Breakthrough Research Shows Role of Study in Learning

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.”

Leave a comment


  1. Splendid suggestion—that academic study is related to academic learning! Unorthodox, and of course it runs counter to the Common Core and all other EdReform Initiatives in the U.S. at present, but a pleasant old-timey idea, anyway. Kudos to Senechal! Will Fitzhugh

  2. David Sedaris has nothing on you Diana

  3. Thank you, Will and Matthew!

  4. Well, I’m not persuaded. I read a story somewhere about someone who guessed randomly on some test and managed to pass it anyway. Also, this notion messes with my longstanding theory that best practice is to guess and hope for the best. In my experience, the very wealthiest and therefore most successful people in these United States don’t bother with things like evidence or study before prescribing plans for education, so why should I?

  5. Good point, Arthur. Thank you.

    A groundbreaking new study (also from Peutetre University, which has been on a roll lately) shows that following the example of the wealthiest does not make one healthy, wealthy, or wise.

    It is too new and groundbreaking to be in the news yet, but I may blog about it soon.

  6. Are you suggesting that wearing tea bags on my head and fighting for tax breaks for the very wealthiest Americans will not hasten my acquisition of the very billions of dollars these tax breaks are designed to protect? That all the cash I’ve invested in torches and pitchforks has been for naught?

  7. Well, I don’t want to put it quite so grimly. You still have the opportunity to invest in a few high-growth products, like skin conductance bracelets, hidden video cameras, and dazzling formulas that tell us how much we add to the world.

  8. Ken Mortland

     /  October 3, 2012

    With a collegiate background in experimental psychology, I have the foundations of statistical analysis upon which to draw. So, my initial reaction is, “Well, duh!. Those in a transmission model learning environment and who study do better than those in the same environment but don’t study.”. I’m at a loss as to imagine where to go next.

    It would be more meaningful, if the control factor had been quality of teaching, assuming you could effectively manipulate that variable. If the degree of learning under that hypothesis had been negligible, we’d have something.

    However, I’m reminded of something from my student teaching days. In a high school class of seniors taking Intro to Psychology, we had a classic none studier. He never participated in discussion nor demonstrated knowledge of the concept under discussion. Yet, on the final exam he pulled down a solid “C”. both the supervising teacher & I were surprised, to say the least. seems there was really some learning going on behind those glased eyes.

  9. producer1

     /  October 3, 2012

    Doh! Actually studying a subject. Who’d have thunk that up?

  10. William Pollock

     /  October 3, 2012

    Jeff Howard at led me to believe and promote the saying in my schools “Think you can… Work hard… Get smart! Smart is what you become not what you are. Novel isn’t it?

  11. rrhake

     /  October 3, 2012

    “The Zeorth Law of educational thermodynamics – ‘Nothing works if the
    students don’t.’ ”
    Richard Pendarvis (Chemed-L subscriber)

  12. Denver Gallentine

     /  October 3, 2012

    Interesting. I guess I could use the analogy of learning being akin to being in the sun. A little exposure give you a little tan, but the more/longer you expose yourself to a subject or the sun the more it effects you. I think we find this in all aspects of our life. – Denver

  13. The Data Team that in which I have participated for the last several years has consistently found the same results. We called it PRP (Progeress Through Repetition). It seems to work. A majority of kids passed the AP Exam in an urban-“under-performing”- district. The idea was simply to teach the material, and then test following the format of the AP Exam. We found that the majority who took the course and studied hard, as evidenced by improving test scores throughout the year, were ultimately MUCH more likely to be successful on the AP Exam. We also found that the same students were more likely to do better in a subsequent AP course than those students who were “new” to AP courses.
    Bottom Line–Good teaching is hard work, and so is being a good student.

  14. Reblogged this on Capitan Typo's Adventures in Education and commented:
    It’s always worth remembering that the majority of the factors identified by Hattie as benefitting student academic achievement are are attributed to the behaviours and values of the student themselves.

  15. spencertime

     /  October 3, 2012

    Since I am a francophile, peutetre made me laugh. Love it!

  16. Night Musing

     /  October 5, 2012

    Brilliant! Thanks, Dianne. I especially appreciated this:

    “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.”

    If only…

  17. rrhake

     /  October 6, 2012

    Of the same genre as Senechal’s (2012) masterful “Research Breakthrough! Silver Bullet Found” are several articles by the late physics education guru Arnold Arons: (a) “Educational Practices – an Expert View of Current Trends” [Arons (1973)] and (b) “An expert visit to the cognitive domain”[Arons (1984)].

    Arons was influenced by Frank Sullivan’s Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliche expert who futilely battled the banal in popular writing. Fortunately, Arbuthnot lives on in essays by Ben Yagoda (2001?) and Frank Prial (2006).

    And also – you know – that being said, in real time and for texters and googlers, the bottom line is that the imperial concerns of the real-time marketplace demand use of awesome and amazing cliches not only prior to, but at the end of the day, around the clock, and 24/7.

    Arons A.B. 1973. “Educational Practices – an Expert View of Current Trends,” Phys. Teach. 11(8): 487; online to subscribers at

    Arons A.B. 1984. “An expert visit to the cognitive domain.” Phys. Teach. 22(9): 582; online to subscribers at

    Prial, F.J. 2006. “Wine talk: Rolling out those chewy behemoths,” 18 January, New York Times News Service; online at

    Senechal, D. 2012. “Research Breakthrough! Silver Bullet Found, online at in Senecha’s blog “On Education and Other Things”

    Yagoda, B. 2001? “24/7 With the Cliche Expert,” online at See also Yagoda (2000).

    Yagoda, B. 2000. “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made.”Scribner. information at

    • Thank you for these, Dr. Hake. I read Arons’s pieces yesterday; the first one made me laugh myself to tears (cliche acknowledged). I look forward to reading Yagoda and Prial as well.

  18. Robert Hansen

     /  October 7, 2012

    Smart + Teacher + Study

  19. Prof-J

     /  October 9, 2012

    Wait just a minute! What about sleep learning, book(s) under the pillow, roommate whispering in your ear learning? And… I saw a Science Channel program that if you run electricity through the brain you may remember what you learned in past lives negating the need to learning in this century!

  1. Research Breakthrough! Silver Bullet Found. « Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Links, 10/4/2012 « naked capitalism

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