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Prior Knowledge Tied to Learning Success

Learning SuccessWhen it comes to learning, prior knowledge affects how new information is absorbed. If a teacher fails to recognize that a student is missing background information, that child is likely to tune out (not unlike that time my husband attempted to teach me the inner workings of a telephone).

“Prior knowledge affects how a student organizes new information,” reports Marilla Svinicki in her article, What They Don’t Know Can Hurt Them: The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning. “Remember that a goal of learning is to incorporate new information into the existing organization of memory.”

Svinicki, Professor Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, explains, “Instructors can use this prior knowledge of structure to their advantage when they use analogies…. For example, in trying to explain how a gland works, an instructor might say that the gland is like a thermostat.” Since most students know a thermostat monitors heat, they can easily transfer the meaning. On the other hand, if you try to describe buoyant force with the example of a hot air balloon, the lesson will lose it’s meaning unless the student first knows how burners inside the balloon work.

In his paper, Learning in Interactive Environments: Prior Knowledge and New Experience, Jeremy Roschelle, Director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, writes, “Educators often focus on the ideas that they want their audience to have. But research has shown that a learner’s prior knowledge often confounds an educator’s best efforts to deliver ideas accurately. A large body of findings shows that learning proceeds primarily from prior knowledge, and only secondarily from the presented materials.”

Parents and teachers may also want to take prior knowledge into account when evaluating a child’s reading comprehension.

I Knew it Before the Test!

“Familiarity fools our minds into
thinking we know more than we do.”

If you have ever been surprised by a poor test result, you are not alone. “Very often, students will think they understand a body of material. Believing that they know it, they stop trying to learn more. But, come test time, it turns out they really don’t know the material.” Dr. Daniel Willingham [pdf] is referring to a common challenge for many students; the ability to distinguish between familiarity and recollection.

The recollection myth

TeamUP! Tutors gets requests for help with all subjects, from algebra and geometry to essay writing and chemistry. Regardless of the subject, we hear frequently laments that the student did the homework, studied the material, but then bombed the test. So what’s going on?

Willingham explains that a student may think he knows more than he actually does because, following a homework assignment or class lecture, he feels confident in his knowledge. What is missing is putting this belief to the test… before the actual test. Does the student really know the material well enough to recollect the content or is he simply familiar with it?

Know the target information

Students who say they know the material, but perform poorly on the test have likely overestimated their true level of understanding or misidentified the target information. By building strong study skills, students can help themselves learn what they need to know:

  • Complete all assignments to get the big picture
  • Eliminate distractions and avoid multitasking
  • Study one section at a time, starting days before the test
  • Use flashcards, study guides, notes, quizzes, etc
  • Exchange homemade exams with a friend
  • Ask a parent or classmate to quiz you on the material
  • Revisit difficult concepts until you have them down

Finally, avoid tricking yourself into believing you know more than you really do. Try asking, “Do I understand this material well enough to teach it to someone unfamiliar with the subject?” Then, double check how well you know the critical information by explaining to someone else.

For example, prior to a test on the history of Hinduism, a student may recall that Hindus have four goals in life, “pleasure and success, dharma, moksha, and reincarnation.” This may lead her to believe she is ready for the test even if she has not mastered the target information. In order to teach someone else, she must also be prepared to define the meaning of each goal, explain why Hindus strive to meet these goals, and give examples of how these goals helped to shape Indian society.

So the next time you think, “That test was so unfair” or “I just don’t test well,” consider whether you invested the time necessary to recall specific details or if you, in fact, entered the test with only a cursory understanding of the material. Then decide what you will do differently to ace the next one.

California 2010 State of Education Address

“We must continue to work toward the critically important
end-goal of raising achievement for all students
and closing the achievement gap during good times and bad.”

In his 7th and final State of Education Address, Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, highlighted progress in student achievement and the race against time to build an education system that will prepare every student for success in the global economy of the 21st century.

While acknowledging deep cuts in school funding, as well as the achievement gap that exists between white and Asian students and Latino and black students, O’Connell shared good news too, “In each of the last seven years since our statewide tests were completely aligned to our high standards, California public school students have made real gains in achievement. Today, half of our students are proficient in English-language arts. Think about this: seven years ago only 35 percent of our students met this high bar. In mathematics, 46 percent of California’s students are now at the proficient or above level eleven points above where we were seven years ago.”

