The Research Is In

2017 Education Research Highlights

Twelve studies that educators should know about, on everything from the benefits of mentors to the most effective studying strategies.
December 14, 2017
Hands on a computer keyboard seen from above, overlaid with maps and lines from a graph
©Shutterstock.com/TZIDO SUN

Every year, we hope, researchers gain new insights into what works in the classroom—and what doesn’t. In 2017, a group of scientists made the case for why social and emotional learning is essential in schools. We learned that negative stereotypes can discourage students of color from going to college, and that a reflective writing exercise can help. We also learned that it’s OK for second graders to use their fingers to count, and that text messages sent to parents boost family engagement and student attendance.

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Practice Testing, Planning Top List of Effective Studying Strategies

Students often overestimate how prepared they are for a test, which can lead to disaster. New research pinpoints two highly effective strategies. In a major review—encompassing 118 previous studies—taking low-stakes practice tests was identified as one of the most effective ways to make concepts stick. (In addition to practice tests, we’ve discussed several other strategies to boost student memory.) And a recent study highlighted the benefits of asking students to plan out the steps they’ll need to take to pass an upcoming test. This encouraged them to study effectively, resulting in higher grades for the whole course—one-third of a letter grade higher, on average, than their peers.

New Teachers—and Their Students—Benefit From Mentors

We know that mentors provide new teachers with much-needed support and guidance in their crucial first years, but there’s a strong pass-through effect as well: Students of mentored teachers gained the equivalent of 3 to 3.5 months of additional learning in reading and math over the course of a year, a new study found. (We’ve looked at the elements that made the program successful.)

Clickers Boost Fact Retention, but Can Impede Deeper Learning

Clickers—popular handheld devices often used to quickly display multiple-choice questions via a projector—can give teachers real-time feedback on how well students understand a lesson. But don’t rely on them too much: A new study found that while clickers can aid students in remembering facts, they may lead students to focus too heavily on those facts, hindering deeper levels of understanding. (We explored the pros and cons of clickers earlier this year.)

Don’t Drop Finger Counting for Young Children Too Soon

Children are usually discouraged from using their fingers to count by the end of first grade—they’re learning to do math in their heads, and finger counting is seen as a crutch. But a new study of 6- and 7-year-olds shows that this may be a mistake—finger counting, when paired with number games, can boost math learning for second graders. (Using our fingers activates areas of our brain associated with counting.)

The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

This year, we saw two comprehensive reports making the case for social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. The researchers behind one of the most widely cited SEL studies released a follow-up looking at over 97,000 K–12 students. They found that the benefits of SEL persist for several years—boosting academic success, decreasing disruptive behavior, and reducing emotional distress in the long term. In a separate report, a council of 28 scientists called on schools to focus on SEL, making the argument that student success is tied not only to academic ability and cognitive skills (such as working memory and self-regulation) but also to emotional skills (such as the ability to cope with frustration) and interpersonal skills (including empathy and the ability to resolve conflict).

Reflective Writing Exercises Can Improve Student Outcomes

When students write about their personal values, it can help them feel more positive about themselves and their futures, promoting a growth mindset and creating a protective buffer against many harmful experiences. In one study, a reflective writing assignment helped students of color deal with racism and negative stereotypes, leading to higher academic achievement and boosting college enrollment rates years later. In another study, a similar writing exercise helped math students focus on long-term goals instead of immediate pressures, reducing math stress and improving their attitudes toward math. (We explored why this works earlier this year.)

Text Messaging Can Boost Grades and Attendance

Another strategy to file in the “cheap and effective” category: A study published this year found that weekly automated text messages sent to parents about their child’s grades, absences, and missing assignments encouraged them to be more involved in their child’s learning, improving attendance by 17 percent and reducing the number of students failing a class by 39 percent.

The Debate on Academics vs. Play in Preschool Continues

A major analysis—spanning 22 previous studies—provides support for the idea that all children should have access to preschool. Children under 5 who participated in classroom-based early childhood education programs were less likely to be placed in special education, less likely to be held back a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school, compared to peers who were not in such programs. And while we know that young children need a healthy dose of playtime in school, a new study reminds us why academics are important at that age: Over the course of a year, preschoolers who spent more time on language, literacy, and math activities than their peers gained, on average, 2.5 months of additional learning. The key takeaway? Keep academics and play well-balanced.