The Learning Scientists: A Reflection on our One-Year Anniversary

The Learning Scientists: A Reflection on our One-Year Anniversary

By: Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

About 1 year ago in January 2016, the two of us (Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein) started the Learning Scientists. As many projects do, it started out very small and is continuously evolving. Today, we want to take time to reflect on how we got started, how the project has grown and evolved, and where we hope to go from here.

How We Got Started

We both knew one another when we were at Washington University in St. Louis. Yana was doing a Post-Doc with Roddy Roediger and Kathleen McDermott, and Megan was a graduate student working on her Master’s in Roddy’s lab. We were friends, but not extremely close friends (though we do have one picture together at the Psychonomics Meeting in Seattle, November 2011).

Yana and Megan, with friends Andrée-Ann and Ludmila, at the Psychonomics Annual Meeting in Seattle (November 2011).

Yana and Megan, with friends Andrée-Ann and Ludmila, at the Psychonomics Annual Meeting in Seattle (November 2011).

Coincidentally, we both ended up on the East Coast in New England with faculty positions, Megan at Rhode Island College and Yana at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. We are also both deeply passionate about education, and want the science of learning to have a positive impact on education in any way that it can. The project sparked when both of us, separately, started engaging on Twitter to promote the translation and communication of cognitive psychological science.

Megan was trying to establish a professional Twitter account, @DrSmithRIC, to interact with her students in Cognitive Psychology. Her goal was to create a Twitter assignment for which the students would be required to write tweets about cognitive psychology aimed at the average person (i.e., not just other psych students).

Around the same time, Yana was listening to NPR and hearing all about how people were doing important and useful work in their communities. She began feeling guilty that she wasn’t doing more to communicate what we know about the science of learning. On a whim, she searched Twitter for “test tomorrow” and realized there were many students feeling unprepared for exams, not knowing how to study, not being able to concentrate – and live-tweeting these feelings. Yana began tweeting advice based on cognitive psychology directly to these students, along with notes of encouragement and best wishes.

On January 21, 2016, Megan saw these tweets and joined in, using the hashtag #AceThatTest to connect the various tweets together. Our Twitter feeds quickly overflowed, and overnight we created a joint account for our efforts, @AceThatTest. We used this name because 1) we were originally thought we were going to interact with high school students, giving individual but public advice; and 2) @AceThatTest is only 11 letters -- we read you’re supposed to keep them as short as possible -- while @learningscientists is 18 letters.

Over the course of the next week, we got involved in Twitter discussions about education and tweeted about research and education applications. Then, Sam Sumeracki, a strategic communication specialist who helps us with general communication from time to time, and Megan’s fiancé, gave us some very good advice. He told us that the posts on Twitter would be lost in people’s feeds, and our information needed a place to “live.” He suggested a website with a blog. On February 5, 2016, was born, and on February 6 we published our first blog post.

By February, we had brought a student intern on board (see her story here), published a total of 14 blog posts, and reached over 1000 followers on Twitter. By mid-March we had a rhythm going. We published our first Weekly Digest and our first Guest Blog, and kept going with our current schedule: 3 blogs per week featuring a resource digest, a guest post, and a post from one of us.

How the Project Has Evolved, and What are our Goals?

Growth of the team

The biggest evolution has been to our team. We added two team members: Dr. Cindy Wooldridge at Washburn University and Dr. Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel at University of Dundee, UK. All four of us are academics with Ph.D.’s in cognitive psychology. We teach and have cognitive research programs related to the science of learning. However, each of us have different strengths that we bring to the team.

  • Yana is primarily focused on research, as well as teaching advanced-level undergraduate classes (e.g., a seminar in cognitive psychology and education). She also loves editing, making her the perfect person to work on the guest posts!
  • Megan’s emphasis is equally split between teaching and research. She has experience conducting research with K-12 students and college students and has worked as a K-12 substitute teacher. Finally, she has service experience at the National level.
  • Cindy is a teacher first and a researcher second, and she is most interested in the practical applications of research for teachers and students in large lecture classrooms, smaller classrooms, and for K-12 students.
  • Carolina is focused on both research and teaching. Specifically, she has run large-scale experiments with K-12 children in the classroom. She is also our UK connection.

