University of Pittsburgh

Class Effort

Written by Bo Schwerin



In a soundproof room, a fourth-grader reads a sentence on a computer screen. Suddenly, among the familiar nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, she sees a less familiar word, one she has been attempting to learn. As she tries to grasp the word’s meaning, her brain produces tiny electric charges that are detected by the electrodes attached to her scalp.

Nearby, in a viewing booth outside the room, a research psychologist keeps track of the activity on a computer screen that is coursing with jagged lines. The lines correspond to the electrical activity in the fourth-grader’s brain. Coded somewhere in the jagged pattern is the girl’s understanding of the word “gloaming.” The researcher suspects there’s something more happening, too.

He’s trying to identify what occurs in the brain when new words are learned. Already, he has gathered intriguing clues from other students he has tested. If the fourth-grader’s results confirm his earlier findings, then Pitt’s Charles Perfetti may be close to solving one of the still-elusive mechanisms of learning.

Along the halls of the University’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), researchers like Perfetti pursue different interests, using different approaches. All of them, though, are focused on deciphering the factors that promote or deter effective learning. These LRDC scholars—neuroscientists, psychologists, computer experts, educational scientists, and other experts—pursue discoveries through the lens of their own professional disciplines, as well as in teams, across disciplines. They also apply their scholarly research findings in real-world settings, creating ties between theories and practice-based discoveries.

Welcome to Pasteur’s Quadrant.

Perfetti—University Professor of Psychology and Linguistics— has been a researcher at LRDC for 40 years. Early on, the center had a leading role in shaping what became known as the learning sciences—the study of how humans learn and how that knowledge might contribute to better teaching practices and educational policies. LRDC quickly developed a pioneering reputation in the cognitive science of learning, which involves multiple disciplines related to the mind. Since its founding in 1963, the center has fostered school reform through professional development for educators.

Earlier this year, Perfetti became the new director of the LRDC. But, he says, if anyone knows the center even better than he, that person would be Lauren Resnick, a leading scholar in the science of learning and instruction who served as the center’s director for more than 30 years. Last year, she announced her decision to resign from her administrative role to focus full-time on research.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone having a broader, deeper impact on education than Lauren,” says Perfetti, who intends to carry on her legacy of nationwide impact through his own influential work.

Resnick—who earned an undergraduate degree in history from Radcliffe College and graduate degrees from Harvard University (a master’s degree in teaching and a doctoral degree in research in instruction)—joined Pitt’s LRDC in 1966 and became the center’s director in 1977.

She has been influential in leading LRDC scholars into the realm of Pasteur’s Quadrant—a place where research encompasses both theories and practical evaluations in real-world settings. The concept was coined by the late Donald Stokes, a Princeton University professor. Researchers who seek basic scientific understanding and then apply their laboratory findings in action in society work in Pasteur’s Quadrant (which is also the title of Stokes’ 1997 book published by Brookings Institution Press). To illustrate his idea, Stokes used the example of Louis Pasteur—the father of microbiology, the rabies vaccine, and the pasteurization process—who worked to understand the biology of disease so that ultimately he could use his findings more broadly to improve public health. Pasteur engaged in laboratory research as well as practical applications of his discoveries.

Resnick—Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science as well as Learning Sciences and Education Policy—says that LRDC has been pursuing this philosophy since its founding in 1963 by Pitt’s Robert Glaser, a visionary learning-sciences scholar. “There’s almost no piece of work going on at LRDC that falls into only one category,” she says. “There’s an enormous amount of cross-pollination going on.”

At LRDC, psychologists and computer scientists are developing computer programs that can understand natural, everyday language. Education and cognitive studies researchers are examining differences between learning that takes place in formal classrooms and in informal settings such as museums. Experts in education and intelligent systems are designing computer agents capable of improving student learning. Meanwhile, LRDC subgroups such as the Learning Policy Center (LPC) help make education policy makers aware of ongoing research and how it can inform their decisions. Directed by Mary Kay Stein, LRDC’s associate director for educational research and practice, the LPC is a joint venture between the center and Pitt’s School of Education.



Resnick’s own research at LRDC gets at the heart of today’s concerns about delivering a quality education to all students in K-12 schools nationwide. During the past several decades, there have been increasing pressures on the U.S. educational system—ongoing disparities in funding and resources across states and school districts, differences in teacher preparedness, disparate levels of student performance, the need to serve children with physical and mental disabilities, an influx of immigrant children who may not be proficient in the English language, and many other factors that pose big challenges for ensuring or even defining “quality education.”

Much of Resnick’s focus during her LRDC career has been on understanding and addressing these and other barriers to learning. In 1990, after more than 20 years as a cognitive scientist, she partnered with Marc Tucker, head of the National Center on Education and the Economy, to establish the New Standards Project. The project—in a national collaboration that eventually included 22 states—developed performance standards and assessment methods to gauge effective learning among public school students. New Standards, Resnick says, was “one of the big players” in the push to ensure all students a high quality education through national learning standards. These initiatives led to subsequent state efforts to use standards to produce higher levels of achievement and greater equity in the U.S. educational system. A big part of the challenge has been to integrate state-specified standards with the individuality of the American state system of local control over education. The results are still under scrutiny, still evolving.

Based on her experiences with the New Standards Project and the reseach findings that flowed from that effort, Resnick founded The Institute for Learning (IFL) at Pitt in 1995. Urban school districts were requesting guidance in producing higher levels of student educational performance, so Resnick developed a core set of theory-based principles of learning culled from decades of learning research. The institute was established to promote those principles and to continue research and assess applications in the classroom.

