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What Research Can Help Your Students Score Higher on the Upcoming BIG Tests?

School testing

This month, we’ll focus on how to prepare for existing state and national tests. I’ll focus on three things that can help your students improve their chances to score up to their potential. By the way, kids never score above their potential; they’re just not going to randomly make enough lucky right answers time after time after time (in statistics, it’s called regression to the mean).

But, they often underperform for a host of reasons, even when they should perform much better. While we could focus on dozens of variables that influence standardized testing, we’ll focus on these three: 1) brain chemistry, 2) priming, and 3) episodic memory triggers. Some of these suggestions got so many rave reviews that they are reproduced from an earlier bulletin!

The Research

Ten Minutes to Better Scores

Two laboratory and two randomized field studies tested a psychological intervention designed to improve students’ scores on high-stakes exams. These simple ten-minute activities can raise test scores. One well-designed study showed that writing about testing worries prior to taking the exam boosts exam performance in the classroom.

The study authors expected that sitting for an important exam leads to worries about the situation and its consequences that undermine test performance. What the authors tested was… whether having students write down their thoughts about an upcoming test could improve test performance. Read more

Can We Raise Test Scores (Again)?

Let’s explore how you can boost test scores by making small interventions and simple changes at the last moment.

First, a simple disclaimer: I don’t support 95% of all the testing being done on kids. I love accountability, but not crazy-making testing that gives self-serving data; data that helps you do better on the next test, instead of in real life where the tests should be targeting. Having said that, things are what they are. Let’s focus on the here and now.

Here is a plan that will help you maximize testing for your students.

Research: Recent Discovery on Testing

You have only five variables you can tweak in the days, hours and minutes before the actual test time. The biggest variable is how well kids have learned what will be on the test. If you haven’t taken care of that variable all year long, you have fewer options. It’s too late to add much content when you get real close to test time.

The single best thing you can do in the weeks and days before the testing is…have students take tests. Testing produced better overall recall than did restudying (Roediger and Karpicke, 2006). Give them small chunks of “mock tests” that will mimic the real ones. But the research gets a bit more complicated from here out.

What about getting feedback on the mock tests?

When tests are NOT accompanied by feedback, some items (i.e., those that were not correctly retrieved) might not benefit from testing (Pashler et al., 2005).

This tells you feedback has two sides: if you get it wrong, you NEED feedback. If it’s right, it’s less important to get feedback.

The debriefing should begin as a social event with the teacher and classmates involved. Then shift it to a personal assignment. Let students improve their “mock” test cores with a reflective test analysis. Here, students write about each question they got wrong: 1) what was their approach, 2) how they came up with the wrong answer, and 3) what they would do differently next time. Give students partial credit for each debriefed corrected answer. This empowers students by helping them become more thoughtful tests takers and reduces their stress by putting more of the process in their control.

Read carefully to what a team of cognitive psychologists says;

“Information that has been tested will be remembered better over time than information that has been restudied. This test-induced benefit is apparently stronger when repeated tests over the same information are provided. These results suggest that tests should be utilized often in educational contexts to maximize retention of information over long time periods.” (Carpenter, et al., 2008, page 446).

Encourage (even mandate) the asking of questions in the weeks and days leading up to the test. Students who are struggling academically are rarely asking the most questions in class. Researchers have found that low-achieving students are often the most reluctant to seek assistance and that a negative or fearful perception of “help seeking” is to blame (Ryan, et al. 1998).

The Ryan study involved 500 students and 25 teachers in 63 sixth-grade math classes throughout 10 Michigan middle schools. The researchers found that low-achieving students tend to perceive question asking as a sign of inability and associate it with feeling “dumb.” Conversely, high achievers with greater confidence are less likely to worry about what others think and tend to focus on the benefits of seeking help, notes the study.

Advise learners to take inventory of their projected goals, time-management skills, and study habits; and to reorganize them appropriately. Students who give their academic concerns top priority and allow ample time for studying (including exam preparation) often perform best (Yaworski, 1998). If help is needed in establishing a personal study schedule, or if chronic procrastination persists, encourage learners to seek the advice of a guidance counselor or related professional.

