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Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center

Research Focus

The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (PSLC) sponsors rigorous research into how people learn and develops technologies and approaches designed to foster high achievement in the nation’s classrooms.

The core of the PSLC is LearnLab, a research facility at which education researchers create, run and analyze experiments on how people learn. LearnLab addresses a longtime dilemma for educational researchers--the dichotomy between experiments conducted in the artificial setting of a laboratory, which can produce results not always transferrable to schools, and those conducted in classrooms, which tend to be less rigorously controlled.

PSLC’s experiments combine the realism of classroom field studies with the rigor of those that take place in the lab. Researchers are studying teaching and learning in math (algebra, geometry), science (physics, chemistry) and language (Chinese and English as a second language), using intelligent, interactive tutoring programs as a major component of instructional programs.  

Research Outcomes

Center researchers built a computer-based algebra course that currently 600,000 students are using in the classroom. This technology provides additional data about what works, which allows immediate improvements to the curricula. "As soon we as figure it out, it's part of the course," says center co-director Kenneth R. Koedinger. "So we are using technology in the classroom both as a teaching tool and a research tool.”

LearnLab’s scientists have discovered ways to make homework more effective. To build skills, they've found that providing problems with worked-out solutions—each step clearly explained--is effective. For deep learning, there is a different approach.  “LearnLab researchers have shown that students learn math and science principles more effectively when the students themselves must explain them, instead of having their teachers do so,” Koedinger says. “Here’s a problem, here’s a solution, you tell me how we get there. So there is more emphasis on the thinking, rather than on the doing. “

But prompting students to explain is not always ideal.  It works very well for math and science principles, but not so well for implicit skills in language, such as selecting the right article, “the” or “a,” for example, in learning English as a second language.

“Most of us who know English don’t know the rules in a verbal form,” Koedinger says.  “A lot of what we learn, we learn through experience, imitation and practice. It’s implicit. Your brain learns the grammar, but doesn’t learn how to talk about it.  Interestingly, we have shown that this kind of learning is important not only for language, but also for success in math and science.”

The debates over education--how best to teach and learn--are too often over-simplified without the nuances needed for true progress, he says.

“We continually get into these two-sided education wars, basics vs. understanding, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, guidance vs. discovery.

“Our center has explored numerous instructional approaches, which can be combined in many ways, and have consistently found that what works best changes depending on the learning goals. “

The results of the center's research are collected in a wiki, which has more than 400 pages and includes learning principles supported by research.

Education & Outreach

LearnLab is a national resource for learning research that includes authoring tools for tutors, online courses, experiments, and integrated computational learner models.

Programs include a summer research internship program for undergraduates; a winter internship program that provides valuable research training opportunities for Indian undergraduates; a 1-week course on technology-enhanced learning experiments and building intelligent tutoring systems; research assistance for graduate students, and partnerships with minority institutions. In addition, learning researchers worldwide are invited to run in vivo learning experiments in LearnLab courses, and to submit research proposals related to the PSLC DataShop.

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The core of the PSLC is LearnLab, where education researchers create, run and analyze experiments on how people learn.
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