Today, in this nation, we have both the will and the opportunity
to upgrade education significantly. The will stems from a national
consensus, and a constructive response by government agencies
to that consensus. Political and business leaders, concerned parents,
and typical citizens agree that America needs to improve education
and enhance student achievement. Our educational system has significant
shortcomings as shown in results from cross-national comparisons
(e.g., TIMSS, 1998; Stigler & Heibert, 1999) and by studies
of workplace competence (e. g., SCANS, 1991). Performance in mathematics
and science and among students diagnosed as having disabilities
has caused widespread alarm. There is also broad agreement that
education is the future—not only for our children, but also
for our nation as a whole.
The opportunity to upgrade education comes from extensive progress
in the last several decades on understanding the cognitive processes
that underlie learning. Basic research on learning and memory
now provides a foundation for improving educational practices,
potentially in revolutionary ways. Recent research, for example,
questions the common view that student performance during instruction
indexes learning and validly distinguishes among instructional
practices. Work by Bjork and other researchers has established
that conditions of practice that appear optimal during instruction
can fail to support long-term retention and transfer of knowledge;
whereas, and remarkably, conditions that introduce difficulties
for the learner—slowing the apparent rate of the learning—can
enhance long-term retention and transfer. (Such "desirable
difficulties" (Bjork, 1994, 1999) include spacing rather
than massing study sessions; interleaving rather than blocking
practice on separate topics or tasks; varying how instructional
materials are presented or illustrated; reducing feedback; and
using tests rather than presentations as learning events.)
The opportunity to upgrade instruction also benefits from technology-enhanced
learning environments that enable researchers to test the impact
of these new research findings by consistently varying the conditions
of instruction (e.g. Anderson, et al., 1996; 1997).
Enabled by the OERI Cognition and Student Learning program, we
propose Introducing Desirable Difficulties for Educational Applications
in Science (IDDEAS) to build bridges from the science of cognition
to educational practices. IDDEAS will identify the laboratory-based
principles and phenomena that do and do not generalize to educational
settings and test mechanisms for implementing the principles and
phenomena that do generalize in actual classrooms using technology-based
instruction. IDDEAS requires a partnership of collaborating cognitive
researchers, educational researchers, and classroom teachers who
jointly design and carry out experiments in progressively more
complex educational settings. We propose to form a sustainable
partnership that can build a strong bridge linking the science
of cognition, effective classroom practices, and powerful learning
technologies. If successful, IDDEAS will develop theory-based
principles to guide future instructional designers working in
Students’ performance during instruction is commonly viewed
as a measure of learning and a basis for evaluating and selecting
instructional practices. Basic-research findings question that
view: Conditions of practice that appear optimal during instruction
can fail to support long-term retention and transfer of knowledge
and, remarkably, conditions that introduce difficulties for the
learner—and appear to slow the rate of the learning—can
enhance long-term retention and transfer. Such "desirable
difficulties" (Bjork, 1994, 1999) include spacing rather
than massing study sessions; interleaving rather than blocking
practice on separate topics; varying how to-be-learned material
is presented; reducing feedback; and using tests as learning events.
The benefits of desirable difficulties found using simple laboratory
tasks and short retention intervals not only raise concerns about
prevailing educational practices, but also suggest unintuitive
ways to enhance instruction. The present study focuses on whether
such results generalize to realistic educational materials and
contexts. In controlled experiments involving middle-school and
college students, the effectiveness of standard Web-Based Inquiry
Science Environment (WISE, http://wise.berkeley.edu)
projects—on topics such as light propagation, thermal equilibrium,
and science and treatment of malaria—will be contrasted
with the effectiveness of experimental versions that incorporate
selected desirable difficulties.
As a tool for teachers and students, WISE projects can enhance
science education. If successful, this investigation can bridge
the science of cognition and education and provide theoretically
based principles that designers can use to create new materials.
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