10 Top Educational Studies in 2020

There were a lot of educational studies done this year —covering topics from virtual learning to the reading wars to the decline of the standardized test. Here are some of the top findings.

1.  If You Want Children to Learn Vocabulary, Encourage Them to Be Thespians
Researchers asked 8-year-old students to listen to words in another language and then use their hands and bodies to mimic the words—spreading their arms and pretending to fly, for example, when learning the German word flugzeug, which means “airplane.” After two months, these young actors were a remarkable 73 percent more likely to remember the new words than students who had listened without accompanying gestures.

2. Neuroscientists Defend the Value of Teaching Handwriting Again
Brain scans of preliterate children revealed crucial reading circuitry flickering to life when kids hand-printed letters and then tried to read them. The effect largely disappeared when the letters were typed or traced.
Studies of older children—seventh graders—while they handwrote, drew, and typed words, and concluded that handwriting and drawing produced telltale neural tracings indicative of deeper learning.

3. The ACT (and SAT) Just Got a Negative Score
ACT test scores, which are often a key factor in college admissions, showed a weak—or even negative—relationship when it came to predicting how successful students would be in college. Students with very high ACT scores—but indifferent high school grades—often flamed out in college, overmatched by the rigors of a university’s academic schedule. High school grades were stronger predictors.

4. A Rubric Reduces Racial Grading Bias
When grading criteria are vague, implicit stereotypes can insidiously “fill in the blanks,” explains the study’s author. But when teachers have an explicit set of criteria to evaluate the writing—asking whether the student “provides a well-elaborated recount of an event,” for example—the difference in grades is nearly eliminated.

5. What do Coal-Fired Power Plants Have to do with Learning? Plenty
When three coal-fired plants closed in the Chicago area, student absences in nearby schools dropped by 7 percent.The stunning finding underscores the role that often-overlooked environmental factors—like air quality, neighborhood crime, and noise pollution—have in keeping our children healthy and ready to learn.

6. Students Who Generate Good Questions Are Better Learners
Some of the most popular study strategies—highlighting passages, rereading notes, and underlining key sentences—are also among the least effective. A 2020 study highlighted a powerful alternative: Get students to generate questions about their learning, and gradually press them to ask more probing questions.

7. Did a 2020 Study Just End the ‘Reading Wars’?
A 2020 study sounded the death knell for practices that de-emphasize phonics in favor of having children use multiple sources of information—like story events or illustrations—to predict the meaning of unfamiliar words, an approach often associated with “balanced literacy.” Lucy Calkins seemed to concede the point, writing that “aspects of balanced literacy need some ‘rebalancing.’”

8. A Secret to High-Performing Virtual Classrooms
The report noted that logistical issues like accessing materials were often among the most significant obstacles to online learning. The study highlighted the crucial need to organize virtual classrooms even more intentionally than physical ones. Remote teachers should simplify communications and reminders by using one channel like email or text; and reduce visual clutter like hard-to-read fonts and unnecessary decorations throughout their virtual spaces.

9. Love to Learn Languages? Surprisingly, Coding Might Be Right for You
Learning how to code more closely resembles learning a language such as Chinese or Spanish than learning math, a 2020 study found—upending the conventional wisdom about what makes a good programmer.

10. Researchers Cast Doubt on Reading Tasks Like ‘Finding the Main Idea’
“Content is comprehension,” declared a 2020 Fordham Institute study, sounding a note of defiance as it staked out a position in the ongoing debate over the teaching of intrinsic reading skills versus the teaching of content knowledge. The researchers, focusing on the time spent in subject areas like math, social studies, and ELA, found that “social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.” In effect, exposing kids to rich content in civics, history, and law appeared to teach reading more effectively than our current methods of teaching reading.

About Janis Adams

CEO/Founder, Academic Achievers Inc.
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