# IES Blog

### Institute of Education Sciences

During spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of millions of U.S. schools. As schools reopened this fall, conversations have revolved around using this unique situation as a chance to rethink education and how students learn. When we think about innovative ways to improve education, ideas tend to gravitate towards radical changes to the classroom experience, expensive interventions, and costly professional development. Everyone is looking for the next “big” idea, but perhaps part of the solution lies in a more subtle, inexpensive, and less disruptive change that may be as impactful as a completely new education approach: strategic revisions to the materials teachers and students already use in their classrooms (whether in person or virtual).

Textbooks (or ebooks) and supplemental education materials are central to providing students with the content knowledge and practice experiences to support mastery of academic skills. Textbook developers spend significant time and effort to ensure that the content in those textbooks aligns to standards and provides students with the information and examples needed to understand key concepts. However, even with age-appropriate content and high-quality practice exercises, textbooks may not be effective as learning tools if they present and sequence information in a way that is not aligned to what we know about how people learn.

You may be wondering how much room there is for improvement—textbooks seem pretty good at delivering content as is, right? Actually, findings from three IES-funded projects demonstrate that there are multiple ways to improve texts and student understanding of key concepts. Here are a few of those ways:

Present a wide range of fraction practice problems. Textbooks focused on fractions learning tend to present more problems with equal denominators for addition and subtraction problems than for multiplication problems. Why does this matter? In IES-funded research, David Braithwaite and Bob Siegler showed that students pick up on this bias. As a result, students are more likely to make errors on equal denominator fractions multiplication problems because they are so used to seeing those problems when practicing fractions arithmetic and subtraction. The recommended minor change is to include a wider range of fractions practice problems, including equal denominator multiplication problems, to ensure that students do not form irrelevant associations between superficial features of a practice problem and the solution strategies they are practicing.

Provide students with a mix of practice problems that require different strategies rather than practice problems of the same type. Typical math practice involves solving the same type of problem repeatedly to practice the specific solution strategy a student just learned. However, across numerous IES-funded studies, Douglas Rohrer and his research team have shown that students benefit substantially more from math practice that involves a mix of problems that require different strategies (those learned in previous lessons mixed with those just learned). One of the major benefits of this approach is that students get practice choosing which strategy to use for a particular problem. Rohrer and his team found that across 13,505 practice problems from six popular math textbooks, only 9.7% of those problems were mixed up in this way. The recommended minor change is to simply mix up the problem sets so that students have more experiences encountering different types of problems in a single sitting.

Where and how you place visuals on textbook pages matters, especially when you want students to compare them. Textbooks typically use visuals such as diagrams and photos to help reinforce key concepts. In an IES-funded study, Bryan Matlen and colleagues examined anatomy and evolution chapters within three popular middle school science textbooks and found an average of 1.8 visuals per page. Students were expected to make comparisons using about a third of those visuals. Of those they had to compare, about half were positioned in suboptimal ways—that is, the images were not presented in a way that made it easy to identify how the elements of one image compare to the elements of the other. For example, imagine a student is asked to compare two x-ray images of hands to identify a bone that is missing from one of them. This task is much harder if one hand is shown upside down and the other is right-side up or perpendicular to the first image. Consistent with this example, Matlen and colleagues have conducted studies showing that visual comparisons are more effective when the features of the visuals that need to be compared are spatially aligned. The recommended minor change is to be intentional about the placement of visuals that students are supposed to be comparing; make sure they are placed in optimal alignment to each other so that it is easier for students to see how the features of one correspond to those of the other.

In sum, transformative, radical ideas about how to improve education are interesting to brainstorm about, but sometimes the key to improvement is identifying small changes that can deliver big results.

Written by Erin Higgins (Erin.Higgins@ed.gov), Program Officer for the Cognition and Student Learning Program, National Center for Education Research.

Our nation continues to navigate a unique and challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our first blog post in this series, we highlighted how educators, students, families, and researchers are adapting while trying to engage in opportunities to support learning. COVID-19 has created numerous challenges in education research with many studies needing to be modified or put on hold. At the same time, new research questions arise focusing on the impact of the pandemic on student learning, engagement, and achievement. Here, we highlight two IES-funded projects that are conducting timely and relevant research exploring the impact of COVID-19 on learning and critical thinking.

