Teaching methods go from lab to classroom

Researchers are testing approaches to make learning stick

illustration of classroom brain chairs

BRAIN GAINS  Moving education research into classrooms can be messy. But researchers are taking the plunge and finding some approaches that boost learning.  

Alex NaBaum

Sure, students in the classroom have to remember facts, but they also have to apply them. Some research efforts to enhance learning zero in on methods to strengthen memory and recall, while others bolster students’ abilities to stay on task, think more fluidly and mentally track and juggle information.

But there’s a catch. The science behind student learning is so far based on carefully controlled studies, primarily with college students. Do the same approaches work with younger students? Will they work in a classroom of 25 or 30 kids of varying abilities?

These are questions researchers are asking now, says Erin Higgins of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Research. Moving from the lab to a classroom, with all its disruptions and distractions, is key for pinning down what works, under what conditions and for whom. In the process of tweaking some of the most promising tools and strategies for classroom use, educators hope to find ways to help low-performing students gain skills that already pay off for their more successful peers. The efforts described here draw on new, innovative training methods to boost learning in K-12 classrooms. Higgins calls them “great examples” of the work under way.

Recall with cues 

Alex NaBaum
For college students, “free recall” is one of the most effective ways to make new knowledge stick, says psychologist Jeffrey Karpicke of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Students who read a passage and then jotted down details they remembered from the material recalled about 50 percent more information a week later than did students who just reviewed the material.

The trick for younger learners, Karpicke found, is to provide cues to help recall, without making the task too easy. After studying lists of unrelated words (banana and football), fourth-graders either restudied the words or practiced retrieving them from memory before taking a free recall test. Findings, published last year in Frontiers in Psychology, show that children at all reading levels remembered at least 25 percent more words when they practiced retrieving with the help of some cues compared with just rereading the lists.

With psychologist Michael Jones of Indiana University Bloomington, Karpicke is creating a computer-based self-test to help kids hone their retrieval skills. Students might have to answer fill-in-the-blank questions or rearrange scrambled words. Teachers will be able to tailor the tests to the curriculum. Parts of the program are being tested in schools in West Lafayette this year. The program gets harder as children succeed but easier if they struggle. “It’s important that students experience success,” Karpicke says, while keeping the task challenging.

Hold that thought

Alex NaBaum
Working memory, which allows a person to hold on to information long enough to use it, is often a weakness in children who struggle with math, says educational psychologist Lynn Fuchs of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Handy for remembering a phone number long enough to find a pen to write it down or for multiplying numbers in our heads, working memory can be strengthened through exercises that put progressively tougher demands on it. But general training may not be enough to help struggling math learners, according to a 2015 review of school-based programs, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Fuchs has developed a routine that embeds working memory exercises within math lessons. Designed for second-graders at risk for math difficulties, the program has students focus on key words in a word problem and hold the words in mind while breaking the problem into smaller segments and choosing the right math tools to solve the problem.

Aiming to catch young learners before they fall behind, researchers are testing the program in Nashville classrooms this school year.

Sum of the parts

Alex NaBaum
Researchers typically test one new strategy in isolation, but in real classrooms, educators may try more than one approach at once. Jodi Davenport of WestEd, a San Francisco–based education research and development group, codirected a multi-institutional effort to revise a seventh-grade math curriculum using a handful of promising strategies.

Lessons were spaced out to expose students to key concepts or procedures multiple times and were combined with frequent quizzes. Graphics accompanied examples of how to work a problem, to strengthen the connection between the visual and verbal material. Researchers trained 181 teachers at 114 schools and then tracked 2,465 students in 22 states over a full school year.

Strategies such as showing incorrect examples along with correct ones (to point out common errors) and removing distracting information were especially helpful to underperforming students, Davenport says. Students with lower pretest scores scored higher on posttests in six of eight math units when using the new curriculum versus the traditional materials, the researchers reported in March in Washington, D.C., at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness meeting.

Testing the program in so many schools amid teacher turnover and other real-life challenges made control­ling for variance hard, so the data weren’t as robust as researchers had hoped. But there appeared to be improvements, particularly in girls, underrepresented minorities, English-language learners and special education students. The methods work by helping students focus and link related info, Davenport speculates. “Successful students have these skills,” she says. “They’ve developed strategies … to focus their attention and employ problem-solving skills as they work through a problem.” She hopes to help teachers give struggling kids those same skills.

Granting executive powers

Alex NaBaum
Students must learn to stay focused in the face of distraction, to direct actions toward a goal and to hold what they have just seen or heard in mind while they work with it. These abilities are part of a set of cognitive skills called executive function.

There’s strong evidence that well-designed video games can improve executive function among teens and adults, says psychologist Bruce Homer of the City University of New York. “But we need more research to determine if — and how well — these skills transfer to the classroom to … improve academic performance,” he says. With psychologist Richard Mayer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Jan Plass of New York University’s game design center, Homer is developing a series of video games for students from middle school to college. Each game targets a specific area of executive function, such as shifting attention or avoiding distractions.

The first of three games is in testing, assigned as homework for 300 kids in Santa Barbara and New York City schools. In the game, students must quickly adapt to rule changes as aliens land on Earth and request help gathering supplies. Preliminary findings show that after eight 30-minute sessions, players of the alien game showed substantially greater improvements in ability to shift strategies in standard cognitive tests compared with students who played a different game. This fall, researchers plan to study whether gains in executive function from game play can improve actual performance in specific academic areas.

This article appears in the Sept. 16, 2017 issue of Science News with the headline, “Make it stick: Teaching methods from lab studies move into classrooms.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on September 7, 2017, to add a collaborator on the video game being tested among students.

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