In October, Dr Peter Verkoeijen came all the way from the Netherlands to give a talk on applied research in the classrooms as part of our TILE network external speaker series. He started off his presentation with a reflection on his journey from conducting fundamental research in Cognitive Science to developing an interest in applied research in educational settings. He provided a brief overview of the most effective learning strategies from Cognitive Psychology, distributed practice and retrieval practice, and said that while he enjoyed working on these memory effects and finding out more about their underlying processes in the laboratory under controlled conditions (simple material such as word lists), there was something that bothered him about it: Peter felt that the practical application of his work was somehow missing.

Triggered by a talent initiative that asked researchers to come up with toolbox to provide primary school teachers with evidence-based strategies, he dived into the adventure of translating fundamental research findings from Cognitive Science to hands-on, practical recommendations. Following this, Peter started to become more and more interested in conducting applied research projects. His research is special in the way that many of his projects are conducted in close collaboration with teachers. In essence, teachers approach him whenever they face a challenge that they think could be overcome by applying research-based findings. In his talk, Peter outlined several classroom-based projects. Here, I’ll focus on two projects to give a feel for the sort of applied research he does:

  • Using Cumulative Compensatory Assessment (CCA) in Mechanical Engineering to combat procrastination in students.
    1. Challenge: Students procrastinate and cram before the exam.
    2. Solution idea: Introduce frequent low-stake Cumulative Compensatory Assessment (CCA).
    3. CCA = Frequent low-stake tests throughout the semester, each test covers questions from all previous lessons, and you can compensate lower performance in one test by performing better on others.
    4. Students were randomly assigned to either the CCA group or to the control group that did not receive such systematic quizzes.
    5. Outcome variables:
      • Self-reported study time: Would students cram less in the CCA condition compared to the control condition?
      • Exam performance: Would students in the CCA condition perform better on the exam than students in the control condition?
    6. Rationale for research questions: CCA would lead to higher performance because of the benefits of retrieval practice. In addition, it structures studying systematically and students – due to higher continuous understanding – would engage in less cramming in the end.
    7. Findings: Engagement in students in CCA group was higher than in control group, students enjoyed the continuous feedback provided to them in the CCA group. However, there was no difference between the groups for self-reported study time. There was no difference in exam performance at the end of the semester.
  • Formative Assessment using ICT in Dynamics
    1. Challenge: Students have little awareness of the progress in their knowledge
    2. Solution: Provide formative assessment and scaffold the assignment with the provision of feedback – small hints to get them to the solution.
    3. Having a good ICT system can track a student’s progress in terms of their knowledge development. In addition, the lecturer in Dynamics checked students’ responses on the formative questions and tackled difficult topics during class à adaptive teaching approach.
    4. In this project, students that received this adaptive, formative assessment approach were compared to students who received regular instruction.
    5. Findings: Huge effects were revealed. The majority of students passed the class using the formative assessment approach whereas of the students who received instruction in the regular way only a few passed the class.
    6. Caveat: This teaching approach – although it seems to be very effective – is quite time-consuming and affords a good ICT system.

These examples show that applied research is important and more applied research is needed. It can point researchers to limitations of research findings and at the same time motivate new research questions to tackle. Thus, applied research does not only help to provide teachers and students with practical tips, but also informs research itself.

Applied research can be messier – particularly coming from an experimental research background – because you cannot control for all variables you’d wish to control for. However, the practical implications are higher. In addition, collaborations between researchers and teachers in this research field is – in my opinion – the way to go and should be a focus of the research agenda.

Peter concludes with a twist of a quote by Bjork, Kornell, and Dunlosky (2013) who stated that “effective learning can be fun, it can be rewarding, and it can save time, but it is seldom easy.” Peter stated:

“Applied research in the classroom is fun, it is rewarding, and it is time well spent, but it is seldom easy.”

Here are additional resources of the talk for you:
Video of the talk
Slides of the talk

Please feel free to comment below if you have additional thoughts!