Cognition Studies Offer Insights on Academic Tactics

By Debra Viadero — August 29, 2006 6 min read
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Most textbooks present learning material in the same sequence: A chapter followed by a practice test, then another chapter, and so on. But what if practice tests were given weeks later? Would students retain more of what they had learned?

Test of Time

Students given study sessions in lieu of quizzes at first fared better on tests than those who were quizzed, but that pattern was reversed when both groups were tested on the material a week later.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Test of Time

SOURCE: Psychological Science

Probably, according to scientists taking part in a 4-year-old research program on cognition and learning that is being financed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The program’s aim is to translate basic research in the cognitive sciences into practical applications for education.

“Over the past 30 years, we have learned an enormous amount through the cognitive sciences about how people think, or process information, and how we learn new information,” said Lynn Okagaki, the commissioner of the institute’s National Center for Education Research, which oversees the grant program. “For the most part,” she added, “the knowledge that has been gained has not made it into classroom practice.”

Since its 2002 inception, the department’s Cognition and Student Learning, or CASL, program has given $41 million in grants to support 45 such “translational research” projects. Results from the first wave of those grants are trickling out now, and they shed light on a wide range of nuts-and-bolts learning questions.

Testing Helps

Studies coming out of the CASL program raise new questions, for example, about whether some of the “manipulatives” that teachers use to teach arithmetic skills may actually distract children from the learning at hand. Others are studying how particular academic skills develop in young children and involve designing artificial-intelligence-based tutoring systems and other interventions for teaching those skills more efficiently.

Recent Projects Awarded

In fiscal 2006, the U.S. Department of Education’s Cognition and Student Learning grants supported the following projects:

• Carnegie Mellon University
Principal Investigator: David Klahr
Title: Training in Experimental Design: Developing Scalable and Adaptive Computer-Based Science Instruction

• Research Foundation of The City University of New York
Principal Investigator: Barry Zimmerman
Title: Enhancing Self-Reflection and Mathematics Achievement of At-risk Students at an Urban Technical College: A Self-Regulated Learning Intervention

• The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York
Principal Investigator: Janet Metcalfe
Title: The Effect of Metacognition on Children’s Control of Their Study and of Their Cognitive Processes

• University of California, Los Angeles
Principal Investigator: Philip Kellman
Title: Integrating Conceptual Foundations in Mathematics Through the Application of Principles of Perceptual Learning

• University of Kentucky Research Foundation
Principal Investigator: Elizabeth Lorch
Title: Teaching the Logic of the Scientific Method in the Fourth Grade

• The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Principal Investigator: Stephen Hooper
Title: Attention, Memory, and Executive Functions in Written Language Expression in Elementary School Children

• University of Washington
Principal Investigator: Deborah McCutchen
Title: Making Meaning: Morphological Processing and Its Contribution to Adolescent and Pre-Adolescent Literacy

• University of Wisconsin-Madison
Principal Investigator: Martha Alibali
Title: Does Visual Scaffolding Facilitate Students’ Mathematics Learning? Evidence From Early Algebra

• Vanderbilt University
Principal Investigator: Gautam Biswas
Title: A Learning by Teaching Approach to Help Students Develop Self-Regulatory Learning Skills in Middle School Science Classrooms

• Washington University in St. Louis
Principal Investigator: Henry Roediger III
Title: Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom

SOURCE: National Center for Education Research

But a common thread among several of the programs is their focus on the role of memory in learning, noted Harold E. Pashler, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

The questions such studies address include: Is cramming a good study strategy? Does it hurt or help to guess at answers? How critical is it to give students feedback on wrong answers? Can just taking a test improve learning?

“A lot of educational failure is really forgetting,” Mr. Pashler said. Though some widely reported studies have suggested that one-third of young Americans cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map, he said, “I personally am completely convinced there was a time when they could.”

At Washington University in St. Louis, one group of IES-funded researchers has learned that taking a test, in and of itself, can bolster learning.

Psychology professor Henry L. Roediger III and his research partners had college students read prose passages covering general scientific topics. Afterward, some students were given from one to three tests with open-ended questions in which they were asked to recall what they had read. Other groups restudied the material, but were not given tests.

Five minutes after the study or test sessions ended, all the students were tested. The study-only group did better, recalling more of what they had read than the quiz-only group. A week later, though, the test-taking group had the better grasp of the material—even though they had had fewer opportunities to restudy the original material.

“I usually think of my tests as being for assessment purposes, but giving someone a memory test and having them retrieve information from memory actually changes memory,” said Mr. Roediger, who is planning to take experiments into precollegiate schools this fall.

Mr. Roediger’s colleagues have also found that the learning benefits are greatest when the tests are composed of short-answer rather than multiple-choice questions. That’s a point on which several of the studies converge: Learning seems to stick when students are forced to generate their own answers to questions or their own definitions of words and concepts.

When to Review?

Mr. Pashler and his UC-San Diego research team taught new material to college students, gave them review sessions at different intervals—the next day, for instance, a week later, or a month later—and then tested them again after a year.

The students who had reviewed the material at the one-month point remembered three times more than those whose practice sessions took place a day or a week later. Those and other findings have led Mr. Pashler and his colleagues to conclude that there may be an optimum ratio for spacing out study sessions: 10 percent to 20 percent of the interval over which students are expected to recall the information.

“If you want to teach people things so they’ll remember them for five years, ideally you would want them to have a one-year study interval,” Mr. Pashler explained. “That means if you have an exam the next day and you cram the night before, that’s the least efficient thing to do in terms of what you remember five years from now.”

Such findings, he added, could have implications for both instruction and textbook design. That may especially be true for learning vocabulary, concepts, and definitions. This fall, the researchers will further test their results in San Diego-area high school classes.

Feedback Proves Key

In another series of IES-financed experiments, Janet Metcalfe and her research colleagues at Columbia University in New York City took some of the teaching principles emerging from the new literature—the findings, for instance, on spaced practice and repeated testing—and incorporated them into a computer-based tutoring program for teaching advanced vocabulary to 6th graders in the South Bronx. The students, most of whom were considered at risk for academic failure, learned four times more than peers who were given flashcards, papers, and other supplies and told to study the same material themselves.

The pattern of results was the same when the researchers tested the program on graduate students. But which cognitive-science-inspired component, the researchers wanted to know, had been most successful? They wondered, too, whether students’ learning suffered when they made incorrect guesses to the questions posed in the tutoring program.

In a paper due to be published in a forthcoming special issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the researchers say the answer to the second question is no. Students who guessed incorrectly as part of the tutoring program performed on par with those who got the answers right the first time. The key was to provide corrective feedback. In fact, among all the program’s experimentally driven components, feedback turned out to be most important for learning.

“To err may be human,” writes Ms. Metcalfe, a professor of psychology and neurobiology and behavior, “but giving corrective feedback is divine.”

John T. Bruer, the president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, a leading private funder of cognitive-science research, said the interest in practical uses for memory research marks a shift from the period stretching from the 1970s to the 1990s, when researchers in the field looked to artificial intelligence for learning applications.

“Now, I think there’s a perception—and I don’t necessarily agree—that that thread of cognitive-science research has run out,” he said. “Research on human memory is a good place to look for new tools and ideas.”

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Section Start-Up: This week marks the debut of Eye on Research, a weekly section focused on education-related scholarship. The section is supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as Cognition Studies Offer Insights on Academic Tactics


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