EPISODE 26: THE STORY ABOUT

How Students Learn

with Pooja Agarwal

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When they pull that information out of their head, they remember it much better than simply if we’re putting information into students’ heads.

Jamie
The arts are fun. The arts give us purpose. The arts are an outlet for students. The arts have cognitive benefits? I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we get cerebral with Dr. Pooja Agarwal, a cognitive scientist who has been conducting research on how students learn since 2005. She is the author of Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning and assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the founder of retrievalpractice.org, a source of research based teaching strategies. Welcome Dr. Agarwal. It is a pleasure to have you on the show.

Pooja
Thank you so much. I’m so excited to chat with you today.

Jamie
I am too, likewise. I’m fascinated that you are a cognitive scientist. And the fact that you’re a professor at a college with a specific arts focus, of course, music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. And that is combining, of course, what we at the institute love: a core academic discipline like science, and then an arts discipline with music. Tell us how you spend your days.

Pooja
I teach about 80 college students every semester at the Berklee College of Music, and I love it. I love it. I get to teach cognitive science and neuroscience and psychology to musicians. And what is there’s so much that is so fun about it. They have this energy. They have this interest in psychology and we spend a lot of time during my classes in discussion, almost like seminar style, even though my classes have about 20 to 25 students, and my particular areas you mentioned is cognition, which means sort of all the thinking and the memory that we do. And I love talking with my music students, especially about memory. So one example, where we combine the cognitive science with their musical background and memory, is we have a lot of discussions about why people remember the beginning of songs, and the end of songs and not the stuff in the middle. Whether they are practicing the music, or they are listening to music or they’re at a concert, think about setlists. We’re very mindful about what goes at the beginning and what goes at the end. And there’s a lot of memory research showing what we call the serial position effect, where we remember stuff at the beginning and stuff at the end. So another way to think about it is the last movie you saw, you probably remember stuff at the beginning and stuff at the end. But all those details in between are a little muddy. And another example my colleagues Andy De Soto and Roddy Roediger have conducted is to look at how people remember US presidents. So if you ask people, you know, to just list all the US presidents you can remember, of course, you can remember the first two or three, you remember the most recent, and you don’t remember the stuff in the middle. There is a spike for Abraham Lincoln.

Jamie
Yes, I was thinking that! Okay, I know, I know, Lincoln!

Pooja
Yeah. So it’s funny sort of memory, research on memory that we can really connect to with music and bringing it full circle. And I love that there is just this added musical component. All of my colleagues and friends who are also professors of psychology, don’t really teach at a school of music and don’t have these rich conversations about how psychology can apply in every life and how psychology applies in music as well.

Jamie
That is tremendous, that real world application in the arts and beyond. So you’ve been studying how students learn for about 15 years now. We want to know how you do that. Are we talking about kids and adults inside of MRI machines? How do you collect this data?

Pooja
I love that question. It’s kind of the behind the scenes. You know, people get to read the research papers at the end, or I have a lot of resources on my website, retrievalpractice.org, but the behind the scenes is a lot of fun for me as a scientist, because I like knowing how things are done. I like being the researcher who is doing that and answering the questions we have. So I do a lot of research with middle school, high school and college students. And with college students, my research would typically be bringing college students into a labratory where that just sounds fancy for an office space with a bunch of cubicles and computers. And we have them sit down, we give them some information to remember, let’s say list of words. So chair, table, desk, etc. We have them remember stuff. And then we have them do something in between maybe watch a movie or play game. And then we test their memory later, we just give them a test. That’s a very basic example of research with college students. I’ve done research with college students, for instance, looking at what type of quizzes improve memory? Should they be open book quizzes or closed book quizzes? Because we know again, real world application that we do that in classrooms all the time, but from a memory perspective, which one might help students pull information out and really think about what they’re learning. So in the college case, they’re in front of computers. We present that information. With the middle school and high school research my colleagues and I have done for about 10 years, we were physically in classrooms. So you had mentioned that I have this book Powerful Teaching. And my co-author, Patrice Bain, is a veteran K12 teacher. And I still remember the day that I showed up at her school and in her classroom, and I would sit in a classroom for eight hours at the back of the room and watch how she taught. And I could look at how well students remembered. An underlying thread for all the research we do is what we call retrieval practice. And that is a strategy we can use where when students are thinking about wrestling with information. When they pull that information out of their head, they remember it much better than simply if we’re putting information into students’ heads. And one way I like to think about it is, let’s say with my college students, I want them to remember what they learned by the end of the semester. Otherwise, why spend 15 weeks…