Next, in the days coming up to the testing, students often get stressed (the teachers are, of course, totally relaxed!)

The three best ways to get kids more relaxed are each about control (it’s the counterbalance to stress.) First, help them take more control over the process of making choices for when, what type of, and where to prepare. (You pre-select the options.) For example, let them choose which content sections they want to prep for first. Second, teach them self-regulation strategies such as slow deep breathing to relax. Third, teach them how to reframe the testing experience, to help them be more in charge of it. Tell your students, “Tests are a school’s way to assess their schooling success. We want to find out what we’re doing well and what we need to do differently. The tests tell us what changes we can make to develop your brain as best as possible.” Read more

Water Bottles in the Classroom: A Smart Move or Another Colossal Hoax?

Over the years, all of us have heard how important it is to have kids drink water at school. That reminds me of a true story…

On one of my trips out to a school district, I was picked up at the airport by the local superintendent. We struck up a conversation on the way to the event. Since my topic was brain-related, the superintendent was gushing about how his district was now “brain compatible.”

I said, “Really? That’s great. Tell me what you’re doing.”

With a good deal of pride, he said, “We have water bottles on every kid’s desk.”

At that point I politely replied, “That’s nice.”

But IS it “nice”?

Is water on the desks really a good idea?

The Research

Years ago, I often repeated things I had heard from others who I thought were experts. But many were self-proclaimed experts who were also repeating what they had heard from other experts. Put enough experts together in one room and you have… grander delusions. Bottom line is that I was, at times, too careless and failed to go dig for the quality research. I know better now. Today, lean in close and read the truth about drinking water.

First, many of the studies promoted as “evidence” to support more hydration have 100 or fewer in the study. That’s too risky to draw much of a conclusion from, and has too few participants to generalize. In our first study, 58 children aged 7-9 years old were randomly allocated to either a group that received additional water or to a group that did not. Results showed that children who drank additional water rated themselves as significantly less thirsty than the control group and they performed better on visual attention tasks. Huh? What about every other type of task? That’s the best we can do? (Edmonds, et al. 2009)

Many questions arise from these studies.

For example, were the following variables teased out about the study:

What was the weather like during the study? How much humidity? Temperature?

What had the participants eaten? High or low water content foods?

Did the participants have any strenuous physical activity prior to the study?

What about water quality? Cultural favorite drinks? How about peer pressure?

Another study (same author) studied younger kids. This study had just 23 kids, aged 6-7 years old. There were improvements with the water group, who had less thirst and more “happiness.” They were also better on visual attention and visual search skills, but not visual memory or visuomotor performance (Edmonds, et al. 2009.) Again, too small of a sample, and the results are hardly dramatic.

Another recent study of 24 volunteers found that with a 24-hour dehydration, cognitive-motor function is preserved, but mood and reaction time deteriorated. No big shock there. There was a 2.6% decrease of body weight (woo-hoo!) during water deprivation (Szinnai, et al. 2005.) The most interesting part of this study was that females showed greater diminished capacity than males. In a follow-up study (Szinnai, et al. 2007) moderate dehydration induced by water restriction had no effect on blood pressure or heart rate reactivity to mental stress. However, stress-induced states become fortified during dehydration in females, but not males.

I was unable to find, anywhere in the medical journals, any scientific evidence that says, “Drink eight glasses of water per day.”
In fact, getting too much water may be just as bad as not enough (Valtin, 2002.) In one study, when initial thirst was high, the more water ingested, the higher the performance. When initial thirst was low, the more water ingested, the poorer the performance. This reminds us NOT to go overboard with pushing water on students every ten minute. A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. But make the water available, don’t push it on them.

There are, however, two additional issues to consider. One, children from lower income families cannot afford a constant supply of quality bottled water from home. It’s expensive and it’s no better than most tap water. Because of this, I suggest schools ensure all drinking fountains work well and have good water.

But wait; there’s more…

What about the studies on… Read more

Student Engagement Tips to Try

Each week we’ll publish tips on Sunday to hep jump start and stimulate your classroom. The tips will also demonstrate how simple engagement strategies can pay big dividends in the classroom…

Stop reading information to students.

