Retrieve, Recall, Reflect and Refine: Preparing for Exams/Projects…NOW: A Blog Post on How to Make Learning Last


Written by Glenn Whitman and Dr. Ian Kelleher

As the weather warms and students see that they are in the home stretch of the school year, their brains and the brains of their teachers are starting to think about summer. At the same time, we realize at St. Andrew’s and many schools around the world that significant stressors await: national and state assessments of learning as well as school and teacher-designed final exams and projects.

The longstanding tradition of summative assessment final exams as the way to measure a student’s cumulative understanding remains a common pedagogical practice. When we first got to St. Andrew’s, we provided students with two sets of exams, one just before Thanksgiving and the other at the end of the year (we now only give one set of exams for yearlong courses). Like many schools, we have deliberated over the proper number and placement of exams. But for what reasons? We think there should be two goals of summative assessments: to maximize the learning of new knowledge and skills and to best develop students’ exam/project taking skills (since exams will be a feature of most of our students’ higher education lives).

What is the purpose of exams? The traditional responses include to: “know what students know” and “see how well students can recall a larger body of material.” But, at best, students demonstrate such knowledge and understanding for the short term. Part of the unspoken game of exams is that students routinely expunge all this from their brain the moment they leave the exam room. UCLA psychology professor Robert Bjork calls this “accessibility,” and it is a pointless goal for a year-long arduous, emotional journey in a class.

Learning is different from accessibility. Learning involves creating durable and flexible knowledge that students are able to use in novel contexts. If we want exams to be related to learning rather than accessibility, what can we do differently?

A research-informed experience every teacher who is designing a final exam or project should consider is one school’s approach after having students take final exams in June. The following September they gave the students the exam again, unannounced this time. But the teachers pared the exam down to the crucial, big-picture elements they absolutely hoped students would have taken from the course. Even with this tweak, the results, as you might guess, were disheartening. Most students failed, and the average was 58%. Should we have expected anything more?

But research suggests that there might be a better way to approach cumulative assessments. And, with one month before AP exams, and two months before final exams and projects, we propose a new way of thinking about final exams and suggest the following research-informed strategies as ways to have students strengthen their neural networks. One hope for this work is that it will reduce student exam stress, which, as the connection between cognition and emotion shows, can contribute to a student’s poor performance, even if he or she studied for the assessment.

Beginning a final exam/project development review/preparation period two weeks before exams commence, the current policy at St. Andrew’s, is not enough. In fact, if we consider MBE science and research around memory, the weeks ahead provide excellent opportunities to make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment common occurrences in our classes. So here are some suggestions:

1. Determine the essential knowledge and skills you want students to know and demonstrate on a final exam or project. As you ponder the 3-5 essential understandings and the content that underpins those understandings, consider seeing your students twenty years from now and what you hope stuck in their brains from your class.

2. Inspired by a recent Tweet from Learning Scientists (@acethattest, create a one-month (for AP Exams) or two-month (final exams/projects) calendar that includes daily content or skills you want students to recall at the beginning of each class with a quick, written or online formative assessment. Another tweet-inspired idea from Brad Dale (@bradjdale) 24-hours before the finals of the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball championships is to create a bracket of content you want students to recall and have students discuss a matchup or two per day. Start with your #1 seeds. What would they be for a set of world history events, math formulas, or elements on the Periodic Table (imagine H going up against Fe)?

3. If you already have taught some of the knowledge and skills that you will assess on the final exam, start providing students opportunities to see how much they have retained and can recall through weekly, or even daily, short formative assessments. As a reminder, a formative assessment is one in which students get to see where they are, you get to see where they are, and you both do things differently as a result of this insight. One practical guideline for formative assessments is to give them the lowest grade point value possible for students to engage deeply with the task. As St. Andrew’s biology teacher Phyllis Robinson said, “Right now students in my AP Bio class would do anything for two points.”

4. For those teachers giving alternative exams or projects, use these recall opportunities to prime a student’s brain for the type of content, creativity, connections, and skills you want them to demonstrate.

5. As you work through the final third of the school year and introduce new content and skills to students, find ways for students to “hang” prior knowledge onto that new knowledge. For example, as students study the Korean and Vietnam Wars in history class, a teacher will have them review the causes of the previous wars they have studied that year to find points of intersection and departure. For example, it seems ships are always a common theme: remember the Merrimack and the Monitor, The Maine, Lusitania, and Pearl Harbor and the Maddox?

6. Teach students important memory strategies such as:

– Flashcards: Most students usually use the cards incorrectly. They flip them over too quickly, creating a false sense of understanding. One important tip: students should not turn over the card to check for an answer unless they have deliberately considered their response. The not-knowing-struggle-pause is the crucial step.

