HUBweek Change Maker: Pooja Agarwal, Ph.D.

Cognitive Scientist & Founder of RetrievalPractice.org

Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. is an expert in the field of cognitive science. She has conducted rigorous research on learning in K-12 public schools for more than 15 years and she has a forthcoming book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. Pooja is the Founder of RetrievalPractice.org, a hub of resources and strategies for teachers based on the science of learning. In addition, Pooja is an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music and an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University. She received her Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis and is a former K-12 teacher.

Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to the fields of education and cognitive/learning science?

Pooja Agarwal: Late in high school I developed an interest in education. I went to a unique math and science high school outside of Chicago called the Illinois Math and Science Academy — it’s a public high school but it’s residential. And, of course they have some different ways of approaching education, and just being in that setting at the age of 15 makes it a lot different than a typical high school. So I became interested in what makes for an effective school and powerful education system, and in college I decided to major in elementary education, and I got certified in the state of Missouri and taught fourth and fifth grade for a little bit. And while I was taking my education classes — I went to Washington University in St. Louis — I was also starting to take psychology classes, and I took one on cognitive psychology. I had no idea what the word “cognitive” even meant — and I’m still figuring it out! And I was just fascinated — the whole class was about the science behind how we learn. Doing experiments and thinking about memory, like how do we remember people’s names. How do we remember words, like learning foreign language vocabularies — how do we remember words from Spanish or from Swahili? What can we do to improve people’s memory and improve their learning?

And I was just blown away — I had no idea there was a science of learning. And so I was literally going from one side of campus to my education classes that were all theoretical — There weren’t textbooks, they were taught by veteran teachers. Then I’d go to the other side of campus and I’d learn all about the science of learning, and do experiments, and learn about really cool psychology research. And it sounds really corny, but for me it really was one of those lightbulb moments — it was like, wow, I need to bridge these two sides of the world! So from there it pretty much kept going — I did majors in both, I still got certified and taught elementary school, and I majored in cognitive neuroscience.

I joke that I’ve always done a hodge-podge of things: I ended up doing full-time research in a middle school and high school with my colleagues at Wash. U., and then I would go to D.C. and do some policy work at the Department of Education, and then I decided to get my Ph.D. in cognitive science, and then I did more policy work, and have taught college students and K-12 in between. So after pretty much doing 15 years of research in schools, and then also teaching and getting a little bit of policy experience, I’m still doing a hodge-podge I guess!

I think of my time currently as being kind of integrated across thirds, I suppose, but it’s all mushed together. I spend about a third of my time teaching at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and I also teach online for Vanderbilt. And so at Berklee, I teach science to musicians, which is so much fun. The students still have to get a liberal arts degree — so they major in sound engineering, film scoring, or songwriting, but they still take math, history, and science classes. So I get to teach science, and I learn so much from them, because I really have very little musical background. And then online for Vanderbilt I teach graduate students; and so they’re all education professionals — they might be a superintendent of a district or they might work in higher education at colleges and universities, and they’re all over the country, so that’s a very different fun experience for me. So that’s one hat, the teacher hat.

Another hat is research. I recently finished writing a book called Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, and I was very fortunate to co-write it with a collaborator of mine, Patrice Bain, and she and I have been collaborating on the research in schools for the past 10 years. She’s a veteran K-12 teacher, so we have a nice mix in the book of talking about the science of learning, and then what it actually means in the classroom on a practical level. So how do you help students remember and learn with these evidence-based methods? How can you do it super quickly without waiting and without more hassle? And then, having examples from educators around the world, and also examples from our own classrooms, so mine in higher ed. and Patrice’s in middle school social studies. And I’m still continuing on research with colleagues from Wash. U., so still publishing that. That’s my second hat.

And then my third hat is translating science from jargon into English. I love doing that and I think it’s so important. I have this website, retrievalpractice.org, and it’s geared toward educators, because I’m really fascinated by how we can shape learning in the classroom. And so retrievalpractice.org is for educators, and I send out weekly emails you can subscribe for that have either resources or a quick research snapshot, or a practical strategy in the classroom.

