Tag Archives: education

The Cognitive Impact of Evaluative ‘Grade’ Letters

Priming students with “evaluative letters” (i.e. letters used to grade papers, such as A and F) has a significant influence on their performance on cognitive tests. As you can imagine, primed with an A their performance on the cognitive tests improve, while those primed with an F displayed degraded performance.

That’s what researchers found when conducting a simple test while investigating the unconscious effect of primed letters on academic performance.

It has been proposed that motivational responses outside people’s conscious awareness can be primed to affect academic performance. The current research focused on the relationship between primed evaluative letters (A and F), explicit and implicit achievement motivation, and cognitive performance. […]

Our findings suggest that students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task, and support years of research highlighting the significant role that nonconscious processes play in achievement settings.

Improving Intelligence by Knowing About Intelligence

Lecturing students on the fact that general intelligence can be improved and that certain races and genders are not naturally more intelligent than others (in-line with current research) can improve test scores–especially for members of the groups typically thought of as having limited intelligence.

It’s not just theoretical: the findings were applied successfully to schools in New York City, showing that “realizing that one’s intelligence may be improved may actually improve one’s intelligence“.

Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, many people believe that intelligence is fixed, and, moreover, that some racial and social groups are inherently smarter than others. Merely evoking these stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of these groups (such as women and Blacks) is enough to harm the academic perfomance of members of these groups. […]

Yet social psychologists [have] taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group.

For Continuous Learning and Generalisation

Stating that our “reality is out of date” and coining the term “mesofacts” for those pieces of knowledge that pass us by unawares, Samuel Arbesman shows why continuous learning and generalisation are advantageous behaviours–or at least that specialisation to the degree that it is currently encouraged is outdated.

Slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling. […]

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

So what’s this I hear about Pluto?

Mistakes on Tests Crucial to Learning

Thanks to our illusory superiority we consistently overestimate our performance on tests, and, without quality feedback, rapidly become oblivious to the gaps in our knowledge. Furthermore, many consider testing to be an ineffectual tool for assessing performance and errors to be counterproductive to learning.

Challenging this preconception is research suggesting that making mistakes on tests–and being informed of them–is an integral part of the learning process.

We tend to assume that the best way to consume and remember information is through the application of rigorous, extended study. What we fail to see, however, is that the process of trying to work through a problem to which we don’t know the answer focuses our attention on it in a way that simply studying it does not. The desire to get the answer right, and the frustration of failure, is partly to account.

But there’s another element as well. When we struggle to learn something, and fail, the moment we finally get the answer it imprints itself more deeply on our mind than it would have had struggle and failure not preceded it. […]

If I had to identify one overarching lesson from  our study it would be this: When you make mistakes, don’t just let them slip by – correct them. Create challenging learning environments, make mistakes and then learn from them.

There is much in common here with the evidence-based approach to teaching.

Being a Successful Teacher

The non-profit organisation Teach For America has, for two decades, been tracking huge amounts of data on its thousands of teachers and the results they get from their students. By mining the data, testing hypotheses and refining hiring and training practises constantly, the organisation says it is now starting to create a reliable profile of a successful teacher.

For years, Teach for America selected for something called “constant learning.” As [Steven Farr, head of training and support,] and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. […]

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work. […]

The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Other factors that indicate whether a prospect would likely become an excellent teacher:

  • A modicum of knowledge on a subject (Bachelor’s-level study predicts better results in the classroom, whereas a Master’s in Education has no impact).
  • Constantly re-evaluation.
  • Avid recruitment of students and their families into the process.
  • Ensuring that everything contributes to student learning (maintaining focus).
  • Exhaustive, purposeful planning—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome.
  • Relentless work ethic (“refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls”).
  • A track record, rather than just an attitude, of perseverance.
  • The best indicator: a measurable past performance of achievement (GPA and “leadership achievement” specifically).

Update: Cedar Riener points to a short video (3m 44s) created by his colleague, Dan Willingham, on why merit pay based on test scores is a bad idea: “there is not a way to evaluate teachers fairly by using test scores”.