– Self-testing: Use review sheets, check the posted answer guide, check your notes where understanding is unclear, and check in with the teacher if questions or uncertainties remain.

– Retrieval practice: Take out a piece of paper and write and sketch what you know (“dual coding” of words plus pictures may help, depending on the subject and student – have kids experiment with it). Or create a post-it note organizational masterpiece. As with self-testing, check with notes afterwards and see the teacher if necessary. In the words of Dr. Judy Willis, who worked with St. Andrew’s teachers in 2014, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

7. Interleave new material with recap blasts of older material. Where it fits naturally, “spiral” by building on previous knowledge, though this is not always essential. For example, see the diagram below for an illustration of how spaced learning can look differently from massed learning.

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 10.42.03 PM

Research suggests that spaced review leads to higher test scores and longer term retention of learning than massed studying, as shown in the diagram below.

8. John Hattie’s giant meta-study of 300 million students found that the most important aspect of successful learning is to use the right strategy at the right time. So what exam preparation strategies work for each individual student? Have students go into Schoology, or your Learning Management System (LMS) equivalent, to see how they reflected on the exam or project from the previous year. Focus here on the strategies, not the grade, and what can be gleaned from prior experience.

9. When writing review questions, try alternating questions for students to do with worked example answers. Research suggests that this pattern improves learning.

10. Try this: two or three weeks prior to your final exam or project, provide students a giant formative assessment in the form of a “mock” exam. We see this as a game changer for how students prepare for exams, how teachers grade final exams, and how feedback is given. Such an assessment would do three critically important things:

    • allow the teacher to know what students know and don’t know (and thus bring focus to review sessions)
    • allow the student to know where he or she is currently with the material
    • allow both the teacher and student to do something different ahead of the exam

It means that the teacher can give feedback at a point in time when students can actually choose to make good use of it. All the ‘red pen’ on final exams is perhaps the least ‘bang for your buck’, and greatest waste of effort, that teachers do. So let’s cut it out. Also, by this point in the year, we should be aiming to give students less detailed feedback –leaving them to put in the thinking to fix their mistakes, using their notes and then their teacher when necessary. By the end of the year, we want our students to have taken a step forward in being independent thinkers and strong self-advocates, so let’s incentivize this in the exams.

Although giving students a mock exam may seem like “giving the test away,” that is, in fact, the whole point of the mock exam since our goal is for students to see where they are, where they need to get to, and what they need to do before the exam. We believe a mock exam could even work as a lead-in to a final project.

If you feel that giving a mock exam would be too much of a giveaway, we suggest you rethink the content of your exam: does it weigh too heavily on surface knowledge rather than the deep thinking that we want students to engage in? A great exam will require that magic mix of surface knowledge and deep thinking of our students.

As teachers, we are passionate about our subject and would love for as much knowledge and skills to stick with our students as possible. Instead of bemoaning our students’ amazing ability to forget, let’s work strategically to help make durable learning happen. Make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment your friends this spring. So when we ask students who LBJ was, they will be more likely to say Lyndon Baines Johnson than Lebron James.

For more research-informed ideas, follow the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning on Twitter @thecttl and sign up here for The Bridge, the monthly newsletter of the CTTL.  Each month The Bridge analyzes a specific aspect of teaching and learning through a Mind, Brain and Education Science research-informed lens.

A History Student Recall


By Glenn Whitman, Director of the CTTL

Attention. Calling each of my former students. Come back. Whether it was geography 6, AP United States History, Historical Methods, or United States/European History since 1860, I ask you to clear your schedules for a year to return to St. Andrew’s to retake my class.

This student recall is not because you were poorly taught one, five, or twenty years ago. Most of you did well because of your work ethic, and this was before any of us had heard of Carol Dweck’s research around growth mindset or Angela Duckworth’s work around grit. You successfully drew a world map by heart, scored high on AP exams, and produced essays or oral history projects that met the scholarly standards of each assignment.

But this is why you should disrupt what you are currently doing to return to your alma mater for another year of history. I am an exponentially better teacher today than I was when I first taught history in 1991, and I can also say I am a better teacher today than even five years ago. Yes, I know the content of my course really well. That naturally comes from teaching the same class multiple times as well as from a deliberate focus on growing my content understanding through research and reading. In fact, as I write this I have just finished reading Lincoln’s Sword, a book not only about Lincoln’s greatest speeches, but also his speech writing process. When I ask students to write, I often encourage them to “channel their inner Abe Lincoln.” Next year, and in subsequent years, I will be better able to guide them to this threshold based upon my deepened content understanding. My future students will thus be better served during our study of the Civil War as well as taught to be more efficient, confident users of language to articulate their interpretations of the past.