ZD: Speaking of retrieval practice, much of your research has been focused on it as a mechanism for more effective learning and teaching — can you explain what it is and how it works?

PA: Retrieval practice is this simple idea of getting information out of your head. It’s pretty intuitive, we use it or lose it — you have to practice an instrument to really get good at it. And just that pulling information out of a student’s head as opposed to cramming it in helps learning a lot. So, do you happen to know the number of bones in the adult human body?

ZD: I remember you asking this the last time we met, but now of course I don’t remember! 218? 205?

PA: 206! Even if retrieval doesn’t work once, now you have retrieved a second time, and you’re much more likely to remember the number of bones the next time I ask you! So, when it comes to the classroom, even a simple switch — and you’ve probably had this experience — where a teacher says, “Ok, class, last class we covered derivatives and calculus, now let’s move on.” All teachers have to do is say, “Alright class, what did we cover last time?” And let them retrieve it as opposed to the teacher just telling them. Or I could have just told you the number of bones, but by having you pull it out of your head, you’re going to remember it more. So, it’s intuitive, we just don’t do it very often, since it’s challenging or feels uncomfortable.

I’ll give you another example of retrieval that works in the classroom but also outside — it’s what people are calling “brain dumps.” In the scientific literature we call it “free recall.” But all it is asking someone to write down everything they can remember. So, write down everything you can remember about when we last met, or everything you can remember from the movie you just saw. And if I don’t pull it out of my mind, then I’m not going to remember it very well later. So, in the classroom when we ask students, “Write down everything you learned yesterday or last semester about Ancient Egypt.” And then students just write down everything they remember — they can write it for one minute or something like that — then they’ll remember it better. So, brain dumps are again another very simple way of making a switch from getting information in to getting information out.

And in case readers are interested from an intuitive perspective but also a scientific perspective — why retrieval practice helps retention and long-term learning. And there are at least two reasons off the top of my head. One is that the actual challenge — a lot of people ponder, they’ll close their eyes, look at the ceiling, you know when you’re really thinking. That challenge is what we call a desirable difficulty. So, it’s a challenge that’s a good thing. And making that challenge, struggling to pull information out, makes it much more memorable. When students, for instance — and we’ve all done this — when you cram for a big exam, you’re cramming stuff into your head. Then you finish the exam and you forget it all, because it’s not challenging, you’re just developing fluency. You think, “Oh, I totally know that! I reread my chapter five times, I reread my notes, I’m going to ace this exam.” Then you do, then you forget. So the challenge really helps.

Then a second aspect is that by having to pull information out you’re almost quizzing yourself, like with flashcards, which gives you a better sense of what you know and what you don’t know. This is what we call metacognition — thinking about your own learning, or learning about your own learning. Being mindful of “Do I really know that or am I just kind of guessing?” And the awareness that comes from retrieval practice also really helps.

ZD: Do you have any quick tips you can share to help us improve our memory and learning?

PA: On the topic of flashcards — you are using retrieval, pulling information out, but there are three things people can do better. One is that people tend to cheat themselves: You’re looking at the front, maybe looking at an artist’s name, like Rodin, and you’re trying to think of the name of one of his sculptures. And you’re like, “Yep, duh.” And you flip it over without actually quizzing yourself. So, one tip is to not cheat yourself. Maybe say the answer out loud or write it down before you flip over the flashcard.

A second thing is that people tend to drop cards out of their deck way too fast. They think, “Ok, I got it right once, so I’ve got it.” And then people drop them. And there’s some really fun research by some of my colleagues that shows that keeping something in your deck or retrieving it three times solidifies it. So, you want to keep that card in your deck at least three times before you drop it.

