A text transcript of the audio documentary.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Scientists know more about how people learn than ever before.
Kalinka Timmer: So she’s going to put in the first two electrodes…
But how much of that knowledge is making it out of the lab and into the classroom?
Bob Bjork: Schools could be more effective; people could learn much more effectively. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy.
Justin: I was like okay, how do we do this? This is going to be hard in Chinese.
Michael Young: I asked myself the question, “Am I doing everything right?” And I thought, “Well, maybe I’m just not studying the right way.”
In the coming hour, “The Science of Smart,” from American RadioWorks.
First, this news.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: “The Science of Smart.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Samara Freemark: And I’m Samara Freemark. Over the coming hour, we’ll look at what researchers are learning about the best ways to learn. And we’ll ask why that research doesn’t always make its way into schools.
Smith: But before we get to that, let’s start with marshmallows.
Child: What is that?
Adult: It’s a marshmallow. Do you like marshmallows?
Back in the late 60s, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel got interested in the idea of delayed gratification in children. So Mischel rounded up a group of preschoolers. One by one, he’d take them into a room and sit them down in front of a single marshmallow. Mischel told the kids that they had a choice: they could eat the marshmallow now. Or they could wait 15 minutes and get a second marshmallow.
Freemark: Now, this experiment has been replicated literally hundreds of times since then, by other scientists and news reporters and just by ordinary parents. On YouTube, if you search “marshmallow test,” you’ll find tons of videos taped just in the past couple of years.
Parent: You can either eat this marshmallow now.
Child: I want to eat that marshmallow now.
Parent: Or wait until we come back, and you’ll get two.
Child: Um, I want two!
And in these videos, you can see just how hard it is for the kids not to eat the candy right away. They squirm in their chairs, they sing…
Kid singing: Now if you are good today…
They stamp their feet [stamping]. They lean down and blow on the candy…
Talk to themselves…
Kid: No! This is so hard not to eat the sweet.
…and eventually, most of them give in and eat the marshmallow.
Kid: Maah! Get the sweet!
Smith: This was exactly what Walter Mischel found decades ago. Of the kids he studied, only about a third were able to hold out for that second marshmallow.
Freemark: But the most fascinating thing about the marshmallow test is what happened to those same kids years later.
The kids who could wait to eat the candy — let’s call them the delayers – they grew up to have higher SAT scores and more professional success. And when researchers scanned the brains of the original marshmallow kids 40 years later, they found big differences. The delayers seemed to be better at using a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in something called the executive control system. Executive control helps with attention and focus…which might be why the delayers were better at resisting that marshmallow in the first place.
Smith: All this seems to imply that the executive control system is fixed – that we’re stuck with the system we’re born with. But marshmallows are not destiny. And it turns out there are things you can do to strengthen executive control.
That’s what brought me to York University in Toronto, where psychologist Ellen Bialystok is examining the relationship between language and executive control.
Bialystok studies how the brains of bilingual people work in comparison to people who speak just one language. When she was starting out in psychology, being bilingual was seen as a disadvantage.
Ellen Bialystok: There was a pervasive, a profoundly pervasive, belief that languages were hard for children. And that if you made a child bilingual, you risked, to quote a textbook of the 1950s, “mental retardation.”
Recent studies show it’s just the opposite: bilingualism can be good for brain development. To understand why, let’s assume a person speaks native French and is also fluent in English and uses both languages every day…maybe French at home:
Voiceover: Je sortirai la poubelle, mais c’est à ton tour de faire la vaisselle.
And English at work:
Voiceover: I’ll take out the garbage, but it’s your turn to do the dishes.
Brain researchers used to think only one language could be active in the brain at a time. If you were bilingual, one language basically switched off while you were using the other one.
Bialystok: Well, we now know through massive, massive amounts of really good research, is that both of those languages are always active to some degree. So if I’m speaking English to you, I don’t want to use my French, but it’s active. So why don’t half my sentences come out with French words by accident?
Voiceover: I’ll take out the garbage, mais c’està ton tour de faire la vaisselle.
Bialystok: It doesn’t happen. Bilinguals rarely do that.
Ellen Biaylstok says it’s because the executive control system–that network in the brain’s frontal lobe, right behind the forehead–is busy focusing the mind’s attention on English. It’s a kind of traffic control system that helps organize and regulate thinking. When a bilingual person calls on the network to manage the traffic of two languages, a couple of things happen.
Bialystok: One is that these networks actually get rewired and you can see in a bilingual brain, connections between the front part of the brain and language tasks, that don’t exist for monolinguals. And second, the things that that front part of the brain–the executive function system–is supposed to be doing, it actually gets better at doing.
To compare the executive control systems of mono and bilingual people, Bialystok uses a device called an electroencephalograph, an EEG. It records electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain.
Researcher Kalinka Timmer: So she’s going to put in the first two electrodes. And you will not be able to…
I decided to check out my own monolingual brain. In the research lab, a technician pulls a tight fitting cap over my head. There are 66 electrodes embedded in the cap that will detect my brain’s electrical signals.
Smith: This is the moment of truth. Do I actually have brain activity or not? I know everybody makes the same joke. [laughter]
Timmer: Yes, you’re definitely not the first one.
Smith: So I’m sitting in front of computer monitor in a sound-proof room that also has copper shielding around it to keep out any radio waves or electromagnetic interference. Next to me is a box where the wires from the electrodes that are being attached to my head connect, and those go into a computer system.
