Mariale Hardiman, Luke Rinne and Julia Yarmolinskaya, “The Effects of Arts Integration on Long-Term Retention of Content and Student Engagement,” Mind, Brain and Education 8, no. 3 (2014): 144-148.


Previous studies of arts integration ― the pedagogical practice of teaching through the arts ― suggest its value for enhancing cognitive, academic and social skills. However, to date, few studies have provided causal evidence. This study reports the results of a small, preliminary randomized control trial that tested the effect of arts integration on long-term retention of academic content. The study compared matched arts-integrated (AI) instructional units with conventionally taught units in two areas of science instruction, astronomy and ecology. Four randomized groups of fifth grade students completed one unit in arts-integrated instruction, which served as the treatment, and the other in conventional instruction, which served as the control. Curriculum-based assessments were administered before, immediately after and two months after each unit to measure initial learning and retention. Results showed no differences in initial learning, but significantly better retention for students who received arts-integrated instruction and were at lower levels of reading achievement.

Key Findings:

  • Posttests revealed no differences between arts-integrated units and conventional instruction.
  • As predicted, learning through the arts did not influence initial learning outcomes.
  • Delayed tests showed significant differences in the retention of learned content between arts-integrated units and conventional instruction.
  • Tested eight weeks after the completion of the unit, the arts-integrated instruction showed significantly better retention for the group of students who performed at the lower levels of reading achievement.
  • The retention rate for arts-integrated instruction among students who performed at lower levels of reading achievement was 97.6%, while the retention rate for conventional instruction was 72%.

Significance of the Findings:

This study suggests that students who perform at lower levels of achievement may benefit from having arts-based learning activities that provide alternate ways to acquire and demonstrate knowledge. Traditional instruction typically relies mostly on reading and writing tasks based on skills that often prove challenging for students, especially those with learning differences and English language learners. Learning academic content through activities that include the visual and performing arts allows students to express their learning in multiple modalities and in ways that may be more engaging than traditional teaching.

Findings show that higher-achieving students, who are often adept at learning in traditional ways, performed similarly with both modes of instruction. However, this study shows that integrating the arts into content instruction did not produce a loss of learning for higher-performing students. This finding highlights that incorporating the arts does not interfere with instructional time and did not lead to learning loss. This finding may encourage more teachers to incorporate arts-integrated instruction. Moreover, research suggests that learning through the arts can produce other benefits, such as the development of general thinking dispositions, creativity and pro-social outcomes.

Closing the performance gap among various groups of students has proven challenging in the field of education. Often, remedial approaches include additional instruction time that uses traditional methods. Additional arts-integration research with similar findings has the potential to shift approaches to teaching and learning, and support all students in acquiring, retaining and applying knowledge in creative ways.


The study was conducted in an urban school in the mid-Atlantic region with four classes of fifth grade students, all from low-income households. Of the 97 students included in the study, 82 completed all assessments. The study was designed as a randomized control trial with randomly assigned equivalent groups. Each group received either arts-integrated science or conventional units for the first session with condition reversal in the second session. Each teacher taught the same subject in both the arts-integrated and conventional conditions. To control for high-quality implementation of instruction, observers were in classrooms for approximately 60% of instructional time.

The treatment and control units were matched for content, order of presentation and type of instruction, including modality and teacher or student-directed work. Control units also included active learning activities, so that any learning differences observed could be attributed to the arts-integrated intervention and not just to active learning.

Measurements were pre, post and delayed curriculum-based assessments and consisted of 25 multiple choice questions. Statistical analyses were run to determine the difference between initial learning identified in the posttest and retention identified in the delayed tests.

Limitations of the Research:

  • Small sample size.
  • Single study site.
  • Homogeneous sample.
  • Possible teacher bias.
  • Outcomes based only on content retention.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Does arts integration influence creative thinking and problem-solving?
  • Does arts integration engage students in learning tasks better than traditional instruction?
  • What is the influence on student learning of teacher efficacy in teaching the arts?
  • Would the findings of this study replicate with different student populations (e.g. rural and suburban)?