The Research Is In

2018 Education Research Highlights

Researchers studied students’ brains as they learned and took another look at the marshmallow test, learning styles, and growth mindset.

December 7, 2018
©Ikon Images/Stuart Kinlough

Education research continues to remind us of the powerful impact teachers have on children. This impact is overwhelmingly positive—the studies we highlight here demonstrate specific ways in which teachers can or already do help students feel a sense of belonging in school and make gains in learning.

There are areas for improvement, though: Researchers have shown that different rates of suspensions and expulsions for black and white boys have more to do with adult perceptions of those kids than with their behaviors. 

New research also refined our understanding of many popular ideas, from learning styles to growth mindsets and the marshmallow test.

But if there’s a common thread among most of these studies, it’s this: To boost student learning, focusing on academics isn’t enough. We should also think about how well students—and teachers—are supported.

Simple Yet Effective Ideas

Small changes in the classroom can yield surprising benefits. A study this year found that greeting students at the classroom door had both psychological and academic benefits: Engagement increased by 20 percentage points while disruptive behavior decreased by 9 percentage points—effectively adding an extra hour of learning to the school day.

Another study found that heavily decorated walls can overwhelm students, impairing their attention and memory. A mix of learning aids, inspiring posters, and student work can make classrooms feel lively and warm.

Peeking Into the Brain of a Student

We have made significant breakthroughs in understanding the science of learning, largely through technologies that give a real-time look at what happens in a child’s brain as they learn.

For example, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate that children who have the strongest reading skills also have more interactivity between different regions of the brain, suggesting that reading is a whole-brain activity and that growth in reading skill may benefit from a multisensory approach like reading aloud or being read to while looking at the words on the page.

Confirming that point, a separate group of researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studied brain networks involved in processing narratives in preschool-age children as adults read them illustrated stories and stories with no pictures, and as they watched animated videos of stories. Brain networks connected with language, visual imagery, and learning were more engaged when adults read the children illustrated stories; stories without pictures were too challenging, and the animated videos were overwhelming. Score one for picture books.

Popular Ideas, Revisited

New studies this year called into question earlier findings in three major areas of research: learning styles, growth mindset, and Mischel’s experiments on self-control (better known as the marshmallow test).

In what may be the last nail in the coffin for learning styles, researchers found no benefit to matching a student’s perceived learning style—such as visual or linguistic—to the ways a concept can be learned. Instead, teachers should focus on tried-and-true strategies such as combining text with pictures, which is superior to presenting either one alone.

A large-scale meta-analysis spanning more than 150 studies questioned Carol Dweck’s idea that a student’s beliefs about intelligence—a fixed or growth mindset—could shape their academic success. The meta-analysis found that growth mindset interventions have “weak” effects on student achievement, although low-income and academically at-risk students did show improvements, meaning that a growth mindset may end up helping those who need it most.

For decades, Walter Mischel’s experiments on self-control, in which a young child’s ability to resist a marshmallow predicted their success as an adult, helped us understand the importance of noncognitive skills. But a new study found a major flaw in the original experiment: The majority of participating children came from wealthy families, and they were more likely to resist the marshmallow not because of self-control but because they were used to living in a home where the pantry was stocked with marshmallows. The good news here is that teachers can help all students develop self-control and other important executive function skills because the benefits aren’t locked in by the age of 5.

Disparities in Discipline for Black Boys

Researchers this year found that 40 percent of black boys born between 1998 and 2000 who attended schools in large U.S. cities had been suspended or expelled by age 9 (third grade), compared with 8 percent of boys who were non-Hispanic white or other races. The disparity had less to do with student behavior than with differences in school discipline policies and how teachers interpret misbehavior—leading to very different outcomes for the same behaviors.

Researchers this year found that this is partly due to implicit bias: Misbehavior is often perceived as more hostile when committed by black boys than when it’s committed by white boys. We shared some ideas earlier this year for countering implicit bias.

How Mistakes Help Students Learn

Trying to guess an answer—and getting feedback on how close the answer is—leads to higher recall rates than simply trying to memorize information, a new study found. When trying to memorize lists of words, participants in the study remembered slightly more than half the words. But if they used a trial-and-error approach and guessed what the words were and then got feedback on their guess, they recalled about eight in 10 words.

Earlier this year, we discussed this study in the context of encouraging students to engage in productive struggle, which boosts their understanding of course content.

Insights Into Teacher Well-Being

Decades of low pay and overcrowded classrooms have affected teacher health and job satisfaction: A new study found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers experience high levels of stress. Beyond long hours and heavy workload, teachers report feeling “emotional exhaustion,” driven by a combination of trying to manage the emotional needs of their students and feeling pressure to increase student outcomes without having the resources to do so.

Teachers in several states went on strike this year, mobilizing to improve working conditions. And data from several new reports helped explain why: Over the last 20 years, teacher salaries have decreased by 2.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) while the salaries of other college graduates have increased by 10.2 percent—leading to a record wage gap. Yet despite the lower wages, the average teacher spent $479 of their own cash on classroom supplies. And while slightly less than half of teachers are satisfied with their salary, one in five still feels the need to take on a second job, supplementing their income by an average of $5,100.

The Importance of Focusing on Behavior

A student’s behavior is a much stronger predictor of future success than test scores are, according to a large-scale study encompassing 574,000 ninth graders. Teachers who helped students improve their behavior (measured by things like attendance and suspensions) were 10 times as effective at improving their students’ graduation rates and grade point averages as teachers who focused on test scores.

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