The technician tells me to look at a computer monitor and try to react as quickly as I can to a series of five arrows flashing on the screen. I’m supposed to concentrate on the middle arrow. If the arrow points left, I click a mouse with my left hand. If it points right, I click the mouse in my right hand. But the arrows flanking that center arrow will change directions, and I have to try to ignore them.
Smith: The door is closed behind me, the lights are dimmed, and I’m staring at the screen.
Timmer: Are you ready?
Smith: I’m ready.
Timmer: Okay, we’ll start in three, two, one.
The test takes about 13 minutes. When it’s done, the computer generates a series of graphs charting the brain waves detected by the electrodes in the cap. It turns out that those of us who speak only one language are slower to react to the middle arrow than bilingual people are. And we use more brain power to concentrate on the middle arrow than bilingual people do.
You can see this effect on an fMRI brain scan as well. One of Bialystok’s PhD students, Ashley Chung, showed me some scans of subjects that took the same kind of arrow test that I did.
Smith: So we’re looking at scans of brains, right?
Ashley Chung: Mm hm.
Smith: And what those scans show us is relative blood flow.
Smith: Right. In the frontal part of the brains of bilinguals, it appears that the brain isn’t working as hard.
Chung: Exactly. There is essentially less activation in the frontal areas.
It’s like a strong person who doesn’t grunt when she lifts a 50-pound bag of dog food. According to Ellen Bialystok’s research, the executive control system is stronger in bilinguals.
Bialystok: Language is such a massively intense experience of daily life. This executive control system is always being used, it’s exercised, it’s boosted.
Smith: What’s good about executive control?
Bialystok: Everything that we do that requires focused attention, ignoring distractors that are trying to compete for attention, manipulating information in our mind, that is all frontal lobe executive function stuff.
Bialystok says that means that bilinguals, with their stronger executive control systems, reap actual cognitive benefits.
Bialystok: They will be better at multitasking, which is key to functioning in complex environments. Better at shifting between tasks. And then when you ask monolinguals and bilinguals to solve a problem, the bilinguals do it better.
So being bilingual improves brain performance in the lab. But does being bilingual help people learn better in the real world?
The state of Utah is betting yes.
[Driving in car]
Smith: We are in, um…where are we?
Freemark: Well, we’re in Southern Utah.
Smith: Yeah, we’re in Southern Utah, driving underneath these red rock bluffs…
Smith: We’re driving to a school in the heart of a region known as “Utah’s Dixie.” It was settled in the 1860s when 300 Mormon families moved here to grow cotton. This area is about 95% white, very Mormon, very politically conservative.
Freemark: And it’s one node in a vast experiment to see whether a state can quickly, cheaply, and effectively create tens of thousands of fluent foreign language speakers, virtually overnight.
Smith: Here we are at the school. [Opens car door]
This is Arrowhead Elementary. It’s a low brick building under snow-capped mountains. Three years ago, it was a school like any other. But today, half of Arrowhead’s students spend much of their time in classes taught entirely in Mandarin.
[Chinese class singing]
About 30 first graders sit cross-legged in front of teacher Jing Sun, singing and forming shapes with their hands to match the words – a jumping tiger, a little cat. The kids are mostly blond. The boys have crew cuts. The girls are wearing a lot of glitter and sequins, and have their hair in neat braids tied with pink and purple bows. Lots of the kids are missing their front teeth.
[Chinese class singing]
Smith: Red paper lanterns hang above every little desk. There’s a map of China on the wall, and a huge Chinese flag, with its five golden stars on a red field, hangs by the door.
[Jing Sun teaching in Mandarin]
Freemark: Ms. Sun switches over to the day’s math lesson: addition and subtraction. She starts dotting circles on a whiteboard. One, two, three, four…
[Dotting on board]
Ms. Sun (in Mandarin): 1, 2, 3, 4… 8. Ok, how many are there here? Lili.
“How many total circles are there?” she asks a quiet girl named Lily.
Lily (in Mandarin):Sixteen.
Sixteen, says Lili.
Ms. Sun (in Mandarin): Sixteen. Very good. Sixteen. Is that right?
“Is that right?” Ms. Sun asks. “Right!” the kids yell, and she chants, “Great, great, you’re really great.”
Ms. Sun (in Mandarin): Ok, what about here then, how many dots do we add?… [Continues to teach]
Smith: From the moment these kids stepped into class about 6 weeks ago, Ms. Sun spoke to them only in Mandarin. They spend half their day learning math and science in Chinese. The rest of the time they’re taught in English.
Freemark: This model of language education is called dual immersion, and it’s being repeated all over Utah, in more than 100 schools, with 25 thousand students. Most of the teachers come through a partnership with the Chinese government to send native speakers to do stints in Utah schools.
Today, there’s a wait-list and lottery to get into the immersion program at Arrowhead, and at most of the state’s immersion programs. In a few years, state officials hope to bring immersion education to every school district – and every family that wants it – in Utah.
The politician perhaps most responsible for bringing statewide immersion to Utah is not who you might expect.
Voice on radio: Good morning, Utah. This is Senator Howard Stephenson. And you’re listening to Inside Utah Politics, setting the record straight. Where we bring you two hours of red meat radio as an alternative to those sissy Saturday morning garden shows. Good morning, one and all.
Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, with a Saturday morning talk show and a side gig as president of an anti-tax group. For the most part, teachers unions and education advocates in the state are not fans of his.
Smith: But Stephenson got interested in language education in 2006, when then-governor Jon Huntsman drafted him to carry legislation to bring languages like Portuguese and Chinese to Utah high schools. The idea appealed to Stephenson’s pro-business instincts – language education seemed like a way to give Utah students a leg up in the global marketplace.
Howard Stephenson: We can’t just hunker down and not recognize that the world is changing around us, and we need to connect with that changing world.
Freemark: The original plan was just to give Utah high schoolers a couple of years of language education. Now, this is a pretty standard model – you probably recognize it from when you took a second language in high school. But pretty quickly, Stephenson realized that that plan wasn’t going to churn out students capable of making business deals in China. After all, how much do any of us remember from our high school French classes?
Stephenson: That’snot where we wanted to go. No, we will have fluency.
Smith: So Stephenson went back to the state Senate. Now he was asking for something much more ambitious: for lawmakers to fund immersion programs in elementary schools all over the state. It wasn’t the most intuitive idea – Utah spends less per pupil on education than any other state in the country, so there wasn’t a lot of funding to spread around. And Utah is a politically conservative state. But it’s also a place that values its Mormon heritage. The Mormon Church sends tens of thousands of missionaries around the world each year.
Stephenson: It’s not that Utahans are that much more cosmopolitan or outreaching to the rest of the world, although I think that we are in a way because of the Mormon influence of missionaries and that kind of thing, but I believe there was a resonance there with legislators realizing yes, we do need to be culturally competent.
Lawmakers agreed to provide a small amount of seed money to schools that switched to an immersion model. Some principals embraced the idea right away, and programs began in a few schools in 2009. But others were skeptical.
Susan Harrah: I said, “Well, great, okay,” and thought to myself, “Um, that’s really hard.”
Freemark: Arrowhead Elementary principal Susan Harrah first heard about immersion in 2011. And it wasn’t that she thought learning a second language was a BAD idea, exactly – it was just that it seemed so…secondary to all the other things a kid has to learn in elementary school.
Smith: But Harrah figured that she should at least look into the idea. So she called up her friend Mona Haslem, who’s a principal at a nearby elementary called Horizon. And the two principals drove a couple of hours to a school where a Chinese immersion program had been in place for a few years.
Harrah: It was like, let’s just solidify what I already know. This is just not going to work.[Laughs]
Freemark: So they get to the school, and the principal walks them down to the 1st grade immersion classroom.
Harrah: We just kind of slipped in to the back, and we sat down. The teacher was teaching a lesson about a cat. And she was, you know, making her arms move like the cat. And the kids were so engaged. It was just, like, the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Mona Haslem: We were just amazed–
Freemark: This is Principal Mona Haslem.
Haslem: — at how quickly the kids could speak to each other and how much confidence that they had. And it was at the beginning, fairly beginning of the year, so I thought, “Wow, if these kids can do this already…” I was won over immediately.
Harrah: And within one minute, maybe two, we said, “We are totally doing this. Totally.”
Smith: The whole way home, Haslem and Harrah plotted. How to implement the program in their schools. How to break the news to nervous teachers and parents.
Freemark: Stacy Steiner was one of those parents. She has two boys in first grade at Horizon – Tiger and his stepbrother Justin. And when she heard about immersion, she was leery. She was especially worried about Justin, whose test scores weren’t great.
Stacy Steiner: And I was a little concerned about him not having the foundation they get in first grade, and I felt like adding a language to that would be a challenge. And so there was a lot of angst over that at the very beginning.
Smith: Haslem and Harrah expected angst from their students as well. Here’s Harrah again.
Harrah: We had heard that they’d go through this period of excitement, then crying, then excitement again, and then after Christmas, some crying, and [laughs].
Freemark: But to Harrah’s amazement, that didn’t happen. It was almost like the kids didn’t know that school was supposed to be any different.
Harrah: It was very easy to implement. A lot easier than I had originally thought.
Smith: But what Harrah and Haslem were really worried about were the benchmark tests that Utah elementary schools give students in math and reading.
Freemark: Howard Stephenson had warned administrators about research that showed that immersion students usually take an initial academic hit in their math and reading scores. Stephenson called it “the dip.”
Stephenson: Naturally we expected that would happen. I mean how can you spend half the day in a foreign language and get your math instruction in that foreign language without your math scores suffering? I think everybody was assuming, “Well, my children are going to suffer academically, but it’s worth it.”
Freemark: But at Arrowhead and Horizon, the dip never happened. When those first test scores came back, the students in the immersion program actually scored a little higher than their counterparts in the English-only classes.
Haslem: Oh, the teachers came running down the hall. Look at these scores, look at these scores! And you could just see the climate of the whole school raise a little bit, because they were thinking, oh this is going to work.
Freemark: That’s been the case for every test since at Arrowhead and Horizon, and it’s been this way at immersion programs across Utah.
Smith: It’s hard to tease out exactly why immersion kids would score higher than other kids on content tests. One obvious answer is that parents who choose immersion programs are more committed and involved than other parents. But an increasing body of research suggests that language learning itself can help students achieve.
Freemark: Michael Kieffer is a professor of education at New York University. He studies reading development in bilingual children. And in 2010, he started looking at this massive government data set that followed about 10 thousand students from kindergarten through 8th grade. The data is broken down incredibly finely, by socioeconomic background, ethnicity, even the number of books kids have in their homes.
