Technology Integration

Join Our National Lab Day Experiment

What makes learning stick? Participate in our little experiment!

May 11, 2010

The results are in! You, our intrepid educator-scientists in the field, did a great job. An impressive 988 students around the country (and perhaps beyond, we can't say for sure) participated. Drum roll...

All told, fully 71 percent of students remembered more "Rate" words than "Count" words. Twenty-one percent remembered more "Count" words, and 7 percent remembered equal numbers of each (the total isn't exactly 100 percent due to rounding). That's right in line with what we expected to see. Which just goes to show that (1) our intuition that we learn better when we think more deeply is right, and (2) well, we human beings are more predictable than we might like to think.

We're thrilled that so many of you had good discussions with your students about this. Now for a scientific explanation from, yes, a real-live scientist. Here's how Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, who generously consulted with us on this experiment, explains the results:

This study demonstrates what’s often referred to as the "depth of processing" effect. When students were asked to rate the words in terms of pleasantness, they had to consider the meaning of the word (semantic content) to make that judgment. This is deep processing of the words. When they instead were asked to count syllables, they did not need to think about the meaning of the word, but rather arbitrary features of the word. We call this shallow processing. The general finding, replicated literally hundreds if not thousands of times in scientific studies and again in the Edutopia sample, is that people better remember content that they have processed deeply. Teachers can use knowledge of “depth of processing” to their advantage when teaching. The more deeply students engage with material and truly think about what they are learning, the more likely they are to remember that information over the long term.

Olson adds that, although people often guess that the effect happens because of the words that happened to be on the "Rate" or "Count" lists, you can test this by having another class, or next year's class, do the experiment with the lists reversed (in fact, one of our respondents, Rob Marsh, did this on his own this time around -- clever thinking!). Olson predicts: "You'll get the same thing, for sure!"

We hope this experiment was fun and informative for you and your students. It definitely was for us. Please share your thoughts in the comments below. If you like, you can learn even more about the "depth of processing" effect on Wikipedia. Now go out there and make 'em process deeply!


May 12th is National Lab Day. Jump into the campaign for hands-on learning with a five-minute experiment (no test tubes needed!) that illuminates how your students learn.

As teachers, we can sense intuitively that students remember information better when they’ve analyzed it, given it meaning, and made it their own. But you know just how much different it makes? This quick and easy experiment offers a little demonstration.

We’ll run the numbers from you and other Edutopia community members across the country, then spotlight the results (which you might choose to show off to the multiple-choice-test fanatics in your world). We have a hunch about the outcome -- a hypothesis, you might say -- but we’ll let the science speak for itself.


On your marks, get set, GO!

(And don't forget to report back to this page by Wednesday, May 19, 2010.)


Click here for a printable version of the experiment. ( 119K)


Ask your students each to write the numbers 1-30 on a sheet of paper.

Tell them you’ll be reading aloud a list of words, and you’ll ask them either to “rate” or “count” each one. “Rate” means they should decide if the word is pleasant or unpleasant, then write “P” on their paper for pleasant or “U” for unpleasant. “Count” means they should count the number of syllables in the word and write down that number.

Read the following list aloud: “One… rate… storm,” then “Two… count… engine,” etc.

1. rate: Storm
2. count: Engine
3. rate: Sidewalk
4. count: Textbook
5. rate: Monkey
6. count: Robot
7. rate: Bus
8. count: Window
9. rate: Cousin
10. count: Bottle
11. rate: Hammer
12. count: Dancer
13. rate: Breakfast
14. count: Baseball
15. rate: Winter
16. count: Television
17. rate: Fire
18. count: Friend
19. rate: Doctor
20. count: Shoe
21. rate: Spinach
22. count: Bicycle
23. rate: Coast
24. count: Chicken
25. rate: Boss
26. count: Kitten
27. rate: Headphones
28. count: Saxophone
29. rate: Table
30. count: Sweatshirt


For better results, ask students to write down as many U.S. states as they can think of in one minute. We don’t need to see their answers; this just helps to clear their minds.


Ask students to write down as many words from the list as they can remember.


Display the chart below, and ask students to count how many words they remembered from each list.

"Rate" words

"Count" words


Ask for a show of hands of how many students remembered more “rate” words than “count” words, and vice versa. Write down the totals. If you like, discuss. Why do your students think the human brain does this? What does this tell them about how they learn?


Report back! Post your results in the comments section of this page. We need to know:
1) How many students of yours did the experiment?
2) How many of them remembered more “rate” words than “count” words?

Click here for a printable version of the experiment. ( 119K)

Deadline: Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We’ll put all your numbers into one spiffy spreadsheet and publish the answer. What difference does (even a little bit of) critical thinking make? We’re about to see...

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