To diversify expertise and help us cover more bases, we also identified a handful of external education experts with various expertise that differs from ours, from standardized testing to motivation to reading. (See the bottom of this page.)

Growth of Activities and Goals

But the Learning Scientists is no longer just a Twitter account or a blog – it is a collaborative scholarly outreach project. Our overall vision is to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students, teachers, and other educators. Specifically, we aim to motivate students to study, increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research, and decrease negative views about testing. We are not selling anything or promoting for-profit products, and we are not in this to make money. Our overarching goals have not changed, but the way we meet those goals is constantly evolving. As we evolve, we keep our core vision and academic identities in mind.

To explain our evolution, it is important to understand our careers as academics. As individuals, our team members have careers focused on education through teaching, research and scholarly activities, and service to the fields of psychology, education, and our institutions of higher education. As college professors, we focus on teaching both content related to cognition and research as well as how to learn and self-guide one’s own education. In research, we focus on making learning effective and efficient. As part of our scholarship and general service, we apply research broadly to education, and work on resources to make the science of learning more accessible. The Learning Scientists collaborative project contributes to our teaching, our research and scholarship, and service aspects of our careers.

We have had to make decisions about how we focus our time and what specific activities we take on. When doing this, we ask ourselves a few questions. First, does the activity fit within the outline of our academic jobs and identities as academics of education? Second, does it make the science of learning more accessible to students, teachers, or others? Third, does it have the potential to be impactful? Fourth, do we have the resources for this activity (or a reasonable shot at obtaining them)? We do not sell products, and so our resources are limited.

For example, after we created the posters depicting the six strategies for effective learning with funding from APS, we were approached by a number of individuals who were interested in translating the posters into other languages. Because this activity would make the science of learning accessible to more people, and had the potential for large impact – the posters are now on our website and are being freely accessed all over the world – we took the project on! We started searching for essential funding for our visualizer, Oliver Caviglioli. With limited resources, including ongoing support from IDEA Foundation, we have been able to translate the posters into 9 other languages, with 2 more on the way. Of course, we would need more funding to translate the posters into further languages.

Lately, we have been receiving more and more emails, tweets, and Facebook messages with questions about the science of learning. We very much want to answer these questions, and have found that some of the questions tend to repeat themselves. After some brainstorming we started answering 5 questions per month in a special blog post (for example, here is Volume 2), hoping to make the questions and answers more accessible to everyone without repeating ourselves too much.

We have also been approached by individuals, groups, and schools to give keynote talks and run workshops on the science of learning to teachers and students. This activity definitely makes the science of learning more accessible. But we have limited resources and time, and the workshops are only delivered to one group of people at a time. We can’t reasonably fund our own travel and give free workshops to anyone who would ask. Thus, we have come up with a structure for giving workshops and talks, as permitted by our institutions, charging what we hope is a modest honorarium. This activity helps us stay true to our overall vision, and allows us to meet others in the education world, creating connections we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Running a workshop at Dulaney High School in Baltimore (September 2016)

Running a workshop at Dulaney High School in Baltimore (September 2016)

Where Do We Go from Here?

A year later, we’re doing the things that Yana dreamed we would be doing when listening to NPR – communicating with hundreds of teachers and students not only here in the US, but also abroad, about learning and education. As we continue to grow and evolve, we keep our overarching goals in mind. We want to continue developing ourselves as academics, making the science of learning more accessible, and having a positive impact with the limited resources that we have – without crossing the line into a commercial venture. We have lots of ideas that we’re keen to pursue; we’ve recently discussed everything from designing a portable science of learning curriculum to running a regular science of learning podcast. We have various spin-off research studies and collaborations related to the project; for example, we are pursuing an investigation into the challenges that educators face when implementing cognitive psychology principles in their teaching practice. We’re also always open to considering collaborative projects that fit within our overarching goals, so if you have ideas for projects, or ideas for how to obtain funding, please let us know!