When it comes to studying for a test, some methods give you a better chance for success. On this episode of the Mind Matters Show, Dr. Craig Pohlman explains the difference between active and passive studying (and how a strategy called the “format shift” can help):
- Passive Studiers –simply go over the material and let it skim across their minds
- Active Studiers – engage with the information, such as by transforming it so it embeds into long term memory
This is where the format shift comes in. An active studier would take information they are studying and re-organize it. For example, they would take the content from a textbook paragraph and create a schematic diagram, pictorial diagram, or a compare/contrast table.
The key to the format shift is the process. The act of transforming the information from one format to another embeds the information much more deeply. The multiple formats are more compelling than a plain paragraph in a textbook, so this also makes studying more interesting!
The next time you have to study for a test, consider the format shift in order to get the most out of your study session.
Below is a video from John Cleese’s very “informative” brain podcast (actual content begins around 35 seconds). You’ll notice, of course, that nearly every sentence is almost entirely gibberish.
It is humorous to us in large part because . . .
- John Cleese is a masterful humorist who can make gobbledygook sound sensical, and . . .
- It is a low stakes environment. None of us will be held accountable for his 1.5 minutes worth of “content.” We’ll watch, marvel and share it, and then go on with our lives.
However, the video offers an instructive peek into the daily experience of scores of students who struggle to decipher language — either because of receptive language challenges or immersion in a new language such as English. We know that stress inhibits learning, so the question becomes, how can we alleviate/manage our content delivery to minimize student stress so as to best capitalize on their learning potential?
If we needed to truly understand this information, how might Mr. Cleese revise his methods? How would you deliver this “content” to ensure students understood it?
Photo Credit: Adrian J Wallace via Compfight cc
Here is a short video from Southern California Public Radio station KPCC on the science behind bilingual learning. The site, Bilingual Learning, explores “the science, options, and dilemmas of dual language education.”
The team at Gallant Lab at UC Berkley has been looking at how the brain processes and maps words/subject/objects. (Their recently published paper in Neuron) The result is a fascinating look into the workings of the brain and yet more evidence that we have only barely begun to uncover the mysteries of the mind at work.
Check out the video below explaining the research and then head over to their site where you can play with the data yourself (they recommend using Chrome as your browser).
While we can’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what this means for working with students, the research does offer a springboard for a whole host of other questions. For example:
- What role does background knowledge play in the shaping and writing the semantic map?
- Do the semantic maps look different when focused on a single topic — such as vehicles, buildings, or plants?
- How might this research inform methods of vocabulary instruction?
- If the information were provided in different contexts or delivery methods (text or verbal rendering vs. movie clip rendering), are the areas of the brain that are oxygenated different? What implications might this have for classroom learning?
Such research illustrates, once again, how little we know, and how much more there is yet to learn. What we do know is this: students’ minds are complex and pliable. The experiences and environments we design and deliver help shape how they process, understand, and interact with the world. It is up to us to make those experiences worthwhile.
Want to know more? Read Ben Thomas’s piece, “Meaning and the Brain: How Your Brain Organizes Reality” at Scientific America.
Just a quick info graphic to give yourself some perspective on language and the brain.
Image via: Voxy
In the past year there has been a flurry of articles on the cognitive advantages of the bilingual mind. Below is a selection of quotes from various pieces.
The best of the articles comes from the Dana Foundation‘s Cerebrum publication (which includes a list of accompanying research for more exploration). In their piece, Viorica Marian, PhD and Anthony Shook conclude:
The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.25,28 The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy. Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty7), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity.29Furthermore, beyond these cognitive and neurological advantages, there are also valuable social benefits that come from being bilingual, among them the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate. The cognitive, neural, and social advantages observed in bilingual people highlight the need to consider how bilingualism shapes the activity and the architecture of the brain, and ultimately how language is represented in the human mind, especially since the majority of speakers in the world experience life through more than one language.
Judy Willis, the internationally recognized neuroscientist turned educator, in her post on Psychology Today writes,
Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.
Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).
In March, the New York Times published a piece in their Grey Matters column that included this research finding:
This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.
They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.
In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.
This post in the Wall Street Journal highlights the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the WSJ, Robert Lee Hotz writes,
In the new study, Kraus and her colleagues tested the involuntary neural responses to speech sounds by comparing brain signals in 23 high school students who were fluent in English and Spanish to those of 25 teenagers who only spoke English. When it was quiet, both groups could hear the test syllable — “da” — with no trouble, but when there was background noise, the brains of the bilingual students were significantly better at detecting the fundamental frequency of speech sounds.
“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Kraus says.
Through this fine-tuning of the nervous system, people who can master more than one language are building a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities, and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age, a range of recent studies suggest.
ABSTRACT— We discuss the fruits of educational neuroscience research from our laboratory and show how the typical maturational timing milestones in bilingual language acquisition provide educators with a tool for differentiating a bilingual child experiencing language and reading delay versus deviance. Further, early schooling in two languages simultaneously affords young bilingual children a reading advantage and may also ameliorate the negative effect of low socioeconomic status on literacy. Using powerful brain imaging technology, functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy,we provide a first-time look into the developing brains of bilingual as compared to monolingual children.We show unequivocally that the age of first bilingual exposure is a vital predictor of bilingual language and reading mastery. Accounts that promote later dual language and reading instruction, or those that assert human brain development is unrelated to bilingual language mastery, are not supported by the present findings. We discuss the implications for education, teachers, and developmental brain sciences.
What are the implications for education and educators? While there is no quick and readily applicable conclusion from the emerging research, it is clear we must be very intentional about how we approach second language learning and learners. Educating with the brain in mind necessitates we seek first to understand (our students) and then to be understood (by them).
Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges. Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers. She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.
So what’s really going on with Kate? We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her. Here’s what we think:
The Good News
Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing. She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition. She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her. She also loves animals, especially cats. We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)
Getting at the Root of the Problem
As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions.
Talking to Kate
The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement. As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.
We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later. We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.
Working toward Success
As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate. Here’s a few examples:
- Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist.
- In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.
Other strategies you might try with Kate include …
- Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information. As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate. Have her save these “tools” to study for tests. These tools might vary based on the subject. For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts. In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson. One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
- Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
- Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time. One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.
See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate. What strategies would you use? What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities? If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!