5 teaching & learning studies we read (or re-read) this year

As the academic year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on everything we learnt about recently, and on the studies we found particularly interesting to read this year. Five of them stood out.

So, let’s take a look at the most interesting studies we read this year, why we like them, and the implications they have in the classroom…

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#1 The use of hints with retrieval practice


In this recent paper, “The effect of hint strength on the benefits of retrieval practice”, researchers explored whether giving hints helped students learn. Students were either given no, easy or hard hints to help them fill out the names of body parts. They then had a final test without hints to measure their performance.

After this, students reported that the easy hints were:

  • The most effective
  • The most fun
  • Something they will go on and utilise

But most interestingly, these easy hints produced the worst performance. What students preferred was actually worse for their learning.

Why we like this study

This study reflects the “Illusion of Learning”, which is the discrepancy between what students like and what is actually good for them. It’s a great highlight of how often students need to use strategies they don’t like, as it’s more effective for their learning.

Implications for the classroom

Some implications from this study include:

  • No significant difference was found in students’ performance if they got hard or no hints. Therefore, it might be useful to include harder hints if the task is too difficult.
  • The key implication is that retrieval should be "difficult but successful". If it is too easy, it may be fun, but that may be a poor proxy for learning.

#2 Interleaving improves learning


In this seminal paper, “The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning”, researchers investigated the effects of interleaving on learning. Interleaving is the technique where students switch between topics in a subject. The opposite is blocking, where students study one topic in full before moving on to the next.

In this study, researchers tested students immediately and one week after studying using interleaving or blocking. Immediately after, blocked learning was more effective than interleaving. However, a week later, students who interleaved their studies outperformed their peers by achieving 63% on average, when those who used blocking scored 20%.

Why we like this paper

Students often find interleaving difficult to use and perceive fewer learning benefits. Likewise, some teachers may prefer blocking, as it feels initially easier to organise a lesson with it. However, this paper clearly shows the benefits of using interleaving and, crucially, that the gains outweigh the challenge of using it.

Implications for the classroom

Promote the use of interleaving in the classroom by:

  • Explaining the benefits of interleaving before and after introducing it.
  • Consider how you interleave your lessons. Specifically, what are concepts that compliment interleaving (i.e. where there are clear similarities or differences for students to compare)?

#3 Developing a resilient environment


In this paper, “Mental fortitude training: an evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success”, researchers looked at the key conditions that promote a resilient environment. They found two main factors: challenge and support.

  • When there is not a lot of challenge and little support, student progress might be stagnant.
  • Having too much challenge, but little support, however, will cause students to burn out in the long run.
  • With more support but little challenge, students feel comfortable and become complacent. This means they are not pushed to reach their goals.
  • The best environment, therefore, is having a lot of challenge and a lot of support. This helps produce resilience.

Why we like this paper

This paper helps outline how we might encourage resilience within the classroom. Often, we might lower challenge to benefit our and students’ comfort. However, this study clearly states that to achieve high, long-term performance, we need more challenge in the classroom – as long as there is support to go with it.

Implications for the classroom

  • Consider what an environment of both high challenge and high support looks like.
  • Can you differentiate based on support, rather than just by level of task difficulty?
  • Which area can you improve on the most: challenge or support?

#4 The power of expectations


In this study, “Pygmalion in the classroom”, researchers told teachers that a few randomly selected students were “late bloomers” and were going to outperform their peers by the end of the year. The twist? This wasn’t true – those students were randomly selected. However, at the end of the year, the researchers found that these students did in fact outperform their peers.

So, why is this? Well, it’s all to do with the level of expectations that teachers have for their students. As teachers had higher expectations for these students, they provided them with more challenge and pushed them further. This effect is also known as the Pygmalion Effect, where high expectations improve individuals’ performance.

Why we like this study

This fascinating seminal study clearly shows the power of expectations and how much they can improve students’ performance. Having high expectations for how your students can behave is a good starting point for developing a positive classroom culture.

Implications for the classroom

Some ways to implement this in the classroom include:

  • Having high expectations for all.
  • Asking challenging questions.
  • Believing that every student can improve.
  • Being unambiguous about your expectations.

#5 Students’ self-control behaviours

In this seminal paper, “Rational snacking: Young children’s decision making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability”, some young children were given one marshmallow and were told by a teacher that if they wait to eat it, they could get a second one. In the original study, the children who waited were found to have greater academic and life outcomes.

In this study, children were either in a reliable or unreliable group before being given the marshmallow test. Those in the unreliable condition saw their teacher lie to the students before them. These students only waited 3 minutes. However, those in the reliable condition saw their teacher be honest with the student before them – these students waited 13 minutes.


Why we like this study

  • This study puts reliability at the heart of student motivation. Which naturally lends itself to asking ourselves: how do we develop and maintain trust with our students?
  • It highlights the important of the teacher-student relationship. Note that this isn’t necessarily based on likeability, but more about consistency and trust.

Implications for the classroom

Some key takeaways from this study:

  • Ensure that you maintain a level of trust by being consistent.
  • Generate a plan to help students boost their self-control and stay on task.

Final Thoughts

We’ve read (or re-read) loads of research papers this year. These five studies, which range from retrieval practice to self-control, really stood out to us. We believe that there are many practical implications to take from these studies and into your classroom – and that these are a great way to get started using cognitive science research in your practice.


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