While the improvement in my content understanding is measurable, what my former students would most benefit from is the improvement in my understanding of the learning brain, how it works, learns, and thrives. This has only been possible because my colleagues at St. Andrew’s and I have been part of a professional development journey unlike any other.

When St. Andrew’s committed to training and providing professional development in Mind, Brain, and Education science to 100% of its then, 6th through 12th grade faculty and now Preschool through 12th grade faculty, none of us knew where it would lead the school or each individual teacher. Ask almost any public or private school teacher about the introduction of a new initiative to enhance teacher quality, student achievement and to close the education inequality gap and you will certainly get a smirk and a story about surviving the latest education fad only to be replaced by another one.

But why does this MBE science professional development initiative have such enduring power at St. Andrew’s? Look at our mission: “To know and inspire each student in an inclusive community dedicated to exceptional teaching, learning, and service.” Any definition of exceptional teaching and learning must require teachers and students to understand the learning brain. Until teachers and school leaders develop their Mind, Brain, and Education Science knowledge, skills and mindsets, their students will not meet their full potential in school.

I am confident that a student will never forget his or her brain for class. However, I am less confident of whether a student uses his or her brain effectively during a class period. I used to think that if a student was not learning, then that was because the student was not trying and that the burden of learning was on the student, not me. I taught the history; afterwards, it was each student’s responsibility to learn it. But now I know that for learning to happen, a teacher and student must share authority for whether something will end up being received, filtered, and then recalled by a student’s brain.

So for my former students, who I am asking to return so I can provide you an even better history class experience, what can you expect? First, I have a better awareness of how emotions, sleep, and identity impact cognitive functions. Remember that time you pulled the “all-nighter” for the Cold War Period LOPP (I use the term LOPP instead of test, quiz or exam), but the next morning you could not recall so much of what you tried to imbed in your long term memory? For the visual artists I taught, I have created assessments that will allow you to use those strengths to demonstrate your knowledge of historical events. And yes, the amount of homework I give has decreased, and I would like to think that the homework is not only less, but also it is better. Need to memorize history terms? I will no longer merely suggest that you use flashcards but rather have you consider applying the testing and spacing effect to your study strategies while I provide you more formative assessments to practice recalling the three S’s of the Civil War Period, the five I’s of the Progressive Period, or the 12 causes of the Great Depression. In addition, we will follow-up a summative assessment with “test” corrections, and meta-cognition opportunities to reflect on your current strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next unit.

And here is the good news, I assume you will enjoy even more success in my class. But, if your new grade does not surpass that of your old, we will keep the original grade on your transcript. Regardless, your experience will be that much better and when asked at a social event, “Who was LBJ?”instead of saying LeBron James, you will be able to recall the complex presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

So former students, what do you say?

It ain’t what you know it’s… oh, no, sorry, it is what you know. The Foundation of Learning is Knowledge

Written by Ian Kelleher,

edited by Julia Dean and Molly Magner


               I sense that the tide is beginning to turn on the debate over whether to prioritize knowledge or skills, ’21st Century’ or otherwise. There is an increasingly confident voice shouting a phrase that educators have shouted for thousands of years: knowledge is essential. Even in this Google-able world, students need a sturdy foundation of knowledge to become critical thinkers.

With this edition of “The Bridge,” we as evidence-informed professionals boldly provide an epistemic nudge: an argument for the importance of knowledge that includes research-informed ideas for teachers on how to build knowledge and make it stick.

I recently heard Robert Pondisco, senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, speak at ResearchED DC on the importance of a re-commitment to teaching knowledge. During his talk, Pondisco eloquently painted the picture of President Obama during his first Inaugural Address, gazing down the length of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream to the nation just over fifty years ago. In this clip, Obama describes the sacrifices and struggles of past Americans that led to Obama’s inauguration: a monumental moment in American history.

After showing this clip, Pondisco posed the following questions: what knowledge do children need to have to understand the significance of Obama’s words at this moment in time? Do they have this knowledge? How would they have received this knowledge? Who might have it and who might not? How does this fit into the existing inequality gap? Pondisco’s thought experiment provokes us to think of knowledge as a critical base for the analytical thinking skills that we strive to teach our students. That being said, what can we do to help our students have a solid basis of knowledge?

1) Acknowledge the limits of active working memory

Active working memory can hold fewer things for less time than most people realize. Though it is hard to measure, 7 things for 30 seconds for adults is a well-agreed-upon estimate. For children the numbers are lower. There is a trade off too; we can hold more things but for progressively less time. Having knowledge stored in long-term memory frees up the active working memory to more effectively help with higher order thinking tasks. In other words, having stored knowledge helps us think.

