What can Learning Science teach textbook authors?

At a 2019 national sales meeting, my publisher Macmillan Learning, hosted a luncheon for textbook authors with our Learning Science team. This was my first opportunity to learn about what learning science does – their research and how findings might guide textbook organization, content and revisions as well as pedagogical approaches and application. For example, through analytics the learning science team can track where students spend their time in digital formats reflecting potential confusion, but also interest.  Their research can help determine what might be most effective for student engagement and assessment.

Here I am pleased to ask a few questions of Erin Scully, Senior Director, Learning Design & Ed Research with Macmillan Learning, to provide insights into ways learning science can augment textbook quality and influence our pedagogical approach.

Jamie Pope (JP): What role does learning science play in textbook publishing?

Erin Scully (ES): The primary goal of the Learning Science team at Macmillan Learning is to help institutions, instructors, and students achieve their full potential. We support our authors and editorial partners by providing learning science-based authoring guidelines and instructional design best practices, sharing results of partnership studies with institutions, instructors and students, and highlighting empirical insights into user behaviors and needs from novel anonymized data analytics.

When working with author and editorial teams, learning science is used to consider the complete learning experience including the digital instruction and assessment material that will be provided along with any eText/textbook materials.

For projects in the revision cycle, learning science data helps guide authors to the areas that most require attention as well as reveal what is working well. The data can provide:

  • Analyses identifying any gaps in existing instructional alignment
    (learning objectives > assessment > instructional content)
  • Usage statistics to identify most and least commonly used digital content
  • Analysis of assessment items to validate difficulty ratings

In terms of first editions, our Macmillan team uses learning science data to provide guidelines and training on:

  • Backwards design best practices
  • Writing learning objectives, assessments, and feedback
  • Developing collaborative and engaging in-class content

JP: What have you found helped students engage in the classroom and do better in the class overall?

ES: We have identified two specific patterns in our research to date:

  1. Completion of pre-class assignments has a positive impact on student performance.

Our research found positive correlations between student completion of assigned pre-class activities and student performance on both our Macmillan-provided summative assessments and instructor-dispensed final exams. See The Flipped Effect to learn more about these findings.

Our hypothesis is that students who regularly complete pre-class assignments are more prepared to fully engage in the classroom/online environment, which leads to improved overall performance. While this hypothesis might seem predictable, reviewing the supportive data can help authors weigh their focus on and better direct their use of pre-class activities.

  1. Voluntary retaking of quizzes can improve student performance on in-class exams.

Our research found that after controlling for both prior academic performance and baseline level of motivation, all students who were retaking quizzes for practice realized improvements in their average in-class exam scores. See The Testing Effect to learn more about these findings.

Please visit to learn more about the Learning Science team at Macmillan Learning.


Jamie PopeJamie Pope has been teaching introductory nutrition for over 20 years and is co-author of Nutrition for a Changing World, 2nd edition, recent recipient of the TAA Textbook Excellence Award. Guided by findings and best practices from Macmillan’s Learning Science team, she is actively engaged in review and updates of her book’s digital media and assessments.