Singing for Science: How the Arts Can Help Students Who Struggle Most

Summary: Research from Johns Hopkins University provides more evidence that learning with arts-integrated instruction is as good as, and sometimes better than, conventional instruction. Students with basic reading skills benefited the most on memory tests involving science content while students with proficient and advanced reading skills showed little to no significant difference in retention.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Incorporating the arts–rapping, dancing, drawing–into science lessons can help low-achieving students retain more knowledge and possibly help students of all ability levels be more creative in their learning, finds a new study by Johns Hopkins University.

The findings were published on Feb. 7 in Trends in Neuroscience and Education and support broader arts integration in the classroom.

“Our study provides more evidence that the arts are absolutely needed in schools. I hope the findings can assuage concerns that arts-based lessons won’t be as effective in teaching essential skills,” says Mariale Hardiman, vice dean of academic affairs for the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University and the study’s first author.

While research already shows that the arts improve students’ academic outcomes and memory, it remains unclear whether general exposure to the arts, adding arts to lesson plans, effective instruction, or a combination are responsible for these benefits, says Hardiman.

“When we talk about learning, we have to discuss memory. Children forget much of what they learn and teachers often end up reteaching a lot of content from the previous year. Here we’re asking, how exactly can we teach them correctly to begin with so they can remember more?”

In this study, the research team sought to determine whether an arts-integrated curriculum had any direct effects on learning, specifically students’ memory for science content.

Kids are shown holding hands in a circle with their heads bowed.
In the arts-integrated chemistry class, students learned about states of matter by working in groups to physically demonstrate solid, liquid and gas particles. Credit to Mariale Hardiman/Johns Hopkins University

Throughout the 2013 school year, 350 students in 16 fifth grade classrooms across six Baltimore, Maryland schools took part in the study. Students were randomly assigned into one of two classroom pairs: astronomy and life science, or environmental science and chemistry.

The experiment consisted of two sessions, each lasting three to four weeks, in which students first took either an arts-integrated class or a conventional class. In the second session, students received the opposite type of class; thus, all students experienced both types and all eleven teachers taught both types of classes.

Examples of activities in the arts-integrated classes include rapping or sketching to learn vocabulary words, and designing collages to separate living and non-living things. These activities were matched in the conventional classrooms with standard activities such as reading paragraphs of texts with vocabulary words aloud in a group and completing worksheets.

The research team analyzed students’ content retention through pre-, post-, and delayed post-tests 10 weeks after the study ended, and found that students at a basic reading level retained an average 105 percent of the content long term, as demonstrated through the results of delayed post-testing. The researchers discovered that students remembered more in the delayed post-testing because they sang songs they had learned from their arts activities, which helped them remember content better in the long term, much like how catchy pop lyrics seem to get more and more ingrained in your brain over time.

This addresses a key challenge and could be an additional tool to bridging the achievement gap for students who struggle most to read, says Hardiman, because most conventional curriculum requires students to read to learn; if students cannot read well, they cannot learn well.

The research team also found that students who took a conventional session first remembered more science in the second, arts-integrated session and students who took an arts-integrated session first performed just as well in the second session. While not statistically significant, the researchers suggest the possibility of students applying the creative problem-solving skills they learned to their conventional lessons to enhance their learning.

Looking forward, Hardiman hopes that educators and researchers will put their fully-developed intervention to use to expand on their study and improve understanding of arts integration in schools.

A plant and an animal cell are drawn brightly.
Students in the arts-integrated life science class drew animal and plant cells to understand the structures within. Credit to Mariale Hardiman/Johns Hopkins University

“Our data suggests that traditional instruction seems to perpetuate the achievement gap for students performing at the lower levels of academic achievement. We also found that students at advanced levels of achievement didn’t lose any learning from incorporating arts into classrooms, but potentially gained benefits such as engagement in learning and enhanced thinking dispositions. For these reasons, we would encourage educators to adopt integrating the arts into content instruction,” says Hardiman.

About this trends in neuroscience and education research article

Other authors on this paper include Ranjini Mahinda JohnBull, Deborah T. Carran and Amy Shelton of Johns Hopkins University.

Source: Johns Hopkins University
Media Contact: Chanapa Tantibanchachai – Johns Hopkins University
Publisher: Singing for Science: How the Arts Can Help Students Who Struggle Most organized by Neuroscience News.
Image Source: Article images credited to Mariale Hardiman/Johns Hopkins University.
Original Research: Abstract for “The effects of arts-integrated instruction on memory for science content” by Mariale M. Hardiman, Ranjini Mahinda JohnBull, Deborah T. Carran, Amy Shelton in Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Published March 2019
doi: 10.1016/j.tine.2019.02.002
Funding: EIS Grant – No conflicts of interest were reported.


The effects of arts-integrated instruction on memory for science content

Strong correlational evidence suggests that involvement in the arts improves students’ academic outcomes and memory of learning events [1–3]. It is unclear whether the improved outcomes are the result of general exposure to the arts, the integration of arts into content instruction, the use of effective instructional practices, or a combination of these factors. Moreover, as a growing number of studies suggest that arts-integrated pedagogy enhances learning, few empirical studies have explicitly examined the direct effect of an arts-integrated curriculum on learning and specifically on students’ memory for non-arts academic content. Thus, this study sought to determine the effects of arts-integrated lessons on long-term memory for science content. We hypothesized that embedding arts-based activities into conventionally taught lessons would produce learning outcomes as good as or better than traditional instruction. This paper describes the results of a randomized control trial that measured retention of science content using arts-integrated science units and matched units employing convention science instruction. The study was conducted in 16 fifth-grade classrooms in an urban mid-Atlantic school district.

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