How We Learn

The first of a two part series on the role of cognitive sciences in improving educational instruction.

Within the past few years, there has been a great upsurge of interest and excitement about basic and translational research in instruction and learning. Much of the credit belongs to psychologist Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), in the US Department of Education. Whitehurst previously was chair of the psychology department of SUNY-Stony Brook where he authored more than 100 research papers on language development and reading. Whitehurst’s guest column is at www.psycholgicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1935.

An old classroom

(Bettmann/CORBIS)

From the time Whitehurst assumed leadership of the nation’s federal educational research efforts, he and his program staff began a sustained effort (perhaps struggle would be the more appropriate word) to promote empirical scrutiny of educational practice and to refocus educational research funding on rigorous assessments of what works and what doesn’t.

The CASL Program
One of Whitehurst’s initiatives — modest in dollars but important to psychological science — has been a program of translational research known as Cognition and Student Learning (CASL). The program funds research that borrows and refines ideas from cognitive science and develops translational applications in the classroom, or embodies the ideas in educational technologies. Additional IES programs promote translational efforts from basic research on reading and mathematical cognition.

This Observer contains first-hand research reports by four groups of APS Fellows supported by CASL. A common theme is the application of what might be termed a “micro-level” analysis of learning and memory processes, seeking to determine what instructional choices can speed up learning and reduce forgetting with realistic materials and time-scales. In the May issue of the Observer, two more CASL-funded groups will report on ideas emerging from their research on cognitive development. CASL is supporting many other groups doing interesting work, much of it soon to reach the stage of publication; these six offer a sample.

Translational Research: Why Now?
Efforts by Whitehurst and his colleagues to introduce rigorous assessment into education have been controversial, not only among educational practitioners, but also within the educational research community. Many seem to view the search for objective measures of what works as naively “positivistic.” Even in top-ranked educational research journals, studies involving randomized trials — or even just measurements of student learning — have been relatively uncommon, especially in the past few decades. For example, in a reasonably typical issue of Review of Educational Research, one finds articles entitled “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education” and “Spinsters, Bachelors, and Other Gender Transgressors in School Employment, 1850-1990,” but none discussing experiments of any kind.

Anyone reading the four essays in the present set will probably be struck by the commonsense nature of the questions being posed. Do people learn more from one kind of test than from another? Do the false lures used in multiple choice tests get “stuck” in memory? Is it harmful or helpful to guess when you really aren’t sure? Does mixing up the types of questions make learning more effective or less? If spacing of study sessions promotes long-term retention, how much spacing is needed — a day, a week, a month?

It would seem odd that such seemingly obvious and pragmatic questions would never have occurred to anyone prior to the 21st century. In fact, such questions did arise in the earliest days of educational psychology. For example, in his 1927 textbook Educational Psychology, Daniel Starch described crude but sensible efforts to address a number of these very issues. Yet these same questions are scarcely mentioned in recent texts with the same title. Evidently, the early efforts were mostly extinguished by some strange philosophical cross-winds, along with a tendency for education researchers to focus on documenting current educational practices, rather than asking what works best. (It should be noted, however, that some educational psychologists, notably Richard Anderson and Frank Dempster, carried out important experimental work examining instructional strategies during this period.)

Unfortunately, the cognitive revolution in memory psychology did not bring issues with practical implications for instruction to the forefront. Most effort was spent developing models of relatively specialized tasks (e.g., recall of lists) and exploring intriguing laboratory phenomena whose implications for instruction remain as yet rather obscure (e.g., implicit memory). Moreover, memory researchers generally restricted themselves to retention intervals of minutes or hours, rather than days, weeks, or months (Harry Bahrick being a notable exception). Additionally, most independent variables examined within this research tradition seem remote from the actual options facing an instructor or a learner.

Most CASL-funded researchers are posing questions that have answers with more direct implications for instruction. At the same time, however, many of these questions may have broad implications about the nature of memory systems. Thus, it would be a mistake to view the CASL research thrust as promoting applied research in any narrow sense. As Donald Stokes pointed out in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant, the history of science offers many examples of findings that combine scientific depth with direct applicability. It is likely that some of the research sponsored by CASL will achieve this fortunate combination.

Forgetting vs. Initial Learning
One theme that unites the authors of the four essays in this issue is a suspicion that educational failure often reflects forgetting, rather than absence of initial learning. While there is important work to be done on applying cognitive science to helping children acquire difficult-to-master skills, we suspect that many embarrassing educational failures — such as the inability of most Harvard graduates to explain why it is colder in winter than summer, or the fact that almost one-third of American youth cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map — reflect failures to retain. The information was once grasped, but later forgotten. Progress in finding out what mitigates forgetting should be helpful not only in school, but in job training as well.

While Whitehurst’s leadership has already brought about an overdue redirection of federal dollars into research employing sound experimental designs, basic and translational research efforts sponsored by IES consume just a tiny sliver of total US educational expenditures. The share is much less than the proportion spent on basic research in areas such as medicine and engineering. It is all well and good to compare fully worked out instructional packages — most of IES’s research dollars are devoted to this sort of focused applied research — but a substantial basic research pipeline is essential if future curricular options are to be better than the best available today.

Those of us who are committed to the goals of the CASL program hope that APS Members will seek to build support for IES’s basic research, not just by urging Congress to expand its funding for IES — not a bad idea — but also by seizing the moment and demonstrating that cognitive science can produce tangible insights to help ground instructional choices upon an empirical foundation. Many fascinating, fundamental, and highly practical questions remain to be answered.

Observer Vol.19, No.3 March, 2006

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