We recently chatted with The Learning Agency advisor, Dr. Pooja Agarwal, about her new book.
Dr. Agarwal is a cognitive scientist and educator, and co-author of the new book, “Powerful Teaching: Unleash the science of learning,” written with veteran middle school social studies teacher, Patrice Bain, Ed.S. Dr. Agarwal answers questions about the book, and her work, in this brief interview.
More information about her book is available at powerfulteaching.org. You can subscribe for updates at retrievalpractice.org and follow her on Twitter @PoojaAgarwal. For more information about retrieval practice, in particular, watch this interview recently posted on the Learning Agency website.
What is “Powerful Teaching’ about?
The book is about what we call Power Tools: Retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition. Much of it is based on the research I conducted in Patrice’s classroom, along with additional research on the science of learning. In “Powerful Teaching,” we empower teachers to use these research-based strategies purposefully, intentionally, and frequently.
As the first Power Tool, retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students' heads. For example, simply asking students, “What did we do in class yesterday?” rather than telling them “Here’s what we did in class yesterday” significantly boosts long-term learning.
Spacing is the second Power Tool, which boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time so learning is not crammed all at once. In this way, forgetting is good for learning. For example, in Week 8 of my semester, I ask students about content we learned in Week 3. This isn’t to catch them off guard! By spacing out retrieval practice, students have to engage in a mental struggle, which improves learning. In addition, when students cram information before an exam, they might do well on the exam but they’ll likely forget everything very quickly. When students spread out their studying over time, in contrast, learning is much stronger and robust.
Interleaving, the third Power Tool, boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics, encouraging discrimination between similarities and differences. Instead of covering one topic or skill for three weeks, then on to the next, and the next, we interleave, or mix those topics up to help with retention. For example, if students know they have 10 practice problems multiplying fractions, followed by 10 practice problems dividing fractions, they can “plug and chug” – they can follow along without needing to know which strategy to use. But if you mix up the two types of problems, students need to choose a strategy, not just use it. Interleaving is particularly beneficial in skills-based learning including math and language learning.
Feedback-driven metacognition, the fourth Power Tool, boosts learning by providing students with the opportunity to know what they know and know what they don’t know. When students retrieve and then receive feedback, they can engage in metacognition, or simply thinking about thinking. With this Power Tool, students can monitor their own learning based on constructive and guiding feedback. Feedback-driven metacognition has been shown to improve students’ transfer and application of knowledge.
Science and research supports all of these strategies, and we’ve seen first-hand how the consistent use of these four Power Tools enhances student learning and academic success.
Why did you write “Powerful Teaching?”
Teachers are given the impossible challenge of seeking out good research, making sense of it, and applying it in the classroom. We put together the book so that teachers can access this research, and use it in their own classroom, with little to no extra lesson time, prep, or grading.
The research on the Power Tools has been around for many years; decades, actually. But, it’s been “hidden” in cognitive science journals and it’s almost impossible for teachers to find the time to read and implement effective strategies. We put so much pressure on teachers to improve learning, yet we don’t give them ways to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm their already daunting responsibilities.
We wanted to write “Powerful Teaching” so that a classroom teacher can very easily adopt and use the Power Tools, without adding even more challenges. A teacher of almost every grade level, from younger elementary grades through college can sit down, read the book, and implement these strategies almost instantly in their teaching environments.
In Powerful Teaching, we share stories from our own classrooms and we practice what we preach. Throughout the book, we include retrieval practice exercises that combine spacing, interleaving, and feedback. In this way, teachers and readers can experience success in their learning, too!
What's the biggest take-away from “Powerful Teaching?”
The four research-based Power Tools are flexible, practical, and quick to implement. By focusing on just a few carefully selected strategies, educators are empowered to harness cognitive science, without being stretched too thin. Once a teacher reads the book, and practices the Power Tools in his or her classroom, they – and their students – will notice that short-term learning has transformed into long-term learning.
Drawing on our nearly 15-year partnership, Patrice and I want to move the science of learning out of the lab and into the classroom. In “Powerful Teaching," we unleash the science of learning and importantly, empower teachers to do this in their own classroom and professional development.
What's most surprising?
Research consistently demonstrates that these powerful strategies raise student achievement by a letter grade or more; boost learning for diverse students, multiple grade levels, and many subject areas. We’ve also found that the consistent use of the Power Tools enhances students’ higher order learning and transfer of knowledge beyond the classroom.
Even after so many years of working with, studying and using the Power Tools, it always surprises me how quickly we see students improve their skills. The simple practice of spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, and feedback based metacognition boosts student success. It’s not just the achievement levels that can be measured, we also see self-confidence boost, and learning environments becoming more positive and mutually supportive. It’s a classic win-win situation for the teachers and their students; learning better, together.