Give them a role. Every day, multiple students can have the roles of morning announcements, previews of coming attractions or reviewing key points from the day. When they do the reviewing, other students can repeat after them to boost recall.

Instead of you reading it, condense it into a short paragraph. Then show the information, followed by a simple question. For quick recall, use a multiple choice. For more in-depth processing, use open ended Qs. Our frontal lobes release dopamine when we complete challenging problems. It’s nature’s way of
rewarding us for doing well. Plus, the dopamine that is released will then support tasks that require working memory.

Repetitive gross motor movement.

You may have noticed that when you go for a walk, it’s hard to return in a bad mood. Activities that stimulate repetitive gross motor movement include swimming, walking, cycling and marching. In general, it takes from three to ten minutes to get the dopamine going, depending on a host of variables. If students need a “pick-me-up” send them out on a ten-minute walk with a structured positive conversation. They’ll return in better state of mind. Add music to the student’s marching time. Great marching music includes: Anchors away or the Triumphal March (Verdi).

Look on Your Neighbor’s Paper

Many of the tools of engagement are, rightfully so, tools for increased accountability. This one is simple, “Look on to your neighbors paper. If they wrote down all three points we just mentioned, congratulate them and raise your hand.” Or, “Look on to your neighbor’s paper. If they have less than the last three items we’ve just reviewed, tell them what their missing ones are.”

Also, check out our summer workshop on Tools For Maximum Engagement here. It’s filling fast and is one of our more powerful teacher workshops.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Martin Tod

Factors that Contribute Most to Student Achievement

Brain Based Learning

What Does the Neuroscience Say Are the Factors that Contribute Most to Student Achievement?

Almost every teacher I meet has a theory about kids. Well, actually, he or she has many theories.

But if I ask the million dollar question, “What is it that contributes most to student learning?” the teacher usually gets quiet. I like that response. It’s good to be thoughtful about questions like that. The great news is that recent neuroscientific studies are opening up the brain of the student and telling us what matters most in learning. You might be surprised at what they’re finding.

While a HUGE numbers of variables may influence the brain on the macro level (physical environment, food, safety in the classroom, interest in the content, etc.) it turns out that very few factors influence student learning inside our head at the micro level. In fact, the number of factors is so few, I highlighted them in the new ASCD book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind. But let’s say you want just a few goodies from the book. I trust you; I know you’ll want to buy it soon!

Let me share just four with you.  Let’s start with how we learn.

While we naturally and accidentally “pick up” millions of bits of information daily, our focused attention is what tells our brain to “log this in and save it.” Part of the brain tells you to “save” the learning, the nucleus basalis. This skill, locked in attention, can be taught. Second, our brain has to be able to process what is occurring, making the processing and reasoning pathways highly valuable. This skill can be, and must be, taught. But much of these tasks ask you to juggle more than one item in your working memory.

The strength of the working memory is another critical variable in learning. This must also be taught. Each of these neural events has to occur in a sequence, so it turns out that the temporal ordering of every step is critical.

Now, I’m the first to admit that other variables come into play. We know that students need to feel safe to take risks and a host of other variables. But the so-called environmental factors each influence these neural events. For example, unless I feel safe in the classroom, I might not be able to pay attention. So, for the moment, trust me. Those four neural events would be near the top of any neuroscientist’s list for learning. How do I know that? What makes me so sold on those four? Well, you know I love the research, so here it is.

First, the science is solid when you consider each system separately. But they work synergistically. When one of them is off, others falter. That’s why kids with serious AD/HD (low executive function) struggle in all areas academically.

Now, the information I’m going to share with you is exceptionally powerful. However, only 1 in 100 educators who reads email this will actually implement these findings. Why? In spite of the solid science behind what I am sharing with you and, in spite of the “miracles” that these applications can produce in your kids, many of the policy-makers have gotten so lost in filling out forms, inept mandates, feel-good “professional” communities, that they forgot the real goal of education: prepare kids for the real world with social skills and thinking skills.

OK, enough of that. What can you do to boost these four brain functions? Read more