2) Teach for stickiness

Whether we are teaching with a focus on direct instruction or with a focus on projects, we need to get content knowledge to stick in long-term memory. Fortunately, there is robust research to guide us that suggests both things we should and should not do.

Things to encourage students NOT to do

(1) Reread notes 

A trip down the aisles in Staples confirms what we already know – students love highlighters and markers. But research suggests that the staple of studying, rereading notes or the textbook, is a terrible, ineffective way to study. It tends to lead to what Brown, Reedier and McDaniel call “the illusion of fluency,” in which students become so familiar with the text that they believe they know it before they actually do.

(2) Misuse flashcards

Similarly, students tend to misuse flashcards, turning them over too quickly to see the answer. The key advantage of using flashcards is the process of deep pondering to try and figure the problem out, even if that proves to be a difficult task.

Things to encourage students to do

(1) Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is the idea of trying to recall knowledge from memory. Even if a student is unable to recollect information, research suggests that the act of trying helps memory storage and recall. Retrieval practice can take many forms: self-testing, proper use of flashcards or online tools such as Quizlet, or taking a sheet of paper and writing out everything you know on a subject. The key is having students try deeply to recall, then check their work against their notes or model answers.

(2) Spaced studying

There is great research around the spacing effect, which entails studying, leaving a gap of time, then studying again. As educators, we can encourage students to space their studying rather than rely on massed studying, which does not lead to durable learning. Allowing your memory to become a bit rusty between study sessions makes the next study session more challenging, but in doing so, it helps create knowledge that is both more durable and more flexible. This is a concept that Clark and Bjork call “desirable difficulty.” But what is the optimal spacing gap for your students, your subject, and the content you are teaching? Embark on your own learning adventure to discover the ways in which spacing can work best for your classes.

Things for us to do as educators

(1) Formative assessments

Replace pop quizzes with no- or low-stakes formative assessments. As you give them, say something along the lines of, “This is for you to figure out where you are, for me to figure out where you are, and for us both to adjust what we do accordingly.” More of the brain restructuring associated with learning occurs when we struggle and when we get things wrong; therefore, we need to craft no- or low stress opportunities for students to make mistakes from which they can learn.

(2) Interleaving

Interleaving is a way to deliberately build the spacing effect into how you design your courses. Instead of starting the year with unit one, followed, perhaps, by unit two then unit three, there is an alternative way to organize your courses that will promote learning. After moving on to a new unit, plan on revisiting the core knowledge at least a few more times at spaced intervals later on in the year.

(3) Pre-testing

“Research suggests that starting a unit of study with a pre-test helps creates more enduring learning. It appears to give students something on which to hang subsequent information. This test should, of course, not be graded, or if it is, it should be graded for effort rather than correctness. The other point of this pre-test is to give the teacher an idea of where the level of the class generally is, and what knowledge each individual student brings with them already, so that the teacher can tailor subsequent classes to best match the needs of the class. It is important to avoid seeding boredom, and to avoid the potential skipping of foundational knowledge that could prevent future learning. These are two common toxic effects on learning.”

(4) Acknowledge Deficiencies in Project based learning (PBL)

PBL appears to have “silver bullet” status as a transformative teaching technique, but the actual evidence on its effectiveness is shaky. An excellent review of the literature can be found in the Education Endowment Foundation’s recently released report on the results of a large randomized control trial on PBL. Two key areas where support is crucial are knowledge building and executive functioning building:

“Balancing didactic instruction with independent inquiry will ensure that pupils develop a certain level of knowledge and skills allowing them to comfortably engage in independent work.”

“Student support: pupils need to be effectively guided and supported; emphasis should be given on effective time management and student self-management”

Without this support, PBL may actually contribute to the achievement gap as students from disadvantaged backgrounds often enter with deficiencies in knowledge and skills that are necessary to succeed on projects.

This echoes the work of Paul Kirscher (twitter: @P_A_Kirschner  -one of the great voices in research on education that you perhaps have not heard of)., Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance.

We may still decide to use project based learning to teach a range of different skills or to increase engagement – though this may only work if we expertly craft the project by incorporating factors such as student choice, relevancy to their lives, or empathy. However, research suggests that when we choose to do project based learning rather than direct instruction, an amount of direct instruction teaching that focuses on knowledge building is still important for students to gain sufficient knowledge so that they can grapple meaningfully with the project. In other words, even when we do projects, we need to begin them by explicitly teaching key knowledge in ways in which it will stick. Part of pedagogical content knowledge, that highly interlinked combination of subject knowledge and how to teach it, is to know exactly what knowledge-scaffolding students need to successfully launch into a project. If we want to create great projects, we also need to be great at teaching knowledge – and great at discerning what knowledge that needs to be.

