Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning PDF

Author: Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain

Publisher: Jossey-Bass


Publish Date: June 5, 2019

ISBN-10: 111952184X

Pages: 352

File Type: PDF, Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Do you remember your first day teaching, with students eagerly (or not eagerly) awaiting your instruction? Perhaps you felt terrified. Elated. Cautious. Ready. Not ready. Almost ready?

In the days leading up to that first day, you may wonder, “What am I going to say? What am I going to teach? What are they going to think of me? What should I do when my lesson plans tank?”

But how often do you ask, “How am I going to teach?”


Let’s travel back in time to 2006. Patrice was starting her twelfth year teaching and Pooja had just graduated from college with a degree in elementary education. A veteran teacher and a newly minted teacher. Strikingly, the critical question on their minds was identical: What works best in education?

By this point, Patrice had noticed that her students were remembering what they learned years after her class – much more than what they remembered from other classes. Patrice also noticed that most teaching strategies were based on anecdotes, passed down from teacher to teacher. Year after year, teachers would come and go, but ineffective teaching methods would stay. How could there be such a disconnect between what was working in Patrice’s classroom and ineffective fads permeating many other classrooms?

A few years earlier, Pooja had taken a course in cognitive science, without really knowing what that meant. She was astounded to realize that there is rigorous research on how humans learn and remember. How could there be such a disconnect between Pooja’s education classes on one side of campus and her cognitive science classes on the other side of campus – both all about learning, but one based on anecdotes and the other based on science?

Suddenly, just like pieces in a puzzle, it all came together. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis received grant funding to conduct cognitive science research in classrooms. Up until this point, most research within this specific field took place in laboratory settings with college students, using fairly simple materials to examine how students learn and remember information. Now, with this new grant, the long-overdue opportunity to bridge the gap between learning in the classroom and learning in the lab had arrived.

On a sunny Wednesday in August, Patrice and Pooja met for the first time – just inside the school’s entrance, near the cafeteria, next to the principal’s office. Shaking hands and walking up the stairs to Patrice’s classroom, the energy was unmistakable; Patrice would be one of the first K–12 teachers to partner with cognitive scientists in her classroom, and Pooja would be one of the first cognitive scientists to conduct full-time research in an authentic school setting. This initial meeting of the minds became a teacher-scientist bond that continues today.


This book is the culmination of our extensive collaboration to understand what works best in education. Enter the science of learning. What, exactly, is the “science of learning?” It’s so simple, and yet counterintuitive. Why can we remember scenes from our favorite movies but struggle to remember our students’ names? Why is it easy to learn some things and hard to learn other things? Why can we read a book and feel we learned a lot, only to find that we’ve forgotten most of it a year later? Why can we think back and remember our first day of teaching, but not our tenth day of teaching?

Cognitive scientists conduct research on all of these things – how we learn stories, names, facts, important events, unimportant events, and more. Research on the science of learning dates back more than 100 years. Fads feel like they’ve persisted for 100 years, too. Sometimes we run into fads during pre-service programs and professional development, and other times through word of mouth or online blogs. We’ve all had the experience of being excited about a “new” teaching idea, only to file the materials away for a rainy day. Rarely are these new strategies utilized. Professional development programs often feel like a waste of time.

So why do we keep reinventing the wheel with teaching strategies based on the “fad of the semester,” when scientifically based strategies are waiting to be unleashed? We feel there are two main reasons:

  1. The science of learning sits dormant in academic journals, rather than easily accessible in pre-service textbooks and professional development materials.
  2. The science of learning has recently been featured in newspapers, blogs, and social media, but it’s hard to know if these are trusted sources or simply people concocting more fads.

For these reasons (and more), teachers are given the impossible challenge of finding time to seek out good research, make sense of it, and apply it in classrooms. We frequently get asked, “Why haven’t I heard about this research before? Why didn’t I learn about this in my pre-service program or professional development?” It’s because this research isn’t accessible – literally and figuratively. There is valuable research on the science of learning out there, but it’s sitting behind lock and key.

There is valuable research on the science of learning out there, sitting behind lock and key. Until now.

