Carnegie Mellon University
August 20, 2016

Three Scientific Tips for Going Back-to-School

By Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 /


With more than 205 trillion ways to teach and learn, it's easy to understand why going back to school can be overwhelming for students and their instructors.

Three research-based tips from Carnegie Mellon University can help start the school year right.

1. Learning Is Not a Spectator Sport

Free — or very inexpensive — online courses have become a trend in education.

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers offer thousands of courses and have enticed millions of students to enroll. But, a CMU study shows that a central approach of MOOCs — having students watch lecture videos to learn — is ineffective. Instead, interactive activities, as advocated by CMU's Simon Initiative, help students learn about six times better.

Named for the late Nobel and Turing laureate Herbert Simon, the Simon Initiative approach uses CMU's Open Learning Initiative (OLI) courses, which provide real-time feedback and hands-on learning hints.

"Learning by doing gives students deliberative practice opportunities to address a course's objectives," said Ken Koedinger, professor of human-computer interaction and psychology and co-coordinator of the Simon Initiative. "With OLI, students get immediate feedback. If they do not master a concept, they have to go back to re-watch or re-read and then demonstrate they have learned before they are able to move on."

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2. Limit the Classroom Decorations

When it comes to elementary classroom walls, too much of a good thing may end up disrupting attention and learning in young children, according to CMU research.

The team studied if classroom displays — maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials — affected children's ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn content. They found children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when decorations were removed.

"Young children spend a lot of time — usually the whole day — in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom's visual environment can affect how much children learn," said Anna Fisher, associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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3. Understanding Fractions and Long Division Is Key

From factory workers to Wall Street bankers, a proficiency in math is a crucial requirement for most well-paying jobs in a modern economy. Yet, over the past several decades, U.S. high school students' achievement in math has remained stagnant, and significantly behind many other countries, including China, Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada.

A research team led by CMU's Robert Siegler has identified a major culprit — inadequate knowledge of fractions and division.

Although fractions and division are taught in elementary school, even many college students have poor knowledge of them. They found that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement.

"We suspected that early knowledge in these areas was absolutely crucial to later learning of more advanced mathematics, but did not have any evidence until now," said Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology. "The clear message is that we need to improve instruction in long division and fractions, which will require helping teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts that underlie these mathematical operations."

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