Guanglei Hong, Lindsey Richland, and their research team at University of Chicago and University of California, Irvine have received supplemental funds to build off their current grant, Drawing Connections to Close Achievement Gaps in Mathematics. The research team will conduct a study during the 2020-21 school year to explore the relationship between student anxiety about the health risks associated with COVID-19 and their math learning experiences. They predict that pressure and anxiety, like that induced by COVID-19, use the same executive function resources that students need to engage in higher order thinking and reasoning during math instruction, which negatively affects the ability to learn. Through this study, the research team will also test whether particular instructional approaches reduce the effects of pressure and anxiety on learning. These findings will be useful for teachers and students in the near term as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and longer term for students who experience anxiety due to a variety of other reasons.

In addition, IES has funded an unsolicited grant to Clarissa Thompson at Kent State University to investigate whether an education intervention aimed at decreasing whole number bias errors can help college-aged students and adults more accurately interpret health statistics about COVID-19. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public receives daily updates about the number of people locally, nationally, and globally who are infected with and die from COVID-19. Beliefs about the risk of getting a disease is a key predictor of engagement in prevention behaviors. Understanding the magnitude of one’s risk may require making sense of numerical health information, often presented in the form of rational numbers, such as fractions, whole number frequencies, and percentages. An intervention to decrease whole number bias errors and improve understanding of rational numbers has the immediate and pressing benefit of being able to accurately reason about the risk of COVID-19 and other health risks. This skill is also critical for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Both of these projects offer opportunities to better understand learning and critical thinking in the midst of the pandemic. They will also provide the field with generalizable information about ways to improve learning in STEM fields. Stay tuned for more COVID-19 related education research discussions as we continue this series on our blog.

Written by Christina Chhin (christina.chhin@ed.gov) and Erin Higgins (erin.higgins@ed.gov), National Center for Education Research (NCER).

This is the third in a series of blog posts focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19. Other blog posts in this series include Conducting Education Research During COVID-19 and Measuring Attendance during COVID-19: Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Environments.

Many programs across the Federal government, such as the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the IES Research Grants programs, fund projects to develop and evaluate new forms of education technology and interventions that can be implemented to support instruction and learning at schools and for remote learning. More than 150 of these technologies were demoed in January 2020 at the ED Games Expo, a showcase for learning games and technologies developed with support from IES and more than 30 other Federal programs.

Since the global outbreak of COVID19 and the closure of schools across the United States and the world, a group of government-supported developers and researchers responded to provide resources to educators, students, and families to facilitate remote learning. More than 50 developers and researchers offered 88 learning games and technologies at no cost through the end of the school year for use in distance learning settings with internet access (see this blog for the list). In addition, many of the developers and researchers provided technical assistance directly to individual teachers to support implementation at a distance, and many created new materials and worked to refine and adapt their products to optimize usability and feasibility for fully remote use. More than a million students and thousands of educators used these learning technologies during the spring.

In April and May 2020, more than 70 developers and researchers partnered to produce and participate in a series of free day-long virtual events, which were called “unconferences.” The events featured presentations on innovative models and approaches to teaching and learning remotely and provided an in-depth look at the learning games and technologies created by the presenters. More than 25,000 educators attended these virtual events in real-time, hundreds asked questions and made comments through chats during the events, and many thousands more have accessed these videos after the events. See this blog for the list of archived videos.

A New Resource: Guides to Education Technologies that are Ready Now

As schools begin re-opening for the new school year, a group of 70 developers and researchers have collaborated to produce a new series of Guides to Education Technologies. The guides present information on government-supported education technology products that are ready now for in-class and remote learning. All the resources are web-based and can be used on either computers, tablets, or personal devices. The resources in the guides include a mix of no-cost products as well as ones that are fee-based.

With awards from government programs, all of the resources were developed through an iterative process with feedback from teachers and students, and most were evaluated through small pilot studies to measure the promise of the technologies to support improvements in student learning and relevant educational outcomes. All the products were used and demonstrated to be feasible for use in remote settings in the spring after the onset of the pandemic.

The guides present resources appropriate for young children through postsecondary students in education and special education, for English learners, and for teachers in education and special education across a wide range of educational topics. Many of the technologies personalize learning by adjusting content to students as they go and present information to educators to inform instruction.

The Guides focus on the following areas and can be accessed below:

Stay tuned to the Inside IES Blog for more information and resources about the response to the COVID-19 in education.

Edward Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) is a research scientist and the program manager for the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Editor’s Note: This Inside IES Blog is crossed-posted on Homeroom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education.

