2019 Education Research Highlights
Does doodling boost learning? Do attendance awards work? Do boys and girls process math the same way? Here’s a look at the big questions that researchers tackled this year.
Every year brings new insights—and cautionary tales—about what works in education. 2019 is no different, as we learned that doodling may do more harm than good when it comes to remembering information. Attendance awards don’t work and can actually increase absences. And while we’ve known that school discipline tends to disproportionately harm students of color, a new study reveals a key reason why: Compared with their peers, black students tend to receive fewer warnings for misbehavior before being punished.
To Remember Something, Draw It (but Be Careful With Doodling)
A 2019 study found that students remember less of what they’re learning if they’re doodling at the same time. But the study also addresses a big misconception: Doodling is not the same as drawing. Earlier research concludes that drawing easily beats reading, writing, or listening when it comes to learning and retention.
So what’s the difference? Free-form doodling is often a distraction from what's being learned. At least six decades of studies show that divided attention impairs learning. But drawing that reinforces what’s being studied—for example, sketching out and labeling the solar system—taps into visual, kinesthetic, and linguistic areas of the brain at the same time, encoding the information more deeply.
Awards Don’t Boost Attendance—Teachers Do
It’s common to see awards being handed out to reward students for good attendance, but a 2019 study found that these awards can backfire spectacularly, giving students a “license to miss more school” and actually driving absentee rates up.
Students are more likely to attend school when their teachers notice absences and make efforts to reach out to them and their families, according to a 2017 report from Attendance Works. And a 2019 study found that highly engaging teachers can decrease absences by 49 percent, making it clear that a teacher’s impact extends well beyond test scores and grades.
Math Circuitry Looks the Same in Boys and Girls
Advanced imaging technology like fMRI continues to push at the frontiers of our understanding of the human brain. After analyzing the brain circuitry of 104 children ages 3 to 10 while they watched math problems being solved, neuroscientists discovered that neural activity in areas of the parietal lobe associated with numerical cognition was nearly identical across genders.
The findings tend to confirm that gender differences in math performance are socially constructed, an argument that’s bolstered by past research showing that the gender gap in math is not as pronounced in other cultures—and in some countries, like Finland and Korea, it often reverses to favor girls.
The “Summer Slide” Study Fails to Replicate
While the idea of a “summer slide” is widely accepted and influential, much of what we know about it is based on a 1980s study that concluded that kids who spent their summers playing fell further and further behind those who studied. But a recent attempt to replicate the study failed, and an in-depth analysis revealed that the original testing methods distorted the gap between student scores.
When applying modern scoring methods to the old data, researchers discovered that the hypothetical, ever-expanding gap actually shrank as students got older. Students can still benefit from enriching summer activities, of course, just as they would at any time of the year, but the idea that the gap widens over the summer is almost certainly overblown—and there’s an abundance of evidence that play has significant emotional and cognitive benefits.
Cut the Arts at Your Own Risk, Researchers Warn
As arts programs continue to face the budget ax, a handful of new studies suggest that’s a grave mistake. The arts provide cognitive, academic, behavioral, and social benefits that go far beyond simply learning how to play music or perform scenes in a play.
In a major new study from Rice University involving 10,000 students in third through eighth grades, researchers determined that expanding a school’s arts programs improved writing scores, increased the students’ compassion for others, and reduced disciplinary infractions. The benefits of such programs may be especially pronounced for students who come from low-income families, according to a 10-year study of 30,000 students released in 2019.
Unexpectedly, another recent study found that artistic commitment—think of a budding violinist or passionate young thespian—can boost executive function skills like focus and working memory, linking the arts to a set of overlooked skills that are highly correlated to success in both academics and life.
Studies on Disability Emphasize Early Intervention—and Teacher Training
Failing to identify and support students with learning disabilities early can have dire, long-term consequences. In a comprehensive 2019 analysis, researchers highlighted the need to provide interventions that align with critical phases of early brain development. In one startling example, reading interventions for children with learning disabilities were found to be twice as effective if delivered by the second grade instead of third grade.
But only 17 percent of teachers say they feel adequately trained by their certification programs, according to a new report from leading experts—and in the absence of good information, misconceptions take root. For example, the researchers found that one-third of teachers believe that learning disabilities reflect a lack of motivation, not a difference in brain development. To support students with learning disabilities, then, we also need to tackle the pervasive myths that can stymie their potential.
More Z’s May Yield More A’s
When the Seattle School District delayed high school start times by an hour, students caught an extra 34 minutes of sleep per day, and their grades improved by about 5 percent while absences decreased by 7 percent. The new research highlights the ways in which traditional high school start times—which aren’t aligned to teenagers’ natural circadian rhythms—can cause physical, mental, and cognitive health problems.
While previous studies relied on anecdotal or self-reported evidence to establish a link between sleep, academic performance, and school start times, the new research is the first high-quality, scientific study to quantify the real-world benefits of delaying start times for high school students.
Fewer Warnings for Black Students
Compared with their white peers, black middle school students were given fewer chances to correct their misbehavior before being sent to the principal’s office or being suspended, according to a 2019 study from the University of Illinois.
The finding is the latest in a long line of similarly disturbing conclusions about race and discipline in schools, with most research agreeing that black students are disproportionately suspended or expelled compared with their peers. Last year, for example, a study found that while an astonishing 40 percent of black boys were suspended or expelled by third grade, only 8 percent of boys who were non-Hispanic white or other races were.
Paper Beats Screens, Says a New Study—but Read the Fine Print
Virginia Clinton, an education professor at the University of North Dakota, analyzed 33 studies published since 2008 and found that children and adults tend to remember more of what they’ve read on paper compared with digital devices such as e-readers, tablets, and computers.
But there’s a catch: Many of the inherent advantages of digital devices—such as hyperlinking, commenting, and multimedia—were eliminated to allow for “direct comparisons of the media.” In addition, the actual advantages of paper were “rather small,” the study conceded. The newest digital reading tools can enhance note taking, encourage students to read collaboratively, and incorporate pop quizzes—all of which can clearly tilt the benefits in digital’s favor.
Growth Mindset Falters, Then Recovers
One of the most popular theories in education was put to the test last year when a large meta-analysis found that growth mindset interventions had “weak” benefits—although at-risk students did see bigger gains. But a new national study, this one encompassing more than 12,000 ninth-grade students, gives new life to the theory.
Unlike previous studies, the new one employed a multipronged approach. Students were taught a powerful metaphor: “The brain is like a muscle that grows stronger and smarter when it undergoes rigorous learning experiences.” They also reflected on their own learning and gave advice to future students who were struggling. The result? Students saw modest gains of 0.1 of a grade point and were also 9 percent more likely to take advanced math courses the following year. Students who were academically at-risk saw major gains, however: 11 percent were prevented from being off-track to graduate.