Pooja
Right, what’s the point?

Jamie
… doing great activities… Exactly! We have rich discussions, they do some readings, but then what’s the point? So we want our students to remember from their educational experience and retrieval, pulling information out, is a really great way to do this. So I have a question for you, Jamie.

Jamie
Okay. I will try to answer.

Pooja
It’s about some retrieval practice. Okay. Since we talked about the Presidents already, Do you happen to know the name of the fourth President of the United States?

Jamie
Oh, goodness. Okay. And listeners, we did not prepare this question in advance, just so you know, but I’ve seen Hamilton. Okay, so, Washington comes first. Adams, Jefferson. I’m gonna go with Madison.

Pooja
Madison. You’re correct.

Jamie
Thank goodness, all of the social studies teachers that are listening are not cringing at the moment.

Pooja
It is Madison and because you had to go through that mental struggle, you had to retrieve and pull that out. You are going to remember Madison much better than if I just told you, “Hey, Jamie, the fourth President of the United States is Madison” and move on. Right? So that’s retrieval practice. And so going back to the research I’ve done with middle school and high school students, we would look at retrieval in the form of five minute quizzes, super quick, that Patrice would put together. They were like multiple choice on the board. This started 15, 10 years ago. So this is before Kahoot, before Quizlet, students all had little clicker remotes, and we’d give them these low stakes quizzes. And what we would do… if you think about, let’s say Patrice was teaching a unit on Ancient Egypt, and what we would do is we would take half of sort of the vocabulary words or the key concepts and put them on these brief quizzes and half of the information was not on the quizzes, so that when students got their final chapter tests we could see, did they remember stuff better if they were quizzed on it, versus if they weren’t? In other words, did they do better if they got retrieval practice versus if they didn’t. And from a research standpoint, that’s really important to us, because we didn’t want to have one classroom get all this retrieval practice, and one classroom not getting it at all. Sure. It’s nice that every student had a combination to improve their own learning and memory. So that’s how we do a lot of the research, we present material, we ask students to remember it, and then we give them a test after five minutes or after six months.

Jamie
Wow, I’m not going to say it’s a letdown to hear that there are not rows of MRI machines or Bunsen burners in the laboratory. Okay, it’s good to know though.

Pooja
There are researchers who do a lot of research on memory in fMRI machines. I just do behavioral research with students in classrooms.

Jamie
I love that though because that is real world and you’re seeing what’s happening eight hours a day, like you said, in a true classroom setting. Let’s talk about music. Of course, we are the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM and so music is a big part of what we love. Does music has any significant effects on learning?

Pooja
We do know that music has a lot of influence on learning. One question that is maybe almost backwards from what you’re thinking about is whether or not listening to music while studying helps students pay attention and do better.

Jamie
Yes, the Mozart Effect, right?

Pooja
… which is a myth.

