Pooja k. Agarwal



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Lessons for learning:

How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice
Laboratory science and classroom observation reveal four simple strategies that can
promote learning.
By
Pooja K. Agarwal and Henry L. Roediger, III


V N kappanonline.org learning than they did in previous generations, and while scientific evidence has dismissed many old myths, other myths (such as the myth that children have specific learning styles) will likely remain in circulation fora while yet
(Willingham, 2018). But although we still have along way to go when it comes to ensuring that educators understand scientific findings and can translate them to everyday classroom practice, findings from cognitive psychology hold a lot of promise. More than 100 years of research, from both laboratory and classroom settings, have revealed a number of powerful strategies for teaching and learning.
In particular, four strategies standout (Dunlosky et al.,
2013):
1.
Retrieval practice
boosts learning by pulling information out of students heads (by responding to a brief writing prompt, for example, rather than cramming information into their heads (by lecturing at students, for example. In the classroom, retrieval practice can take many forms, including a quick, no-stakes quiz. When students are asked to retrieve new information, they don’t just show what they know they solidify and expand it.
2.
Feedback
boosts learning by revealing to students what they know and what they don’t know. At the same time, this increases students metacognition — their understanding about their own learning progress.
3.

Spaced practice

boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out overtime so that new knowledge and skills are not crammed in all at once. By returning to content every so often, students knowledge has time to be consolidated and then refreshed.
Interleaving
— or practicing a mix of skills (such as doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems all in one sitting) — boosts learning by encouraging connections between and discrimination among closely related topics. Interleaving sometimes slows students initial learning of a concept, but it leads to greater retention and learning overtime. These strategies have been tested in both the laboratory and the classroom. In typical laboratory experiments on re-
Strategies informed by cognitive psychology can help you remember names, concepts, and much more, and they have powerful roles to play in the classroom, too.
In contrast to cognitive psychology, research on social- emotional learning (e.g., growth mindsets and character development) investigates how we interact with the world around us in other words, what happens outside our heads. This field comprises social and personality psychology, and social psychologists examine behaviors such as how we develop relationships, how we’re affected by culture, and why we form stereotypes. Of course, the distinction is a bit artificial, because influences from the environment (such as stereotypes) are carried in our heads and so also depend on cognition. In other words, cognition affects how we behave in the outside world, and the environment around us affects the behaviors inside our heads.

While research on learning — arguably the most complex cognitive process — can be based on observations, surveys, or correlations, most of our research in cognitive psychology is experimental. We use experiments to examine how students learn everything from basic facts and vocabulary words to how students apply their knowledge using complex higher-order materials (Agarwal, in press. Or we might compare popular study methods, such as rereading or highlighting, to see which ones lead to longer-lasting learning. (It turns out that both rereading and highlighting are fairly ineffective Putnam et al., 2016) What did we used to think about learning, and what have we discovered?

Some old ideas about learning die hard. Consider, for example, the notion that memory can be improved with practice. That is, if students practice memorizing poetry, say, they will become better at memorization in general and will be able to apply that skill to other subject matter. Even today, some teachers remain convinced that this is an important thing for students to do (Roediger, 2013). But while it is tempting to imagine that exercising one’s memory will strengthen it, as though memory were a muscle, that theory has been disproved time and again.
Or consider the enduring but flawed theory that scientists refer to as “errorless learning the idea, popularized in the s, that learning is most effective if students are prevented from making errors. Even today, many of us cringe when we see students struggling with anew concept or skill, and we might have the knee-jerk desire to step in and correct them before they stumble. Yet cognitive psychology has shown that because we learn from our mistakes, errors are in fact good for learning (Hays et al., 2013). Of course, while educators today know much more about More than 100 years of research, from both laboratory and classroom settings, have revealed a number of powerful strategies for teaching and learning.


10 Kappan December January for example, they were asked to click through a set of questions about the material. Notably, the quizzes touched on only half of information that had been presented. Later, when we gave them an end-of-unit assessment, their performance was significantly better on the material that had been covered in the clicker quizzes than the material that wasn’t (94% vs. 81%) — i.e., just by completing a quick, end-of-class quiz on that material, students had improved their memory and understanding of it. Even a couple of months later, at the end of the semester, students performed significantly better on the material that had been included in the quizzes, scoring an entire letter grade higher on that portion of the assessment than on the non- quizzed material (79% vs. 61%) (see Figure What does this mean for educators?

Many teachers already implement these strategies in one form or another. But they maybe able to get much more powerful results with a few small tweaks. For example, we often observe teachers using think-pair-share activities in their classrooms — typically, they will give students a few minutes on their own to think about a topic or prompt, then a few more minutes to discuss it with a partner, and then a chance to share their ideas as part of a larger class discussion. But what, exactly, are students doing during the
think
stage They could easily be daydreaming, or wondering what to eat for lunch, rather than actively considering the prompt. But if the teacher simply asks them to write
down

a quick response, rather than just think, it becomes an opportunity for retrieval practice, ensuring that students are drawing an idea out of their heads and onto the paper.
Similarly, rather than assigning students to consider a
new
topic, the teacher might ask them to do a think-pair- share about content they learned the day
or week before
— and now it becomes an opportunity for spaced practice students get to return to material and solidify their understanding of it.

Here’s another example We often observe teachers begin their classes by saying something to the effect of, “Here’s what we did yesterday. . . .” and then reviewing the content. Instead, they can pose it as a question, What did we do yesterday and give students a minute to write down what they remember. It’s a subtle shift (from a lecture by the teacher to an opportunity for retrieval practice, but it can significantly improve student learning, without requiring additional preparation or classroom time. Even a single question, writing prompt, or quick no-stakes quiz can make a difference, encouraging students to pull information out of their heads rather than cramming it into them via lecturing or telling.

Why do these strategies improve learning Consider trieval practice, for example, students study a set of material
(e.g., foreign language vocabulary words, passages about science engage in retrieval practice (e.g., via recall or multiple- choice quizzes and complete a final exam immediately or after a delay (e.g., ranging from minutes to hours or days. Consistently, researchers see a dramatic increase in both short-term and long-term learning (Adesope et al., Similarly, research we conducted in several K classrooms demonstrated that these four strategies led to consistent and reliable increases in students grades, confidence, and engagement (Agarwal et al., 2014). Further, we found these strategies to have strong potential to boost learning for diverse students, grade levels, and subject areas (e.g., STEM, social studies, language arts, fine arts, and foreign languages. And other researchers have demonstrated that these strategies improve not just the learning of basic factual knowledge, but also skill learning (including CPR resuscitation) and critical thinking such as applying knowledge in new situations) (McDaniel, et al., In one of our studies (Roediger et al., 2011), students in a 6th-grade social studies class were given three brief, low-stakes quizzes, using clicker remotes (wireless devices) to answer questions. Following a lesson on Ancient Egypt,




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