Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” a crowd-sourced, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. We're publishing each as a stand-alone blog post.
Some of the most compelling literature on what works in K–12 education comes from cognitive science, which describes how the brain takes in, stores, and retrieves information. The research points to four key instructional strategies that can be used across curricula to maximize learning and the retention of knowledge, stimulate knowledge transfer to related topics, and create opportunities for retrieval and application. They include encouraging active recall, scheduling distributed practice (or spacing), mixing topics together during lessons (or interleaving), and providing frequent feedback.
- Select instructional materials, in part, based on how well they take advantage of the findings of cognitive science.
- Make sure all end-of-unit assessments are cumulative and contain content from previous units. Ideally these assessments will be included in the high-quality curriculum the school adopts.
- Provide teachers with ongoing training in the science of learning, such as by having them read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning or participating in The Learning Agency’s online course “Learn Better: The New Science of Learning to Learn.”
- Provide teachers with professional development on spacing, interleaving, and retrieval. (These are explained in greater detail below.)
- Make sure that teacher observation rubrics cue evaluators to look for these instructional practices.
High-impact instructional practices rooted in cognitive science mix content topics and vary student activities. They revisit topics over time and challenge students just enough to accelerate development. And they engage students with aligned assessments and feedback. Here are the key practices and terms:
Encouraging active recall. One of the most exciting discoveries from learning science is that it appears that the greater the cognitive effort required to retrieve something from memory, the stronger the retention of that information. Lessons should be “just right” in terms of cognitive effort and include plenty of opportunities to recall and use new knowledge and skills. The evidence also shows that quizzing students is one of the most potent retrieval practices. As explained in the Institute for Education Sciences Practice Guide Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, “the act of recalling information from memory helps to cement the information to memory and thereby reduces forgetting. By answering the questions on a quiz, the student is practicing the act of recalling specific information from memory.” Research also shows that taking a test is “almost always” more effective than spending more time studying the same material, and that students who are tested frequently rate their classes more favorably.
Scheduling distributing practice (a.k.a., “spacing"). This refers to how teachers time their lessons and assessments. Rather than stacking lessons on the same topic one after the other, delaying re-exposure to material over a period of several weeks and months—whether through homework assignments, in-class reviews, quizzes, or other activities—significantly increases the amount of information students remember.
Mixing topics together during lessons (a.k.a., “interleaving”). This happens when lessons mix content, and activities force students to shift cognitive gears. Such “varied practice” boosts long-term retention, particularly in math. Rather than studying math operations of a certain type in isolation, for example, it is more effective to mix different topics and types of problems.
Providing feedback to students. In Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel write, “Studies show that giving feedback [on wrong answers to test questions] strengthens retention more than testing alone does, and interestingly, some evidence shows that delaying the feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.” The reason, they suggest, is that learners can quickly become dependent on being corrected.
How to apply these findings to the classroom? We find practitioner-friendly guidance from education psychology professor Barak Rosenshine, whose influential Principles of Instruction report formed the basis of the non-exhaustive list below, which first appeared in AFT’s American Educator magazine:
- Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning
- Present new material in small steps, with student practice after each step
- Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students
- Provide models
- Guide student practice
- Check for student understanding
- Obtain a rate of high success
- Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks
- Require and monitor independent practice
- Engage students in weekly and monthly review
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- The book is a “must read” for anyone interested in the science of learning.
Willingham, Daniel T. (2010). Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Wiley.
- Another comprehensive look at the science of learning, and how to apply it in the classroom.
Carpenter, S.K., Pashler, H., Wixted, J.T., and Vul, E. (2008). The effects of tests on learning and forgetting. Memory & Cognition, 36, 438-448.
- Findings confirm that testing enhanced overall recall more than restudying did.
Cepeda, N.J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J.T., and Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.
- Contains a review and quantitative synthesis of hundreds of experiments on the effects of massed versus distributed practice.
McDaniel, M.A., and Fisher, R.P. (1991). Tests and test feedback as learning sources. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 16(2), 192-201.
- Tested facts (for which feedback was provided) are better recalled on a final criterion test than untested facts, showing the beneficial effects of testing.
Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., and Metcalfe, J. (2007) “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning (NCER 2007-2004).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., and Walsh, K. (2016). “Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know.” Published by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Rohrer, D., and Taylor, K. (2006). The effects of overlearning and distributed practice on the retention of mathematics knowledge. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 1209-1224.