A thought on how this links to assessment

Since I was a little kid, I have always enjoyed words. Some are more fun to play with than others, of course, but one of the best is ‘facile.’ We often use it to refer to someone who appears to be so good at something they do it with an effortless ease. But it’s more nuanced meaning is to refer to a demonstration of thinking that at first glance seems neat, concise and elegant, but which on closer inspection is only neat, concise and elegant because it is over simplistic, itself lacking in nuanced details.

The writing of this article has inspired a future one that needs to be written: how do we avoid facile demonstrations of knowledge by our students? How do we craft assessments that steer students away from this? Or, as Rob Coe and David Didau put it in their musings on a very simple theory of learning, where will students think hard in this lesson? But in the time before this article is written, I encourage you to explore this idea yourself. If you have ideas as to what should go in such an article, please let us know.

Interested in participating in our professional development adventure this summer? Click here for information regarding the Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy, a five-day workshop co-designed by the CTTL and individual faculty from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the Johns Hopkins University Science of Learning Institute.

Follow the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning on twitter: @thecttl

1.  Thank you Troy Dahlke for this playful term2.

3.  Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). When and why introducing difficulties and errors can enhance instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying the Science of Learning in Education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum.  Retrievable from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

4. Whitman and Kelleher (2016). Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education


Modeling the Research: Bringing Play, Challenge, and Engagement to Teacher Professional Development

The greatest irony of the professional development opportunities that focus on the learning brain is the disconnect between the research and how it is delivered to the adult learner audience.

So when we were invited to speak at the November 2016 Learning & the Brain Conference, we hoped to model the research we were sharing, to create a research-informed professional development session that honored how much we know about how the brain learns, works, and thrives.

There are two brains that always need to be considered in every school: the adult brain and the student brain. Because of brain plasticity, we can confidently say that both are changeable, though there are more sensitive periods of brain plasticity in the early years of life.

But the dilemma my colleague and co-author or Neuroteach Dr. Ian Kelleher and I faced was how to honor the overall theme of the conference “Engaged, Empowered Minds” while presenting a keynote address in an enormous ballroom space filled with 6 sections aligned in 16 rows of 12 seats each.

For the first two days of the conference, leading thinkers in Mind, Brain, and Education Science including Howard Gardner, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Tony Wagner, Ron Berger and Zoe Weil shared important research, perspectives, and experiences with the audience. They recounted stories and models of how teachers and schools are using brain science to educate ethical 21st century citizens and problem solvers.  Teachers were given opportunities to turn and talk and to laugh, as well as a few moments to consider the implications of what they were hearing for how they design schools and classrooms and work with each individual student.

When it was our turn to take the big stage as the last keynote speakers for this three-day event, we knew we had to create a professional learning session that aligned with how Ian, our colleagues and I design our classes at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School each day. As we prepared, we pondered the question: “Is it possible in a ballroom setting to provide teachers a design challenge: to build the tallest, free-standing tower with 25 straws and one piece of tape?” We knew there were risks involved in this idea and that there was a high probability that this activity might fail. But since we talk about failure and struggle as critical to learning, shouldn’t we model it in our presentation?

So we went for it. As the images below attest, it worked. We used this activity to have participants consider the question, “What demand did this design challenge place on your brain?” We conducted a similar activity with our colleagues at St. Andrew’s as a playful way to begin developing a language and a mindset around being a Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed teacher or school leader.

In addition to this activity we also knew that for our presentation around “An MBE Research-Informed Pathway for Purposeful Teaching, Learning, and Thinking” to stick that participants needed a chance to actively retrieve what they heard and experienced during our one-hour and fifteen-minute session. The “Exit Ticket” we provided was informed by the research of Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, and we were seeking to address one of the remaining unconscionable practices that permeate schools today. Too often, teachers teach to the last minute of a class period. While students are packing up, teachers are still giving new instructions. However, what we hope to see is more teachers using the final minutes of class for students to begin to reflect on the content and skills for that class period, to begin using that knowledge and experience to share what they know or don’t know and for that to be data for the teacher to use in the design of the next class period.

We are grateful to the Learning & the Brain Society for the invitation to share the work of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning with an eager audience of teachers, school leaders, policymakers, counselors and more. We appreciate all those who engaged with us during our session that is truly only valuable if some element of the research and strategies we shared actually inform participants’ work with students. But what we also hope is that our risky idea to create a design challenge for 1000 educators in a space that was not conducive to such a task becomes the norm for how we professionally develop educators. Let’s not just share the research, let’s do the research. Teachers, like students, learn best through play, collaboration, challenge, support and fun. The smiles presented in the following series of images from our session suggest what is possible for how we can develop more Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed educators.