Smith: What Kieffer found when he started crunching the numbers was that there seemed to be real differences in how the bilingual kids learned to read English.
Michael Kieffer: So they started out a little bit lower than the monolinguals in kindergarten, but by about 1st grade they had caught up, and then by 8th grade they actually were doing quite a bit better. By 8th grade, students who entered kindergarten bilingually are about nine months ahead in their reading levels compared to monolingual students.
Freemark: Kieffer wondered why he was seeing these improvements. So he went back to the data set. This time, he looked at what teachers said about how well each child paid attention in class.
Kieffer: And so what I found was, these early bilinguals, in addition to having this advantage for reading, also seemed to have an advantage for attention.
Smith: Kieffer found that 40 percent of the bilingual reading comprehension advantage could be attributed to improved attention. To put it more scientifically, the students’ executive control systems, the same system that Ellen Bialystok studies in her lab, seemed stronger. And that ability seemed to be making them better readers.
Freemark: Now, Kieffer is careful to say that his work should be taken with a lot of caveats. It’s hard to control for everything in a child’s life. And Kieffer was also studying a very specific population: kids who were fully bilingual by kindergarten. Not kids in immersion programs.
Smith: But there’s other research that looks directly at the impact programs like Utah’s can have on students. The Rand Corporation is studying dual-language immersion in Portland, Oregon, which runs lotteries for its immersion programs.
Freemark: Rand is comparing Portland students who were randomly assigned to immersion programs to those who applied but didn’t get in. Now, this should theoretically control for any differences in family motivation or engagement. And while the study is still underway, researchers are finding that students who won immersion lotteries ended up half a grade ahead in 5th grade reading, compared to lottery losers.
Stacy Steiner: Okay, so let’s do some homework…
Tiger and Justin: What does it mean? He shui, he shui.
Smith: It’s a Tuesday evening at Stacy Steiner’s house, and her sons Justin and Tiger are sitting at their kitchen island, doing Chinese homework. The boys are both seven years old, skinny, with ears that stick out.
Justin: We’re writing characters.
Tiger: There’s a certain way how to do it.
Justin: How do you say man again, Tiger?
Tiger: Shi4 ren2.
Freemark: Stacy Steiner was the mom we heard from earlier, who had been nervous about putting her kids in the Chinese program at Horizon Elementary. Eventually, she decided to take the plunge, and she enrolled Justin and Tiger in immersion.
Justin: The first day we had two classes, English and then Chinese.
Tiger: I asked my mom – I mean, I told her, this is going to be great, ‘cause our teacher is going to just say a Chinese word and then tell us in English.
Justin: And then we went in it, and our teacher was like “Tong xue men, ni men hao,” or something. She can’t talk any English, only Chinese. And so I was like, “Okay, how do we do this? This is going to be hard in Chinese. This is going to be so hard.”
Stacy says she worried through the whole first month of classes. How were the boys doing? Was Justin keeping up? And then came the first parent-teacher conferences.
Steiner: Ok let’s see, ok, this is video of Justin reading…[Justin reads Chinese]
Stacy made a recording of the conference on her iPad. On the screen, you can see Justin sitting with his teacher, reading from a sheet of Mandarin characters.
[Video excerpt of Justin reading]
It was amazing, Stacy says, to sit there and watch her child – the kid she had worried so much about – read in Chinese.
[Video excerpt Justin reading]
Steiner: Justin wasn’t reading English that fast last year, and now he’s reading characters. I was warned ahead of time that I would be surprised at how much they’d learned. But nothing really prepares you. [More Justin reading]
[Laughs] It’s fun to watch that.
Last year, Justin’s test scores were near the bottom of his class. This year, he’s making A’s.
Steiner: I’ve always known that Justin is very smart. I just worried that others wouldn’t know that he was very smart or that he wouldn’t know that he was very smart. But I don’t worry about that anymore. And to watch that, and to watch his excitement, has been so exciting for me. And it just—it has absolutely broadened my plans for my children. I’m excited to see what they do with it. Maybe they’ll wave to me from the top sometime. “Hi mom!” [Laughs] Yeah.
Freemark to Justin and Tiger: Do you guys know that people think that Chinese is, like, the hardest language that anyone could learn?
Justin: Do you think?
Freemark: Do I think that? I guess I did.
Tiger: I don’t.
Justin: No. I think it’s easy. It’s just fun. Because whenever I’m done with the Chinese program I can come home speaking Chinese, and my mom won’t even know what I’m saying. Like, Bu ke yi shuo ying wen. Do you know what that means?
Steiner: What does that mean?
Justin and Tiger: That means don’t talk in English. [Laughter]
[Justin singing superman song in Chinese]
Stephenson: It’s obvious that the quality of education experience is improved immensely for those children who participate in these language programs.
Smith: This is Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson again.
Stephenson: One thing that has been disappointing to me is that it’s not available to everybody. We have had some parents who have actually considered suing the state of Utah because their child was not picked in the lottery. So it’s frustrating for me to see that it’s not scaling more rapidly than it is. We offer more than any other state, but it’s still not enough.
Stephenson says that, from his point of view, immersion education offers more bang for the buck than any education program he’s seen before. In Utah, immersion costs the state about $100 per child per year.
