McDonnell Foundation grant harnesses cognitive science to improve student learning

WUSTL psychology researchers will lead multi-university research collaboration

Using what cognitive psychologists are discovering in the laboratory to improve learning in the classroom is the goal of a $6.47 million collaborative activity grant to Washington University from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF).

“The aim of the grant is to take the knowledge that cognitive psychologists have gained about learning and memory from laboratory experimentation and to develop techniques to improve learning in the classrooms,” said Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, Ph.D., principal investigator on the grant and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences.

The five-year grant will fund experimental research on a variety of strategies and tactics for improving education from primary grades through college, including investigations by three of Roediger’s colleagues in Arts & Sciences: psychology professors Larry L. Jacoby, Mark A. McDaniel and Kathleen B. McDermott.

In addition, the grant includes collaborations with seven other investigators at five other universities — Columbia University, Duke University, Kent State University, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and University of California, San Diego.

The McDonnell collaborative activity grants are unique, said Roediger, because they require investigators to “step back and look at the bigger picture.”

In most investigator-driven research, the investigator attempts to do research on one fairly circumscribed problem. There may be a larger goal involved, but the researcher is focused on a relatively small part of it. In a collaborative activity grant, the investigators meet twice a year to share results and ideas from their programs of research and to plan for future research, he said.

“Collaborations spring up naturally at these meetings, and we seek to draw a larger picture of how the various parts will fit together,” Roediger said. “The hope is that a collaborative group of 11 people will make much more progress than would 11 investigators working in relative isolation.”

The group also tries to look at the sum of the research and related findings to achieve an overarching view of the problem, in this case specific, empirically testable, methods of improving instruction. This collaborative process already has proven effective during the course of a similar McDonnell Foundation grant that Roediger and Washington University received to cover research spanning 2003-2008.

The initial grant, which funded education research by Roediger, McDaniel, McDermott and several graduate students (as well as investigators at Duke and UCLA), has generated a wealth of research linking cognitive findings and classroom practices, including a recent study published in the journal Science on the value of repeated testing for improving students’ long-term retention.

“Our first McDonnell grant allowed us to make more progress in five years than any of us thought possible at the outset,” Roediger said.

“This grant — just the most recent of many generous gifts to Washington University from the James S. McDonnell Foundation — gives our researchers the resources to make major contributions to the advancement of teaching in the classroom,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “We are very proud of the progress our faculty and their colleagues are making on the educational front, and extremely grateful to the Foundation for their support of this initiative. With this grant, the Foundation is supporting educational progress at its most basic and its most effective level.”

The collaborative activity grants are part of the foundation’s 21st Century Science Initiative, which has awarded more than $90 million to promote learning and research since its inception in 2000.

Founded in 1950 by the late aerospace pioneer and founder of the McDonnell Douglas Corp., the James S. McDonnell Foundation is dedicated to the belief that science and technology gives mankind the power to shape knowledge for the future.

“Splendid opportunities arise by weaving individual projects into a fabric of cooperative problem solving,” said Susan Fitzpatrick, McDonnell Foundation vice president. “We hope researchers in JSMF-funded collaboratives will achieve more by working together than each investigator could by working individually.”