Leveraging the “fresh start effect”

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul

Here are a couple of things you already know about resolutions: One: We customarily make them around New Year’s. Two: These resolutions often fail.

And here’s something about resolutions that you probably didn’t know: You can use them in conjunction what psychologists call “the fresh start effect” to effectively generate motivation throughout the year.

Fascinating research conducted by Wharton professor Katherine Milkman and her colleagues shows that we are more likely to start a diet, go to the gym, and make commitments to reach our goals around the start of a new year. But, the researchers found, we’re also more likely to make such moves toward self-improvement aroundother “temporal landmarks”: a birthday, a holiday, the start of a new semester, a new month, or even just a Monday, the start of a new week. Even without all the hoopla around New Year’s, we seem to seek out occasions to declare a fresh start, and these fresh starts work—for a while, at least.

Milkman and her colleagues suggest that there are two processes operating here:

• These milestones create for us a new “mental accounting period,” with the accompanying sense that past lapses are behind us and we’re facing a clean slate. A line has been drawn between our fallible “past self” and our as-yet unsullied “present self,” which we (ever the optimists!) expect will do better.

• Temporal landmarks also prompt us to momentarily turn our gaze away from the daily grind, toward a larger vision of what we want for ourselves and how we can achieve it.

These processes constitute powerful psychological levers that we can use on ourselves again and again. It doesn’t seem like they should keep working, but they do—because we never stop being motivated to see ourselves in a positive light, and therefore to create distance from our past failures. We get a little boost in motivation each time we embark on a fresh start—not a lot, but enough to get us to the next temporal milestone.

So, if you’ve already fallen down on the resolutions you made on January 1st, don’t despair. Just look for minimally meaningful occasions to “start over” going forward: the first day of spring, the first day back from vacation, the first day of a new fiscal quarter. In fact, a fresh-start opportunity is just four days away: the shiny new Monday that awaits at the beginning of next week.

Making sure feedback is heard and used

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul

The research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets has become familiar to many teachers and parents—familiar enough that you’ll often hear an adult say to a child, “You’re so smart! Er—I mean—you worked so hard on that!” (Dweck’s message that we should praise effort and not inherent ability has been widely accepted, it seems, but for many of us has not yet become automatic.)

A passing acquaintance with the notion of mindset—though an excellent start—doesn’t fully convey the richness of Dweck’s idea, however. The influence of mindset shows up in students’ thinking and behavior in so many ways, one of which I want to focus on today. That is the effect of mindset on how students handle feedback.

Understanding and acting on feedback is absolutely critical to the process of mastering academic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, although parents and teachers maygive feedback to students, that doesn’t necessarily mean that students get it—that is, get it in the sense of really listening to it, striving to understand it, and applying it to their subsequent efforts.

One of the big determinants of what students do with feedback, it turns out, is mindset. Students with a growth mindset (that is, they believe that ability can grow through effort) attend to feedback and put it to work. Students with a fixed mindset (that is, they believe ability is fixed and unchangeable) avoid or ignore feedback. One of my favorite demonstrations of this phenomenon is a neuroscience study conducted in the lab of Jennifer Mangels, a research scientist at Columbia University.

The authors of the study (who include Carol Dweck) used a technology called event-related potentials to monitor students’ brain activity while they answered factual questions and then received feedback on their answers; following the feedback session, the students were given a a surprise retest that included all of the questions they answered incorrectly the first time.

Students who held a growth mindset got more answers right on the surprise retest—suggesting they’d made better use of the feedback. Evidence from the brain-activation monitors showed something even more interesting, as related by cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in his book Ungifted:

“In terms of brain waves, participants with a fixed mindset showed an enhanced response in the frontal pole region to negative feedback about their ability. Because this area of the brain is associated with increased attention, it appears that the fixed theorists were more focused on what they got wrong than what they could do to improve. Those with a fixed mindset also appeared to engage in less sustained and deep encoding of the information as reflected in the duration of activation of the inferior frontal-temporal region, a region known to play a role in the activation of preexisting knowledge in memory.

