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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
August 10, 2004

Carnegie Mellon Cognitive Psychology Research Boosts Middle School Students' Science Comprehension and Test Scores

PITTSBURGH—A Carnegie Mellon University project to improve middle school science education is already showing promising results at strengthening students' understanding of key scientific concepts as well as raising their scores on standardized tests.

Researchers have completed the first year of a three-year program to train teachers to apply cognitive models of scientific reasoning to their lesson plans in order to raise students' performance on high-stakes standards tests. The project is funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Carnegie Mellon is a world leader in cognitive psychology.

"There does seem to be a way to bridge what we know in cognitive psychology to what happens in the classroom," said Junlei Li, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon and one of the principal investigators on the project. The other principal investigator is Psychology Professor David Klahr.

The project is being conducted at the schools funded through the Extra Mile Education Foundation. The foundation's mission is to obtain financial resources to provide the opportunity for a quality, values-centered education for children in four urban Pittsburgh elementary schools: Holy Rosary in Homewood; St. Agnes in Oakland; St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District; and St. James in Wilkinsburg. Nearly all the students at the four schools are African American and come from low-income families.

During the first phase of the project, Carnegie Mellon researchers observed classroom science instruction in grades five through eight. During phase two, which will continue in the fall, researchers design and teach lesson plans, and train classroom teachers to incorporate psychological research into their own lessons.

To evaluate the students' progress, researchers administered their own tests to students before and after they received the lessons, which taught them how to design controlled experiments. Fewer than 20 percent of fifth- and sixth-grade students were proficient before the lessons; afterward, 80 to 90 percent had mastered the concept. What's more, sixth-grade students made as much progress in two weeks with the lesson plans as middle school students at an affluent Pittsburgh school, which was selected as a benchmark, made in four years with the school's normal science curriculum.

On selected questions from standardized tests, Extra Mile fifth- and sixth-grade students exceeded national and international averages for eighth-grade students. But the researchers are trying to determine why students did not fare as well on the standardized tests as they did on the researcher-designed tests. Preliminary analysis indicates that students' low reading and writing skills severely hinder their performance on standardized tests despite their improved scientific understanding, Li said. This raises further research questions regarding whether standardized tests measure the type of skills they are supposed to assess and the fairness of accountability policies that define improvements for low-achieving schools based solely on test scores.

During the final phase of the project, the Carnegie Mellon team will continue to train teachers to inform their lesson plans with research. "What we're hoping is that our methods will be useful to the teachers as they plan their other lessons," Li said.

Similar studies in the past often have been conducted in the artificial confines of the psychology laboratory, utilizing one-on-one instruction and tests that the researchers designed, Klahr said. The Carnegie Mellon project, however, promises to yield results that teachers can use in their actual classrooms to improve students' performance on the off-the-shelf standardized tests that most schools use.

The Department of Psychology is one of eight departments in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the second-largest academic unit at Carnegie Mellon. The college emphasizes interdisciplinary study in a technologically rich environment, with an open and forward-thinking stance toward the arts and sciences.


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