Education policymakers have long assumed that students who learn more have been taught more effectively. A startling new study conducted by an international consortium of scholars at Peutêtre University in Toronto has thrown this assumption into question. According to project director Pascal Feldspar, students who take a course in a subject—and study it—show more learning gains in the subject than students who do not. While gains varied slightly from one section of a course to the next, the starkest differences were between those who took a course and those who did not, and those who did the work and those who did not.
“It is too early to generalize the findings,” said Feldspar, “but we found, for instance, that students who took French for a year, and did their homework, showed significantly more learning gains in French by the end of the year than students who took no French.” The same applied to geometry, ancient history, piano, and Shakespeare. “We gave fifty students a test on Henry IV, Part 1,” he said, waving a copy of the play at us. “They were asked to identify a series of quotes, explain their meaning, and discuss their relation to the work as a whole. Before anyone had read Henry IV, performance on the test was uniformly poor. Then we split them up into an experimental group and a control group. At the end of the study, the members of the experimental group—the ones who studied the play—performed better than the control group by more than two standard deviations. Put simply, the more you study, the more you learn. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the idea.”
When asked about indirect exposure to a subject, Feldspar pondered for a moment. “We haven’t conducted any experiments on this yet,” he replied, “but our hypothesis is that indirect exposure to a subject plays a role in learning it as well.” He added that students who took courses but did no work showed negligible progress. “You learn something from just being in the environment,” he said, “but it appears that you learn a great deal more if you study the material, day after day.”
Asked whether the researchers had used standardized tests for their experiment, Feldspar shook his head vigorously. “You see, the American standardized tests don’t contain much subject matter,” he explained. “Their emphasis is on skills. In our study, we used tests that were directly related to what students had learned in the course.” Even then, he said, the tests didn’t show everything. “We know well that the test can’t measure all that was taught, and that the students’ performance isn’t an exact indicator of how much they learned.” All the same, he said, the test results showed differences between students who had studied a subject and students who hadn’t. “There are always some who study and study and still don’t learn,” he said, “but on the whole, so far, it appears that students who study a subject have a certain learning edge in that subject.”
Other scholars were quick to dismiss the findings. “The Peutêtre findings rest on the long-disproven axiom that you can only learn subject matter through a transmission model,” said Lorraine Caulk, professor of educational neurobehavior at Instructors College in Iowa City. “In fact, research has shown that when we empower children as self-initiating scholars, they start to exhibit strategic thought behaviors without the hierarchical modeling of traditional task performance.”
“I’m not sure what that means,” retorted Feldspar. “If Dr. Caulk would care to clarify her statement, I’d be happy to try to respond to it.” Dr. Caulk replied that she was using standard research terminology and that Dr. Feldspar should acquaint himself with the literature.
At this time it is unclear whether the findings at Peutêtre will have any impact on the classroom. “I like the gist of it—that we should teach actual subject matter,” said Nellie Nekogda, principal of the High School for Innovative Thinking in New York City. “The problem is, we have no money for books, and we have to bring up our test scores in ELA. I’d love to do it, though, if we could get the resources and the support.” She leaned back in her chair. “My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,” she mused, quoting from Henry IV, Part 1. “It has been years since I thought about that play. How great it would be to teach it here. Some day,” she said, “some day.”