Guest Blog: The role of learning science in supporting rigorous and equitable instruction

This post from Dr. Sandy Rogelberg previews a session at the 2022 AERA conference in San Diego, CA.

I’m pleased to be presenting at this year’s AERA Annual Meeting on work arising from UNC Charlotte’s ongoing involvement in the Learning by Scientific Design (LbSD) Network. 

Working with colleagues Hilary Dack, Anne Cash and Paul Fitchett from UNC Charlotte, and Rebekah Berlin at Deans for Impact, we examined the instructional decision-making of two groups of preservice teachers enrolled in the same course and program. 

Apart from their instructors, the only difference between these groups was that one was taught about the science of learning and associated teacher actions that support student learning while the other group was not. Our hope was to observe candidates’ subsequent ability to make instructional decisions based on how students learn.

We focused on one learning science principle — a fact about how students learn — and an associated “teacher action”:

Learning Science Principle: Deepening Meaning and Learning – Information that has meaning is going to be remembered, so we want students to think about meaning when encountering to-be-remembered material.

Associated Teacher Action: Attention to Meaning – Teachers should pose questions and tasks that require students to focus their attention on the meaning of content.

…and we set out to answer two questions:

  1. What differences do we see in instructional decision-making for candidates who participated in practice-based teacher education focused on learning science principles, relative to the “business-as-usual” comparison group?
  2. For each group, how does instructional decision-making change when candidates are cued to consider equitable opportunities to learn for students that a district has labeled as “low-income” and/or “low-performing”?


How did we go about answering our questions?

To begin, we employed a learning science assessment designed by Deans for Impact and administered to over 1,200 preservice teachers enrolled in the ten educator-preparation programs involved in DFI’s Learning by Scientific Design (LbSD) Network. Using this assessment tool for both the pre and posttest, candidates were presented with an instructional scenario and asked to choose the activity that best supported student learning.

One activity was aligned with the given educational standard and was more likely to help students make meaning of new information. The other option reflected a “hands-on” activity that could be interpreted as appealing to learners, yet did not align with the standard. As a result, students would be less likely to recall the material and build a more secure foundational understanding of the educational content being taught.

Between these two administrations of the assessment, one group built their understanding of learning science and how to apply such principles through practice-based pedagogies.


What did we learn?

On the application of learning science principles to practice

As you can see in the table below, the percentage of candidates who accurately responded to a question about the teacher action ‘Attention to Meaning’ at pretest was not significantly different between those who were soon to receive additional support (67%) and those who were not (73%).

Graph showing comparison and treatment groups before and after intervention

However, once one group of candidates had received additional support on learning science principles and their application to practice, the subsequent post-test revealed significant differences. The treatment group scored 94% and the comparison group 56%. Not only is this an almost 40-point difference, the lower-performing comparison group actually scored lower on the posttest than they did on the pre.


On the integration of equity and learning science principles

For the posttest, an additional item was added testing whether candidates applied the same instructional decision-making processes when they were given information that students were “struggling readers.” Other than this additional information, the central logic of the question remained exactly the same.

We wanted to see whether additional student ‘labels’ assigned by the district played a role in influencing the instructional decisions teacher-candidates considered as the right one for students and their learning.

The percentage of candidates who were able to pick the correct answer once additional information about students’ reading scores was offered differed significantly depending on whether they received support around the relationship between learning science and equitable instruction (75%) or not (36%).

Graph showing comparison and treatment groups on questions that labeled students as struggling readers


What conclusions can we draw from these findings?

On blending theory and practice

This study highlights how teacher-candidates don’t necessarily start out their teacher preparation journey with an innate ability to differentiate between more and less effective instructional tasks – a fact that should not strike us as surprising or inherently problematic. 

More telling is the ultimate performance of those who didn’t receive additional support. The data coming from this comparison group show that, in the absence of instruction informed by learning science, candidates struggled to make informed instructional decisions. 

For example, those candidates were more inclined to consider hands-on activities that had little to do with the learning objective as superior to engaging, rigorous tasks that were directly aligned with educational standards. This is a myth that needs to be dispelled.

When we consider what goes into preparing future teachers in light of these findings, a couple of things stand out:

  1. Understanding how students learn and adopting a practice-based approach to instruction each matter in their own right, but…
  2. Whenever teacher-candidates are able to combine theoretical understanding and practical application, that is what makes the most significant difference.

On bringing together equity and practice

The second major conclusion of this study focused on the importance of the values teachers hold – specifically, how teacher beliefs about particular students and their capabilities appear to impact the instructional decisions they make.

For instance, only 36% of candidates who were in the business-as-usual course section were able to identify that the task a teacher was offering to students labeled as “struggling” readers was unaligned and removed access to rigorous, grade-level instruction.

On the other hand, three-quarters of the teacher-candidates who received support around equitable instruction and its relationship to learning science were able to apply their understanding effectively. They weren’t thrown by district labels such as “struggling readers.”

Despite these promising findings, it’s important to underscore what all this tells us: that some teacher-candidates hold beliefs about particular students, such as those who have been labeled as a “struggling reader” and district assigned reading level, some were no longer able to distinguish an aligned learning opportunity that supported deep processing from an unaligned task that prompted only shallow processing.

These findings have significant implications for the way we prepare teachers to disrupt inequity in schools. Specifically, they tell us that, for teacher preparation to be truly effective, it must:

  1. Bring together learning science principles with practice-based approaches, and…
  2. Be tied to teacher-candidates’ beliefs: not just beliefs about how students learn but beliefs about what particular students are and are not capable of learning.

We can address these challenges by continuing to bridge the gap between the theoretical underpinnings of teaching with its practical application. 

We can also do more to support teacher-candidates in “unlearning” certain mindsets about what types of learning opportunities will best support students, regardless of the labels that have been assigned or what such labels mistakenly confer about student ability.

If you would like to learn more about this study, you can find out about our session at the AERA conference here.

Dr. Sandy Rogelberg

All Blog Posts
Subscribe to Our Newsletter