Evaluating research claims about teaching and learning: Using the APA’s Top 20 to think critically

What teachers and administrators need is a clear and concise way to evaluate claims made about teaching and learning before teachers are asked to implement “research findings” in their classrooms.

Picture a group of teachers at a professional development session. The speaker, a hired consultant who flew in for the presentation that morning, shows the teachers a graphic of what he calls the “Learning Pyramid.”

(source: Washington Post article, ” Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong” )

The speaker uses this graphic as evidence to prove that teachers should change their instructional techniques, decreasing the amount of time they spend lecturing (since it is associated with a 10% student retention rate) and toward more interactive teaching strategies, like “teach others.”

Some teachers in the professional development session (which is, ironically, mostly a lecture) nod enthusiastically, but some teachers are troubled. Does this research really support the conclusion that all lectures are “bad” and all discussions are “good?” Based on this research being presented by this speaker, what are teachers being asked to accept and do?

In most professional development sessions, these teachers are left with such lingering concerns and doubts. The professional development might end at that point, with some teachers making changes while others ignore the advice. Teachers might be asked by administrators to explain how they implemented the “lessons learned”. But the underlying claims wouldn’t be questioned, just how they are put into action (or not).  Fortunately, the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, within the American Psychological Association’s Education Directorate, produced a useful summary of the most important (and most supported by multiple research studies) principles related to teaching and learning: the Top 20 Principles from Psychology for K-12 Teaching and Learning. Educators can use this resource as a starting place when evaluating claims about teaching and learning. If a claim seems to contradict one or more of the principles, if it doesn’t “fit” with the 20 principles described in this document that can serve as a red flag for teachers and administrators. The claim would need to be looked at carefully before accepting it as valid and useful for teachers to implement.

Let’s take the “learning pyramid” as an example. The claim underlying the pyramid is that the method of delivery is the primary or major factor determining whether students retain the intended knowledge/skills. The first step in examining that underlying claim could be to check the Top 20 document. Principle 2 is the most immediately relevant body of research:

“What students already know affects their learning.”

The research summarized for Principle 2 indicates that one of the most important factors that impact student learning is their prior knowledge and conceptions/misconceptions (not a specific delivery method, like lecture or audiovisual presentation). The field of educational psychology extensively supports the determining of students’ current thinking about a topic, and using that information to help them grow in their understanding/skills. If the claims of the pyramid of learning were true, the method of delivery would have to “trump” the influence of students’ current thinking about a topic, and that’s not what research in this section is pointing toward. If teachers in this professional development section had access to this Top 20 document, they might have been able to question the consultant’s claims about the pyramid, which could have led to a more useful discussion (instead of a puzzling and disturbing experience). Teachers could discuss how they typically learn about students’ current thinking and conceptions/misconceptions regarding key concepts from their classes, and what they do with that information. The discussion might eventually include how they make choices about presentation methods based on what they know about students’ current thinking about a topic, and what presentations methods might be more appropriate or effective given students’ current conceptions.

I suspect that most school’s goals include some language about how we all want to help students “think critically” or “analyze information” independently in order to prepare students to be active citizens and consumers of information as adults. As educators, we need access to resources that empower us to think critically about claims made about teaching and learning. We encounter a large, constantly changing universe of advice about teaching and learning, and it is difficult to keep up with education research while doing our full time jobs in schools. The APA’s Top 20 document can serve a vital role as an initial “filter” or “check” regarding claims made about teaching and learning.

We would love to hear about teaching and learning claims you’ve encountered in your educational contexts. How do you evaluate these claims when you encounter them? Do you see a role for the Top 20 document in “testing” claims about teaching and learning?

Please share your thoughts!

About the Author

Rob McEntarffer taught Psychology and AP Psychology for 13 years at Lincoln Southeast high school in Lincoln, NE. He was involved in the Advanced Placement psychology reading beginning in 1995, working as a Reader, Table Leader, and (from 2003 through 2009) as the High School Question Leader. He co-authored the Test Bank for Blair-Broeker and Ernst’s Thinking About Psychology text and for the AP editions of David Myers’s college level psychology textbook. Rob is also the co-author of Barron’s How to Prepare for the Advanced Placement Psychology Exam. He served as chair of the American Psychological Association’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS), established a Nebraska chapter of TOPSS, and was a member of APA’s National High School Standards committee. He chaired the Assessment Committee at the Psychology Partnership Project (James Madison University), and won the 2004 Teaching Excellent Award from APA’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Rob lives with his wife, two kids, dog, and cat in Lincoln, NE and works for Lincoln Public Schools.
  • Hey thanks for the great article which I could only skim at the mo. Am exploring the Top 20 principles link and sharing your post

    • rmcenta

      Thanks Char. If you have any feedback sometime, I’d love to hear it! 🙂