A great deal has been written about the impact of retrieval practice on memory. That's because the effect is sizable, it has been replicated many times (Agarwal, Bain & Chamberlain, 2012) and it seems to lead not just to better memory but deeper
memory that supports transfer (e.g., McDaniel et al, 2013; Rohrer et al, 2010).
("Retrieval practice" is less catchy than the initial name--testing effect. It was renamed both to emphasize that it doesn't matter whether you try to remember for the sake of a test or some other reason and because "testing effect" led some observers to throw up their hands and say "do we really need more tests?")Now researchers (Szpunar, Khan, & Schacter, 2013) have reported testing as a potentially powerful ally in online learning. College students frequently report difficulty in maintaining attention during lectures, and that problem seems to be exacerbated when the lecture occurs on video.In this experiment subjects were asked to learn from a 21 minute video lecture on statistics. They were also told that the lecture would be divided in 4 parts, separated by a break. During the break they would perform math problems for a minute, and then would either do more math problems for two more minutes ("untested group"), they would be quizzed for two minutes on the material they had just learned ("tested group"), or they would review by seeing questions with the answers provided ("restudy group.")Subjects were told that whether or not they were quizzed would be randomly determined
for each segment; in fact, the same thing happened for an individual subject after each segment except
that each was tested after the fourth segment.So note that all subjects had reason to think that they might be tested at any time. There were a few interesting findings.
First, tested students took more notes than other students, and reported that their minds wandered less during the lecture.
The reduction in mind-wandering and/or increase in note-taking paid off--the tested subjects outperformed the restudy and the untested subjects when they were quizzed on the fourth, final segment.
The researchers added another clever measure. There was a final test on all the material, and they asked subjects how anxious they felt about it. Perhaps the frequent testing made learning rather nerve wracking. In fact, the opposite result was observed: tested students were less anxious about the final test. (And in fact performed better: tested = 90%, restudy = 76%, nontested = 68%).
We shouldn't get out in front of this result. This was just a 21 minute lecture, and it's possible that the benefit to attention of testing will wash out under conditions that more closely resemble an on-line course (i.e., longer lectures delivered a few time each week.) Still, it's a promising start of an answer to a difficult problem.
Agarwal, P. K., Bain, P. M., & Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 437-448.
McDaniel, M. A., Thomas, R. C., Agarwal, P. K., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2013). Quizzing in middle-school science: Successful transfer performance on classroom exams. Applied Cognitive Psychology. Published online Feb. 25
Rohrer, D., Taylor, K., & Sholar, B. (2010). Tests enhance the transfer of learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36, 233-239.
Szpunar, K. K., Khan, N. &, & Schacter, D. L. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online April 1, 2013 doi:10.1073/pnas.122176411
The data are unequivocal: kids from wealthy families do better in school than kids from poor families. It's observable across ages, on all sorts of different measures, and (to varying degrees) in every country.A piece I wrote for the American Educator on this phenomenon is just out. You can read it here. A very brief summary follows.A great deal of research from the last ten years can be summarized in two broad theories. Family Investment theories offer the intuitive idea that wealthier parents has more resources to invest in their kids, and kids, naturally enough, benefit. Financial resources can go to enrichment experiences in the summer, more books in the home, a tutor if one is needed, better access to health care, and so one. Wealthier parents are also likely to be higher in human capital--that is, they know more stuff. Wealthier parents speak more often to their children, and with a richer vocabulary, with more complex syntax, and in a way that elicits ideas from the child. Wealthier parents are also more likely to read to their children and to buy toys that teach letters and the names of shapes and colors. Finally, wealthier parents are more likely to be rich in social capital--that is, they are socially connected to other people how have financial, human, or social capital. The second family of theories on this phenomenon is Stress theory.
Stress theories apply particularly to low-income families, and suggest that poverty leads to systemic stress--stress caused by crowding, by crime-ridden neighborhoods, by food uncertainty, and other factors. This stress, in turn, leads to emotional problems in parents, which leads to ineffective parenting strategies. Stress also leads directly to brain changes in children. Both of these factors lead to emotional and cognitive disadvantage for kids. The theory is summarized in the figure.
The article elaborates on these theories in more detail and I provide citations there.
