Advances in Understanding How People Learn: Update from the National Science Board

nsf building wilson

February 5th, 2015

On February 2, 2015, the National Science Board (NSB) convened to discuss priorities and policies for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSB, along with the NSF Director, pursues the goals and functions of the Foundation, as well as establishes policy for the NSF and serves as an independent body of advisors to the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government. The NSB meets five times per year, and pursuant to the Government in the Sunshine Act, share meeting agenda and content with the public. The full meeting agenda is online.

This year, the NSB’s Committee on Education and Human Resources (CEH) highlighted two researchers who have made empirical and theoretical advances in understanding how people learn, as well as developed new methods for measuring learning. Dr. Deborah Ball, chair of CEH and Professor and Dean of Education at Michigan State University, emphasized that while CEH and NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) have overlaps, they are not the same—nevertheless, CEH stressed the importance of NSF addressing three audiences: 1) professional STEM workers (e.g. scientists and engineers), 2) people who use STEM knowledge, dispositions and skills in their work (ranging from pharmacists to electricians to gardeners), and 3) the broader public. These audiences align with EHR’s core research areas, particularly in broadening participation and workforce development.

This meeting of the NSB continued threads of discussion from prior ones on the importance of research in the EHR portfolio, and in particular, the driving questions of particular researchers as well as the innovative methods that are developed along the way. To that end, two researchers shared what Dr. Ball framed as the “question that animates their work,” as well as some emerging findings.

Advances in Understanding How People Learn

First, Dr. Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago presented her work on how academic performance can break down under stressful situations. In particular, Dr. Beilock’s work has investigated how math anxiety (MA), which is distinct from math ability, in parents and teachers can affect student performance. She and her colleagues have used a combination of behavioral studies and neuroimaging to demonstrate the behavioral and physical changes that happen to a person experiencing MA, and how those changes affect performance. Overall, she has found that lowering factors that contribute to MA—for example, having high-MA parents use an app with their kids to explore math concepts—can increase academic performance, even in young learners. Dr. Beilock’s work has implications for both teacher professional development and structured testing conditions.

Next, Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir of UC Berkeley shared her research on how culture and identity shape learning outcomes, particularly in non-dominant populations. Dr. Suad Nasir posited that although we think of race and culture in fixed ways, individuals actually act differently in different cultural contexts. She also expressed that learning happens in a cultural context for everyone, not just non-dominant populations, and that learning takes place in a wide variety of settings that constantly affects, and is affected by, individual learners’ cultural identities. In one example of her work, she investigated how African American boys were able to do math problems in a real-world setting—in this case, estimating distances and percentages while playing basketball—but were unable to do the same kinds of problems as well in academic setting. The theory is that because the students had a personal identity as an expert in basketball, they were more comfortable and able to perform academically, whereas in a classroom, they felt out-of-place.

After the presentations, the NSB asked questions of the researchers such as: What does it mean to build programmatic and systematic inquiry into very important questions about how people are learning? How can the learning research ecosystem create strong infrastructure for collaboration, interdisciplinary work, and for supporting new communities of scholars? What are the barriers to conducting this work, and how can practitioners adopt best practices from your research? Are there institutions and supports in place for testing new approaches in education, with longitudinal studies?

What does this mean for informal learning projects funded by NSF?

As outlined in the most recent Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) solicitation, EHR will continue to emphasize research and development activities in three core areas: learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and the STEM workforce development. The AISL program differs from EHR’s Core Research (ECR) program, which funds foundational research in those areas. As the solicitation states, “AISL’s research and development investments focus on the translation of foundational and early stage research… the knowledge base to which AISL contributes is more closely aligned with theories of practice and design-based research than with foundational theory building.”

Informal learning projects play an important role in creating learner-centric, self-directed, and empowering learning experiences—whether they be through basketball practice, afterschool cooking class, science camp, or any other settings that make up the wide variety of possible opportunities to engage with and learn STEM. By exploring and contributing to the research published in the many disciplines that contribute to informal learning, informal STEM education professionals can contribute to the growing knowledge base and variety of experiences that support lifelong STEM learning.

The next NSB meeting will take place May 5-6, 2015. A public agenda will be available about one week before the meeting. Watch the CAISE News feed to find out more about the agenda when it becomes available.

Top image: The National Science Foundation office in Arlington, VA.