Sometimes You Need to Take a Dip

Welcome to The Bridge, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.  Each month The Bridge analyzes a specific aspect of teaching and learning through a Mind, Brain and Education Science research-informed lens.

 If you would like to sign up to receive this free monthly email, please click here.

Have you ever seen a student who mastered a concept one week, then failed an assessment on the same material the next? Have you witnessed students becoming worse at a particular skill as you continue to teach it?

Good news: this kind of slippage can be a natural part of the learning process. The Dynamic Skill Theory (DST), proposed by Professor Kurt Fischer of Harvard University, offers an explanation for the consistency and variability in students’ development. DST is a well-respected neo- or post-Piagetian learning theory. It builds on Jean Piaget’s concept of developmental stages that occur through the nonstop interplay between brain developmental and environmental experiences. Examine the diagram below that depicts this theory, which can and should play a role in your classroom:

First, notice that both lines go up as age increases – our ability level at any skill tends to improve as we progress through our school years. The top line is optimal growth, the maximum performance skill level that each student is able to operate at under premium conditions, i.e. with all the expert scaffolding and in-class attention that the teacher is able to provide. The lower line is functional growth, the skill level that the student is able to perform at without this ideal support, in normal everyday life conditions with all its “distractions and imperfections… [It is the] degree to which a particular skill has become stable and automatic.”1 Scaffolding matters, and how we peel back or apply that scaffolding impacts the learning process of each individual student.

Secondly, notice that functional growth progresses almost linearly – the smooth growth in ability at a particular skill as the result of purposeful practice. However, optimal growth occurs in cycles, which means that at times performance decreases during the very act of learning. Students may be getting temporarily worse at a particular skill; this is a normal and everyday possibility that can occur as part of the process by which students are actually getting better at that skill. This happens because during the process of learning new abstractions are mapped on top of pre-existing ones – a process which tends not to be 100% smooth. As differences between new and old abstractions are reconciled, ability at the skill once more increases beyond previous levels due to the new complexity of the student’s learning.

So what does dynamic skill theory look like in the classroom? And what does it mean for teachers?

Firstly, what about the dips? If a student is suddenly not doing well in your class, don’t panic. It could be for any number of reasons, either in or outside of school, and teachers need to be aware of any and all possibilities. But it could just be that it is a normal stage of the child’s learning. The student may be in one of those stages in which they are working out that form of cognitive dissonance. But if we grade every bit of a child’s day-to-day performance, these downward moments count, and the burden of required day-to-day perfection in the face of the reality of how we learn adds to a student’s level of anxiety. Teachers play an important role in helping each child “stay in the game,” and schools that purposefully work to create an environment where positive relationships, both between students and between students and faculty, have an advantage here. This is especially so if they have also worked to create a culture in which failure is a possible and even necessary part of learning and growth, as long as the response to that failure is a reflective rededication to further work.

The dips also have consequences for classroom evaluations. Class evaluators want to see skill levels increasing; only better performance is taken as an indicator of success. If skill levels seem to be taking a dip, clearly the teacher must be doing something wrong. Not necessarily. Dips happen.

Secondly, what about the difference between the lines or levels? The first point to note will be quite obvious to all teachers, students and parents: students tend to perform better in ideal school situations. Ideally, each student needs different amounts and alternative types of scaffolding; some students will need scaffolding added while others need it taken away. Expert teachers are able to do this simultaneously for every individual student in their class. John Hattie, in a meta-analysis of more than 500,000 research studies, said that the main difference between expert teachers and experienced teachers was automaticity – delivering just the right nugget of an intervention to each individual child at the exact time they need it but with a degree of automaticity that leaves their mind free to process the other myriad things going on in their classroom.

We might also ponder what this means for the evaluation of students. For each assessment you create, ask yourself which you are testing: the optimal level or the functional level? And which do you want to evaluate? When you look at a student’s grade, what mix of optimal level evaluations and functional level evaluations contribute to that grade? Is it the balance you want? What can you do about it?

Dips happen; how you reflect on your learning and respond with the purposeful use of strategies matters most. But how do you operationalize this – what does it look like in the classroom or advisor group? Can we present this concept to students in a way that will help them understand themselves as learners? Is there a way in which we can tie the dynamic skill theory of learning to the concept of growth mindset? Please share your thoughts with us.

We believe the possibility of dips as a normal part of learning will ring true to every teacher and every student. Learning is a journey which is not necessarily easy, linear, or always upwards. It is our job as educators to guide, prod, comfort, entice and cajole each student throughout their learning experiences. Knowing that dippiness is normal is, we hope, a reassurance to teachers. That knowledge is power; now we can plan for it, work with it and experience the dippy learning journey with our students.

