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 The Classroom Memory Study 

The Classroom Memory Study is the core of much of the work conducted in the Cognition in Context Lab. Primary research questions for this work are rooted in Dr. Jennifer Coffman’s experience as a former elementary school teacher and her training with the Center for Developmental Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Initial data collection for the Classroom Memory Study occurred in the fall of 2002. Over twenty years later, multiple iterations of the Classroom Memory Study have been conducted – ranging from observational research to experimental studies – focusing on the language that teachers use in early elementary classrooms and on trying to uncover associations between aspects of instructional language and children’s memory skills.

Previous Work from the Classroom Memory Studies

In the initial longitudinal investigation (Coffman et al., 2008), our team carried out in-depth assessments of children’s memory skills and academic achievement across grades 1, 2, 4, and 5, while at the same time making comprehensive observations of their teachers during instruction in mathematics and language arts. In the course of this work, we developed the measure of cognitive processing language (CPL) – or teachers’ metacognitively-rich instructional language. In the initial longitudinal study, we first described the performance of the children at three points during the first grade, provided an overview of the language used by the teachers as they

taught lessons in language arts and mathematics, and examined the children’s performance on the Free Recall with Organizational Training Task (Moely et al., 1992) as a function of the extent to which their teachers made use of CPL (Coffman et al., 2008). Notable findings from these data revealed an effect of the first-grade classroom context was maintained across the second grade, when the children were taught by different teachers (Ornstein, Coffman, & Grammer, 2009). Additionally, children exposed to high levels of CPL in first grade also evidenced more sophisticated deliberate memory skills across the fourth-grade year (Coffman et al., 2019). 

Throughout these studies, we have also continued to explore possible sources (including both child and teacher factors) of remaining variability in children’s developmental trajectories, including, for example, the children’s self-regulation in the classroom, as assessed by the teachers, and their performance on standardized measures of academic achievement. Building on the correlational, longitudinal work of Coffman et al. (2008; 2019) and Ornstein et al. (2009; 2010 ), we turned next toward an attempt to identify potential causal linkages between aspects of teacher language and children’s memory performance via an experimental study in afterschool programs (Grammer, Coffman, & Ornstein, 2013). Broad findings from this study suggest that teachers’ “talk” is linked causally to children’s performance, but which features seem to be important in determining the outcomes? To examine this issue, we carried out follow-up experiments in which students received instruction that emphasized contrasting components of CPL, and the findings indicated that metacognitive language is a key determinant of the outcomes that we have observed (Ornstein et al., 2016). This focus on metacognition, as well as complementary emphases on other aspects of child-, home-, and teacher-level factors, will likely comprise much of the attention of the Classroom Memory Study team moving forward.

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The Classroom Memory Study Today

In addition to recent evidence that has replicated and extended observational linkages between elementary school teachers’ cognitive processing language and children’s development of deliberate memory skills, the latest iteration of the Classroom Memory Study funded by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) has also examined components of children’s early mathematics development, and the linkages between children’s domain-general skills (i.e., deliberate memory, metacognition, executive function, self-regulation) and domain-specific skills (i.e., math problem-solving, verbal communication skills, reading comprehension). Notably, the Classroom Memory Study has considered the interplay between two contexts – home and school – during children’s transition to kindergarten. Accordingly, our team has examined predictors of parents’ elaborative conversation style during reminiscing conversations, formal and informal math and literacy practices in the home, and parental attitudes and expectations towards school readiness efforts on children’s cognitive development.

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