Stephenson: There are few programs in education that move the needle in any way that cost so little. I mean, usually we’re talking millions and millions and millions of dollars to do anything meaningful in education. This is a no-brainer, for lack of a better word. It’s a bargain.
Freemark: Other states are also investing in immersion education. California and Minnesota have long been leaders in immersion, and Delaware has a new program modeled after Utah’s.
Smith: But in general, across the country, elementary and middle schools are cutting their language classes. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, only a quarter of elementary schools now offer any kind of foreign language instruction.
Freemark: The thing is, adults, and even teenagers, don’t learn languages nearly as fast or as well as children do. And all the other brain benefits that seem to come from language learning? They’re probably more available to kids as well. Many researchers believe that the longer we wait to teach foreign languages, the more we miss out on the chance to boost the brains of young people.
Smith: You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: “The Science of Smart.” Coming up, we’ll meet a medical student who turned to brain science when he started flunking out of school, and we’ll talk to some seventh graders whose homework is also cutting-edge scientific research.
Student 1: I was like, “Really?”
Student 2: You’re just like wait…what? I don’t remember this.
To learn more about languages and the brain, and to see photos of Chinese immersion classes in Utah, visit our website at americanradioworks.org. While you’re there, you can download other American RadioWorks programs about how people learn and the ways that education is changing. You can also sign up for our weekly education podcast. That’s americanradioworks.org.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Our program continues in just a moment, from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “The Science of Smart.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Samara Freemark: And I’m Samara Freemark. All this hour, we’re talking about what research says are the best ways to learn. And now, we’re turning to memory. Why do we forget so much of what we think we’ve learned?
That’s what kept happening to a guy named Michael Young.
5 years ago Michael was working as a counselor in a drug abuse clinic in Georgia.
Michael Young: I could talk to my patients, you know. I could try to talk them through things, but then I felt like that’s all I could do. If anything got more complicated, the doctor had to take over.
Michael watched doctors prescribe medications to help patients with withdrawal symptoms. He watched them deal with medical emergencies. And he decided that he wanted to do all that. So he stopped by the nearest university, which was Columbus State, and he asked about pre-med classes.
Young: And they kind of laughed at me and said, “You know, we don’t really have a pre-med department, and people from Columbus State don’t go to medical school.
But Michael is nothing if not persistent, which you’ll hear more about later. “Come up with something!” he said. So Columbus State kind of jerry rigged a curriculum for him.
Young: You have to have Biology Two to get into medical school. And since they didn’t have a Biology Two, I ended up taking fishing to meet that requirement. We went out to the river and waded around. [Laughs] We actually dissected a fish one time.
Freemark: So that’s something, I guess.
Young: [Laughs] Yeah, that is something. But it didn’t prepare me that well for medical school.
Michael finished his improvised pre-med program, he eked out a decent grade on the medical school entrance exam, he started applying to schools, and he was thrilled when he got an acceptance letter from Georgia Regents University in Augusta, which is where I met up with him one day after class.
Young: I was ready to go, I got into medical school, I was so happy.
Michael’s first class was biochem, and it’s safe to say, he was not prepared.
Young: I show up with my little notebook, and I had my little backpack and my little pen, and everybody else has their Macbooks that they’re pulling out. The professor comes in, he has this serious look, and he’s ready to go. And he doesn’t even introduce himself, just starts writing down all this biochemistry on the board. And I didn’t understand anything that was being written on the chalkboard. And I think that right at that moment I realized that this was not going to be an easy thing by any means.
Halfway into the semester, they had their first test.
Young: And I studied for – I kid you not, from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed. Sixteen hours a day of studying. I just read my notes, when I finished, read them again, when I finished, read them again. And I say okay, I’ve got this, I memorized it in the book, I know this, you know, I’m just going to do great.
Now, this is exactly how a bunch of students study. They read their notes, and then reread, and then read again. Rereading is by far the most common study strategy for students in higher education. That’s probably because it feels good. Once you’ve reread a chapter a couple of times, you really feel like you’ve got it. And in the short term, you do. Research shows that people can remember stuff they just read really well.
But it turns out – and we’ll get to the why behind this a bit later – that rereading is almost totally ineffective for longterm remembering, even remembering that has to happen just a day later, which Michael found out on that first biochem test.
Young: I get to the test and I just have no idea.
Everything that Michael had been so sure was lodged in his head just vaporized. It was like he hadn’t studied at all.
Young: They posted it pretty quick. And I remember I checked it in my car, in the parking lot. So I ended up getting that score back, and it was a 65. And I was terrified.
The same thing happened on his next couple of tests. Biochem, anatomy – his grades that first semester were terrible.
Young: I asked myself the question, am I doing everything right? And I knew that the answer wasn’t studying more, because there was no way to study more than what I did. And I thought well, maybe I’m just not studying the right way.
So Michael went to his computer and typed in something like, “How to improve memory.” At first he got a bunch of silly stuff from people who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about. So he started poking around in the academic research. And that’s how he found this man.
Roddy Roediger: I am Roddy Roediger. I study learning and memory, I’ve been doing it for about 40 years now.
Roddy Roediger is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and he’s obsessed with memory.
About 20 years ago, Roediger was running an experiment on how images help people remember things.
Roediger: But as part of the experiment I had people studying 60 pictures.
One group just stared at the pictures for 20 minutes. A second group studied them for most of that time but was asked to recall the pictures once during the session.