Geared toward creating powerful learning environments for all students, the principles are: organize the setting to support effort; establish clear expectations; use fair and credible evaluations; recognize accomplishment; incorporate academic rigor into a curriculum that requires deep knowledge and thinking; use “Accountable Talk”® that supports appropriate knowledge and rigorous thinking; develop habits that foster the use of a set of problem-solving and reasoning capabilities, along with daily expectations to apply the skills; and expect students to self-manage their learning progress using an array of tools and strategies.

The concepts arose both from the laboratory research of many scholars and from Resnick’s influential investigation into the effects of high performance learning communities in New York City and elsewhere. Several schools and some school districts produced significant boosts in students’ test scores based, it seems, on the introduction of a framework for vibrant learning crafted by Resnick and several educational partners.This gave Resnick and her colleagues evidence that virtually all students are capable of high academic achievement given the right amounts and kinds of effort. Their research suggests that effective learning is effort-based. Sustained and targeted effort can actually create intelligence. These results directly counter the common notion that intellectual ability is an inborn aptitude. Instead, Resnick’s work shows that effort is key to successful learning.

Through IFL, she partnered with major school districts in cities such as Los Angeles, Calif., and Austin, Texas, to create the kind of effort-based learning environment that her research showed could help students achieve new levels of academic success. Since its founding, IFL has worked with more than 50 school districts to implement effort-based learning with positive results. A study by Janet Quint and others at an independent research group shows that IFL’s systemic programs have produced raised performance among students, teachers, and administrators. The institute’s work is producing a chain of influence from central administration to principals to teachers in their classrooms, ultimately boosting student learning.

“Lauren’s working directly with school districts to close their achievement gaps and with teachers so they can be adequately prepared to address the challenges some students face because of their circumstances,” says Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia University Teachers College, the nation’s oldest and largest graduate school of education. “Her work enables us to bring all children to their highest potential.”

Resnick’s accomplishments continue to make a significant impression on the education community. She has won a bevy of awards, most recently the 2007 American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions of Applications of Psychology to Education and Training. She is a prolific author, a respected editor, an international lecturer, and a sought-after consultant, with appointments to many national education boards, commissions, and associations. She also is the current and founding editor of Research Points, a publication of the American Educational Research Association.

Her influence extends to the nation’s corridors of power. Resnick notes that the federal government is now playing a major role in American education, a role traditionally reserved for the states. It’s no surprise that she’s helping to guide that shift. She and several Pitt colleagues and coauthors recently contributed to a book commissioned by the New Century Foundation, outlining what needs to happen next in national education standards. In October 2008, her contribution was presented to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In November, she was back in the nation’s capital to chair a symposium on education policy recommendations developed by the National Academy of Education.

“Lauren has bridged the worlds of learning and policy,” says Fuhrman. “In an almost entirely unique way, she’s thought about policy implementation as a learning process—the people who are initiating policies are also learners.”

It’s a notion that fits well with LRDC, where Pasteur’s Quadrant is created anew daily. Everyone is a learner.

Today, 45 years after its founding, LRDC continues its trailblazing role. While other, similar educational research centers have formed and vanished, LRDC remains in the same home where it opened in 1974 with support from the U.S. Office of Education. It now boasts a broad population of faculty researchers who are leaders in their respective fields.

But LRDC is far more than a collection of good scientists, says the new director, Perfetti, a prolific author who is chair of the Commission on Reading Research for the National Institute for Literacy and received, among other honors, the 2004 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. His central research interest is the cognitive science of language and reading processes, including the nature of reading ability, the role of word recognition in comprehension, and the influence of writing systems in reading.

LRDC remains an explorer of learning, still pushing the boundaries, says Perfetti, who also is codirector of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center. “We’re not doing the same kind of science we did 20 years ago. We need to continue producing top-rate science that’s forward-looking.” In addition to work on the cognitive and neural aspects of learning, he predicts new research into social, motivational, and emotional aspects of learning, as well as exploration of new technology to expand the learning sciences into even broader territories. “We want to be one of the world’s top institutions in the sciences of learning and education, as we have been for years,” he says. “We want to be on top of changes in these fields while building on what we’ve already accomplished.”

In Perfetti’s lab, that effort is already under way. “Gloaming,” the word that caught the girl’s eye, means twilight or dusk. It’s a difficult, unfamiliar word for a fourth-grader, even for many adults. The word’s letters glow on the computer screen, radiating photons—light particles—that run up against the girl’s retinas and trigger signals that pulse along her optic nerves into her brain. Her parietal and occipital lobes, responsible for visual perception, and her frontal lobes, which associate visual stimuli with meaning, all spark with activity. Tiny shifts in bioelectric voltage called Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) are recorded by the electrode cap hugging her head.

After a member of Perfetti’s research team teaches the girl what “gloaming” means, both her explanations and her ERP readings indicate that she correctly identifies and understands the word. But what Perfetti and his associates have noticed is that, even after children are taught unfamiliar words like this one, their brains still generate a different kind of ERP signal from those that arise when reading unfamiliar words encountered before the session. This suggests that prior, casual exposure to words—even if you don’t know their meanings—could be helpful when it comes to actually learning them. Extensive vocabulary is one of the biggest predictors of academic success. Perfetti’s finding places another piece in the complex puzzle of how people learn words—a finding that may improve how vocabulary and reading are taught.

It’s an important realization—one that can be added to the list of many LRDC discoveries about effective learning and classroom practices. The potential end result: better teachers, better students, better learners. Pasteur’s Quadrant has room to grow.