In a couple weeks, I will be conducting my first research study at a school in Seattle. Here’s a slightly edited version of the post I wrote for their community newsletter.
In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that we tend to forget the things we learn at a highly predictable rate. What made the discovery of the “forgetting curve” groundbreaking for the time was that Ebbinghaus proved the existence of the phenomenon not through speculation, anecdotal evidence, or by appealing to ancient wisdom, but through carefully controlled experiments and the scientific method.
Today, it’s easy to take for granted that many of our most salient educational innovations—the understanding that learning distributed over time is more effective than learning content en masse, that Latin doesn’t make you better at thinking, that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but is malleable—began as mere hypotheses before being tested on live subjects. Without these experiments on voluntary participants, much of what we know about learning and cognition might never have been discovered, and our teaching methods would be derived not from evidence, but from a mixture of tradition, fads, and folklore.
In October, approximately 200 high school students in this community will continue in the footsteps of Ebbinghaus’s subjects, and countless others, to participate in my Ph.D. research on online learning. Students (with permission from their parents/guardians) will sign consent forms and engage in a brief online math lesson on their laptops. While the problems in the math lesson will be the same for all students, the teaching method will differ depending on which group the student is randomly assigned to. The experimental design of the research will allow us to infer that any discrepancies in the performance between the groups at the end of the lesson were likely caused by the format of the instruction.
What do we stand to gain from on-campus research about learning and instruction? For one, each student’s anonymous data, like a vote at the ballot box, will make a small, but significant, contribution to the quality and accuracy of the world’s knowledge base. Students may be pleased to know that the results will be reported in my dissertation and submitted for publication in scholarly journals for the benefit of unknown numbers of researchers and practitioners. Once the data are analyzed, I will share the findings with students and teachers, which will help to inform the future of our learning program. Ultimately, the greatest reward for students, I feel, will be their experience of seeing science come to life right here on campus.
– Zach Groshell