[:ar]A Summary of Lessons Learned[:]

Issue 08 ・ May 13, 2016

Looking back

Over the past 7 issues, Gray Matters included research summaries ranging from the benefits of studying pinyin in Mandarin-language immersion programs to the appropriate amount of homework. In this last issue of the 2016 school year, we look back to summarize the lessons we can take from this research.

Want to improve long-term learning?

Variety is key. A review of studies examining long-term recall suggests:

  • Mix students’ practice
    Combine and distribute practice of diverse skills to increase students’ long-term retention. Compared to students who did repeated practice on one skill, those who completed different kinds of practice problems mixed together could better recall how to solve the problems in the long term.
  • Vary the context of learning
    Students practicing word memorization in different room environments were able to recall more than those who studied consistently in one place. Need to hold class in the library? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for students’ long-term learning.
  • Test students’ recall
    Students who tested themselves on material they studied were able to recall significantly more than those who only reviewed the material. Provide opportunities for students to test their recall of skills or content they have studied.

Want to differentiate instruction for your students?

Forget learning styles. While fashionable, little research supports the existence of inherent differences in how students learn. Numerous research studies demonstrate that matching instruction to students’ learning preferences does not improve learning. Instead, focus on appropriate scaffolding and connecting to students’ interests.

Wonder if doing projects will interfere with standardized exam success?

Research conducted by the Knowledge In Action initiative compared students doing a standard test prep AP government course and a project-based course. Results showed that students in the project course actually performed better on the AP exam. Based on this research, methods to design project-based courses that aid standardized assessment include:

  • Adapt the standards
    Addressing standards in projects enables students to apply skills in an authentic learning context while simultaneously preparing for an exam.
  • Make projects the core
    Rather than being peripheral or unusual, make projects the key learning activities that provide context for content and skills.
  • Loop key concepts and skills
    In each project, revisit the key skills and content so that students have sufficient practice and can transfer learning to new scenarios. This aligns with the research on long-term learning cited above.

Think that some subject matter may be too abstract for a specific stage of cognitive development?

Empirical research on Piaget’s proposed stages of cognitive development suggests that no stages of development exist which guarantee certain cognitive abilities. In these studies, children performed inconsistently on the same test over time, sometimes demonstrating sophisticated thinking and later more naïve thinking.

  • Focus on scaffolding
    Skills and materials are rarely inherently too difficult for children of a given age, but they may not have sufficient experience, prior learning, or suitable interest for some tasks. Prepare students to succeed in subsequent classes rather than restricting content based on students’ ages.

Wonder how much homework to assign?

Homework has become an unquestioned part of school, but what’s the best way to approach it? Here are the guidelines from a survey of 4,400 research studies.

  • Keep homework under 2 hours for upper school and even less for younger students
    After 2 hours of homework for upper school students and 1 hour of homework for middle school students, the academic benefits of homework declined sharply. Almost no benefit was found by assigning lower school students homework.
  • Assign homework regularly
    Although teachers should avoid assigning too much homework, consistent homework has been correlated with academic achievement in numerous studies.
  • For older students, consider doing the work in class
    Research around models such as the flipped classroom (where students study content at home and apply skills in class) generally indicate academic improvement after implementing such models. However, more rigorous studies are needed to be sure of the effect.

Wonder how to balance physical activity and academics in school?

With cognitive development as a goal, exercise and academics might not be as contradictory as they seem at first glance. Research studies suggest that exercise contributes to the development of executive functioning, which enables students to focus, solve problems, and generate new ideas.

  • Intentionally schedule physical exercise and class practice
    One study showed that performance on a working memory task increased after exercising for just 30 minutes. Intentionally interspersing working memory tasks with exercise could aid students’ success.

Wonder if and when to teach pinyin?

Many schools in the U.S. wait to teach pinyin until a certain age because learning different pronunciations of words that look the same may be confusing. Additionally, Mandarin Chinese has significant complexity with tones, Chinese characters, and pinyin. Existing studies suggest the following guidelines in teaching pinyin:

  • No need to wait
    Research suggests that learning pinyin at the same time as learning to read in one’s native language doesn’t cause interference. If anything, it may increase overall phonetic awareness.
  • Separate the introduction of pinyin and characters
    Introducing Chinese characters and pinyin simultaneously may overwhelm young students’ working memory. A study of how best to introduce them indicated that students’ pronunciation improved most when first shown the character and then later shown the pinyin as feedback on the character’s pronunciation.


Teaching is of course both an art and a science — it’s not as simple as following a set of rules. The ability to connect with students and identify their challenges is a craft. However, the empirical evidence on how learning occurs helps avoid unsupported fads and guides practitioners toward effectively applying the science aspect of good teaching.

*Click on the heading links above to find which articles were used in the creation of this Gray Matters.[:]