Based on a talk that the fabulous Vanessa Rodriguez, author of The Teaching Brain, gave at St. Andrew’s last year for the CTTL’s Ideas Festival. If you want to know more about dynamic skill theory, this 8 minute video from Professor Kurt Fischer himself and this unit from Annenberg Learner’s Neuroscience in the Classroom are great places to start.

1 From Neuroscience in the Classroom by Annenberg Learner, “Unit 5 Text Section 4,” accessed October 15, 2016

Image from:

By Ian Kelleher, @ijkelleher. Edited by Julia Dean and Molly Magner

Why Being an Introvert is Easy at St. Andrew’s

Written and illustrated by Joy Reeves (a sophomore at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Potomac, Maryland). The article originally appeared in The Mane News (April 12, 2016)

The buzz of constant liveliness and socialization at St. Andrews (or any high school, for that matter) is bound to energize the extroverted side of anyone. But what about those who draw energy from being alone? Those who find comfort in solitude and self-awareness? Around 50% of people would consider themself introverted. Here’s why introverts are able to thrive at St. Andrew’s:

  1. All types of people go to SAES.

What’s cool about St. Andrew’s is there is no popularity hierarchy based on who is the most outgoing. Frankly, no one is popular at St. Andrew’s. We are too small of a school to really measure popularity…and it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. It’s easy to surround yourself with diverse personality types complimentary to your own.

  1. You don’t have to participate in everything.

One of the biggest differences between lower school and high school is that high school does not emphasize required participation in most events. Although you have many chances to participate in your passions in front of the school, you can CHOOSE which ones you’d like to showcase, and watch the rest. Participating in Class Cup Competitions (although most people prefer to watch) is different: some brave soul has to volunteer!


  1. There are tons of social spots, but also a lot of nice, secret, quiet spots to hang out.

If you’re in the mood for a crowd, it’s easy to find one: basketball games, embarrassingly loud clumps in the hallway, study groups, band practices, or weekend dances. But breaking away is okay too. After being at St. Andrew’s for a year or so, you discover some comfortable little places to relax on campus: the library (make sure not to get kicked out), in the gallery, out in the garden, and soon, on the quad! Free periods help us all maintain sanity and stay on top of our academic and personal lives.

  1. Teachers are really into self-evaluations and understand shyness.

Teachers don’t pretend to read them. They actually read self-evaluations. If you hesitate to speak in class, as long as you clarify why in a self-evaluation, the teacher will completely understand. Some people learn best by actively participating and speaking, while others learn by actively listening. Introverts don’t have to force themselves to raise their hands constantly in order to receive an A in the class.

  1. You see the same people often enough that your encounters with them in the hallway aren’t awkward.

Inevitably, in such a small school, you’re going to see a lot of your friends. Every day, the facial expressions exchanged get a little weirder and the conversation a little more personal. Best friendships develop. Recognizing everyone becomes comforting and enjoyable. Introverted or extroverted, the St. Andrew’s community becomes home.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 10.03.49 AM.png

Better Teacher Professional Development Now!

A 2015 study by the Teacher Development Trust (UK) found that just 1% of teacher professional development was high quality. Let’s just pause for a moment to let that sink in. It also, unsurprisingly, found that the typical pattern of going to a two hour or one day workshop or conference and coming home did little to shift the needle of teacher effectiveness. It is a sad irony that some of the worst education to be found anywhere is deployed in teaching teachers how to be better teachers. All this is echoed by the recent report from the education-reform organization TNTP. Among their shocking findings, only 3 out of 10 teachers in a survey of 10,000 improved over the course of 2 or three year’s professional development, while 2 out of 10 actually got worse. TNTP also put an approximate price tag to this “achievement”: $18,000 and 19 days per teacher. And any reasonable person must surely ask, “surely we can do better than this?”

It can be no surprise that research links high quality teacher professional development to increased student achievement. For example, Kraft and Papay (2014) suggest that in schools with a poor professional development culture, teacher effectiveness (as measured by student achievement), and plateaus after 3 to 4 years of experience. Beyond this, they do not get better at improving student achievement. However, in schools with good professional development cultures, teacher effectiveness keeps increasing with experience. If we think about other “professions” – medicine and law, for example – we would hope this would be the case. We just cannot imagine a doctor’s peak performance being reached after just three years – beyond this they never get any better at being a doctor. Would you want this person as your primary care physician or heart surgeon?

So what is good teacher professional development? What makes a difference? TNTP’s report sets up a question that needs and merits a well thought out, research informed answer. And this answer needs two prongs: what “content” should great teacher professional development focus on, and how should it be “delivered.” Fortunately, we have answers.

