Monday, September 28, 2015

How We Learn

At The Yellin Center, we never grow tired of the subject of how we learn and the book 
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens seemed like a good one for perusal. Author Benedict Carey, a science reporter for The New York Times, presents a wealth of fascinating research regarding memory and learning, the findings of which dispel some common myths. Synthesizing the results and translating the data into practical applications, Carey elucidates some keys to academic success. A few of the misconceptions that the book dispels reflect some of the thoughts we have heard expressed by frustrated students and families. For example:

“I completely know it when I’m studying, and then I forget on the test.”

This is the fluency illusion, i.e., the belief that because we know something now, we know it well enough to know it later. Self-testing guards against this. Significantly more effective than traditional review, taking practice quizzes is a recommended way of studying. Not only does it highlight what you do and do not know, but this method (called "retrieval practice") is in and of itself a way of enhancing memory. Another suggested guard against the fluency illusion is to try to teach or summarize a concept to someone else. This can even be done in your imagination, if there is no one nearby or interested in the subject matter.

“He needs to find a single quiet space to study.”

While having such a place most often devoted to studying may be helpful, varying study environments can actually facilitate learning. New locations provide new cues, or associations, and we know that having a rich fund of associations is beneficial for being able to retrieve information from memory. The recommendation to vary how you study goes beyond considering a change in study space. New memory cues can be created by transforming information, e.g., from a given list to a personally drawn diagram.

“She needs to get off of Facebook. She has too many distractions.”

Certainly, if a student is spending the bulk of her time online at the expense of schoolwork, then this is a problem. However, distraction can actually be used as a valuable tool. In creative problem-solving or writing, it helps to step away to allow for an incubation period, in which time can help “unfix” constraining ways of thinking. Further, when taking a break from the middle of a writing assignment, you will be more attuned to related references in the environment, which may trigger ideas that facilitate the remainder of your writing.

“There is so much material to learn. I should probably sleep less and study more.”

Sleep is too important to sacrifice. It sharpens memory and skills, improving retention and comprehension of what you learned the day before.

“I wish I didn’t forget so much.”

Forgetting can be frustrating, but keep in mind that forgetting is an important aid rather than the enemy of learning. With all of the information we are inundated with daily, it is necessary that the brain apply a filter and block out relatively unimportant information.

“I probably just need to go over it and over it more times in a row.”

Interleaving, or studying an interspersed variety of related tasks, is more conducive to learning than studying just one thing at a time. Varied practice forces you to internalize general rules, and thereby enhances transfer. While skills may quickly improve after focused repetition, they tend to then plateau. While varied practice produces a slower apparent rate of improvement in each session, it yields a greater and more durable accumulation of learning over time.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

New Guidance on Testing Accommodations

Standardized exams -- SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and others -- are  "gateways to educational and employment opportunities" and the entities that offer these tests are to required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to offer these exams in a manner accessible to persons with disabilities.

The ADA came into being in 1990 and was amended in 2008 in an effort by Congress to overturn the impact of several judicial decisions that narrowed its intended scope. New Regulations implementing the revised ADA were adopted in 2010.

Despite the revised regulations, there has continued to be resistance on the part of testing agencies, especially the Law School Admissions Council, which oversees the LSAT, to  extending accommodations to students with disabilities. Even where there has been no pattern of resistance to offering accommodations, confusion about what should be offered and to whom has raised questions for schools, testing agencies, and students.

 The Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has noted that they continue "to receive questions and complaints relating to excessive and burdensome documentation demands, failures to provide needed testing accommodations, and failures to respond to requests for testing accommodations in a timely manner."

In response to these questions and complaints, the Department of Justice has just released new guidelines for testing accommodations.  Among the highlights of this document are the following:

  • A person with a history of academic success may still be a person with a disability who is entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA
  • Any documentation if required by a testing entity in support of a request for testing accommodations must be reasonable and limited to the need for the requested testing accommodations
  • Proof of past testing accommodations in similar test settings is generally sufficient to support a request for the same testing accommodations for a current standardized exam or other high-stakes test
  • An absence of previous formal testing accommodations does not preclude a candidate from receiving testing accommodations
  • Testing entities should defer to documentation from a qualified professional who has made an individualized assessment of the candidate that supports the need for the requested testing accommodations. A testing entity should generally accept such documentation and provide the recommended testing accommodation without further inquiry
Every student who anticipates taking a standardized test, every educator and administrator who works with such students, and every testing service that administers such tests should take the time to carefully review these guidelines. They are clear, concise, and very specific about what they do -- and do not -- require. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Not? Celebrate: Punctuation!

This Thursday, September 24th, is National Punctuation Day! If you’re like us, this is a day to celebrate. After all, those little dots, lines, and squiggles add important meaning to texts that words couldn’t on their own. Of course, not everyone is as passionate as we are about punctuation. Here are some fun ways for teachers and parents to drum up a little enthusiasm with young writers.

  • Personify Punctuation – To help kids understand the tone those little marks imply, invent a short description of the personal characteristics each mark might have if it was brought to life. (This can be done in writing or as part of a discussion.) Perhaps the question mark is a whiny three-year-old who hates following the rules and needs justification for everything. The exclamation point might be a cheerleader. 