Roediger: The third group studied the 60 pictures, and I tested them three times. Seven minutes, they recalled what they could, little break. Seven more minutes, take their sheet away, do it again. Another seven minutes–bored out of their minds. They thought, this is awful.
But when he tested the three groups on the pictures a week later, there were huge differences in how much they each remembered. The first group – the one that had just studied the whole time – remembered 16 of the 60 pictures. The second group did a little better. But the third group – the ones he had driven crazy by testing them over and over – they did great. They remembered 32 pictures.
Roediger: So 100 percent improvement in recall, just from practicing retrieval.
This phenomenon is called the “testing effect,” or “retrieval practice,” and it became a major focus of Roediger’s work.
Over the course of more than a decade of research, Roediger’s lab has compiled massive amounts of evidence supporting what he found in that first experiment: that testing isn’t just a way to see how much someone knows. It can also be a remarkable tool for learning – especially when compared to tactics like rereading.
Roediger: If you want to remember something, simple rereading over and over often doesn’t do anything for long-term retention.
Rereading is like stuffing your brain with facts and ideas the way you’d pack a box. But it’s not enough to get information into your brain; you have to practice pulling it out as well, or you won’t be able to access it when you need it.
Roediger: We don’t get info into memory just to have it sit there. We get it in to be able to use it later. If it’s in there, and we can’t get at it, it might as well not be there.
You can actually do a little experiment on yourself to see why sheer repetition isn’t necessarily enough to make you remember things in a useful way. Imagine the head side of a penny. It’s small, it’s copper-colored, it’s got Abe Lincoln’s profile on it. Now, which way is Abe facing?
Sitting here right now, I honestly can’t remember, and I’m willing to bet that you can’t either. And why not? Haven’t you seen a penny a million times? The thing is, Roediger says, you can see something over and over, and not have it really stick in your mind. You also have to practice pulling the information out.
Young: Coming across his research, it was the first time I had ever heard this idea of the testing effect.
This is Michael Young, the Georgia medical student.
Roediger: Michael sent me an email out of the blue, saying he’d read some of my papers, and he had some questions, and could I take a few moments to answer them, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it, because I get these from a lot of people, but he was more persistent than most…
Young: I was desperate for answers, because here I was struggling, and here’s this empirical research about exactly what I was having a hard time with.
The first thing Roediger told Michael? Stop rereading. Instead, start testing yourself. Read a chapter, then look up from your book, and try to recall what information you just took in. Make up little quizzes for yourself.
Young: Write it on the board over and over again, think about it when you’re in the shower, think about it while you’re riding in the car, think about how are they going to ask me this on the test? How is this going to show up in my clinic?
That kind of studying was harder for Michael. It felt uncomfortable, inefficient. It made his head hurt. But the more he studied that way, the more things came together. He started making A’s, and he actually started tutoring other students, teaching them to quiz themselves. For the past couple of years, med school has been pretty much smooth sailing.
[Sounds of a clinic]
Young: So we have a patient presenting today, with chief complaint of a left earache…
Michael spends his weekday mornings at a primary care clinic in Evans, Georgia. He’s doing a rotation here in family medicine as part of his medical degree.
Young: I get to go interview the patient, examine them, come out and report to the doctor what my findings were, and what I would do if I was the treating physician.
Attending physician: Any sinus tenderness here?
Young: No sinus tenderness when you palpate…
Michael plans to go into family medicine when he graduates in 2015. He says he wants to be the kind of doctor who makes house calls.
Young: I absolutely love it. I really do. It honestly feels surreal to me – I just can’t believe I’m going to be a doctor, you know?
So if frequent quizzing is so effective for people like Michael, why isn’t it used more in higher education? This question really came home for me in a conversation I had with a Washington University professor named Andy Sobel. Sobel used to teach one of those huge freshman Intro to Poli Sci classes. He structured it in a pretty traditional way: daily lectures, a midterm exam, and then a final.
Andy Sobel: And I had pretty good results.
Then he heard Roddy Roediger give a presentation on the testing effect, and Sobel realized that his students were studying in exactly the wrong way – by rereading their notes the night before his two exams.
Sobel: But if you want to turn out people who actually learn the material and remember it six months later, eight months later, two years later, that’s actually the worst possible strategy.
A vastly better model, Sobel thought, would be one where he essentially forced his students to retrieve knowledge over and over again throughout the course.
So, every semester, instead of those two exams, he started giving nine quizzes. All those little tests would count for a grade, but they would also, Sobel hoped, be a tool for learning. And while at first his students hated the quizzes…
Sobel: By the end of the semester, my students were writing answers to my questions that were comparable to what my upper division students would be writing, in terms of the amount of information they retain over the course of the semester. And that had never happened before. And so the only thing that can explain that, the only thing that varied in there was the testing structure.
Freemark: Have you talked to other peers here or colleagues about the way you structured your class?
Sobel: Yeah, I have. [Laughs] Some have tinkered a little bit, but you know, university faculty in America are considered very smart but are also very conservative. We don’t like to change our ways.
Students don’t like to change their ways either. They’re not exactly begging for more testing, even though quizzes could help them learn better.
The thing is, people use inefficient methods to learn new facts and practice new skills all the time. Teachers and students often think these practices are good for learning, but research shows other methods would work better.
[Sounds of a golf range and LAX planes over head]
Smith: At the Westchester driving range in Los Angeles, a medium-sized bucket of balls costs seven bucks. They spill out of a golf ball vending machine.
