IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Basic Science of Learning and Development Within Education: The IES Investment

I came to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in 2002 to build connections between education and the basic science of learning and development. The weak links between these two fields were surprising to me, given how foundational such science is to the very purpose of education.

IES had just launched the Cognition and Student Learning program[1], and researchers were invited to submit applications to examine whether principles of learning established in basic science were robust when examined in education settings.  Six years later, we launched the Social and Behavioral Context to Support Academic Learning to understand the ways in which the social environment of classrooms and school affected learning. Together, IES has invested over $445M, an investment that has contributed substantially to our foundational knowledge of teaching and learning.

I was surprised by this recent blog by Bob Pianta and Tara Hofkens. While they acknowledge the research that IES has supported to transform education practice, they did not seem to realize our substantial, ongoing investments in the basic science of teaching and learning—both in and out of classrooms.

In part, this may reflect their perception of what types of work we support under our Exploration goal – which is not limited to “scouring databases” but instead involves all types of research, including small-scale experiments and longitudinal studies. These projects generate foundational knowledge about what factors are associated with learning outcomes and can potentially be changed through education. In fact, the questions that Pianta and Hofkens want answered by the basic science of education are the same questions that some IES grantees have been examining over the course of the last 15 years. 

Here are just a few examples.

  1. What factors regulate children's attention in a classroom setting? Anna Fisher and her team found that cluttered classroom walls in kindergarten led to greater distraction and less learning – a finding that captured the imagination of the nation and the nation’s educators.
  2. What roles do the capabilities of peers play in advancing children's cognitive capabilities? A new study led by Adrienne Nishina is examining how student’s ability to think about situations from different perspectives is related to their day-to-day interactions with peers from diverse backgrounds.
  3. What factors promote or inhibit teachers' responses to children's perceived misbehavior? Teachers’ expertise and teachers’ emotional competencies are two factors that IES-funded researchers have found to relate to their responses to children’s behavior.
  4. What role do social and emotional experiences and affective processes play in fostering learning? Shannon Suldo and her team find that the coping strategies that high school students choose to manage their responses to stressors are linked to learning outcomes.
  5. What are the components of school climate that matter the most for different forms of student success? Two recent projects, one in Cleveland, and one in Virginia, are using survey data to explore the relationship between school climate, social behavioral competencies and academic outcomes. The teams are also exploring how those relationships vary within student subgroups.

Funding the basic science of teaching and learning—in and out of classrooms—has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of the work that IES funds. The IES investment in this area is broad, and is shared in books such as Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children, and Educator Stress: An Occupational Health Perspective

Importantly, IES is not the only funder in this area. The National Science Foundation invests substantially in their Science of Learning portfolio, the McDonnell Foundation’s Understanding Human Cognition portfolio includes an explicit request for projects at the intersection of cognition and education, and the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) supports a variety of relevant research programs.  I agree that we need systematic investment in the basic science of teaching and learning. But we must build on what we have already learned.  

We are grateful that Pianta and Hofkens recognize the importance of investing in this area. Perhaps the fact that they did not acknowledge the substantial investments and contributions IES has made in exploring the important questions they pose is an IES problem. While we have invested heavily in the science of learning, we have skimped on brand development and self-promoting. If someone as central to the field such as Pianta, who has received several IES grants, including research training grants, doesn’t know what IES has done, that is a red flag that we will need to attend to.

In the meantime, we hope that this brief glimpse into our investment to date has illustrated some of the questions that the basic science of teaching and learning within education can answer. More importantly here’s where you can seek funding for this type of work.

Elizabeth Albro

Commissioner, National Center for Education Research

 

[1] IES was authorized in November 2002. The Cognition and Student Learning research program was launched by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the office from which IES was created.

Resolve to Study Effectively in 2018

Students of all ages want to study more effectively and efficiently, while teachers want to improve their students’ understanding and retention of important concepts. The Institute’s Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) program has invested in several research projects that test the effectiveness of different strategies for improving learning and provide resources for teachers who want to implement these strategies in their classrooms.  Two strategies that are easy for teachers and students to implement and do not require a lot of time or money are retrieval practice and interleaving.

