Book Review: Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain

Reviewed by Hall Houston

Powerful Teaching, a new book by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain, covers four major concepts from the science of learning. This book provides a masterful overview of these concepts, with a teacher-friendly focus that makes them easy to understand how to use them in class.

The authors are both educators who are uniquely qualified to write this book. Pooja Agarwal has done research on learning since 2005 and currently teaches undergraduates at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Agarwal also has an informative website about retrieval practice ( Patrice Bain is a K-12 teacher and author whose work has been featured in NOVA and Scientific American. This book is filled with numerous anecdotes and examples from their many years of teaching experience.

These four concepts, which the authors refer to as “power tools”, are all backed up by significant research, much of which is summarized in the book. They are retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving and feedback-driven metacognition.

Retrieval practice refers to students recalling information from previous lessons without reference to books or notes. Spacing is where students revisit course material in short sessions that are spread out over the weeks of a course, not in a single session right before exams. Interleaving is the practice of mixing up course material during review sessions. And feedback-driven metacognition refers to evaluating which areas one has learned well, and which areas need improvement.

The first five chapters of the book explain the four power tools, briefly conveying the main points of the research that supports their use, and providing many clever ideas for putting them into practice, including brain dumps, retrieve-taking, mini-quizzes, the dice game strategy, the fishbowl strategy, and metacognition sheets. These ideas are easy to explain and fun to use in class.

The remaining chapters of the book address important issues related to using the four power tools in class, such as finding time to use the tools in class, working with diverse learners, and helping to reduce student anxiety. Moreover, the book also discusses ways of convincing students and parents to see the value of these strategies. The book concludes with a chapter on teacher development. And, to help the reader get the most out of the book, the authors include a retrieval guide at the end of the book, with plenty of quiz questions about the chapters.

One thing I enjoyed about this book is its practical approach. While I have read quite a few books and articles on the science of teaching and learning, many writers stopped short of describing how to put those research findings into practice in one’s classroom. This is the first book I’ve seen on this subject that is aimed at teachers, providing a number of useful exercises for use in the classroom, as well as tips for making the most effective use of the power tools.

Another notable feature of the book is how the authors infuse the book with concepts from their teaching and research, inviting the reader to retrieve, space, interleave and do some metacognition as they make their way through the book’s chapters. I urge readers of this book to take time to answer the Power Up questions which appear in each chapter, and complete the Do It Yourself Retrieval Guide in Chapter 12, in order to increase your retention of the book’s contents.

I teach university students at a university for nurses in Taiwan. This book has inspired me to explore ways to help students retain more out of their English classes. After reading Powerful Teaching, I have begun using the power tools when I do lesson planning. This year, I often start class with a few minutes of retrieval practice, asking students to recall some vocabulary from a previous lesson, or tell me what they remember from a video we watched together last month.

Teachers of all subjects will find this book appealing and useful. Teachers of second and foreign languages will discover many easy-to-use activities to help students develop their vocabulary. It’s also a great introduction to the science of learning and the research it’s based on. I highly recommend this book!

Author's bio: Hall Houston currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. He has a master’s degree in foreign language education from The University of Texas at Austin. He has conducted presentations and workshops for Cambridge Assessment and British Council. He is the author of numerous articles and several books about ELT, including Provoking Thought and Creative Output.