Archive for January, 2011

Want to remember? Take a test!

January 24, 2011

From the NY Times comes a summary of new research, published in the journal Science, about how to improve learning:

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The study found that “students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.” (The other methods were repeatedly studying the material and drawing detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning.) The research was conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. We had previously posted about Dr. Karpicke’s research in a review of study strategies last fall.

As the Times points out, Karpicke’s research doesn’t get into why retrieval testing can help with learning. A couple of psychologists interviewed for the article had some thoughts:

  • Robert Bjork, from the University of California, Los Angeles: “When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything – it’s simple playback. But when we use our memories by retrieving things, we can change our access to that information.”
  • Nate Kornell, from Williams College: “The struggle (of taking a test) helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning. You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.'”

We were particularly intrigued not so much by the improved recall that resulted from testing as a learning strategy, but with the outcome that the students who took a retrieval test after learning the information “even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.” Concept mapping, says Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, is considered the gold standard of learning.

The last thing most great educators would advocate for in our classrooms is more testing. So it will be interesting to see how this new research translates into the classroom. Says Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard quoted in the Times article: “Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”

For more thoughts from Be Amazing Learning on study skills, check out these previous posts:

Who’s a good dog?

January 18, 2011

We cover some serious topics on this blog. This is not one.

The cover story of today’s NY Times Science section is about a border collie trained by psychologist John Pilley to recognize over 1000 words. Pilley’s findings were published in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Pilley trained Chaser, the border collie, 1022 words through brute force: one or two new nouns per day, driven home with repetition (up to 40 times), and reinforcement of nouns the dog forgot.

The article makes the claim that Pilley’s experiment may help explain how children learn language. Specifically, Dr. Pilley concludes that “Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to children.” Referential understanding refers to the ability to identify a reference to an object (such as a photo).

But there’s some reason to be skeptical. First, as the article points out, Chaser’s task was more challenging because she lacked any context for the nouns that can make them easier to remember (for example, “knives, forks and spoons are found together”). Additionally, children don’t generally learn new words through brute repetition. And, Chaser learned all of her words as “proper nouns, which are specific labels for things, rather than as abstract concepts like the common nouns picked up by children.”

If you’d like to learn more, Chaser will be featured in a Nova episode about animal intelligence on February 9th.

Memory vs. Memorization

January 14, 2011

A post at Scientific Learning’s New Science of Learning blog highlights the importance of memorization in early schooling: math facts, counting to 100, reciting a poem, or recalling sight words are all examples of memorization tasks that are prevalent in the early grades.

Memorization, it turns out, is not a particularly advanced skill, centered as it is in the hippocampus of the brain, which is, evolutionarily, one of the oldest parts of the brain:

A great deal of learning in the elementary grades involves the hippocampus. Memorization of spelling rules likes “i before e except after c,” math facts, reading of “sight” words that cannot be sounded out, and geographical facts, just to name a few, demand good memorization skills (hippocampus function.). Reading curriculum used before 1970, like those used when the goal was memorization of the “Dolch” sight words, also stressed memorization skills.

Different from memorization is working memory. Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for retaining, manipulating and using information. We use working memory to delegate the things we encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. Because of this, working memory is critical for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us updated and aware about what’s going on around us. And, unlike sight word memorization, working memory is critical for grasping a phonics-based approach to reading, which is prevalent in most American curricula.

As young readers develop, working memory takes on more importance. For example, to gain meaning from text, a student’s working memory must be sufficiently developed to remember the beginning of a sentence when she get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when she gets to the last.

We have previously highlighted a recent study, published in May 2010 in the Journal Reading and Writing (link is to abstract only), which examined the relationship between working memory and reading achievement, hypothesizing that working memory problems can be a root cause of poor reading comprehension. The researchers found working memory measures were “related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension.”

Even if working memory is more important than memorization for developing reading and other learning skills, we can’t completely abandon memorization (as evolutionarily primitive as it may be). For example, in its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

Exercise as a Treatment for ADHD

January 13, 2011

Evidence abounds that physical exercise can enhance cognitive functioning. As we previously posted:

  • study at the University of Illinois compared performance on a cognitive test between higher and lower fit 9 and 10 year old students. The higher-fit students performed better on the test, and brain scans indicated they had larger basal ganglia, a part of the brain responsible for impulse control and response resolution.
  • second study by the same researchers compared performance on complex memory tasks between high fit and low fit 9 and 10 year olds. The study found better performance in high fit students, and brain scans showed larger hippocampi, the portion of the brain associated with complex memory tasks.

Over at SharpBrains, Dr. David Rabiner examines a study, recently published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, which looked at whether an extended physical training program can have a positive impact on students struggling with ADHD.