“In contrast, the brain activity of those with a growth mindset suggested that they paid attention to the feedback and were more deeply engaged in processing that feedback.”

So students with growth mindsets and fixed mindsets actually process feedback information differently. To me, this is an argument for building a growth mindset intervention right into our testing routine (see an earlier post of mine on this idea,here). Of course, we need also to give students timely and detailed feedback on tests—something that happens all too rarely, especially with standardized tests.

An affirmative testing approach would offer students such feedback, and ensure that they make the most of it by promoting a growth mindset. To that end, here are two resources you may find helpful:

• The new, free Mindset Kit resources made available by PERTS, a research group at Stanford.

• The e-course I’ve developed, called Turn Testing Into Learning, which includes a lesson on incorporating growth-mindset practices into assessment. You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clicking here.

Please send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

All my best,

Annie
Annie

Students Reading E-Books Are Losing Out, Study Suggests

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

By ANNIE MURPHY PAUL

 APRIL 10, 2014

Could e-books actually get in the way of reading?

That was the question explored in research presented last week by Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, an associate professor at West Chester University, and her spouse, Jordan T. Schugar, an instructor at the same institution. Speaking at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, the Schugars reported the results of a study in which they asked middle school students to read either traditional printed books or e-books on iPads. The students’ reading comprehension, the researchers found, was higher when they read conventional books.

In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, the Schugars discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.

While their findings are suggestive, they are preliminary and based on small samples of students. More substance can be found in the Schugars’ previous work: for example, a paper they published last year with their colleague Carol A. Smith in the journal The Reading Teacher. In this study, the authors observed teachers and teachers-in-training as they used interactive e-books with children in kindergarten through sixth grade. (The e-books were mobile apps, downloadable from online stores like iTunes.)

While young readers find these digital products very appealing, their multitude of features may diffuse children’s attention, interfering with their comprehension of the text, Ms. Smith and the Schugars found. It seems that the very “richness” of the multimedia environment that e-books provide — heralded as their advantage over printed books — may overwhelm children’s limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply.

This is especially true of what the authors call some e-books’ “gimmicks and distractions.” In the book “Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Really Big Adventure,” for example, children can touch “wiggly woos” to make the creatures emit noise and move around the screen. In another e-book, “Rocket Learns to Read,” a bird flutters and sounds play in the background.

Such flourishes can interrupt the fluency of children’s reading and cause their comprehension to fragment, the authors found. They can also lead children to spend less time reading over all: One study cited by Ms. Smith and the Schugars reported that children spent 43 percent of their e-book engagement time playing games embedded in the e-books rather than reading the text.

By contrast, the authors observed, some e-books offer multimedia features that enhance comprehension. In “Miss Spider’s Tea Party,” for example, children hear the sound of Miss Spider drinking as they read the words “Miss Spider sipped her tea.” In another e-book, “Wild About Books,” sounds of laughter ring out as the reader encounters the line “Hyenas shared jokes with the red-bellied snakes.”

The quality of e-books for children varies wildly, the authors said: “Because the app market allows for the distribution of materials without the rigorous review process that is typical of traditional children’s book publishing, more caution is necessary for choosing high-quality texts.”

They advise parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen. (E-books recommended by the authors are listed below.)

Once the e-books are selected, parents and teachers must also help children use them effectively, Ms. Smith and the Schugars said. This can include familiarizing children with the basics of the device. Although adults may assume that their little “digital natives” will figure out the gadgets themselves, the researchers have found that children often need adult guidance in operating e-readers.

Parents and teachers should also help children in transferring what they know about print reading to e-reading. Children may not automatically apply reading skills they have learned on traditional books to e-books, and these skills, such as identifying the main idea and setting aside unimportant details, are especially crucial when reading e-books because of the profusion of distractions they provide.

Lastly, adults should ensure that children are not overusing e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read-to-me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and comprehension. Even without connecting to the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too often it discourages children from sounding out words on their own.

Research shows that children often read e-books “with minimal adult involvement,” Ms. Smith and the Schugars said. While we may assume that interactive e-books can entertain children all by themselves, such products require more input from us than books on paper do.

