A new report by Ulrich Boser and The Learning Agency investigates what K–12 educators know—or mistakenly believe—about effective learning strategies and where they obtain information about learning research.
Boser created a scenario-based survey in which respondents chose whether one approach to teaching or studying is more, less, or equally effective than another approach. Both direct and scenario-style questions focused on empirically supported learning strategies: elaboration, retrieval practice, metacognition, spaced practice, interleaving, and dual coding. Questions asked about several learning neuro-myths—including, for example, the idea that students are either right- or left-brained and have different “learning styles” (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic) and teachers should tailor instruction accordingly, and that intelligence can’t be altered through education. Boser also included questions regarding where educators learn about new teaching approaches.
The survey was distributed to an online panel of 515 educators, and 203 responses were used for the results, comprising 159 teachers, 37 support staff, and 7 administrators. The sample was broadly representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the teaching workforce in the U.S., and the common income categories reported by participants were comparable to the average teaching salary. The sample does, however, overrepresent male teachers, as 51 percent of respondents identified as male, while about 23 percent of U.S. teachers are male.
Boser found that, on average, respondents performed only somewhat better than chance when answering questions related to views on effective teaching strategies and learning myths. Out of seventeen questions total, they identified 8.34 of the beliefs correctly on average, while random chance would yield an average response rate of 6.63. An overwhelming majority weren’t able to identify interleaving (mixing up problem types or kinds of examples) and integrating text and visuals together as particularly effective strategies. Only 31 percent correctly endorsed retrieval practice (actively trying to recall information one wants to remember) over re-reading when directly asked which would be better for learning—though 59 percent answered correctly when given the classroom scenario version of the question. Encouragingly, about 60 percent of educators could correctly identify the effectiveness of elaboration (meaningfully linking new information in the mind to other information), spaced practice (spacing out practice in time to promote long-term retention), and metacognition (reflecting on one’s own understandings and problem-solving strategies).
Most strikingly, 97 percent of respondents thought that students can be categorized into one of several learning styles, and 77 percent thought that students are either right-brained or left-brained, even though both notions have been definitively debunked by research. As for where teachers learn about new education research and evidence, 67 percent of respondents cited conferences and workshops among their top three sources, 59 percent cited professional development, and 53 percent cited peers.
One potential limitation that Boser doesn’t address is that the study doesn’t take into account the geographic regions of the respondents. These educators predominantly rely on conferences, workshops, professional development events, and their peers for their information on teaching and learning—all of which are based on locale. It is important to know whether most of the respondents, for example, work in different states across the country or come from the same handful of school districts. If the latter holds, the findings may not be nationally representative of the educator workforce and could under- or overestimate how much K–12 educators in the U.S. actually know about the science of learning.
Nonetheless, this study is the first to examine K–12 teacher knowledge of research-supported learning strategies. The key takeaway for everyone involved in teacher training, instruction, and development is straightforward: Provide accurate information on the science of learning principles to combat these widely accepted myths and misunderstandings about teaching and learning. Insofar as educators then use this knowledge to inform their own instruction, teacher effectiveness will improve as a whole.
SOURCE: Ulrich Boser, “What Do Teachers Know About The Science of Learning?” The Learning Agency (September 2019).