classroom learning

More evidence of the value of gesture in teaching math

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A new study claims to provide ‘some of the strongest evidence yet’ for the benefits of gesturing to help students learn.

The study involved 184 children aged 7-10, of whom half were shown videos of an instructor teaching math problems using only speech, while the rest were shown videos of the instructor teaching the same problems using both speech and gestures. The problem involved mathematical equivalence (i.e., 4+5+7=__+7), which is known to be critical to later algebraic learning.

Improving academic performance with a simple psychological intervention

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Stereotype threat is a factor not only for some ethnic groups, but for women in certain areas (e.g., math, engineering), and also for older adults. Interventions that help reduce stereotype threat are also potentially helpful for those who suffer from test anxiety, or math anxiety.

Dave Nussbaum talks in the Scientific American about research he’s been involved in, showing how a small intervention aimed at reducing stereotype threat had significant long-lasting benefits for Latino American middle school students.

Maybe it has nothing to do with self-control

Academic and career success have been linked to self-regulation abilities early in life.

However, new research suggests a re-thinking of the meaning of the classic 'marshmallow test'.

Failure to delay gratification may reflect a perfectly rational response to the situation rather than a lack of 'will-power'.

Three critical variables may determine your willingness to delay gratification in a situation: temporal beliefs, reward difference, and temporal discount rate (the value you put on shorter waiting times).

We may be better off paying more attention to perceived reward and temporal discount rate - factors that are situational as well as personal - than to any 'character' assessments of 'self-control'.

I recently reported on Mynd about a finding that refines a widely-reported association between self-regulation and academic achievement. This association relates to the famous ‘marshmallow test’, in which young children were left alone with a marshmallow, having been told that if they could hold off eating it until the researcher returns, they would get two marshmallows.

Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom

Flummoxed student

Critical thinking - it's a bit of a buzz-word in education circles nowadays. And some of that buzz is that it tends not to be well taught (when it's taught at all, of course). I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say teachers can't teach it! - but this article does make the excellent point that there's an opportunity here for institutions outside schools.

Dennis M. Bartels at Scientific American:

Is technology affecting attention & thought?

Student with iPad

Duncan Jefferies on the Guardian's Teacher Network:

Should ‘learning facts by rote’ be central to education?

Being able to read or discuss a topic requires you to have certain concepts well-learned, so that they are readily accessible when needed.

Rote memorization is a poor tool for acquiring this base knowledge.

‘Core’ knowledge is smaller than you might think.

Building up strong concepts is best done by working through many, diverse examples.

Education is not solely or even mainly about stuffing your head with ‘facts’. Individualized knowledge, built up from personally relevant examples illuminating important concepts, needs to be matched by an equal emphasis on curating knowledge, and practice in replacing outdated knowledge.

Michael Gove is reported as saying that ‘Learning facts by rote should be a central part of the school experience’, a philosophy which apparently underpins his shakeup of school exams. Arguing that "memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding", he believes that exams that require students to memorize quantities of material ‘promote motivation, solidify knowledge, and guarantee standards’.

Desirable difficulty for effective learning

The right kind and level of confusion, properly supported, can benefit learning.

This may be an example of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty’.

Achieving the right level of difficulty may be the key to managing the information stream for optimal learning.

When we are presented with new information, we try and connect it to information we already hold. This is automatic. Sometimes the information fits in easily; other times the fit is more difficult — perhaps because some of our old information is wrong, or perhaps because we lack some of the knowledge we need to fit them together.

Immediate reward improves low-performing students’ test scores

A large study involving Chicago public school students has found conditions in which rewards offered just before a test significantly improve test performance.

In contradiction of some other recent research, a large new study has found that offering students rewards just before standardized testing can improve test performance dramatically. One important factor in this finding might be the immediate pay-off — students received their rewards right after the test. Another might be in the participants, who were attending low-performing schools.

The study involved 7,000 students in Chicago public schools and school districts in south-suburban Chicago Heights. Older students were given financial rewards, while younger students were offered non-financial rewards such as trophies.

Students took relatively short, standardized diagnostic tests three times a year to determine their grasp of mathematics and English skills. Unusually for this type of research, the students were not told ahead of time of the rewards — the idea was not to see how reward improved study habits, but to assess its direct impact on test performance.