A third tip is to shuffle the deck. That adds an extra struggle that we call interleaving. Then you’re more involved — like if you have all of the Picasso flashcards, then all of the Monet, then all of the Renoir, it’s pretty easy to know what artist you’re on. But if you shuffle a bunch of artists, then you have to sit and think, “Which one is this?” As opposed to plugging and chugging all questions about Picasso. So actually retrieving, keeping it into your deck three times, then reshuffling your deck.

ZD: You mentioned that you’re currently a professor at Berklee College of Music — I’m curious about how your work in cognitive science intersects with music and music education. What are the overlaps?

PA: I have to tell you I am not a musician, and I don’t do any research at the intersection of music — I’m just fortunate to teach at Berklee. But, I see the intersections between the research I’ve done and the way my students study and learn. And we have a lot of fun conversations about this. When they’re studying for music theory for instance, or they’re practicing their instrument, they all know to use retrieval — they can’t just listen to someone or watch someone play, they have to retrieve things from their minds. And they have to space things out: So just like asking you about the bones a month ago and asking you about the bones today — that’s what we call spacing. My students will kind of cram — they’ll practice a lot before a big performance — but they can’t really start practicing the night before. And so, they use a principal of spacing just intuitively.

They also use metacognition, because they really have to know how well they know things before they go perform on stage in front of people. But it’s funny, because as soon as they enter into any of the liberal arts classrooms, all those principals are out the window. They cram for exams, and they reread their textbooks, and they think that’s its a whole other aspect of how we learn in the liberal arts.

But I see the intersection between cognitive science and music education really being in the music realm. Not that I’d expect musicians or professors would use terminology from cognitive science, but it’s so ingrained in what they do that I’m just so fascinated by it. I get to ask my students a whole lot about how they learn, and how they do what they do. And then of course I use my research in the way I teach — I don’t lecture at them, I don’t have a textbook, I don’t have them cramming for big exams. I practice what I preach. And I try to emphasize to them that what they practice with their music they should also practice with their liberal arts classes.

ZD: You mentioned that you have a new book coming out (congratulations!) Can you tell us a bit about it?

PA: I am most excited about the book because we translate jargon into English, and we do it for educators in a way that’s practical. There are lots of great books that have been coming out that are written for a broad audience — like my mom has read these books. But with our book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, it gets into the nitty gritty of the research that backs up retrieval practice and what that means in a classroom. Like I said, just swapping reviewing for retrieving, or adding in a brain dump. Or even just stopping a lesson and asking students, “What are two things you learned so far?” That’s it.

And so we like being able to translate the research into English, but also translate that English into practice. We’ve got what we call “power tools” for different strategies based on research. So, retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving — which is like mixing up the flashcard deck — and then feedback, and metacognition. So, four power tools, and we discuss those in the first three or four chapters, then we get into the practical aspects, so, like I mentioned, “Does this mean I have to grade more? It sounds like a lot of quizzes and exams.” But it doesn’t, you don’t actually need to grade at all. And “How do I have conversations with students about this? Because they’re going to think it’s really weird.” And “How do I have conversations with parents?” Because that can be hard, whether you’re a K-12 teacher or a professor at an elite private college. Then we have chapters on empowering teachers to implement this and create their own professional development programs in their own schools. So really trying to use the book as a way to put this in the hands of teachers so they can grow to use these power tools and spread them to others.

ZD: I like to ask this of all our Change Maker interviewees: the theme for our 2018 festival was “We the Future.” How do you interpret that, what does it mean to you?

PA: I love that question. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is teachers. It makes me think of teachers being the future. It’s totally spot-on when people say that children and students are the future, but at the same time I think teachers are the future. They’re the ones who shape the thinking that students and children do. And when I envision the future, I see teachers who are empowered, who are effective, who are using evidence in the way they teach so they’re not reinventing the wheel. I think that the value that teachers — and teachers broadly defined, like my parents as teachers, my music students as teachers — I think people who have the opportunity to make an influence on students and children in particular are the future.


The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.

To stay up to date on our Change Makers, events in Boston, and everything else at HUBweek, subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.