Recommended E-Books

For beginning readers

“Blue Hat, Green Hat” by Sandra Boynton

“Go, Clifford, Go!” by Norman Bridwell

“Meet Biscuit” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

“Nickelby Swift, Kitten Catastrophe” by Ben Hecht

“Miss Spider’s Tea Party” by David Kirk

“A Fine Musician” by Lucy Thomson

For fluent readers

“Slice of Bread Goes to the Beach” by Glenn Melenhorst

“Who Would Win? Killer Whale Vs. Great White Shark”by Jerry Pallotta

“Wild About Books” by Judy Sierra

“The Artifacts” by Lynley Stace and Dan Hare

Read more of the latest research on how children learn, like “How to Build Children’s ‘Print Knowledge’ While You Read Together,” and “Get Your Kids Using Their Devices to Learn — With an App Purge,” on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog. Ms. Paul is the author of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences, and “Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter,” to be published by Crown in 2015.

Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems

MindShift

 | February 25, 2014

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CCarlstead

“Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette. Should teachers, parents, and managers say of the learners in their charge, “Let them struggle”?

Allowing learners to struggle will actually help them learn better, according to research on “productive failure” conducted by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur and a co-author, Katerine Bielaczyc, applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem solving in three schools in Singapore. With one group of students, the teacher provided intensive “scaffolding”—instructional support—and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems.

Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group “significantly outperformed” the first.

The struggles of the second group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise.

In the real world, problems rarely come neatly packaged, so being able to discern their deep structure is key. But, Kapur notes, none of us like to fail, no matter how often Silicon Valley entrepreneurs praise the salutary effects of an idea that flops or a start-up that crashes and burns. So, he says, we need to “design for productive failure” by intentionally managing the way learners fail.

Kapur has identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

By allowing learners to experience the discomfort of struggle first, and the triumph of understanding second, we can ensure that they have their cake and eat it, too

Proven Study Techniques

The Brilliant Report by Annie Murphy Paul

Put down that highlighter!In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us—from schoolchildren to college students to working adults—needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have done the job for us. In a comprehensive report released earlier this year by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely examine ten learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed. Here’s a quick guide to the report’s conclusions:

The Worst
Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

The Best
In contrast to familiar practices like highlighting and rereading, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab. Take distributed practice, for example. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions, rather than engaging in one marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. Yes, more tests—but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy—despite the robust evidence supporting it—there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards. And now flash cards can be presented in digital form, via apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine. Both spaced-out learning, or distributed practice, and practice tests were rated as having “high utility” by the authors.

The Rest
The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground—not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar—so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word).

All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards. (You can browse past issues of the Brilliant Report by clicking here.)

I love to hear from readers. Please email me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com. You can also visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook. Be brilliant!

Where The Smart Kids Are

The Brilliant Blog, by Annie Murphy Paul

Friday, August 23, 2013

Note to Brilliant readers: What follows is my review of a new book by journalist Amanda Ripley, “The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way.” The review will appear on the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. I found Ripley’s book to be powerful and persuasive reading, and thought I’d share my take on it with you.—Annie

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”

The appeal of these books, which include “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” “Bringing Up Bébé” and “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”), comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing — and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We’re Americans, after all. We’re not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way, superior as they may be.

But Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic and an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation (where I am also a fellow), has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.

This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.

Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”

Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired — they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.

Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, “the $4 million teacher,” who makes a fortune as one of South Korea’s most in-demand hagwon instructors, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10 p.m. study curfew. Academic pressure there is out of control, and government officials and school administrators know it — but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a successful, prosperous life.

Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: “In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved.” Still, if she had to choose between “the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States,” she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world.” Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the knowledge and skill to compete in the global economy.

The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In the city of Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom, a bookish teenager from Pennsylvania, and discovers yet another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and those in the United States. In Tom’s hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were “the core culture.” Four local reporters show up to each football game. In Wroclaw, “sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for — or what mattered to kids’ life chances.”

It’s in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.