments to help identify the needs of adults struggling with literacy and working on solutions to build adult literacy skills. This work fed into the measurement component of IES’s Reading for Understanding Initiative in 2010 and later returned back to addressing adult basic literacy measurement in 2016.

In 2012, IES funded the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL), which developed a curriculum and technology for adults reading between the 3rd- and 8th-grade levels. CSAL demonstrates how adult literacy research benefits by integrating research conducted with students with disabilities and those in K-12 and postsecondary settings. In fact, the researchers pulled upon findings from eight prior IES grants funded by NCER and NCSER.

Our researchers are also developing a clearer picture of the adults who fall into the broad category of those with low literacy. They are leveraging the PIAAC data set to conduct exploratory work that informs both our understanding of those at the very low ends of literacy and also of whether basic skills may predict success in postsecondary career and technical education programs.

In 2020, IES funded additional development research to help refine an interactive, online reading comprehension program, AutoTutor for Adult Reading Comprehension (AT-ARC). Another project will recruit and train postdoctoral fellows to cultivate the next generation of researchers who can continue to build a research base for improving adult literacy outcomes.

Although IES researchers are making great strides to build knowledge, the field needs more information, and adult learners deserve tools and innovations developed for their specific needs and goals. IES hopes to continue to support such work.

 


To learn more about IES-wide efforts to understand and improve adult learners’ outcomes, visit the Adult Basic Skills topic page. Contact Dr. Meredith Larson for more information about the research supported by NCER.

 

Building Knowledge About Adult Education

 

Adult education programs aim to support the millions of American adults who wish to strengthen their basic skills, earn a high school degree or equivalent, or become U.S. citizens. During the National Adult Education Family and Literacy Week (September 20-26, 2020), IES is highlighting the ongoing research it supports to help expand our knowledge of and innovations for the adult education system and the communities they support.

Roughly 30 million U.S. adults may lack a high school degree or equivalent. And according to an assessment conducted in 2017, approximately 30 percent of adults may have very low numeracy skills, and approximately 20 percent may have very low literacy skills. Adults with low levels of academic attainment or low basic skills may face barriers to full economic or civic engagement.

Adult education programs aim to help such adults. These programs often run on lean budgets and need to meet the needs of a highly diverse population with a multitude of learning goals.

In order to help understand and improve the ability of the adult education system to provide services, IES researchers have been conducting various research projects in partnership with adult education providers.

For example, Career Pathways Programming for Lower-Skilled Adults and Immigrants conducted mixed-methods research in partnership with Chicago, Houston, and Miami. This work helped each city understand what types of career pathways adult education programs were offering and who was participating in such programing. This type of information helps programs, cities, and the system more broadly understand and adjust to the needs of learners and communities.

The New York State Literacy Zone Researcher-Practitioner Partnership focused on improving the ability of case managers to help adult learners leverage wrap-around services and access and succeed in adult education and training programs. This project helped develop tools and training for case managers and conduct an exploratory pilot study of these tools to see if they predicted learner outcomes, such as persistence in a program.

The Georgia Partnership for Adult Education and Research (GPAER) is a collaboration among researchers at Georgia State University and leadership at the Georgia Office of Adult Education: Technical College System of Georgia to help understand adult literacy programs across the state. This ongoing work is conducting mixed-methods studies to understand program features, learner characteristics, and indicators of beneficial learner outcomes.

There is still much to learn to help improve the ability of programs to find and support adult learners. IES encourages additional research to further help us understand the landscape of adult education, the needs and interests of adult learners and their instructors, and the outcomes and impacts of improving adult basic skills.


For more information about adult education research at the National Center of Education Research, contact Dr. Meredith Larson.

 

 

Back to School During COVID19: Developers and Researchers Continue to Respond to Support In-Class and Remote Teaching and Learning

 

Many programs across the Federal government, such as the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the IES Research Grants programs, fund projects to develop and evaluate new forms of education technology and interventions that can be implemented to support instruction and learning at schools and for remote learning. More than 150 of these technologies were demoed in January 2020 at the ED Games Expo, a showcase for learning games and technologies developed with support from IES and more than 30 other Federal programs.

Since the global outbreak of COVID19 and the closure of schools across the United States and the world, a group of government-supported developers and researchers responded to provide resources to educators, students, and families to facilitate remote learning. More than 50 developers and researchers offered 88 learning games and technologies at no cost through the end of the school year for use in distance learning settings with internet access (see this blog for the list). In addition, many of the developers and researchers provided technical assistance directly to individual teachers to support implementation at a distance, and many created new materials and worked to refine and adapt their products to optimize usability and feasibility for fully remote use. More than a million students and thousands of educators used these learning technologies during the spring.