Jamie
That’s news to me. Okay. I have a Pandora station when I’m with elementary kiddos that gets turned on when they are focused and doing work. Okay…

Pooja
Interesting. Yeah. Let’s talk about the Mozart Effect. So, sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s a myth. When the research first came out, it was really just not conducted very well, let’s say. And we know that class listening to classical music doesn’t automatically boost student learning. What we do know from research is that students do not learn as well if they are listening to music compared to not listening to music. And that that can really depend on… there’s some fun research, where it depends on if the music has lyrics versus the music doesn’t have lyrics and also if students like the song or students dislike the song, but to compare a very simple condition with another is if we look at studying without music versus studying with music. We know if students, for instance, are doing a sort of practice essay t tests, you know, reading comprehension, they’re reading passage and they have to take a test. Their performance on that test is almost double, when they are not listening to music than when they are, even if it’s classical music, and so attentionally it may be there’s some research music may help us stay awake, it may help us pay attention. But when you are trying to do something cognitively challenging when you’re trying to think, you’re trying to read a passage, humans really need to focus our attention on just that thing. I listen to music when I’m cooking, for instance, sure that I’m not paying attention to something that is really intellectually engaging and challenging for me. So be careful with that. It’s great to listen to classical music, I love classical music, but it will not necessarily boost student learning.

Jamie
Fascinating. That’s an aha moment for me for sure. I want to go back to not only rich retrieval, but also recall and retention, and you talked a little bit about retention and making that learning stick. So I personally remember, we’re not talking presidents anymore. We’re talking about the United States, the 50 Nifty United States with the song and of course, those great Schoolhouse Rock Songs from a couple of decades ago. And and those songs with the lyrics, of course, helped me, I think they helped me, retain and recall the information. In the research that you’ve conducted, are you seeing the arts help with recall and retention?

Pooja
I love the example you gave about using the song to remember… The nifty 50? I’ve actually never heard that phrase.

Jamie
The 50 Nifty United States. Yes, Alabama and Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas. I’m not going to go through all 50.

Pooja
I don’t know if you’re ever seen the Animaniacs? I think I’ve heard that song from Animaniacs. Okay. Yeah, um, we know that forming an association between music and sound with what we’re trying to learn is what’s called the mnemonic. And those two things go really well together. What I would love to see more of is more research on the arts with cognitive scientists about music learning. So of course, I’m at the Berklee College of Music. My colleague, Erica Knowles, is starting to do some research on how does music shaped the retention and learning of students. One example that I like from my own research that also applies to arts education, is what we call interleaving. And interleaving is kind of mixing things up a bit. To help you learn a song or an artist or some other… math, this works particularly well for math. But for instance, I am currently taking accordion lessons and

Jamie
Oh! That is not something I thought you would say today!

Pooja
Yeah! I grew up playing violin and I haven’t played violin or piano in 15 years. And then because I’m at Berklee, I had the opportunity to take lessons with other professors. So I’m taking accordion lessons, and I am trying to learn the song Hey, Jude!

Jamie
Okay.

Pooja
And what, as we discussed earlier with the serial position effect, I remember the beginning of the song, and I can play the end of the song, but it’s the stuff in the middle, that’s really hard for me. And so with interleaving, what we want to do is mix it up. And I know that a lot of students and teachers do this already, which is fantastic, is to start in the middle of a song. If you keep, if I keep starting, Hey, Jude at the very beginning and going through it in order, I’m going to get really good at that beginning…

Jamie
Right…

Pooja
… but that middle part is what’s missing. And so based on research in my field, with interleaving, we want to make sure that we’re doing things kind of mixed up which again, is intuitive many people may do that already. And it may be counterintuitive, because don’t you want to learn the song in order? So I think there’s a lot of rich collaboration that can happen between memory researchers, and arts and STEAM educators as well would be so cool.

Jamie
That is phenomenal. And that’s a new one for me. Interleaving.

Pooja
Yeah!

Jamie
I love it. I love it. In addition to including the arts, of course, are there other classroom strategies or practices that you would suggest that are just simply best practices neurologically?

Pooja
We discussed retrieval practice. So really thinking about pulling information out. I’ll give a quick example of that. And then I’ll give another strategy. One example with retrieval practice is sometimes we have a tendency to start class by saying, “alright class, here’s what we did last time… moving on,” and with retrieval practice is to simply ask students, “what did we do in class last time,” give them a minute to think about it, give them time to write it down, and then move on.

