(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