Simple changes to homework improved student learning

In Portugal, the last discussions about Education were primarily focused on the big system level improvements, which politicians and population think will allow the students and teachers to improve their performances significantly.

"(These) simple changes produced a larger effect than the average improvement for classroom interventions that require a complete overhaul of curricula and/or teaching methods."
However, we know that when we discuss Education we are looking at a major intricate novel where complex characters coexist. Downstream, students are the often called recipients of learning or the agents that will change the economy, societies. There is some truth to that if we change the wording but, at the end of day, the purpose of everyone is to have better schools, better communities, a better future. But way more than that, we want to have happy students in the process of learning, able to make a positive contribution in their communities and, more importantly, in themselves.

The learning process demands salient abilities and psychological and emotional harmony from students, pre-requirements of an educational development that intersects with the self-development. The process of learning has been thoroughly studied and findings of cognitive science have allowed us to identify some strategies that improve this process.

"Based on laboratory studies, we know a lot about how people learn," said lead author Andrew Butler, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke. 

Based on research done with undergraduate students, a new set of principles were followed to change the nature of homework and assignments. The principles implied in this process are:

Repeated retrieval practice -- In addition to receiving the standard homework assignment, students were given follow-up problems on the same topic in two additional assignments that counted only toward their course participation grade.
Spacing -- Rather than giving all the problem sets for a week's lectures in one assignment, the researchers spaced the problems over three weeks of assignments.
Feedback -- Rather than waiting one week to learn how they did, students received immediate feedback on intervention homework, and they were required to view the feedback to get credit for the assignment.
Repetition, retrieval, and expansion of knowledge; segregation of parts of problems spaced over time; and immediate feedback.

This means that the learning process was focused on dilating the period of intensive learning, on the consolidation of learning, allowing in this process for enough time to reflect upon the material learned and immediate feedback to ensure that students review what they have learned.

"Giving students multiple opportunities to practice retrieving and applying their knowledge on new problems is a very powerful way to promote learning, especially when this practice is spaced out over time," 

Feedback also is critical to learning, and previous studies have shown that students will often skip looking at feedback."

The method:

The researchers split the class into two groups and assigned each group standard homework and intervention homework during alternating weeks; in any given week, half of the students were assigned to the intervention and half to the standard practice homework.

The course covered 11 broad topics and approximately five core concepts per topic. Questions on the midterm and final exams covered specific concepts and topics, so by comparing how the two groups fared on those questions, the research team could compare whether students learned more doing one style of homework or the other. 

The results:

The research showed that students scored about 7 percent higher on the portions of the final exams that were taught with the intervention.
The study showed that the combination of repeated retrieval practice, spacing and immediate, required feedback had a powerful effect on student learning of complex engineering material.

As mentioned in the article, it was hard to control the variables of extra-study at home or any other measures taken by the students to improve their outcomes; however, there seems to be a positive impact of these principles in the learning outcomes. 

At this point, if you are teacher, you'd say, well, I already do this with my students! and yes, you probably right, as some of the principles here are very common in our schools. Nonetheless, this study is important because it helps us review some major principles that we sometimes tend to forget or, because of the frantic nature of classrooms and schools, to neglect.

As the authors point out, these principles can be used in other contexts and grades.  



Children exposed to methamphetamine before birth have increased cognitive problems

Based on previous working experiences with individuals that were using psychoactive/stimulant drugs, like methamphetamine, it is not hard to see how their psychological and physical degeneration would cause their babies maleficent consequences.

What struck me the most about the use of meth, oxy's and benzo's, although in different categories, was its impact when used for prolonged periods of time. The states of confusion tended to become frequent and the cognitive functions impaired. Among the cognitive aspects, the process of decision making becomes blurred, the speech becomes equally confusing - language is though put in words, right? -, attention and concentration are severely reduced, and self-other patterns gravitated towards conflicts and attrition. For delusions this is fertile ground to flourish.

If you take these scenarios and imagine them as consequences of drug induced brain damage and physiological craving for failed homeostasis, then the consequences to the fetus would make sense. That seems to be the case.

Methamphetamine use among women of reproductive age is a continuing concern, with 5% of pregnant women aged 15-44 reporting current illicit drug use. Methamphetamine usage during pregnancy can cause a restriction of nutrients and oxygen to the developing fetus, as well as potential long-term problems because the drug can cross the placenta and enter the fetus's bloodstream.

This in turn has a very significant impact in the harmonious development of children.