In April and May 2020, more than 70 developers and researchers partnered to produce and participate in a series of free day-long virtual events, which were called “unconferences.” The events featured presentations on innovative models and approaches to teaching and learning remotely and provided an in-depth look at the learning games and technologies created by the presenters. More than 25,000 educators attended these virtual events in real-time, hundreds asked questions and made comments through chats during the events, and many thousands more have accessed these videos after the events. See this blog for the list of archived videos.

A New Resource: Guides to Education Technologies that are Ready Now

As schools begin re-opening for the new school year, a group of 70 developers and researchers have collaborated to produce a new series of Guides to Education Technologies. The guides present information on government-supported education technology products that are ready now for in-class and remote learning. All the resources are web-based and can be used on either computers, tablets, or personal devices. The resources in the guides include a mix of no-cost products as well as ones that are fee-based.  

With awards from government programs, all of the resources were developed through an iterative process with feedback from teachers and students, and most were evaluated through small pilot studies to measure the promise of the technologies to support improvements in student learning and relevant educational outcomes. All the products were used and demonstrated to be feasible for use in remote settings in the spring after the onset of the pandemic.

The guides present resources appropriate for young children through postsecondary students in education and special education, for English learners, and for teachers in education and special education across a wide range of educational topics. Many of the technologies personalize learning by adjusting content to students as they go and present information to educators to inform instruction.

The Guides focus on the following areas and can be accessed below:

 

Stay tuned to the Inside IES Blog for more information and resources about the response to the COVID-19 in education.


Edward Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) is a research scientist and the program manager for the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

 

What Do Parents Look for When Choosing an Early Childhood Care Arrangement?

The short answer to this question is reliability. However, new 2019 data from the National Household Education Surveys (NHES) program indicate that parents typically consider many factors when choosing care arrangements for their young children.  

The Early Childhood Program Participation: 2019 survey found that 59 percent of children age 5 and under were in a care arrangement (including care from a relative other than a parent, care from a nonrelative, or attendance at a preschool or day care) in 2019. The parents of these children were asked how important various factors were when choosing their child’s care arrangement. The reliability of the arrangement was the factor most often rated as “very important”: 87 percent of children had parents who rated reliability as very important when choosing a care arrangement for their child (figure 1). This factor was followed by available times for care and qualifications of staff (75 and 72 percent, respectively). A majority of children’s parents also rated the following factors as very important:

  • Learning activities (68 percent)
  • Location (60 percent)
  • Time spent with other children (59 percent)
  • Cost (55 percent)

Figure 1. Among children age 5 and under who were not yet in kindergarten and were in at least one weekly care arrangement, percentage whose parents indicated that the factor was “very important” when choosing child’s care arrangement: 2019

SOURCE: Cui, J., and Natzke, L. (2020). Early Childhood Program Participation: 2019 (NCES 2020-075). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


For many factors, the percentage of children whose parents rated the factor as very important when choosing a care arrangement was similar across the children’s age ranges. However, for 5 of the 11 factors, ratings varied depending on the child’s age. For example, the percentage of children whose parents rated time spent with other children as very important increased with the age of the child (figure 2). Similarly, learning activities were rated as very important more often for children ages 3–5 (74 percent) than for younger children (59 percent for children under age 1; 64 percent for children ages 1–2).


Figure 2.  Among children age 5 and under who were not yet in kindergarten and were in at least one weekly care arrangement, percentage whose parents indicated that the factor was “very important” when choosing child’s care arrangement, by age of child: 2019

SOURCE: Cui, J., and Natzke, L. (2020). Early Childhood Program Participation: 2019 (NCES 2020-075). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


The opposite pattern was true for the number of children in group and website ratings. Both of these factors were rated as very important more often by parents of children under age 1 (51 and 35 percent, respectively) than by parents of children ages 3–5 (40 and 25 percent, respectively).

More detailed information about child care arrangements is available in Early Childhood Program Participation: 2019. For a look at why parents of K–12 students choose schools for their children, check out this blog post and the recent NCES release Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019.

 

By Lisa Hudson, NCES

A Lightbulb Moment: How IES Sparks Research, Teaching, and Practice

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.

  1. Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads.
  2. 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.
  3. Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics, encouraging discrimination between similarities and differences.
  4. 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.