[Balls spilling into bucket]
Loitering by the driving range are three old friends who are also experts on how humans learn. Tim Lee is a kinesiologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. He studies human movement and how people learn with their bodies.
Tim Lee: So I’m going to try to hit this knock-down shot just over that blue flag there.
[Whack of golf ball]
Well, Lee’s shot went a little bit right of the target.
Lee: But I kept it low, which is what I wanted to do.
Sitting nearby is Dick Schmidt. He’s also a kinesiologist and a retired professor at UCLA, and he and Lee wrote one of the leading textbooks on skills acquisition. Golf is not Schmidt’s game.
Dick Schmidt: Well, I have played, I’ve played very badly though.
And the third guy here is Bob Bjork. He’s a professor of psychology at UCLA. He studies human memory and how people learn. Bjork is a golfer. He looks out across the driving range where people are practicing their shots. Bjork says the way most of these golfers try to improve their game is basically wrong. Golfers tend to practice the same swing with the same club, over and over again. That’s not how the game is actually played on the golf course.
Bob Bjork: What you need to do is, first of all, aim at different targets. Like I might aim at that bullseye over there. Hit different distances, switch clubs…
[Golf club swing and whack]
This business of practicing the same shot with the same club over and over again is what researchers like Dick Schmidt call “blocking.” You do the same thing repeatedly as a big block of activity.
Schmidt: If you think of learning as stamping something in, repetition is really good for stamping something in.
But it’s not the best way to learn a new skill. Tim Lee says that people who learn a skill through blocking perform well when tested right away, but don’t retain the knowledge the way they would if they alternated the skills they were trying to learn. That method is called interleaving.
Lee: I love the term cause I think it actually gets at the process of intermixing practice on one variation of a task with other variations of the task.
So on the driving range you could interleave your practice by using a different club for each shot, or you could mix up the shots you make with a given club.
Lee: What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna try to hit three different shots with this five iron.
But is learning how to hit a golf ball like learning an academic subject in school? We’ll let Tim Lee interleave his golf shots on the driving range, and head over to the UCLA campus. Years ago, Dick Schmidt and Bob Bjork taught a graduate seminar there on the differences between learning motor skills and learning cognitive skills.
Bjork: We ended up really struck with the commonalities.
One of those commonalities was the whole question of blocking versus interleaving. If interleaving is better for learning motor skills, will it also be more effective for learning new ideas?
Veronica Yan: So, I’m Veronica Yan. I’m a fifth-year graduate student in the Bjork lab. And were sitting here in one of our testing labs. So we have five shiny Mac computers.
Veronica Yan is going to run a cognitive performance test on me. This experiment is designed to test whether I will learn better with blocking or with interleaving. My task is to learn the painting styles of a set of visual artists.
Yan: You will see six paintings by each of 12 different artists. Your task is to learn each artist’s style.
I don’t know it yet, but I’m going to be offered two different ways of linking the painter’s style to the painter’s names. I’ll be shown a bunch of paintings and names through blocking, in other words, the same painter over and over again. But then I’ll also see a set of paintings shown interleaved, where the artists are shuffled together.
Smith: It says get ready. Okay I’m ready. So I’m looking a pointillist painting by Cross, with very colorful brush strokes or brush dabs. Hawkins, these are more atmospheric and then Juras, look at that. That’s representational.
So this goes on for a while. I do recognize the names of two of the painters but not their actual works. Then it comes time to test what I’ve learned.
Smith: Now you will see paintings you did not see earlier. It’s your job to identify which artist painted them. And how many paintings am I gonna look at?
Yan: You’’ll be tested on a total of 48…
Smith: 48 paintings.
Yan: So four paintings…
I’m sure I’m going to mess this up completely, but I launch into the testing phase. Paintings and multiple choice names flash on the screen.
Smith: I think that’s…Lewis.
Smith: I got it right, what do you know? This one is, I think this one is Juris. Yeah, I got that one right too. Okay.
Like most people who take this test, I did better identifying the artists that had been interleaved than ones that had been blocked. Most people get about 35 percent of the blocked examples, and 60 percent of the interleaved. Bob Bjork says interleaving works because it seems to fit the mind’s natural capacity to detect patterns and compare differences.
But when Bjork asks test subjects which learning strategy they think worked best for them…
Bjork: Overwhelmingly, the same people who performed substantially better with interleaving say with complete confidence that blocking is better. There’s a profound mismatch between the actual efficiency of learning and what people think.
This may be one reason that interleaving is surprisingly rare in schools. Most teachers still tend to use blocked lesson plans. But interleaving can have dramatic results in the classroom.
Dimik: Hi guys, come on in.
Freemark: This is Jen Demik’s seventh grade pre-algebra classroom.
Dimik: All right, so let’s take a look at this one. Which one of these is x and which one of these is y?
Dimik is a teacher at Liberty Middle School, in Tampa, Florida.
Student: The answer is C.
Dimik: Oh, you like this question because now you’re all yelling at me!
Dimik loves math, and she really wants her seventh graders to love it too. For her, it’s a mission.
Dimik: When you look at algebra, and high school math, seventh grade is the last shot you have to convince kids that they can still do this. Because if they go into algebra not thinking they can do it, they’re going to have struggles the rest of their career. So if we can get them now, then they’re good.
And so when a researcher from the University of South Florida came to Dimik three years ago and told her he wanted to redesign her curriculum so her kids would learn better, she actually gave him the time of day.