First, “content.” Teaching is unique amongst professional professions in how it ignores its research base. This is particularly sad because education has never had the quality of research evidence about what works as it does now. My lasting image from the New York Learning and the Brain conference is from one of the smaller breakout sessions that featured an eminent brain imaging scientist at MIT and an eminent psychology professor at NYU. As our small group walked out, like a tight audience from a black box theater after a gripping performance, it became clear to me that these two people, from very different academic fields that traditionally live on different islands, were aware of each other’s work, respected each other’s work, and seemed to share this utopian conviction that somehow this could all possibly fit together in a way that would help our ailing education system. We are at a remarkable point in time, a coming together of disparate research based fields, coalescing on ideas about what the most effective teaching and learning should be. Education now has a solid research evidence base to work from – but little if any is making its way into teacher training or professional development. This is our content.

Publications exist that try to translate this academic research for teachers to use, and below is a great (and free), though not exhaustive, list for those wishing to delve further.

The research, however, only gets a teacher part of the way. Exactly how it works in the myriad pieces of context that shape a particular classroom, exactly how it works for the “voice” of a particular teacher, has to be figured out by each teacher. And that is the challenge of it, but also the intellectual joy of it. We are indebted to one of our mentors, Dr. Christina Hinton at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, for the insight that we are talking about research informed teaching – because the word informed leaves room for the art and craft of teaching. To help make this work, we need to create a model of reflective, iterative, collaborative, research informed practice. Building a framework to facilitate this must also be part of our content.

Onto the second part: “delivery.” What should great teacher professional development look like? Here, too, there is research to suggest what this might look like. A good starting point is the 2015 report “Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development” from the Teacher Development Trust. We’ll summarize the findings below, but it barely does justice to the excellent report which is well worth a read. As you read through this list, it is important to resist “of course!” syndrome – yes, many of these things may seem obvious, but they are often not applied, and it is worth remembering that they have not been merely pulled from people’s minds, but are practices supported by evidence from research studies. Again, we want to make teaching a research informed profession!

(1) “The duration and rhythm of effective support.”
At least two semesters to a year. But the rhythm of the time and how it is used is important too, not just the amount of time.

(2) “Designing for participants’ needs.”
Create relevance to teachers’ day to day experiences, and their aspirations for their students. Create opportunities for teachers to work with their peers. Create a shared sense of purpose.

(3) “Alignment of professional development processes, content and activities.”
The professional development should be logically sequenced, and delivered in a manner that aligns with the principles of good teaching that it promotes.

(4) “The content of effective professional development.”
It is not sufficient to focus on general pedagogy. Both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy – what could be called pedagogical content knowledge – should be included too. Teachers also need to learn about how students learn. Our content strand discussed above will play a crucial role in this point, as it will in point (3).

(5) “Activities associated with effective professional development.”
Teachers need to be taught how to translate this professional development knowledge into classroom practice; they also need to be taught how to experiment with its implementation – the type of iterative practice that we discussed above.

(6) The role of external providers and specialists.
Schools should set high expectations for their professional development providers, and, if they are external, determine how they will provide the ongoing mentoring/coaching support that research suggests is necessary for successful implementation.

(7) Collaboration and peer learning.
Collaboration is one key part of successful teacher professional development – but collaboration alone is insufficient and needs the other supports discussed above. Collaboration should be focused on problem solving that leads to improved student outcomes.

(8) Leadership around professional development.
Effective leaders become involved themselves – they do not just leave the learning to their teaches.

So, we have the research informed content, and we have the research informed method of delivery. And, unsurprisingly, there are common characteristics of the two. Great learning for teachers should mirror, in many ways, great learning for students. Potentially effective professional development is dead on arrival if participants are seated in rows and treated as “empty vessels” whose heads need to be filled with new ideas, then returned to their schools. This instructional practice of fill-and-move-on does not work for most students, why should we think it might work for teachers? Fortunately, the Teacher Development Trust’s work is based on good research informed principles of teaching. For example, we know from research that creating relevancy is important for engagement, which point (2) gets at, and that it is critical for long-term memory to have students recall and apply knowledge, either “use it or lose it,” which is addressed in points (1), (5), (6) and (7).

To this we might even be bold enough to add one further research-informed teaching strategy – using low stakes formative assessments to help teachers and their supervisors gauge what they currently know and what they don’t know, so they can plan accordingly so that the high quality professional development they have experienced is not forgotten or does not go unused. The ultimate goal, remember, is improved educational outcomes for all students.

Our solution of research informed professional development content and delivery may only seem radical in the context of teaching, but is one that has been embraced by other professional fields that have decided to place a high value on continued professional growth – and in a ways that are based on, and which contribute to, a growing base of research evidence. The TNTP report framed a pressing question for education. I believe we have the answer.

Ian Kelleher,
Head of Research, the CTTL