Jamie
In essence, they’re activating their own prior knowledge with retrieval instead of you simply delivering that knowledge to them. You’re more of the facilitator than the giver of knowledge.

Pooja
Exactly. Yeah. Precisely, more the facilitator than the giver. I like that. Yeah. And so that’s one strategy. In our book, Powerful Teaching, we call these power tools. So retrieval practice is our first power tool. Our second one is what’s called spacing, which, again, all of these are intuitive. We do these every day. But being a little more intentional. With spacing is spacing things out as we’re learning them. So another simple example going along with the same thing. Instead of asking students “what did we learn in class last time,” you can ask students “what did we learn in class last week.” And so that’s adding even more mental struggle. But we want to make sure this is low stakes or no stakes, don’t have to grade anything at all. These are just questions to ask. But spacing is going a little bit further back, or an example would be if you ask a kid, you know, “what did you learn in school today?” on the way home, is to ask the kid, “what did you learn in school yesterday?” And then there’s this cool challenge that kids really like to have to think about instead of the, what did you learn in school today? “Nothing,” is what they often will say, right, so spacing is just kind of returning to things or also in a forward way, kind of spreading things out. So instead of focusing on Ancient Egypt, all in three days, is to teach Ancient Egypt Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So that’s our second power tool of spacing. Our third one is interleaving that we mentioned, mixing things up. And our fourth one we call feedback driven metacognition, and there’s a lot in there. Feedback, we all give feedback. We want students to know how they do. Metacognition is thinking about our own thinking, or helping students think about their own learning. So if you, you know, you’ve heard the phrase “that’s so meta”…

Jamie
Yeah!

Pooja
Yeah, it’s cognition about cognition, thinking about your own thinking. And one of the simplest ways I do this in my classroom is students have weekly retrieval practices. They’re kind of very short, low stakes, quizzes. And on each question, I have little checkboxes, and there are two checkboxes: one that says, nailed it, and one that says not sure. And as they’re going through and answering these questions, they’re engaging in that added step of metacognition. So okay, here’s what I, what we talked about when we talked about developmental psychology, but then they have to take that step to say, “Now did I nail that question? Or am I not sure.” And then when they get feedback when I hand them back, they can see, “oh, I, I did nail that question. And that’s when I check marked!” or “I thought I nailed it. But I must have been missing some information.” So that’s a fourth strategy or power tool that we have.

Jamie
I’m digging these power tools. Okay, tell us, tell us more. I mean, we want to read about all of the power tools, of course, and all of your strategies and your research. Tell us about the book. How can we find out more about your work? We’re limited on time today, which I’m very sad about, because we could unpack this for another 30 minutes to an hour at least. Where can we find out more?

Pooja
We have our book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning is available on Amazon Kindle, ebook, audible all that. We… some of the resources that are mentioned in the book, but also online or at retrievalpractice.org. And, um, retrievalpractice.org, you can sign up for weekly emails straight to your inbox. I’ve got free downloadable guides, they’re all 10 pages or less, I have six different guides, all written by cognitive scientists, but for a teacher audience, so if you go to retrievalpractice.org, you can download those, you can subscribe for my weekly emails. We have a really cool Facebook group dedicated to the book that I and my co-author Patrice are on. So if you go to facebook.com, and just search powerful teaching we’ll pop up. Someone had just commented yesterday, which I thought was so very kind and they said it’s so cool to not only read this book, but to be able to engage with the authors online. And so we’re swapping tips and strategies and questions on the Facebook group. And we also have more free resources at powerfulteaching.org as well. So – Oh, I’m on twitter at retrievelearn, so all over the place, but I would highly recommend the first place to go is the book.

Jamie
We can’t wait to learn more. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM and I’ve been your host Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.