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5 Popular Education Beliefs That Aren’t Backed by Research

Making adjustments to these common misconceptions can turn dubious strategies into productive lessons, the research suggests.

March 29, 2024

Not every learning myth requires teachers to pull up stakes and start all over again—at least not entirely. There are some commonly held misconceptions that contain a nugget of wisdom but need to be tweaked in order to align with the science of learning.

Sometimes, in other words, you’re already halfway there. Here are five mostly myths, from the power of doodling to the motivating role of grades, that educators can quickly adjust and turn to their advantage.

1. Doodling Improves Focus and Learning

When we write about the power of drawing to learn, we often hear from readers who feel compelled to defend an old habit: “See, I told you that when I was doodling, I was still paying attention!” But doodling—which is commonly defined as “an aimless or casual scribble or sketch” and often consists of marginalia like cartoon characters, geometric patterns, or pastoral scenes—is distinct from what researchers call “task-related drawing.” And doodling, in this sense, is not associated with improvements in focus or academic outcomes.

In fact, both cognitive load theory and experimental studies are generally downbeat on doodling. Students who sketch complicated scenes or designs as they try to process a lesson on plate tectonics, according to the first theory, are engaging in competitive cognitive tasks and will generally underperform on both. Doodling, like all drawing, is cognitively intensive, involving complex feedback loops between visual, sensorimotor, attentional, and planning regions of the brain and body. Because our ability to process information is finite, drawing and learning about different things at the same time is a simple question of too much.

Research confirms the theory. A 2019 study pitted off-task doodling against typical learning activities like “task-related drawing” and writing. In three separate but related experiments, task-related drawing and writing beat out doodling in terms of recall—by margins as large as 300 percent.

How to fix it: Sketching what you are actually learning—from representational drawings of cells or tectonic boundaries to the creation of concept maps and organizational drawings—is, in fact, a powerful learning strategy (see research here, here, and here), and that applies “regardless of one’s artistic talent,” a 2018 study confirms.

Try to harness a student’s passion for doodling by allowing them to submit academic sketches as work products. To get even more bang for your buck, ask them to annotate their drawings, or talk you through them—which will encode learning even more deeply, according to research.

2. Reading Aloud In Turn Improves Fluency

Often called round robin reading (RRR), I resorted to it when I taught years ago—and it appears that it’s still frequently used, judging from a 2019 blog by literacy expert Timothy Shanahan and comments on a 2022 Cult of Pedagogy post on the topic.

Teachers deploy RRR—during which the whole class follows a text while students read sections consecutively—for good reasons: Arguably, the practice encourages student engagement, gives teachers the opportunity to gauge oral reading fluency, and has a built-in classroom management benefit as well. Students are generally silent and (superficially) attentive when a peer is reading.

But according to Shanahan, and the literacy professors Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones, the practice has long been frowned upon. In an influential 2012 review of relevant literature, Hilden and Jones cut straight to the point: “We know of no research evidence that supports the claim that RRR actually contributes to students becoming better readers, either in terms of their fluency or comprehension.”

In fact, RRR has plenty of problems. Individual students using RRR may accumulate less than three hours of oral reading time over the course of a year, according to Shanahan—and Hilden and Jones say that students who are following along during the activity tend to “subvocalize” as they track the reader, reducing their own internal reading speed unnecessarily. RRR also has the unfortunate effects of stigmatizing struggling readers, exposing new readers to dysfluent modeling, and failing to incorporate meaningful comprehension strategies. 

How to fix it: Yes, reading out loud is necessary to teach fluency, according to Shanahan, but there are better methods. Pairing kids together to “read sections of the text aloud to each other (partner reading) and then discuss and answer your questions” is a good approach, he says, especially if teachers circulate to listen for problems. 

More generally, reading strategies that model proper reading speed, pronunciation, and affect—while providing time for vocabulary review, repeated exposure to the text, and opportunities to summarize and discuss—can improve both fluency and comprehension.

A 2011 study, for example, demonstrated that combining choral reading—teachers and students read a text in unison (similar to echo reading)—with other activities like vocabulary review, teacher modeling, and follow-up discussion improved students’ decoding and fluency.