That researcher was named Doug Rohrer. He’s a psychologist, and he had done work with Bob Bjork on interleaving.
Doug Rohrer: A lot of learning studies have been shown to be effective in the lab, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll prove effective in the classroom.
Liberty Middle School was just down the street from Rohrer’s house, so he figured he’d call up the school’s math teacher and see if he could come in. Rohrer explained to Dimik the research on interleaving – how, in the lab, it seemed to lead to big gains in learning. He told her he wanted to try interleaving her students’ homework assignments.
Dimik: My eyes lit up when he said it, I was like, this makes so much sense. But are our resources currently designed like that? No they’re not. So I thought it was fantastic and I was all for it.
Dimik was also getting tired of the standard model of math homework, which is to give kids lots of problems on the concepts they’ve just learned. You probably remember these kinds of assignments from when you were in school: tons of questions on the same idea, with only the specific numbers changed.
Dimik: I’m sorry, if you give someone 45 questions solving for x, we call that drill and kill. We’ll just keep drilling you until we kill you and then you will definitely hate math. So why are we doing 400 math problems that are the same? No wonder they hate it.
So together Rohrer and Dimik designed a simple experiment to interleave homework. Half of Dimik’s homework unitswould stay the same. But for the other half, Rohrer would take all the homework questions Dimik had used last year and mix them up. So every assignment would have some questions about what the class was currently studying, and some questions about things they had studied earlier in the year.
Marigny: So it would be like a review every time you did homework.
Marigny, Brianna, Sebastian, and Courtney were in Dimik’s class last year.
Marigny: For me, I was like really? Cause it’s like been so long since you’ve actually seen how to do it, so like when it comes back you’re just like wait, what? I don’t remember this.
But once they got used to it, the students started to kind of like the new homework.
Sebastian: Cause when you’re reviewing – there’s an aha moment – oh it just kind of clicks and you know. Oh, I know how to do that.
Marigny: And then, after a while, it’s just like, okay this is actually like really helping me. And it was easy and it was fun, and yeah, I liked it.
And it just kind of clicks and you know I know how to do that. And then after awhile I was like, this is really helping me. And it was easy and it was fun and yeah, I liked it.
Courtney: So like, when it comes time for the tests you’re not like – [gasp] what?
Other students: Yeah. [Laugh]
At the end of the study, Doug Rohrer walked into Dimik’s classroom and gave the kids an unannounced test on everything they had covered up till then – both interleaved and standard. And the kids did better on the interleaved materials, way better. For the kinds of problems they learned with interleaved practice, the kids averaged 72 percent correct. With blocked practice, they averaged only 38 percent.
When Jen Dimik saw these results, she was blown away.
Dimik: The difference between 30 and 70 is monstrous. I mean that’s double. That’s double. So enough said.
Now, Doug Rohrer, being a scientist and not a middle school teacher, is much more cautious.
Rohrer: We want to make sure these effects generalize to other kinds of material, students of different levels, students in different grades. Still, it is a big difference. I think we can safely say these results demonstrate that there’s something to interleaving, and it deserves further research.
Now the thing that to me is so striking about these results is how little actually had to change to achieve them. Dimik and Rohrer weren’t designing a new way to teach math. They weren’t even writing new homework questions. All they were doing was giving the kids the same questions as before, in a different order.
Dimik: [Laugh] Yeah I know. It’s ridiculously simple. But it’s difficult because of time constraints, it’s difficult because of, I have to make sure they’ve learned today’s lesson. The fear is that if I get away from what I’m doing right now, then they’re not going to get enough out of it. Which is I’m sure why we go with I’ve taught you A, B and C today, we’re going to go home and practice A, B and C.
Smith: This is something a lot of teachers and researchers told us: Even when research has really promising results, it’s hard to get new methods of teaching into the classroom. I asked psychologist Bob Bjork about that.
Smith: Is the science of learning finding its way into the practice of learning?
Bjork: I would say slowly, agonizingly slowly. There’s a broad feeling that we could learn better, our kids could learn better, that it’s important. And everything we’re seeing here suggests that schools could be more effective, people could learn much more effectively than they’re learning.
Freemark: Bjork says the problem is that people stick to learning methods that don’t actually work very well. Teachers and students are used to those methods, and don’t want to change. So schools don’t take advantage of teaching techniques that may have helped save a medical student’s career, or helped a struggling first-grader become a star student.
Smith: It’s not just a question of learning well in school, or on the golf course. Bjork says all of us need to become smarter learners.
Bjork: Almost any job occupation you have to keep managing some new technology. People shift their careers. So this is a kind of lifelong thing where just knowing how to manage your own learning is very important, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy.
Freemark: For Bob Bjork, and the other researchers we spoke with, the biggest challenge now is getting the science of smart out of the lab, and into the world.
Smith: You’ve been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “The Science of Smart.” It was produced by Samara Freemark and me, Stephen Smith. It was edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Craig Thorson, Dylan McCoy, Peter Clowney, Laurie Stern, Ellen Guettler and Jennifer Luebke. Special thanks to Kohnstamm Communications.
You can see photos of the people you met in this program, find links to the research we talked about, and play some brain games at our website, americanradioworks.org. While you’re there, let us know what you think of this program, and sign up for our weekly podcast. You can also find us on Facebook at American.radioworks, and follow us on Twitter @amradioworks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.