"These problems include learning slower than their classmates, having difficulty organizing their work and completing tasks and struggling to stay focused on their work,"

Strategies to intervene with these students have to make sense of different aspects:
  • it's not only about the drugs; it is also about the rituals and the alterations of the dynamics in the family setting, which, more often than not, with couples or single mothers that are users, becomes something like a roller coaster between isolation (fear, anxiety) and the life of the pack (the you's like me). This leads to patterns of self-organisation based on insecurity, fear/anxiety, suspicion, paranoia, poor decision making, reduced attention to other parts of the self outside of the equation of craving vs self-preservation, and a striking inability to understand the world of others and their place in it. 
  • The early context of self-development is experienced by the child in very specific contexts and it surely depends on the impact and self-other regulation processes that significant others had during infancy.
  • The baby that became child that became adolescent is an ontological unique identity. As such, he has to be listen to, understood, empathically embraced as someone that can change.
  • Anger and sadness, with pervasive signs of depression are very common among adolescents - adults tend to experience more sadness than anger or rage. Emotional intersects with psychological and cognitive. 
  • Continuous use of drugs should be checked in the family, as well as abuse and violent patterns. I always think about one 18 year-old that had so much anger towards his father that his words and non-verbal screamed for (self)destruction. 
  • Resources in the child, the family, the community and social agencies have to be made clear. 
  • Do not reify drug type entities and stigma in the child or the family. Most of the times, these individuals would like to change their lives but to initiate that process is tremendously hard. Imagine changing your life and self completely is nothing short of a big challenge. 

These are just some notes about the pre-stage for strategy design and subsequent implementation. I believe this stage is of crucial importance, as it will determine if the child and the family become open to be authors or mere spectators of a failed intervention. 

Specific measures of intervention in specific areas should then be designed according the areas of impairment or in need of development, solidly anchored on an holistic view of the child. 

"By identifying deficits early in the child's life, we can intervene sooner and help them overcome these deficits to help them have greater success in school and in life," said Dr. Smith. "Through the IDEAL Study, we are able to track these children and better understand the long-term effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure."



What are teens hoping to feel when they self-harm?

There are few things as disturbing as self-harm, which in extreme can lead to suicide or suicide attempts. Self-harm has many functions and the authors focus on the following two:

A common motivation teenagers give is that non-suicidal self-harm provides a way to escape unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Another motive, little explored before now, is that self-harm is a way to deliberately provoke a particular desired feeling or sensation.

Escape and seek. Escape pain, seek resolution. Pain because adolescents that self-harm are, to simplify, experiencing existential suffering or depressivity and eagerly looking for ways to cope with it. One of those ways is the downward spiral  of depressivity, which revalidates the main causes of depression - this leads to the annulation of the self; the other, is to seek an alternative to the pain that one is feeling, which is, more often than not, hardly meaningful, or impossible to signify - this leads to creative destruction through meaning-making processes.

The most common sensation the teenagers sought was "satisfaction" (45 per cent of them), followed by "stimulation" (31 per cent) and "pain" (24 per cent). 

Excruciating pain, psychological pain, can take many routes in order to be materialised and addressed but I question the meaning of satisfaction that it is attributed to this word. I believe that what is tried to symbolise here is the abject need to seek closure, to diminish activation, to give a sense of control to the experience of existential suffering. 

To seek pain is not in contradiction with seeking satisfaction or stimulation; they seem to be expressions of an experience of pain in the spectrum of making sense of the same pain. Different avenues to signify different aspects of this process of questioning the fabric of which one is made of. 

The meaningful construction of personal sense in the scope of one's identity in the maze of depressivity. This is quite interesting. The  experiencing of self-harm is, no question about it, intrinsic to its author, the individual. So, in that sense, the aggregation of meaning in categories proves to be less than ideal.

For instance, one explanation for the more frequent self-harming observed among those who say they self-harm because they want to experience pain, is that the act triggers pain-relief mechanisms in the brain - a form of euphoria. And yet, self-harming was less frequent among those who said they self-harmed for satisfaction. 

This is why. Contradictions emerge rapidly if the words are used to capture so powerful experiences without consolidating first the narrative constructions and experiential expressions of self-harm in the intersections of the basics of the pain that is experienced. 

Lastly, self-harm is tool, instrument, is expression, is an apparatus of the self to symbolise the need to create...destroying. But it is not the cause that leads to its reinforcement. It isn't cause and consequence but it can further aggravate the main issue, the ontological basic insecurity of the self. 


Superior visual thinking may be key to independence for high schoolers with autism

As with the general population, some of us have specific capacities and abilities to perform in certain areas, whereas others focus their energy and deliver their abilities in different outcomes. This relates to the fact - obvious to everyone - that although we share a common human genome, our differences are very significant. Even identical twins are not bounded to have ASD, as there is a 20% chance that one doesn't have it. 

This leads to the fact that independence is crucial for us to travel our own paths and for some that is easier said than done. Think for a minute about the adolescent with severe social anxiety or that mother that has to care for her children on her own, without any help. Reality can be a very harsh experience.

