The science of learning

A new resource from Deans for Impact aims to give guidance to anyone working in education who is interested in understanding the science of how learning takes place and what that means for how we teach. The intention is that the publication will evolve over time, and as well as being periodically revised by the authors, they also hope that teachers and others will provide additional evidence that they can include.

This first version summarises existing research from cognitive science around six key questions:
  1. How do pupils understand new ideas?
  2. How do pupils learn and retain new information?
  3. How do pupils solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations?
  5. What motivates pupils to learn?
  6. What are some common misconceptions about how pupils think and learn?

The findings for each question are then divided into “cognitive principles” and “practical implications for the classroom.” In both cases, the original research is clearly referenced for anyone wishing to find out more.

Source: The Science of Learning (2015), Deans for Impact.

Teacher/parent communication an effective tool to help pupils succeed

A recent study published in the Economics of Education Review shows that struggling pupils did better in school when their teachers communicated with their parents regularly, and suggested specific actions pupils could do to improve their grades.

Researchers studied the effects of teacher/parent communication on the academic achievement of 435 struggling US high school pupils enrolled in a summer school to recover lost credits in English, history, maths, or science two hours a day during a five-week programme. Pupils were mostly Hispanic and African-American, and all were from low-income backgrounds. All pupils had to have been absent less than 30 days and to have received an “F+” in up to two courses. Pupils’ parents were randomly divided into three groups: the first group received a short weekly message from the teacher by phone, text, or email about what their child was doing well (positive); the second received a weekly teacher’s message about areas where their child needed improvement (improvement); and the third received no teacher message at all (control).

At the end of the term, pupils whose parents had received messages from their teachers were 41% more likely to pass their classes than the control group who received no messages. Researchers noted that this was due to larger dropout rates in the control group. In addition, pupils whose parents received messages about areas for improvement passed their classes at a higher score than the group who received messages about pupils doing well. A participant survey at the end of the study showed that the parent–pupil teams in the “improvement” and “positive” groups communicated about schoolwork with the same frequency, but the conversational content differed in that the improvement-group teams discussed areas where the pupils needed to do better, something the positive teams were less likely to do and a factor the researchers cite as a possible reason for the improvement pupils’ higher scores.

The study was performed as part of a series of low-cost school-improvement strategies.

Source: The Underutilized Potential of Teacher-to-Parent Communication: Evidence from a Field Experiment (2015), Economics of Education Review, 47.

It’s hard work to motivate students

The results of an experiment to use incentives to increase student effort have shown little evidence of a significant positive impact.

The trial was carried out in 63 relatively deprived schools in England in the first two terms of the 2012/13 academic year. The 7,730 Year 11 students who took part were allocated to one of three groups:

  • In the control group schools (n=33), students received no incentives for student effort, but student effort was monitored in the same way as in the two treatment groups.
  • Students at schools in one treatment group (n=15) received financial rewards twice a term (every eight weeks) depending on their effort.
  • Students at schools in the other treatment group (n=15) were able to attend an event at the end of each term (at Christmas and Easter) if their effort met a certain threshold.

The trial aimed to test loss aversion (the idea that individuals dislike losses more than they like gains of the same value), so, for example, the students were told they had £80 in incentives, but money was deducted if they did not reach the threshold in four measures of effort: attendance, behaviour, classwork, and homework.

The results showed no significant improvement in attainment, for either type of incentive, in maths and English standardised tests. For students with a lower level of prior attainment, there was a small but significant improvement in maths scores (effect size +0.13). For the financial incentive there was a positive and statistically significant increase in classwork for English, maths, and science, and a similar (but not significant) improvement with the event incentive. There was no improvement in any of the other measures of effort.

The report is one of seven studies recently published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Source: Increasing Pupil Motivation (2014), Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).