 

Retrieval practice (also known as test-enhanced learning) involves recalling information that has been previously learned. Research has shown that when students actively retrieve information from memory (e.g., through low-stakes quizzes), their ability to retain that information in the future improves when compared to other common study strategies like re-reading and highlighting key concepts while reading class texts.

Interleaving is the process of mixing up different types of problems during practice. Unlike blocking, where a student practices the same type of problem over and over again, interleaved practice involves multiple types of problems that require different strategies to solve. In mathematics, where interleaving and blocking have been studied most, blocking is frequently employed at the end of each chapter in a textbook. With interleaved practice, students must choose a strategy to solve the problem and apply that strategy successfully. Research has shown that students learn more when engaged in interleaved practice relative to blocked practice.

For decades, research has shown the benefits of both retrieval practice and interleaving for learning; however, until this point, there were no easily accessible resources that practitioners could turn to for concrete details and suggestions for how to implement these strategies in their classrooms. Two of the IES CASL research projects that have focused on these study strategies (Developing a Manual for Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom, PI: Henry Roediger and Interleaved Mathematics Practice, PI: Douglas Rohrer) resulted in guides for teachers that provide information on how to implement these strategies in their classrooms. These guides are freely available through the website www.retrievalpractice.org (download the Retrieval Practice Guide here and the Interleaving Guide here). With these guides, teachers can learn more about how to use retrieval practice and interleaving to improve their students’ understanding and retention of the concepts they are learning. Happy studying!

By Erin Higgins, NCER Program Officer, Cognition and Student Learning

Building CASL: Improving Education through Cognitive Science Research

(Updated on Oct. 20, 2017)

In its 15 years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has helped build the evidence base in many areas of education. One of the key areas where IES has focused in that time has been on Cognition and Student Learning – or CASL. 

The CASL program was established with the purpose of bringing what we know from laboratory-based cognitive science research to the classroom. In 2002, IES funded eight CASL grants—an investment of about $4.9 million. A lot has changed over 15 years. First, the CASL program has increased significantly in size. To date, CASL has funded 165 projects, representing a total investment of over $200 million. 

Second, the CASL program has expanded its research to cover a wider range of cognitive science topics. In the 2000s, many of the cognitive principles studied in education research came from what we know about how the memory system works. This makes sense, as cognitive scientists who study memory have always been thinking about the kinds of issues that are important in a classroom, such as how students encode, retain and successfully recall information.

More recently, the CASL program has supported research across a range of cognitive science topics, even those that do not seem on the surface to be directly relevant to education practice. For example, cognitive scientists who study attention and perception have made contributions to our understanding of how those processes affect learning and retention. These findings have provided the foundational knowledge necessary to design better textbooks, develop education technologies, and even inform how teachers should decorate their classroom walls.

Through CASL, researchers have developed and fine-tuned the process of working in school settings on complex problems of education practice and have developed effective models for moving back and forth between the laboratory and the classroom to advance both theory and practice. Through the CASL program, we now have many different examples of how cognitive science can improve teaching and learning:

  • Want to see how to use cognitive science principles to transform a curriculum? See the National Research & Development Center on Cognition & Mathematics Instruction’s work on the Connected Math Project (CMP) curriculum;
  • Want to see how small changes to instructional materials can make a big impact on student learning? See Nicole McNeil’s research on how best to teach the meaning of the equals sign, as one of many examples; and
  • Want to think about a completely different model for improving students’ STEM outcomes? See Holly Taylor’s project, where her team is further developing and pilot testing Think 3d!, an origami and pop-up paper engineering curriculum designed to teach spatial skills to students.

Sharing the Research

In 2007, findings from CASL research were included in a set of recommendations for educators to use in the classroom. Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning was one of the first Educator’s Practice Guides published by the What Works Clearinghouse (another IES program) and was one of the first attempts to synthesize research from cognitive science in ways that would be useful for practitioners. The guide identified a set of effective learning principles, including:

  • spacing learning over time;
  • interleaving worked examples;
  • combining verbal and visual descriptions of concepts;
  • connecting abstract and concrete representations of concepts;
  • using quizzing to promote learning;
  • helping students allocate study time efficiently; and
  • asking deep, explanatory questions.