On July 30, 2020, NASA launched a rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a journey to Mars. The rocket is carrying a rover named Perseverance and a helicopter named Ingenuity, both of which will land inside Mars's Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. While on Mars, Perseverance and Ingenuity will collect the first Martian soil and rock samples for future return to Earth, search for signs of extinct or extant life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet with the help of new technologies and scientific instruments.

Perseverance and Ingenuity were named by students through a national Kindergarten to Grade 12 student competition run by NASA in partnership with Future Engineers and Battelle Education.

The student whose entry won the prize to name the rover is Alexander Mather, a seventh grader from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. Alexander submitted the name Perseverance and included the following in his essay:

“Curiosity. Insight. Spirit. Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past Mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We are always curious, and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond. But, if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing. Perseverance.”

Watch the March 5 program where the winning name was revealed here:

The student whose entry won the prize to name the helicopter is Vaneeza Rupani, a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama. Vanessa submitted the name Ingenuity and included the following in her essay:

"The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration. Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things, and it allows us to expand our horizons to the edges of the universe."

Watch the video trailer featuring the naming of the Mars helicopter:

About the “Name the Rover” Contest

Not only did the contest help NASA pick a new name for the rover, it also engaged U.S. students in the engineering and scientific work that makes Mars exploration possible, stimulated interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and inspired the next generation of STEM leaders.

After launching the competition in August 2019, students from 50 states, U.S. territories, and military bases submitted over 28,000 essays. More than 4,500 volunteer judges narrowed the pool to 155 semifinalists. From these, NASA chose nine finalists—Clarity, Courage, Endurance, Fortitude, Ingenuity, Perseverance, Promise, Tenacity, and Vision—and opened a public poll in which anyone could vote. After considering these poll results, NASA officials chose the two names.

To manage the competition, NASA used a web-based platform developed by Burbank, California-based Future Engineers.  This platform was created with the support of a 2017 award from the U.S. Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences’ Small Business Innovation Research program (ED/IES SBIR).  Future Engineers built this platform to be an online hub for classrooms and educators to access free, project-based STEM activities and to provide a portal where students submit and compete in different kinds of maker and innovation challenges across the country. The Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest was the first naming challenge issued on the platform. We look forward to more student challenges to come!

Edward Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) is a research scientist at the Institute of Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.

Bob Collom is an integration lead in the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds projects to develop education technology products designed to support students, teachers, or administrators in general or special education. The program emphasizes rigorous and relevant research to inform iterative development and to evaluate whether fully developed products show promise for leading to the intended outcomes. The program also focuses on commercialization once the award period ends so that products can reach students and teachers and be sustained over time. ED/IES SBIR-supported products are currently used by millions of students in thousands of schools around the country.

About NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP)

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) in the Planetary Science Division is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today. To that end, all of our future missions will be driven by rigorous scientific questions that will continuously evolve as we make new discoveries. MEP continues to explore Mars and to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network. The Mars 2020 Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages rover development for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

With a 2010 IES research grant, researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University conducted basic research and created prototype software programs for children in mathematics. In 2011, three members of the research team launched a startup and submitted a successful proposal to IES’s Small Business Innovation Research programs. With awards in 2012 and 2013, the developers created a suite of math game apps that support fact fluency and promote math strategy development. The apps all connect with a teacher dashboard that provides in-depth reports in real time and supports differentiation in math instruction. In 2013, Teachley’s Addimal Adventure won an Apple Design Award as one of the 12 best apps of 2014. Since their commercial launch in 2014, Teachley Apps have been downloaded 1.5 million times, and the Teachley suite of products are currently used in all 50 states and 2,000 schools.

Interview with Kara Carpenter, co-founder of Teachley

The three co-founders of Teachley were all classroom teachers before you met at Teachers College as graduate students in 2010. What led to your decision to go to graduate school to earn PhDs as researchers?

While teaching 2nd grade, I had the opportunity to receive professional development focused on elementary math content, and I became fascinated with how children develop their mathematical thinking. Years later, when I was getting a master’s in curriculum & teaching at Teachers College, I pursued a work study opportunity with Professor Herb Ginsburg, who focuses on early childhood math thinking. At the time in 2009, my cofounder Rachael Labrecque was already working with Professor Ginsburg, and the three of us submitted an application to IES to develop math software for young learners. That fall, I went back to classroom teaching, but when the application was funded in 2010, I decided to take the leap and accept a research fellowship to pursue a PhD. My other co-founder, Dana Pagar, joined our research team that fall, and the three of us decided to start Teachley in 2012 to bring all the great research on how kids learn math into marketable products.