Full text for this speech can be found here.

More Media Means Lower Grades. And What You Can Do About It.

The amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically according to Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year Olds, a new Kaiser Family Foundation study. While researchers have not established a cause and effect relationship between media use and academic performance, it should not come as a surprise to today’s parents that heavy media users are getting lower grades.

Vicky Rideout, Vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, points out:

  • Today’s young people devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day. This adds up to more than 53 hours a week, the equivalent of a full-time job.
  • About half (47%) of media heavy users (more than 16 hours a day) report getting Cs or lower in school, compared to almost a quarter (23%) of light users (less than three hours a day).
  • Half of the kids say that when doing homework they usually multitask by using some other form of media at the same time.
  • The average student’s homework to internet time is 16 minutes of homework to 1.5 hours of internet.

Although children with any media rules consume nearly three hours less media per day than those with no rules, only about three in ten young people say they have rules about how much time they can spend watching TV (28%) or playing video games (30%), and 36% say the same about using the computer. Child psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Hartstein recommends that parents disallow video chatting and TV watching while doing homework. For kids who don’t live by these limits, parents may choose to remove the offending media until the student is able to avoid distractions and make education the priority.

Another option offered by Rideout is for parents to use these findings to “look at what goes on in their own families … and talk about it.”


Students Pay Price for Task Switching

“To do two things at once is to do neither.”
Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

We’ve all heard the woes of students who start their homework after dinner and are still going strong at midnight. But are they truly working nonstop or are they getting distracted along the way? Does the computer that was switched on for research also display instant messages? Email? Facebook? If so, two hours of work can easily stretch into six.

While many people brag about their ability to multi-task or switch-task, it turns out that none of us, kids included, perform well when interrupted. That’s because our brains can only focus on one item at a time. In this age of tweets, texting, and social networking, the interruptions fly nonstop. We may be able to walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, our brains have limits.

But what about those who insist they’re wired for multitasking? Stanford researchers decided to find out what gives these folks their edge. What gift do they have that the rest of us inefficient, single-taskers are missing? “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author. In fact, they found that multitaskers pay a mental price, and in some cases perform worse than non-multitaskers, People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

Other task-switching research shows that doing more really means doing less. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, explains that the part of our brain responsible for switching activities, what he calls the “attentional spotlight,” works as a sequential processor. This means, it can only focus on one task at a time. He claims that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and makes 50% more errors. He shared the following anecdote, which may hit a little too close to home for many of today’s parents:

“Recently, I agreed to help the high-school son of a friend of mine with some homework, and I don’t think I will ever forget the experience. Eric had been working for about a half-hour on his laptop when I was ushered to his room. An iPod was dangling from his neck, the earbuds cranking out Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Green Day as his left hand reflexively tapped the backbeat. The laptop had at least 11 windows open, including two IM screens carrying simultaneous conversations with MySpace friends. Another window was busy downloading an image from Google. The window behind it had the results of some graphic he was altering for MySpace friend No. 2, and the one behind that held an old Pong game paused mid-ping. Buried in the middle of this activity was a word-processing program holding the contents of the paper for which I was to provide assistance. ‘The music helps me concentrate,’ Eric declared, taking a call on his cell phone.”

The task-switching problem is not limited to students. Workplace studies indicate that performing several duties at once reduces employee productivity. University of Michigan researcher David Meyer, Ph.D. [pdf], explains that in work settings, 20-40 percent of potential efficiency is lost due to task switching by workers “who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses.” Researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that workers returning to a task took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from interruptions and displayed significantly higher levels of stress, frustration, and mental effort.

Multitasking has also been shown to adversely affect how people learn. An article in The New Atlantis points to Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found “that even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.” Poldrack’s research demonstrates that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information.

The solution for students who want to learn the lost art of paying attention is to focus on the task at hand. Turn off the distractions, make a plan, and concentrate on one activity at a time. Then reward yourself by powering back up. When done well, you’ll spend less overall time on your work, learn more, and have plenty of time leftover for fun.