Consistent with other behavioral economics research, the prospect of losing a reward was more motivating than the possibility of receiving a reward — those given money or a trophy to look at while they were tested performed better.

The most important finding was that the rewards only ‘worked’ if they were going to be given immediately after the test. If students were told instead that they would be given the reward sometime later, test performance did not improve.

Follow-up tests showed no negative impact of removing the rewards in successive tests.

Age and type of reward mattered. Elementary school students (who were given nonfinancial rewards) responded more to incentives than high-school students. Younger students have been found to be more responsive to non-monetary rewards than older students. Among high school students, the amount of money involved mattered.

It’s important to note that the students tested had low initial motivation to do well. I would speculate that the timing issue is so critical for these students because distant rewards are meaningless to them. Successful students tend to be more motivated by the prospect of distant rewards (e.g., a good college, a good job).

The finding does demonstrate that a significant factor in a student’s poor performance on tests may simply come from not caring to try.

Homework revisited

At the same time as a group of French parents and teachers have called for a two-week boycott of homework (despite the fact that homework is officially banned in French primary schools), and just after the British government scrapped homework guidelines, a large long-running British study came out in support of homework.

Support for link between physical activity & academic success

A review supports the benefits of physical activity for children’s and adolescent’s scholastic performance, but points to the need for better studies. A recent study looks at the effects on attention of different types of physical activity.

A review of 10 observational and four intervention studies as said to provide strong evidence for a positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance in young people (6-18). While only three of the four intervention studies and three of the 10 observational studies found a positive correlation, that included the two studies (one intervention and one observational) that researchers described as “high-quality”.

An important feature of the high-quality studies was that they used objective measures of physical activity, rather than students' or teachers' reports. More high-quality studies are clearly needed. Note that the quality score of the 14 studies ranged from 22%! to 75%.

Interestingly, a recent media report (NOT, I hasten to add, a peer-reviewed study appearing in an academic journal) spoke of data from public schools in Lincoln, Nebraska, which apparently has a district-wide physical-fitness test, which found that those were passed the fitness test were significantly more likely to also pass state reading and math tests.

Specifically, data from the last two years apparently shows that 80% of the students who passed the fitness test either met or exceeded state standards in math, compared to 66% of those who didn't pass the fitness test, and 84% of those who passed the fitness test met or exceeded state standards in reading, compared to 71% of those who failed the fitness test.

Another recent study looks at a different aspect of this association between physical exercise and academic performance.

The Italian study involved138 normally-developing children aged 8-11, whose attention was tested before and after three different types of class: a normal academic class; a PE class focused on cardiovascular endurance and involving continuous aerobic circuit training followed by a shuttle run exercise; a PE class combining both physical and mental activity by involving novel use of basketballs in varying mini-games that were designed to develop coordination and movement-based problem-solving. These two types of physical activity offered the same exercise intensity, but very different skill demands.

The attention test was a short (5-minute) paper-and-pencil task in which the children had to mark each occurrence of “d” with double quotation marks either above or below in 14 lines of randomly mixed p and d letters with one to four single and/or double quotation marks either over and/or under each letter.

Processing speed increased 9% after mental exercise (normal academic class) and 10% after physical exercise. These were both significantly better than the increase of 4% found after the combined physical and mental exertion.

Similarly, scores on the test improved 13% after the academic class, 10% after the standard physical exercise, and only 2% after the class combining physical and mental exertion.

Now it’s important to note is that this is of course an investigation of the immediate arousal benefits of exercise, rather than an investigation of the long-term benefits of being fit, which is a completely different question.

But the findings do bear on the use of PE classes in the school setting, and the different effects that different types of exercise might have.

First of all, there’s the somewhat surprising finding that attention was at least as great, if not better, after an academic class than the PE class. It would not have been surprising if attention had flagged. It seems likely that what we are seeing here is a reflection of being in the right head-space — that is, the advantage of continuing with the same sort of activity.

But the main finding is the, also somewhat unexpected, relative drop in attention after the PE class that combined mental and physical exertion.

It seems plausible that the reason for this lies in the cognitive demands of the novel activity, which is, I think, the main message we should take away from this study, rather than any comparison between physical and mental activity. However, it would not be surprising if novel activities that combine physical and mental skills tend to be more demanding than skills that are “purely” (few things are truly pure I know) one or the other.

Of course, it shouldn’t be overlooked that attention wasn’t hampered by any of these activities!

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