Tell us about the research projects that you were involved with in graduate school.

We worked on a project developing math software for grades pre-K to 3, called MathemAntics. We developed dozens of activities and conducted small learning studies along the way. In the third year, we conducted an RCT with approximately 400 students in grades PreK - 2. Each of our dissertations involved different elements of the project. Mine focused on teaching and detecting kids’ single-digit addition strategies. Dana’s focused on continuous versus discrete blocks, while Rachael studied teachers’ preparedness to integrate technology into their classrooms.

How did you come up with the idea to develop apps that would be used in schools on a wide scale basis?
Originally, we were looking for a company who might want to take these research findings and turn them into commercial products. We were meeting with various business leaders, and one of them turned to us and said, “You should do this. You should start a company to bring your ideas to market.” That’s the push we needed to think of ourselves as potential startup founders.

How did you find out about the SBIR program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences? How important was the first SBIR award for launching Teachley?

Once we decided to start Teachley, we knew that SBIR would be a great resource for us. The MathemAntics project had actually started out as an NIH SBIR Phase I with a different company. That first ED/IES SBIR award is the reason that Teachley became a company. Without that funding, we would not have been able to prove ourselves capable of bringing a product to market. Institutional investors aren’t taking those kinds of risks, and angel investment is too tied into social networks and who you know.

Was Teachers College supportive of its graduate students starting a small business and getting an award to develop apps? Did anyone at the university offer advice or guidance on how to operate a small business?

Leaving the university was tricky because we had research fellowships when we started the company. However, the Teachers College president at the time, Susan Fuhrman, and the provost, Tom James, were supportive of our startup. We speak and participate in various discussions and events at Teachers College, which keeps us connected to the university and the research.

How does Teachley ensure that research is integrated into your development and validation process?

Before developing any new product idea, we look to the research to see what’s already been learned about the topic, especially as it relates to struggling learners. During the early stages of development, we rely on close observations of students as they use pencil/paper mockups and early software builds. As a team, we closely review videos of students working through problems, looking to find better, more intuitive ways to support students’ thinking. Once we have a functional prototype, we use more formal evaluative techniques to determine our impact on student learning.

What models have you used to commercialize Teachley on a widespread basis?

We have tried out many different revenue models. Initially, we tried publishing the games for free and charging schools for the formative assessment data. However, we soon found that bundling the games and data together into a single subscription worked better for schools. With our latest game, Market Bay, we are trying a new model where educators create a free account, and parents subscribe to have access at home. Schools who subscribe to Teachley get home access to Market Bay and our other games for all of their families.

Have you raised funds from venture capitalists? Why or why not?

Not yet. Raising money from venture capitalists can put you on a succeed-or-fail-fast treadmill that isn’t always a great fit for the education market. Many investors are looking for a 70x return within just a few years or they abandon ship. Developing great educational software takes time for both the iterative design process and the research to prove your effectiveness. We are just now at the stage where raising venture capital may soon make sense because we have enough content to scale our school/district sales.

When COVID-19 emerged and schools closed, you made your apps freely available to teachers and students in their classes, and 15,000 teachers and students were able to access your products. What was that experience like?

Teachers are looking for digital products that will deeply engage students and support true learning. We’re a great fit. However, schools across the country are suffering budget shortfalls at the same time as they need to spend more to ensure they meet safety standards. We’re working with schools and teachers to find alternative ways to fund our program, from parent organizations to Donors Choose to corporate partnerships.

None of you had had formal business training prior to founding Teachley. Do you have advice for those who are interested in starting an entrepreneurial small business to develop education technology that can be used in schools?

My advice would be to know your users and implementation deeply. If you don’t have a background in teaching, spend time volunteering in schools. Become a close observer of children and their thinking, so you can create products that support and bring out children’s genius.

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Kara Carpenter is cofounder of Teachley (@teachley), an edtech startup focused on promoting deep math thinking and learning. Kara has over 10 years of teaching experience and was a National Board Certified Teacher with a PhD in Cognition and Learning from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation went on to become an Apple Design Award winning app, Addimal Adventure.

This interview was produced by Ed Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) of the Institute of Education Sciences. This post is the sixth in an ongoing series of blog posts examining moving from university research to practice at scale in education.