Educational Research Digests

Click on the links below to access some good quality educational research – I’ll keep the page regularly updated with new stuff. Key points from each paper are contained in the bullets.

Happy reading –


*NEW* Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning?, by Lindsey Richland and Nate Cornell (2009)
  • The function of a failed retrieval attempt may be to weaken or suppress errors, rather than to strengthen them.
  • Unsuccessful tests can encourage deep processing of the question in a way that reading does not.
  • The nature of the processing learners perform during a pre-learning activity may be more crucial than the amount of processing performed.
  • Tests can be valuable, even if learners cannot answer test questions correctly, as long as the tested material is followed by instruction that provides answers to the tested questions.

*NEW* The Cultural Myths and Realities of Classroom Teaching and Learning, by Graham Nuthall (2005)
  • Students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom […] They care more about their peers’ judgments than they care about the teacher’s opinion.
  • Typically, students already know at least 40% of what the teachers intend them to learn. Consequently, students spend a lot of time on activities involving what they already know.
  • [Test scores] do not necessarily represent what students know or can do, but are determined initially by the students’ interests, motivations, and understanding of the purposes of the test.
  • Our data did show that the more able students started with more background knowledge and ended up learning more than the less able students.
  • Knowing that a student is busily engaged in an activity does not tell you what (or how) the student is learning.
  • The data from our studies show that learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here and-now of classroom activities.

Does Providing Prompts During Retrieval Practice Improve Learning?, by Megan Smith et al. (2016)
  • Practising retrieval, or actively reconstructing knowledge, is a powerful way to promote student learning.
  • The present experiments provide evidence that practising retrieval improves higher-order learning.
  • If too much support is provided, students may be very successful but may not actively reinstate the prior context, and this scenario could harm the effectiveness of retrieval practice.
  • Retrieval-based learning activities improved both verbatim learning and higher-order meaningful learning as measured after a one-week retention interval.

Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition, by Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien (2018)
  • Watching others is enjoyable and convenient, but people typically cannot master new skills from sight alone.
  • When people repeatedly watch others perform before ever attempting the skill themselves, they may overestimate the degree to which they can perform the skill.
  • The more people watch others perform (without corresponding practice), the more they think they can perform the skill, too.
  • While observation is commonly praised as beneficial for learning, our findings suggest that these benefits must be weighed against the possible costs of overestimating one’s abilities.

When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, by Stav Atir et al. (2015)
  • Research on overconfidence finds that people commonly judge the accuracy of their judgments too favorably.
  • A feeling of knowing is often only weakly predictive of actual knowledge and appears to be informed, at least in part, by top-down inferences about what should be or probably is known.
  • The seemingly straightforward task of judging one’s knowledge may not be so simple, particularly for individuals who believe they have a relatively high level of knowledge to begin with.
  • The more individuals believe they know about a domain, the more likely they are to claim knowledge in that domain that they cannot possibly possess (known as overclaiming).

Effective Schools: Teacher Hiring, Assignment, Development, and Retention, by Susanna Loeb et al. (2012)
  • Quality teachers are one of the most important school-related factors found to facilitate student learning and likely explain at least some of the difference in effectiveness across schools.
  • The processes by which teachers are allocated to students within schools may vary considerably across schools and in particular may happen more equitably in more effective schools.
  • Novice teachers systematically teach students with lower entering test scores than their more senior colleagues.
  • The odds that a teacher who is in the top quartile of effectiveness will leave in a given year is 30–40 percent lower in top quartile schools.
  • More effective schools are able to attract and hire more effective teachers from other schools when vacancies arise.

Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up, by Mary Rowe (2008)
  • When teachers ask questions of students, they typically wait 1 second or less for the students to start a reply […] it is difficult for many people to get average wait times of up to three seconds.
  • Independent judges rated the quality of student responses higher under the 3-second treatment than under the control format of 1 second.
  • ‘I don’t know’ or no responses are often as high as 30% in classrooms with mean wait times 1 and 2 of 1 second, which is the most common pace.
  • It appears that fast-paced teacher questioning is a device for maintaining control of behaviour. In fact, it not only inhibits the kind of thinking teachers seek to encourage.
  • As teachers succeed in increasing their average wait times to 3 seconds or more, they become more adept at using student responses.
  • Under the longer wait time schedule, some previously ‘invisible’ people become visible […] This effect was particularly pronounced where minority students were concerned.
  • In their eagerness to elicit responses from students, teachers often develop verbal patterns that make the achievement of [relatively high wait time] unnecessarily difficult.