It seems that for individuals with Autism, now Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), superior visual thinking is proving to be a very big help for high schoolers to achieve and improve their levels of independence. 

"It's clear that teaching independence to students with autism should be a central focus of their activities in high school."

This is of paramount importance because individuals with ASD have a very carved inability to communicate and interact according our socially defined, agreed and learned behaviours. It is like they have failed to learn the same social vocabulary that we did, although I would prefer to put it as an inability to function in the same level of meaning-making that is agreed in determined social contexts.

"When an adolescent with ASD has a pen that runs out of ink, that student may be more likely to wait for prompting from the teacher before asking for a new pen or just finding a new one,"

Given the literal understanding of relations, social interactions and communications, visual schedules can help students to reach higher levels of autonomy by bypassing the need to be prompted by others to act volitionally. The same could be said about Technology - the example of Microsoft's OneNote or Google Drive in schools could bring some interesting analysis. 

"Visual schedules, for instance, allow students with ASD to act independently, because they don't involve verbal prompting from teachers," Hume said. "Visual information that explains what to do also can be useful in home, school, and employment settings, because it eliminates the need for continual monitoring and support."

At the end of the day, for educators, it isn't so much different of adjusting techniques according to the unique individual.


Interventions with Autism Spectrum Disorder: the case of Pivotal Response Training

Interventions for children are often focused on educational and behavioural strategies. Here is the case of Pivotal Response Training, that focus on motivating the child to improve their skills in social communication and interaction. 


The amazing durability of infant memory: Three-year-olds show recognition of a person they met once at age one

We all know that infants have incredible capabilities. For instance, we know that a big percentage of babies emit their first words or meaningful combinations of words around the age of 18 months. However, there is more to babies' abilities than just words, we all know that. 

A study addressed at the BPS Research Digest brings up an interesting but puzzling research study, that I haven't quite been able to put together. 

This article focus on the topic of memory formed by babies on moment A and their retrieval on moment B. 

To maximise the chance of uncovering long-term memory through infancy and into early childhood, the researchers devised a scenario involving many many prompts - what they described as "massive cueing". Kingo and his team first renewed contact with parents and their children who'd taken part in an earlier study when the children were age one. That earlier research involved the infant children interacting with one of two researchers for 45 minutes - either a Scandinavian-Caucasian man or a Scandinavian-African man.

Now two years on, 50 of these parents and children - the latter now aged three - were invited back to the exact same lab (hopefully cueing their earlier memories). Here the children were shown two simultaneous 45-second videos side by side. One video was a recording of the researcher - either the Scandinavian-Caucasian or Scandinavian-African man - interacting with them two years earlier; the other video showed the other researcher (the one they hadn't met) interacting with a different child in the exact same way. The children themselves were not visible in these videos.

The key test was whether the three-year-olds would show a preference for looking at one video rather than the other. Amazingly, the children spent significantly more time looking at the video that featured the researcher they'd never met. This is not due to the children having a bias for either the white or black man, because for some of these children the previously unseen researcher was Scandinavian-African  and for others he was Scandinavian-Caucasian. All background features and behaviours in the videos were identical, so this result provides strong evidence that the children had some recognition of the researcher they'd met, and were drawn more strongly to look at the unfamiliar researcher. 

This conclusion puzzles me. Shouldn't children look at the researcher that they had met two years before, as if they were identifying familiarity in the process of memory retrieval? Why is that looking at the unfamiliar researcher makes the case for the conclusion that the babies had memory of the researcher two years before and therefore were drawn to the unfamiliar researcher?

I believe there is something missing in this puzzle.


How Much Do Parents Determine Their Children’s Success?

The author presents the following main conclusions:

  • parents put too much on their short-run comfort and too little on long-run satisfaction. 
  • “parents picture kids as clay they mold for life, when they’re actually more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but pops back into its original shape when the pressure is released.”

I think the author completely fails to address that the self-other patterns of functioning are tremendously important variables that determine the impact that parents have on their children. Just think for a minute on the cases where parents have anxiogenic patterns of functioning with their children and how that can impact their self-development; or, on the other extreme, parents that teach principles in a robust manner, where the child feels empowered by a vicarious experience that makes sense. 

There is so much to this discussion that the points addressed just feel short of enlightening the questions that they are supposed to answer.


The poor neglected gifted child

A great article on Boston Globe raises the question of delivering the right resources to those who are commonly labeled as gifted, challenging the general assumption that that population already has the Nature in its favor and that they don't need anything else.

“It’s difficult to introduce stratification into the system without introducing inequality in how people get into those stratifications,”

On the other had, in addressing this issue, it should be made clear that without continuing to pursue the lower end of spectrum, the system leads to deeper inequality. Therefore, the question to be discussed here is the one of exploring and stimulating the potential of every student according to his own contextual factors. It is only through this route that the top will become larger and bottom will become smaller.