3. Talent Beats Persistence

It’s a common trap: Observers tend to rate people who appear to be naturally gifted at something more highly than those who admit they’ve worked hard to achieve success. Researchers call this the “naturalness bias,” and it shows up everywhere, from teachers evaluating students to bosses evaluating employees.

In reality, the opposite is more often true. “Popular lore tells us that genius is born, not made,” writes psychologist and widely cited researcher of human potential K. Anders Ericsson for the Harvard Business Review. “Scientific research, on the other hand, reveals that true expertise is mainly the product of years of intense practice and dedicated coaching.”

Experimental studies extend the point to academics: An influential 2019 study led by psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth, for example, found that high school GPA is a better predictor than the SAT of how likely students are to complete college on time. That’s because “grades are a very good index of your self-regulation—your ability to stick with things, your ability to regulate your impulses, your ability to delay gratification and work hard instead of goofing off,” said Duckworth in a 2020 interview with Edutopia.

How to fix it: All kids—even the ones who already excel in a discipline—benefit when teachers emphasize the importance of effort, perseverance, and growth. Consider praising students for their improvement instead of their raw scores; have students read about and then discuss the idea of neural plasticity; and consider assigning reports on the mistakes and growing pains of accomplished writers, scientists, and artists.

Try to incorporate rough-draft thinking in class, and think about taking risks yourself: The renowned writing teacher Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, regularly composes in front of his class to model his own tolerance for errors and redrafting.

4. Background Music (Always) Undermines Learning

It’s a fascinating and complex question: Can students successfully learn while background music is playing?

In some cases, it appears, background music can be a neutral to positive influence; in other scenarios, it’s clearly distracting. There are several factors at play in determining the outcomes.

A 2021 study clarifies that because music and language use some of the same neural circuitry—a finding that appears as early as infancy—“listening to lyrics of a familiar language may rely on the same cognitive resources as vocabulary learning,” and that can “lead to an overload of processing capacity and thus to an interference effect.” Other features of the music probably matter, too: Dramatic changes in a song’s rhythm, for example, or transitions from one song to the next often force the learning brain to reckon with irrelevant information. A 2018 research review confirms the general finding: Across 65 studies, background music consistently had a “small but reliably detrimental effect” on reading comprehension.

In some cases, however, music may aid learning. Neuroscience suggests that catchy melodies, for example, can boost a student’s mood—which might lead to significant positive effects on learning when motivation and concentration are paramount, a 2023 study found.

How to fix it: Basically, “music has two effects simultaneously that conflict with one another,” cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham told Edutopia in 2023—one distracting and the other arousing.

“If you’re doing work that’s not very demanding, having music on is probably fine”—and likely to motivate students to keep going, Willingham says. In those cases, try to stick to music that’s instrumental or familiar, in order to decrease the cognitive resources needed to process it. “But if you’re doing work that’s just somewhat difficult, the distraction is probably going to make music a negative overall,” Willingham adds.

5. Grades Are Motivating

Teachers are well aware that grading, as a system, has many flaws—but at least grades motivate students to try their hardest, right? Unfortunately, the research suggests that that’s largely not the case.

“Despite the conventional wisdom in education, grades don’t motivate students to do their best work, nor do they lead to better learning or performance,” write motivation researcher Chris Hulleman and science teacher Ian Kelleher in an article for Edutopia. A 2019 research review, meanwhile, revealed that when confronted by grades, written feedback, or nothing at all—students preferred the latter two to grades, suggesting that A–F rankings might actually have a net negative impact on motivation.

In another blow to grades, a 2018 analysis of university policies like pass/fail grading or narrative evaluations concluded that “grades enhanced anxiety and avoidance of challenging courses” but didn’t improve student motivation. Providing students with specific, actionable feedback, on the other hand, “promot[ed] trust between instructors and students,” leading to greater academic ambition.

How to fix it: While grades are still mandatory in most schools—and some form of rigorous assessment remains an imperative—educators might consider ways to de-emphasize them.

Some teachers choose to drop every student’s lowest grade, for example; allow students to retake a limited number of assessments each unit; or periodically give students the discretion to turn in “their best work” from a series of related assignments. 

At King Middle School, in Portland, Maine, educators delay their release of grades until the end of the unit, an approach backed by a 2021 study that found that delayed grading—handing back personalized feedback days before releasing number or letter grades—can boost student performance on future assignments by two-thirds of a letter grade.

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