The data is generally positive, suggesting that a physical exercise routine can positively impact fitness, behavior (as observed by parents and teachers) and attention and inhibition response (as measured by neuropsychological assessments). However, as Dr. Rabiner points out:

It is important to put these positive findings into an appropriate perspective. First, even though the activity program was associated with improve ments in several areas, children continued to show clinically elevated difficulties even in areas where improvements were seen. Thus, there was no evidence that the exercise program reduced children’s difficulties into the normative range.

Dr. Rabiner suggests more research is necessary, but that this study suggests that “a vigorous physical activity program could certainly be valuable for many children with ADHD for a variety of reasons, even if the ultimate impact of exercise on core ADHD symptoms is not yet known.”

Simon Says “Pay Attention!”

January 12, 2011

Play is emerging as a theme in this week’s posts. Today, we look at games that can improve children’s attention skills and reduce impulsivity.

At her Parent Smart blog, Dr. Martha Burns, a Speech-Language Pathologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University, highlights Simon Says… and Clap When I Say… as games that can develop impulse control. What is impulse control and why is it important? According to Burns:

An example of impulsivity in a classroom might be yelling out questions , comments or answers  instead of raising one’s hand, or popping up from a desk at inappropriate times, or even looking a someone else’s paper during a test. Impulsivity on the playground might include chasing a ball into the street without checking for cars or hitting someone who accidently bumps into you.

Learning to control these impulses, says Burns, “requires us to stay alert and purposeful and it is a skill all of us must master to reduce impulsivity; so that we stop and think before we act.”

Check out Burns’ post for details on these games that can help your child “play attention!”

Let’s Play!

January 11, 2011

When my child’s teachers apologize for the messy appearance of their classroom at the end of the school day, my first response is usually “better here than at home!” And that, says play experts, is part of the problem.

Kids need unstructured play time for social and emotional development. But providing this time (and the space for it) can be challenging for parents. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control cited in a recent NY Times article, “Play’s the Thing“, indicate that only 20% of children live within walking distance of a park or playground. So it falls on parents to create play spaces at home. And that, says the Times article, means embracing the chaos. Parents must learn “to live with disarray and take other difficult steps, like strict limits on screen time.”

It also means taking an active roll in teaching kids how to play: how to organize their own games and create their own rules. Organizers of The Ultimate Block Party in Central Park, which drew 50,000 people outside to play with sidewalk chalk and mounds of play dough, provided parents with a “Playbook” with ideas for “playful pursuits.” The ideas are frameworks, rather than strictly organized games: turning the couch into a ship destined for far-off lands or building a bridge over a toy with blocks.

The Times article cites a number of play resources for parents who are struggling to get enough play into their kids’ lives. KaBoom is a non-profit that has built neighborhood playgrounds and organized “Play Days.” And Learning Resources Network, a Web site scheduled to launch this spring, will provide tools for parents and educators.

For further reading on play, check out Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day from Scientific Learning’s The Science of Learning Blog. That article references a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, which outlines the key benefits of play.

Synaptic Exuberance!

January 10, 2011

Babies are born with all the brain cells they need. But it’s the connections between these cells that are important. During a period of what scientists call “synaptic exuberance”, babies literally develop as many as ten to twenty thousand connections per second.

Robert Krulwich, host of NPR’s so-called “Sciency Blog“, examines synaptic exuberance, as demonstrated by 9-month old Charles-Edward Vachon in a creative time-capture video:

More interesting, perhaps, than this rapid development of neural connections early in life is that, as Krulwich says, we overdo it. As we approach our teenage years, our brains start to prune these connections, focusing on quality over quantity based on our early life experiences. The brain, Krulwich quotes Dr. Harry Chugani, “allows for a fine-tuning of neuronal circuits, based on early exposure and environmental nurturing, that makes the neuronal architecture of each person unique.”

Chugani, Chief of the division of Pediatric Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics, neurology, and radiology at Wayne State University in Detroit, has extensively studied the developing brain. His article, Fine Tuning the Baby Brain, which appears on the Dana Foundation Web site, digs deeper into questions of why the baby brain consumes twice as much energy as an adult brain, and how the brain continues to remodel itself throughout life. Definitely worth a read.

The allocation of attentional resources

January 7, 2011

The Dana Foundation Web site has a good summary of some of the most recent research into the underlying causes of attention challenges. The article outlines two we are familiar with: working memory and processing rates:

One theory holds that the disorder is primarily a problem with working memory–the ability to hold information in temporary storage long enough to act on it appropriately, while another group of theories centers around how information is processed in time.

“There are lots of psychological tests that show that ADHD kids just don’t get the timing of things quite right,” he says. “This would explain very nicely the impulsivity that is seen in ADHD; where they are not getting the very fine-grained timing of social interactions, for example.” In the classroom, this might manifest as blurting out the answer to a teacher’s query before one is called upon.