I close with this paragraph:
The research literature on the impact of socio economic status on children's learning is sobering, and it's easy to see why an individual teacher might feel helpless in the face of these effects. Teachers should not be alone in confronting the impact of poverty on children's learning. One hopes that the advances in our understanding the terrible consequences of poverty for the mind and brain will spur policymakers to serious action. but still, teachers should not despair. All children can learn, whatever their backgrounds, and whatever challenges they face.
I admit that until a few years ago, learning that a school asked their students to meditate prompted me to roll my eyes. It struck me as faddish and meant to appeal to parents rather than something meant to help students. But I’m not sneering anymore.
The last five or ten years has seen a burgeoning research literature on the cognitive benefits of mindfulness meditation—that style of meditation in which one focuses one’s thoughts on the present moment and emphasizes a open, non-judgmental attitude towards thoughts and sensations.
Most practitioners engage in mindfulness meditation for its effects on overall feelings of well-being. From a cognitive point of view, the daily practice in the management and control of attention might yield benefits for students. This sort of attentional control is positively associated with academic outcomes. (An article I wrote on the topic can be found here.
What do the data on meditation and attentional control look like?
The truth is that it’s a bit early to tell. A recent review (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011
) concluded that meditation training did lead to improvements in controlled attention, but the authors warned that the effects were inconsistent.The results might be inconsistent because the benefits to attention only accrue after significant practice
--more practice then volunteers are willing to engage in for the sake of a study. But even when examining long-time meditators, the benefits to attention are inconsistent.
Another possibility is that meditation doesn’t make attentional control any more effective, but it does make it less taxing, which might be consistent with reports of improved well-being. There are electrophysiological data (e.g., Moore, Gruber, Derose & Malinowski, 2012
) indicating that meditation training leads to changes in how the brain deals with attentional challenges, and that these changes reflect easier, smoother processing.
Most of the work has been done with adults, not kids. There are at least a few studies that have used mindfulness mediation interventions with kids of middle-school age, and the authors of these studies claim these kids can learn the practice (e.g., Wall, 2005
So at this point, the benefits of mindfulness mediation are not clear enough to make a claim that there is scientific backing for the practice in schools, if the hoped-for benefit is academic. But this is a research literature worth keeping on the radar.
Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review, 31,
Moore, A., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6,
Wall, R. B. (2005). Tai chi and mindfulness-based stress reduction in a Boston Public middle school. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 19,
in yesterday’s New York Times covered some recent research on the increasing education achievement gap between rich and poor. It’s worth a read, but it misses a couple of important points.
Regarding reasons for the gap, the article dwells on one hypothesis, commonly called the investment
theory: richer families have more money to invest in their kids. (The article might have mentioned that richer families not only have more financial capital, but more human capital and social capital.) The article does not mention at all another major theory of the economics of educational achievement; stress theory. Kids (and parents) who live in poverty live under systemic stress. A great deal of research in the last ten years has shown that this stress has direct cognitive consequences for kids, and also affects how parents treat their kids. (Any parent knows that you’re not at your best when you’re stressed.) An open-access review article on this research can be found here
Another important point the article misses concerns what might be done. It ends with a gloomy quote from an expert: “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”
I think there is more reason for optimism, because other countries are doing a better job with this problem than we are. The OECD analyzes the PISA results by reported family SES. In virtually every country, high SES kids outperform low SES kids. But in some countries, the gap is smaller, and that’s it’s not just countries that have smaller income gaps.
Economic inequality within a country is often measured with a statistic called the Gini coefficient
which varies from 0 (everyone has the same net worth) to 1 (one person has all the money, and the other has nothing). Rich children score better than poor children in countries with large Gini coefficients (like the US) and
the rich outscore the poor in countries with lower Gini coefficients (like Norway). Being poor predicts lower scores everywhere, but the disparity of wealth means more in the US than it does in other countries. What’s significant is that the relationship between income and test performance is stronger in the US than it is in most countries. (The US has the 3rd strongest relationship between income and student performance in Science and 10th highest for math, in the 2006 PISA results
Some countries, (e.g., Hong Kong), despite an enormous disparity between rich and poor, manage to even the playing field when the kids are at school. The US does a particularly poor job at this task; wealthy kids enjoy a huge advantage over poor kids. People generally argue that the US is different than Hong Kong, we’re a large, heteroogenous country, and so forth. All true, but the defeatist attitude won’t get us anywhere. We need more systematic study of how those countries solve the problem.