Ask A Researcher #10 – Dr. Pooja Agarwal

There is a gap between those researching practices in education and those implementing that research (teachers). This gap doesn’t really serve anyone and only adds to the disconnect between researchers and classroom teachers. Both ‘sides’ would greatly benefit from listening to the other. A teacher is a veritable treasure trove of expertise. Why would those conducting experiments to better education not want that important experience to drive and shape their research? A researcher’s knowledge of proper experimentation and understanding of outcomes could only stand to benefit the classroom teacher. 

This series (Ask A Researcher) is my attempt to close that gap a bit. By providing an opportunity to know a little more about those conducting the research, I hope teachers may feel a little more at ease with reading research articles and writing to those conducting the research…asking questions, seeking clarification, providing assistance. This obvious partnership could really improve both research/experimentation, classroom instruction, and education, overall.

Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. (@RetrieveLearn) is a cognitive scientist, author of the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She is also the Founder of, a source of research-based teaching strategies for more than 15,000 educators around the world. She received her Ph.D. and conducted nearly 15 years of research with mentorship from Henry L. Roediger, III (author of Make it Stick). 

Without further ado, let’s ask a researcher:

  1. What is the focus of your research?

Students spend 12+ years in the classroom–don’t we want them to remember what they learn? I focus my research on a research-based teaching strategy called “retrieval practice.” Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information “out” of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads. My colleagues and I have published research on the optimal types (e.g., multiple-choice vs. short answer), timing (e.g., immediate vs. delayed), and formats (e.g., open-book vs. closed-book) for retrieval practice.

  1. What are you currently working on?

I just wrapped up two research projects: an extensive review of the scientific literature on retrieval practice and the publication of research on students’ study strategies in Brazil. In the review of the literature on retrieval practice, my colleagues and I screened more than 2,000 abstracts and narrowed them down to 50 selected experiments. The vast majority of experiments demonstrated that retrieval practice consistently boosted student learning. In the research on student study strategies in Brazil, my colleagues and I found patterns similar to how students study in the United States. I’m very proud of both research projects. Now, I’m focused on transitioning my courses online this fall–with lots of retrieval practice, of course.

  1. What work have you done that you believe most applies to the classroom?

My book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, specifically takes cognitive science research and applies it to the classroom. In Powerful Teaching, my co-author, veteran teacher Patrice Bain, and I focus on four research-based teaching strategies we call Power Tools: Retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition. The four Power Tools are flexible, practical, and quick to implement. I have found that accessibility and feasibility are critical for realistic implementation of research-based strategies in classrooms.

  1. What do teachers need to know about being a researcher as it relates to education?

Conducting and publishing research takes years (decades!) of hard work. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes: developing ideas, recruiting participants, collecting data, working with statistics, and going through the peer review process. It’s important to recognize that solid, rigorous research requires time and patience. The next time you read a research article in a journal, imagine all of the researchers who contributed their blood, sweat, and tears to that body of knowledge. Research in education isn’t easy and change takes time.

  1. What can teachers do to work with the research community?

If you find yourself continuing to cite the same “classic” researchers, diversify your understanding of the field. There are numerous experts in cognitive science who are publishing cutting edge research, with the newest ideas from diverse backgrounds. A starting point would be to explore this list of cognitive scientists on Twitter. Connect with them online, read their research, and share it widely. Not only do you have the power to apply research in your teaching; you can encourage and empower researchers to engage with you, too.

I believe I first met Dr. Agarwal through Mrs. Patrice Bain, who is the co-author of one of the best books on learning out there (Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning). Dr. Agarwal is incredibly dedicated to learning, memory, and its application to education. She is someone who has, numerously, worked with middle school and high school teachers and is a massive proponent of the classroom educator.

So, what can you do? If you’re a teacher, simply write an email of gratitude or inquiry to an author. It’s that easy. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised how appreciative they are. If you’re a researcher, find classroom teachers on twitter or just email a local school. I assure you, we’d love to be included in the process.

Create the relationship. Close the gap. Improve education.

Are you a researcher interested in being featured in this series? Please feel free to contact me.

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