The place to begin is simply to go back to basics and ask: “How do my students learn?” How you answer this question provides the basis that ensures student success.
Personalized learning, social-emotional learning, state test performances. These very important concepts and consequences are front and center for today’s educators. Because we are invested teachers, we read blogs, attend professional development sessions, participate in webinars, listen to podcasts and educate ourselves in many different ways. So it’s surprising that when learning about these topics, many educators have not turned to the learning sciences to find out what works and why. Many continue to base their teaching on debunked strategies and techniques. Unfortunately, when teachers are unfamiliar with the learning sciences, students suffer the consequences.
In my 25 years of teaching, I had far too many students who had already internalized failure and given up, some as young as 11. Yet after teaching these very students how to learn, I saw them eager to showcase their critical thinking and understanding. They were able to turn internalized failure into internalized success. I don’t have a magic wand. I do stay current with research that supports improved student outcomes, including findings from the learning sciences, as referenced in the ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standard 1, Empowered Learner).
Starting with research
Let me share some of my journey that led me to write this blog post. Over 15 years ago, I had a serendipitous meeting with Dr. Mark McDaniel and Dr. Henry Roediger III, professors at Washington University in St. Louis and the authors of Make it Stick. What followed was a research grant that allowed my classroom to become one of the first in the nation where a rigorous and robust study looked at how students learn in an authentic setting.
This research turned into a multiyear, multigrade study that included over 1,500 students. I began working with Dr. Pooja Agarwal, a cognitive scientist and founder of Retrieval Practice.org. I co-authored a practice guide for the Institute of Education Sciences and, more recently, the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. I began to create teaching strategies based on research. I discovered how and why my students learn. I taught my students how to learn. And, most importantly, I began to see students internalize success.
A simple question from Agarwal was a game-changer for me. “When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. But what if instead we focus on getting information out of students’ heads?” This question, along with the research occurring in my classroom, led me to look at some powerful principles. Allow me to focus on two:
Feedback-driven metacognition. This is when feedback provides students the opportunity to differentiate between what they have learned and identify what they don’t know. Prior to learning about feedback-driven metacognition, students would tend to study what they already knew; it was comfortable, they felt success. Yet, despite studying, they often failed because only a portion of the material had been covered. This is related to the next principle – retrieval practice.
Retrieval practice. This is simply the practice of remembering information we’ve learned before. It boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students heads. Retrieval should be a low- or no-stakes opportunity for students to identify what they learn and areas they need to work on. Providing students this no-stakes assessment data allows for their self-direction for study (ISTE Student Standard 3, Knowledge Constructor). Combined with feedback on accuracy and areas of growth, students are empowered with the knowledge of what they know and don’t know.
Now tell me, do we not set our students up for failure if the first time they retrieve information is during a high-stakes test?
Learning sciences in the classroom
One of the strategies I developed incorporating these two powerful principles is the mini-quiz, which is something you may already be using. Here's how I do it: As each class begins, I give students a 2”x 3” piece of recycled paper. I make questions out of whatever was discussed in the previous class, randomly choose five, and students write down answers and turn them in. Then we discuss the responses as a class. Sounds low key? It is low key and powerful.
In only a few minutes, students are able to retrieve an answer, determine if their answers were correct and practice their metacognitive skills. As a teacher, conducting a 15-minute analysis of the day’s mini-quizzes after school helps me determine areas that may require additional focus the following day. Students get their papers back the next class, so they can practice retrieval and hone their metacognitive skills, and we move on to the day’s work.
This example is of one of many strategies I and other educators have developed. Blake Harvard has developed his own strategy to help his students practice retrieval and their metacognitive skills. The key is to provide students with opportunities to retrieve information and have feedback that differentiates correct from incorrect answers. These kind of activities foster learning at multiple levels. It lets students not only master facts but also encourages critical thinking.
Teaching students how to learn fosters a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes (ISTE Student Standard 1, Empowered Learner). I have seen first-hand how student self-perception changes from “I’m not smart” to “I haven’t learned that yet.” When students are taught how to learn — how to study — are they not involved in personalized learning? When students internalize success rather than failure, couldn’t social-emotional factors and state test scores be affected?
Learning sciences can tell us how to impact student learning — we just need to embrace the learning sciences. The evidence is here. Research is at our fingertips. Let us, collectively, build the community that transforms education.
Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S., is a veteran K–12 educator and author. As a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year and a Fulbright Scholar in Europe, she has been featured in webinars and popular press, including NOVA and Scientific American. Patrice co-authored Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. She also co-authored an essential practice guide for educators, Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, in collaboration with the Institute of Education Sciences. Bain conducts workshops nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @patricebain1 and learn more at patricebain.com. This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), Learning sciences specialist at ISTE.
This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and share your story @courseofmind.