While the practice guide was successful in its goal of reaching a broader audience, many policymakers, practitioners, and even education researchers from other fields were still unaware of these principles. However, we have recently seen an uptick in the production of summaries of effective learning principles based in cognitive science for various stakeholders, like teachers, parents, and policymakers. Importantly, these summaries appear to be reaching people outside of the cognitive science and learning sciences communities.

Perhaps most well-known among these is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Mark McDaniel, and Henry Roediger, a popular book published by Harvard University Press (pictured). The book includes findings from research Roediger and McDaniel conducted through three IES-funded CASL grants. CASL research also informed other publications, including The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact and Learning about Learning by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

CASL has come a long way in 15 years, but there are still many gaps in our understanding of how people learn and in how that knowledge can be applied effectively in the classroom to improve learning outcomes for all students. We look forward to sharing more about what IES-funded researchers are learning over the next 15 years and beyond.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog post was updated to reflect the FY 2017 awards , increasing the number of CASL grants to 165. 

Written by Erin Higgins, Program Officer for the Cognition and Student Learning program, National Center for Education Research

 

 

Exploring the Role of Physical Activity, Inactivity, and Sleep in Academic Outcomes

What role do physical activity, inactivity, and sleep habits play in students’ academic outcomes? Some new IES-funded research grants will help us find out.

Three new IES grants funded under the Education Research Grants program will explore how students’ physical activity, sleep habits, and cognitive tempo are associated with their socio-emotional and academic outcomes.  Here is a brief summary of these studies along with their potential contributions to research, practice, and policy. 

Physical activity – While physical activity is generally accepted as a positive thing, its full effect on children's cognitive and academic outcomes remains uncertain and little is known about whether increased opportunities for physical activity are associated with improved academic achievement. In this new grant, Michael Willoughby, of RTI International,  and colleagues will examine whether, and under what conditions, individual differences in child physical activity in preschool settings are associated with enhanced executive functioning and academic achievement. The findings from this project may help inform school policy decisions about the frequency and amount of student physical activity during the school day.

Sleep - Sleep problems are considerably more common in individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in comparison to the general population. Approximately 30% of children and 60% of adults with ADHD exhibit significant sleep problems. Little is known, however, about how sleep problems contribute to the educational functioning of adolescents with ADHD or why prevalence rates are higher among adolescents with ADHD. In this new grant, Joshua Langberg, of Virginia Commonwealth University, will lead a team that will conduct a longitudinal study of students with and without ADHD from Grades 8 to 10. They will assess sleep patterns, academic, and social functioning, and factors that may differentially predict the presence of sleep problems. The findings from this project may lead to recommendations for how and when schools can include sleep assessments as part of psychoeducational evaluations and may help inform policy decisions about school contextual factors that can impact sleep, such as the amount of homework assigned. In addition, the findings from this project can be used to inform the development of a school-based intervention that addresses sleep problems.

Sluggish Cognitive Tempo - Sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) refers to a specific set of attention symptoms, including excessive daydreaming, mental confusion, seeming to be "in a fog," and slowed thinking or behavior. In this new grant, Stephen Becker, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and his colleagues will examine the academic and socio-emotional problems experienced by students in grades 2 to 5 with elevated SCT symptoms. They will examine the current patterns of school referrals, educational accommodations, and interventions for children with elevated levels of SCT. The findings from this project can inform the development of interventions to mitigate the long-term consequences of sluggish cognitive tempo on students’ socio-emotional and academic outcomes.