But the bulk of the article focuses on ADHD as a lack of allocation of attentional resources in the brain. From Philip Shaw, Ph. D., a scientist who studies ADHD at the National Institute of Mental Health:

“A child who is not staying on task in school could be paying attention to what’s going on outside the classroom. So it’s not that they are not doing something that is attention-demanding; it’s just that their focus is on something other than what they’re meant to be doing.” From that perspective, he says, thinking about ADHD as a problem with the allocation of attentional resources makes sense.

This may seem a logical explanation to parents and teachers. As the article points out:

Parents of children with ADHD, for example, may find it hard to fathom that a child who can spend hours engrossed in a video game has a problem with attention. Teachers may be confounded by a student who is fully engaged in a music lesson but is distracted or disruptive in other classwork.

The article continues with a description of the neural network of attention, with particular focus on the executive attention network, which “enables the individual to decide which things to attend to among competing brain activity.”

As the article points out in summary, “each of these theories offers tantalizing clues about what might be going wrong in the brains of children with ADHD, but they do not answer all of the questions.” And so the search continues…

The effect of mood on insight

January 6, 2011

We’re suckers for a scientific study that involves watching a Robin Williams standup routine…

Consider the task of listening to a conversation in a noisy room or concentrating on a particularly challenging puzzle. Research shows that these tasks are typically associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Cells in this area are active when we narrow our attention to concentrate on a difficult task.

But what about insight – that ability to quickly “see” the solution to a puzzle or problem (think “AHA!”), rather than solve it by brute force? Insight requires a widening of associations, rather than a narrowing. For insight to occur, the brain must be open to looser associations and connections. We must, as the scientists would say, be in a “diffuse attentional state.”

So how do we get there? The New York Times summarizes research that indicates mood is a significant factor, and that humor (here’s where the Robin Williams part comes in) is important:

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

So next time you’re stuck on a problem, should you just remember the funny joke you heard last week?

The findings fit with dozens of experiments linking positive moods to better creative problem-solving. “The implication is that positive mood engages this broad, diffuse attentional state that is both perceptual and visual,” said Dr. Anderson. “You’re not only thinking more broadly, you’re literally seeing more. The two systems are working in parallel.”

The Times Web site has a pretty cool interactive experiment that you can use to test the effect of mood on your own insight. Check it out here.

Fast ForWord vs. Cogmed

January 5, 2011

Be Amazing Learning offers programs that address foundational cognitive skills, rather than academic content. We work on helping children learn better. By developing skills such as working memory, attention, sequencing, and brain processing rates, our programs don’t simply give kids new academic knowledge; instead, they equip kids’ brains to better access and retain information they are exposed to, whether in the classroom or in daily life.

Two programs we use most frequently are Fast ForWord and Cogmed. Both programs are based on the concept of neuroplasticity (the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences). They both are computer-based interventions with rigorous daily protocols. And both have very solid foundational research behind them: Fast ForWord research and Cogmed research.

The programs differ in the cognitive skills they develop. Fast ForWord primarily develops auditory processing rates and auditory working memory, with additional training in sequencing and sustained attention. Cogmed primarily develops working memory (auditory and visual-spatial) and attention skills.

At Be Amazing Learning we recommend one or both of the programs for students, depending on the specific learning or behavior challenge they are dealing with. For example, we typically will recommend Cogmed for students struggling with ADD or ADHD. Cogmed addresses the underlying causes of inattentive behavior and improves attention by developing working memory and the ability to focus on multiple tasks and ignore distractions. (Poor auditory processing abilities can also contribute to attention challenges, and in these cases, the Fast ForWord programs may also be an effective intervention.)

Similarly, for students with dyslexia, we typically recommend the Fast ForWord programs, as they attack the auditory processing disorders that cause reading difficulties. And there’s great research on students with dyslexia showing significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments, as well as normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading after Fast ForWord training.

And in some cases, such as for students struggling with executive function disorder, we might recommend both programs, because they both effectively develop and strengthen the cognitive skills associated with successful executive function, including :

  • Memory – The ability to store information and ideas.
  • Attention – The ability to focus on information and tasks, and ignore distractions.
  • Processing Rate – The rate at which a student is able to accurately perceive and manipulate information.
  • Sequencing – Placing the detail of information in its accustomed order.

The bottom line is that nearly every child can benefit from improved brain processing efficiency.  Wherever your child is, Be Amazing Learning can help move them forward. Our programs have been proven to be effective with many types of learners of all ages, from students with diagnosed learning difficulties, to those simply struggling with homework or reading. With Cogmed and Fast ForWord at our disposal, we can design an effective training program to develop a range of foundational cognitive skills and improve academic potential and performance.

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