Until now. For more than a decade, we have developed a rare partnership of scientist-and-teacher, research-into-practice – one that is true to the rigors of cognitive science and also practical with today’s teachers in mind. In Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, we decipher cognitive science research, illustrate how we have applied the science of learning in our own teaching, and provide evidence-based recommendations to empower educators to unleash the science of learning in their classrooms.

By drawing on empirical research by fellow cognitive scientists and practical strategies from educators around the world, we focus on four powerful teaching strategies based on the science of learning: retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition.

  1. Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads (e.g., quizzes and flashcards), rather than cramming information into students heads (e.g., lectures). Retrieval practice is a no-stakes learning opportunity that increases student performance, beyond formative and summative assessments.
  2. Spaced practice boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time so learning is not crammed all at once. By returning to content every so often, students’ knowledge has had time to rest and be refreshed.
  3. Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics and encouraging discrimination. For example, learning increases when students practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems all mixed up, rather than one type of problem at a time.
  4. Feedback boosts learning by providing the student the opportunity to know what they know, and know what they don’t know. This increases students’ metacognition or understanding about their own learning progress.

Critically, research demonstrates that these four powerful strategies:

  • Raise student achievement by a letter grade, or even two – from a C to an A. Research we conducted in Patrice’s classroom and additional classrooms demonstrated a consistent and reliable increase in students’ grades, confidence, and engagement.
  • Boost learning for diverse students and subject areas. Our book applies to all grade levels and disciplines (e.g., STEM, social studies, language arts, fine arts, special education, and foreign languages).
  • Enhance higher-order learning and students’ transfer of knowledge. We provide research and examples demonstrating that these strategies apply for basic fact knowledge, skill learning, and critical thinking.

When it comes to retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition, the combination of being research-based and classroom-proven is paramount. The rigor of science gives us confidence that these strategies aren’t fads, and successful classroom implementation gives us confidence that these strategies work in the real world, not just in the laboratory. In addition, the better you understand the research behind the strategies, the more effectively you can adapt them in your classroom – and you know your classroom best.

By this point, you may be thinking, “These strategies sound great, but they probably take a lot of time and effort to use them.” Actually, they don’t! The research-based strategies we describe in this book can be implemented in less than a minute without additional prep or grading time. In addition, as teachers, we already use many of these strategies: retrieving what we know, spacing it out over time, mixing it up, and giving our students feedback. The difference is that we share how to use these evidence-based strategies purposefully, intentionally, and frequently.

We start this book by sharing the research behind retrieval practice and why it’s foundational for learning. Next, we share specific, actionable strategies to implement retrieval practice in the classroom. We continue with research and classroom strategies for spacing, interleaving, and metacognition, followed by recommendations on how to overcome potential challenges, engage in conversations with students and parents, and lead evidence-driven professional development at the school, district and university level.

We have even more activities, templates, and downloads available on our website, Lastly, we have intentionally embedded retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and feedback throughout this book. In other words, we practice what we preach, we model these strategies in each chapter, and we boost your learning from this book!

With Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, you will:

  • Develop a deep understanding of powerful teaching strategies based on the science of learning, whether you are a past, present, or future educator.
  • Go behind the scenes and explore key findings from cognitive science research.
  • Gain insight into how scientifically-based strategies are effectively implemented in a variety of academic settings without additional preparation, classroom, or grading time.
  • Think critically about your current teaching practices and classroom environment from a research-based perspective.
  • Develop tools to share the science of learning with students and parents, ensuring success inside and outside the classroom.
  • Identify next steps to transform teaching and unleash the science of learning in your classroom.

As educators, we must look forward – using evidence-based strategies – to propel and guide student learning. We must stop driving instruction with anecdotes and fads, we must stop reinventing the wheel, and we must stop riding in circles when it comes to classroom instruction.

Instead, it’s our responsibility to ask for evidence. Evidence for which strategies are effective, not just which strategies are popular. Evidence for why we teach the way we teach, not just because we’ve always taught that way.

Most importantly, after reading this book, we hope that on the first day of the school year, you won’t be asking, “What should I teach?” Instead, you’ll be asking, “How should I teach? How can I turn my teaching into powerful teaching?”

The science of learning exists. Now, it’s time to unleash it.

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