Written by Christina Chhin, Education Research Analyst, National Center for Education Research

Supporting STEM Transfer Through Research at the Intersection of Cognitive Science and Education

By Erin Higgins, NCER Program Officer

Wait, have I already learned that?  Can I use what I learned in math class to help me solve this physics problem? Students struggle with these types of questions every day – unsure how to identify situations where their knowledge is transferrable. Even when they do recognize opportunities to use knowledge learned in one context in a different situation, they may not apply their knowledge appropriately. This is especially true in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. To improve student outcomes in STEM, we need instructional strategies and curricula that help students and teachers with this enduring challenge of transfer.

At the Association for Psychological Science’s 27th Annual Convention, I put together a symposium that highlighted emerging research that addresses this complex issue. Four researchers funded through NCER’s Cognition and Student Learning topic discussed findings from their ongoing research. Each is approaching this issue from a unique perspective regarding factors that help or hinder transfer, and each is examining this issue with different learning tasks, content areas (science, math) and age groups.

Jennifer Kaminski presented research conducted in collaboration with Vladimir Sloutsky (The Role of External Representations in Learning and Transfer of Mathematical Knowledge) that demonstrates that both undergraduate and elementary students who learned a mathematical concept in a simple symbolic format were more likely to transfer their knowledge than those who learned the concept in a more contextualized and perceptually-rich format. This finding is particularly interesting given the widely-held belief that students learn mathematics concepts better with concrete objects, and suggests that there may be many instances where teaching students in a more abstract way facilitates later transfer. This research team is continuing this line of work in their more recently funded IES grant, Facilitating Transfer of Mathematical Knowledge from Classroom to Real Life.

Charles Kalish presented research with elementary-aged students and adults showing that the structure of the math practice problems students encounter affects the memory representations built in response, which then determines whether students can successfully transfer their knowledge in mathematics (Promoting Discriminative and Generative Learning: Transfer in Arithmetic Problem Solving). For instance, in a study with elementary-aged students, 2nd graders practiced arithmetic by playing a computer-based ice cream game, where they had to make ice cream flavors for monsters by combining different types of ice cream. Students who received “grounded” practice interacted with the math practice problems in a way that highlighted the underlying quantities in the arithmetic problem while students who received “symbolic” practice were given standard arithmetic problems to solve. Students who received the grounded practice showed higher performance on a later test on arithmetic problems involving quantities not seen during practice. In light of the research presented by Kaminski in this symposium, this research demonstrates that the issue of transfer in mathematics is extremely complex, and it may be the case that there are circumstances where a more concrete, grounded approach to instruction is best and other circumstances where a symbolic, abstract approach will lead to the best transfer.

Kenneth Kurtz presented research on a technique called category construction, which is a sorting task intended to teach students the conceptual principles that underlie different examples of the same science concepts (Enhancing Learning and Transfer of Science Principles via Category Construction).  Compared to students who engaged in the more standard approach of completing worksheets about science concepts, students who engaged in category construction were better able to apply the newly learned science concepts to novel situations.

Finally, Holly Taylor presented research exploring the effects of a spatial thinking program for elementary-aged children on both spatial thinking and STEM performance (An Elementary-age Origami and Pop-up Paper Engineering Curriculum to Promote the 3-D Spatial Thinking and Reasoning Underlying STEM Education).  Based on origami and paper-engineering activities, the program trains 2D to 3D spatial transformation and diagram interpretation skills. This research is ongoing, though preliminary results suggest that students’ spatial reasoning skills are improved when they engage in this program. Future research will evaluate the extent to which this intervention improves STEM achievement.

Together, these four presenters’ lines of research demonstrate the value of applying traditional cognitive psychology and cognitive development theories to challenges in education practice in order to improve education outcomes for students. By aligning instructional approaches to the ways in which the mind works (e.g., by addressing how different memory models affect how we use information, how spatial reasoning impacts math and science problem solving, and how our perceptual system impacts how we represent information in our minds), we can begin to develop approaches that more effectively impart knowledge to students in ways that will allow for the broadest and most successful transfer.

Additional summaries of the research presented at this symposium can be found at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/03/findings-show-ways-students-can-transfer-math.html and http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2015/06/sorting_improves_science_transfer.html

Questions? Comments? Please send us an email at IESResearch@ed.gov.