  • Draw It Out Make posters or pictures to show each mark’s meaning artistically. For a group, assign different marks to different students, or a have a single child come up with images for all of the marks. In a classroom, these can be displayed; at home, these can go into a resource binder or on the wall near the child’s homework spot. Perhaps the period is a stop sign. Maybe red and yellow should be used in imagery for the exclamation point to show excitement and urgency. 

  • Take It to the Stage – Play a guessing game with kids just learning the basic punctuation marks. The adult should set up the game by choosing some simple words, then writing an exclamation point, a period, and a question mark on slips of paper to put into a paper bag. To play, the child must draw a mark from the bag, then say the designated word (“Yes.” “Me?” “Go!”) in the tone that fits the punctuation. The other player(s) should guess the mark. 

  • Make it Meaningful Of course, the reason punctuation really matters is that it affects a text’s meaning. One famous example is the (photo shopped) magazine cover that, without commas, seemed to say that celebrity chef Rachael Ray enjoys cooking her family and her pets.Another comma example that spawned many memes is the sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma!” whose meaning changes rather dramatically if the comma is removed. Or check out the way the Oxford, or serial, comma changes the meaning of a sentence in this popular meme, which features a rhinoceros and two of the United States’ most beloved presidents. You get the idea. Get kids talking: how does punctuation shape the meaning of their own writing? How would that meaning change if they were to choose different marks instead?

  • Ask an ExpertOlder students may enjoy these pieces  by well-established authors on punctuation.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Breakthrough Junior Challenge

There do not seem to be any shortages of exciting educational challenges lately. Our previous blog discussed the upcoming Global Math Challenge, sponsored by Sony Global Education. Also coming up is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, another international competition. Contestants ages 13 to 18 have the opportunity to create short videos explaining a mathematical or scientific concept. Prize money will go to the winner as well as to his or her school, with a top individual prize of $250,000.

This initiative is supported by Breakthrough Prizes along with Khan Academy, a resource we often recommend to our students. Khan Academy offers instructional videos and practice exercises that students can use to bolster their understanding and skills. A contest encouraging students to create their own videos turns this learning modality on its head and offers a unique opportunity for rich academic engagement and creativity. Submissions are being accepted through October 7th and the winning video will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on November 8th.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Global Math Challenge to Test Math Skills

Want a fun, motivating way to push your students’ math skills? Sony Global Education is sponsoring the Global Math Challenge –an online math challenge held worldwide. The tech giant states that while “looking at math as a sport that everyone can take part in, [they] decided to create a worldwide math contest.” There will be questions for children and adults alike that encourage mathletes of all ages to flex their logical and critical thinking muscles. The challenge is segmented into like-age groups to ensure students are competing against like-aged peers.

Taking the math challenge is free, but if you want your global ranking it will cost you twelve dollars - unless you sign up using Edmodo Connect, a feature that enables login to third-party applications using Edmodo credentials. Edmodo is an app that is free for students and teachers and connects them with each other and the technology needed in the classroom.Sony Global Education has also made Global Math Challenge materials available on Edmodo Spotlight

At the end of the event, top scorers will earn special certificates to acknowledge their hard work and accomplishment. The tests are available in English, Japanese and Chinese. The questions were created by the Japan Prime Math Committee that has infused beautiful illustrations into each task to help math fans put the math puzzles into a real world context. The test creators share that these “images can help people to visualize problems and quickly come to conclusions on their own terms.”

This isn’t the first competition hosted by Global Math Challenge; the first English-Chinese challenge was held in March of this year, when over 22,000 students participated! This year’s Global Math Challenge kicks off September 27th. So head over to the Global Math Challenge website to sign up today!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Changes to LSAT Accommodations

Back in May 2014, we wrote about a Consent Decree from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, which changed the rules for individuals with disabilities seeking accommodations to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The Consent Decree provided for the  Law School Admission Council (LSAC) to pay $7.73 million in penalties and damages to compensate over 6,000 individuals nationwide who applied for testing accommodations on the LSAT over the preceding five years. The decree also required comprehensive reforms to LSAC’s policies and ended its practice of “flagging” LSAT score reports for test takers with disabilities who receive extended time as an accommodation. The Consent Decree provided that a panel of experts selected by the parties to the lawsuit which resulted in the Consent Decree would determine how to change procedures for accommodations under the LSAT to comply with state and federal law.

The Consent Decree gave the parties the right to appeal to the District Court if the decisions of the panel of experts "are believed to violate the ADA or its implementing regulations, or California law where applicable, or to conflict with the provisions of [the Consent] Decree."

The LSAC did appeal to the Court, which upheld a few of its objections but, in a 44 page decision, rejected most of them and upheld almost all the changes to LSAC's testing accommodation procedures recommended in the experts' report.

Of crucial importance to anyone seeking accommodations to take the LSAT, the Justice Department notes that  LSAC will implement the upheld recommendations starting immediately for testing accommodation requests related to the December 2015 LSAT administration and later administrations. Anyone even considering taking the LSAT and applying for accommodations needs to read the full decision and the other documents linked above regarding this important change in policy.

Thanks to our colleague Jonathan Corchnoy, Esq. for bringing this decision to our attention.

photo credit: Tracie Hall via Flickr