Building a More Complete Understanding of Teacher Evaluation Using Classroom Observations, by Julie Cohen and Dan Goldhaber (2016)
  • Responsive teaching would likely vary depending on a teacher’s students, and this variance is at odds with the standardisation of quality practice underlying observational instruments.
  • Student characteristics may be associated with observational ratings, and teachers with students with higher prior achievement receive higher observation ratings.
  • A single observation is unlikely to reflect a teacher’s broader repertoire of practices, and multiple observations sampled across time and content would likely better assess instructional quality.
  • Raters struggle to keep multiple dimensions of quality in mind during observations and that content-specific aspects of instruction are cognitively demanding and subject to rater biases.

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (2014)
  • Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning.
  • Participants [in tests on multiple college campuses] using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning.
  • Participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.
  • Laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even – or perhaps especially – when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking.
  • Laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.

Studies in Educational Evaluation, by Bob Uttl et al. (2016)
  • Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) ratings are used to evaluate faculty’s teaching effectiveness based on an assumption that students learn more from highly rated professors.
  • Any substantive correlations between SET and learning are likely to be a fluke or an artifact rather than due to students’ ability to accurately assess instructor teaching effectiveness.
  • The individual differences in knowledge and intelligence are likely to influence how much students learn in the same course taught by the same professor.
  • Individual differences in students’ prior interest in a course are likely to influence how engaged they are, how hard they work and how much they learn.
  • There is presently no evidence supporting the widespread belief that students learn more from professors who receive higher SET ratings.
  • The latest large sample studies show that students who were taught by highly rated professors in prerequisites perform more poorly in follow up courses.

Classroom Composition and Measured Teacher Performance: What Do Teacher Observation Scores Really Measure?, by Matthew Steinberg and Rachel Garrett (2016)
  • There is a tendency in American schools to assign novice, less-effective teachers to more disadvantaged students.
  • Observation-based measures of a teacher’s performance tend to be weakly correlated over time.
  • A teacher’s classroom practice may be influenced by classroom composition (i.e. the assigned students and classes).
  • Teacher performance, based on classroom observation, is significantly influenced by the context in which teachers work.
  • Observation scores as measures of teacher effectiveness present validity concerns.
  • Caution should be taken when making high-stakes decisions based largely on observation scores.

Why Public Schools Lose Teachers, by Eric A. Hanushek et al. (2001)
  • American schools serving academically disadvantaged students tend to have difficulty in retaining teachers, particularly those early in their career.
  • Higher salaries appear to reduce the probability that teachers will leave a district that serves very disadvantaged students.
  • Those who choose to switch schools within urban districts appear to seek out schools with fewer academically and economically disadvantaged students.
  • The lowest achieving students are more likely to have teachers new to the school and to the profession.
  • Student achievement appears to be an important determinant of the probability of exiting schools.

Folk Knowledge and Academic Learning, by David C. Geary (2012)
  • Children are innately curious about and motivated to engage actively in and explore social relationships and the biological and physical world.
  • Children’s inherent motivational dispositions and activity preferences are likely to be at odds with the need to engage in […] procedures that promote academic learning.
  • Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of schoolchildren indicate that most children value achievement in sports more than achievement in any academic area.
  • Teachers must organise and guide academic learning because it cannot be assumed that children’s ‘natural curiosity’ will result in an interest in all academic domains.
  • Much of the learning associated with primary domains occurs automatically and effortlessly.
  • Academic learning and is effortful because it requires sustained attentional control and working memory resources.

Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology, by John Dunlosky et al. (2013)
  • Some evidence suggests that the benefits of elaborative interrogation may be limited for learners with low levels of domain knowledge.
  • Self-explanation effects have been shown across an impressive age range, although more work is needed to explore the extent to which this is dependent on learners’ knowledge or ability level.
  • Summarisation can be an effective strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarising; however, many will require extensive training.
  • In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance.
  • Keyword mnemonic is not highly efficient (in terms of time needed for training and keyword generation), and may not produce durable learning.
  • Imagery can improve students’ learning of text materials, but the benefits of imagery are largely constrained to imagery-friendly materials and to tests of memory.
  • Rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands and training requirements, but it is also typically much less effective when compared with some other learning techniques.
  • Practice testing is highly beneficial and effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of variables, which means that it also has broad applicability.
  • Distributed practice is highly effective across students of different ages, with a wide variety of materials, on the majority of standard laboratory measures, and over long delays.
  • Interleaved practice has been shown to have relatively dramatic effects on students’ learning and retention of mathematical skills; teachers should consider adopting it in appropriate contexts.