Parents Trigger School Reform

Even before the California Senate approved a reform bill that would give parents greater control over their children’s’ education, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would sign the package into law “as soon as it hits my desk.” On January 7, he approved a provision known as the “parent trigger” (learn about the momentum behind this provision: LA-based Parent Revolution).

The parent trigger puts educational power into the hands of families. The law applies to schools in the third year or more of federal “program improvement” status, and makes the state eligible for as much as $700 million in federal funding under President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. If a majority of parents at an eligible school sign a petition, the district is required to make reforms.

Ellen Winn, Director of the Education Equity Project sums up the dire need for such reform:

“The grim reality is that the achievement gap in California is profound. In 2006, 42% of CA’s students scored proficient in English Language Arts, with startling sub-group break-downs: 27.4% proficient – Hispanic, 29% proficient – African American, 60.3% proficient – white, 64.3% proficient – Asian. The Education Trust West’s most recent analysis of the achievement gap in California found: “The racial and socioeconomic achievement gap exists across all subjects and remains largely unchanged over the past 7 years. For the huge numbers of low-income and minority students assigned to consistently failing schools, triggering any of these reforms will be the first possible step towards ensuring they receive a better education and all the increased opportunities we know accompany it.”

Midterm Mania

It’s that time of the year when high school and college students are asked to demonstrate what they have absorbed since the beginning of the semester. Midterms and finals test cumulative knowledge. And, since information from months earlier may be a bit hazy, the key to success lies in solid preparation.

Our 5 Steps to Exam Success article gives students a practical roadmap for how to effectively study for the big test.

Getting into College is Easier than You Think!

hoxbyA recent claim to friends, that my 18-year old self wouldn’t stand a chance of getting admitted to my alma mater today, turns out to be utter nonsense.

This according to Stanford University economist, Caroline M. Hoxby. In The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges [pdf], Hoxby reassures applicants that, “Typical college-going students in the U.S. should be unconcerned about rising selectivity. If anything, they should be concerned about falling selectivity, the phenomenon they will actually experience.”

In fact, at least 50 percent of colleges are substantially less selective now than they were in 1962 with only the top 10 percent, such as members of the Ivy League, Stanford, and Duke, demonstrating rising selectivity. So, perhaps that seemingly unattainable college is actually within reach.

Mentors Help Teens Get into College

college-mentor“Youth who are most likely to need mentors are least likely to have them.”

Disadvantaged teens who get mentored are twice as likely to attend college. A new national study reveals the power of mentors, particularly those in the teaching profession:

  • Adult mentors give teens a 50 percent greater likelihood of attending college
  • Mentorship by a teacher nearly doubles the odds of attending college for disadvantaged students

“Potential is sometimes squashed by the social environment, and the data show that mentors can overcome those forces,” said Lance Erickson, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University and the study’s lead author. The information on more than 14,000 adolescents who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health shows less than half of disadvantaged students report having any adult mentor and only seven percent had a mentoring relationship with a teacher.

Mentors proved pivotal in whether students make the jump to college. For example, students whose parents do not have even a high school degree are normally 35 percent likely to enroll in college. The rate jumps to 66 percent when the youth considers one of their teachers to be a personal mentor. “Teacher-mentors close the college gap for disadvantaged kids [and] participants indicate that their mentors weren’t necessarily doing anything extraordinary, just being involved and treating the young person as an important human being,” adds Erickson.

Big Bird Supports President’s “Educate to Innovate” Campaign

big-bird-mathPresident Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign is a nationwide effort to move American middle and high school students to the top of the pack in science, technology, engineering & math (STEM) achievement over the next decade.

“Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century,” said President Obama. “That’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority.”

The administration has identified three overarching priorities for STEM education:

  • Increase STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology.
  • Improve the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nationsI.
  • Expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.

Speaking to key STEM leaders and local students, President Obama announced a series of high-powered partnerships totaling over $260 million in support from leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies dedicated to motivating and inspiring young people across America to excel in science and math.

Supporters include the MacArthur Foundation, Time Warner Cable, and Discovery Communications. With an investment of $7.5 million in mathematics and science education for preschoolers, Sesame Street, in partnership with PNC Bank, shows students are never to young to engage in STEM. Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, explains,”Ensuring today’s children are prepared with the mathematics and science skills they need to compete in a global world must be a national priority.”

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