Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Highlights

Each year before Christmas our blog’s done in rhyme

Some are just awful and others are fine

We like this tradition and hope you do too

As we share this year’s highlights – well, only a few

We’ve spoken to parents; we’ve helped to train teachers

No matter the group, there is one common feature

They all seek to know how each student’s mind

Can best be engaged to help them do fine

 How all students' challenges help shape what they need

And how strengths can be used to engage and succeed

We’ve traveled to schools in all parts of our nation

As part of a project on School Transformation

Along with our colleagues we saw changes in action

And are working to help these ideas to gain traction

We’ve met many students and helped to explain

The strengths and the challenges that make up their brains

Both students and parents were heartened to hear

The steps they could take to improve the school year

We’ve visited schools to observe kids we’ve assessed

Since sometimes the classroom gives the view that’s the best

To see them in class with their teacher and peers

Can give a perspective beyond what we get here

Our work with grad students continues to grow

Future doctors and others find even they need to know

How to use learning strategies to help them to succeed

And master the skills their profession will need

We’re grateful to teachers, to parents, and kids

Who’ve worked with and trusted us and liked what we did

The holidays loom and we’re off ‘til next year

And we wish to you the gifts of  Peace and Good Cheer!

photo credit: asenat29 via flickrcc

The Yellin Center will close between Christmas and New Year's and will re-open on January 4, 2016. We wish you all a happy holiday and look forward to blogging again next year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

How Human Learning Can Help Technology

Many of our past blogs have focused on ways in which technology can help learning, but here’s a twist: This blog is about how the understanding of human learning can help technology.

Gary Marcus is a psychology professor at New York University and founder of a company called Geometric Intelligence. His aim is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) that is more sophisticated and efficient than currently available AI. Driving his work is the belief that creating good AI entails understanding how young children learn new concepts and generalize. As a trained scholar of human cognition, as well as father to an inquisitive two-year-old boy, Marcus is well versed in the underpinnings of his model.

Commonly, AI algorithms have been developed with a “deep learning” approach, modeled on the way that neurons and synapses in the brain change in response to new information after encountering many examples. Such technology has enabled pattern detection abilities, such as face recognition and word identification. Marcus recognizes that, unlike deep learning technology, toddlers are able to abstract conceptual generalizations from relatively little data. The brain stores and manipulates learned rules so that it can arrive at useful conclusions from few examples. For example, children quickly grasp and apply grammatical rules, while learning the exceptions by rote. Marcus and his colleagues have been coupling this understanding with probabilistic algorithms to take artificial intelligence in new directions.


This is a good reminder that as much as we may recognize cognitive challenges that can benefit from technological assistance, the brain is an amazingly sophisticated tool that technology is only beginning to emulate.

Image credit:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Personal Learning Networks

Here at The Yellin Center, in addition to our work with K-12 students, we also work with college-level and professional learners. We also provide professional development for organizations and schools looking to integrate our neurodevelopmental model into their practices. We know that adult learners, similar to young students, benefit from a diversified, personalized learning experience.

We also understand that teaching adults can differ in several ways from how we typically instruct children. The theories that underpin andragogy, the method by which we teach adults, explicitly states the importance of fostering a deep rooted motivation to learn, utilizing hands-on learning experiences and offering learners a choice in what to learn. Therefore, when working with mature learners one wants to promote an environment of self-determination where learners are finding answers to real world problems they face in their everyday lives. Instead of teaching adults what to learn, the goal is to teach them how to learn, as well as how to seek out answers to their own personal needs. As such, it is vital to provide mature learners with materials, resources and strategies that can help promote learning after the workshop or initial learning has occurred.

One way to promote learning after the initial experience is to connect learners to personal learning networks (PNL), which are communities of learners who are looking to build a shared skill set. PNL’s promote collaboration and a sharing of skills among eager learners. They spark conversation and connect learners to experts in the area in which they want to grow. 

In the truly global and digital society we live in today there are several ways to connect learners to established learning communities. Social Media is a great place to start. PNL’s covering a range of topics exist on platforms such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn. The best way to get plugged in is to search key words associated with what you want to learn about, using LinkedIn or Twitter search. Explore the results and beginning following people who are discussing your interests. When you are ready, you can start sharing your own ideas, tweets and resources with the communities you become a part of. If you are interested in creating your own professional learning network, there are sites such as Ning, which allow you to create your own, personal social network.

There are also several communities, both online and in the real world, in which adult learners can participate. For example, anyone working in education often finds Edutopia’s community an incredibly valuable resource. Alternatively, for educators looking to boost tech skills, ISTE’s forums are a great place to start.  IT professionals will find a great community at Cisco Learning Network. Professionals across disciplines will be able to find a group and resources at Reddit or MeetUp. Professional development isn’t just about building functional skills for workers. As a leader of professional development, you want to inspire curiosity, and motivate professionals to discover new ways to learn and seek out how to integrate new ideas into their professional practice.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Merits of Digital Textbooks

The advent and increasing ubiquity of digital text books has revolutionized the reading process for students. Learners with print disabilities have especially benefited from the inclusion of accessibility features, such as larger text and text-to-speech. In addition, due to the digital nature of e-textbooks, the reading habits of readers can be monitored and stored. The learning analytics gleaned from certain digital textbooks provide academics with a wealth of meaningful data to explore and analyze for trends.

For example, a new study from Iowa State University examined the habits of students using digital textbooks from CourseSmart. Researchers compiled an “engagement index,” based on students’ highlighting and minutes spent reading. Further, they explored the number of days a student spent reading. The study concluded that both the aforementioned factors were strong indicators of academic success. However, when controlling for past academic achievement, the subject matter, course, instructor, and the number of days students read provided a much stronger predictor of performance. 

The researchers postulate that the findings of this study could help professors identify struggling students as they worked through assignments. By exploring the digital textbook metrics, professors are able to evaluate a student’s time on task, as well as their level of active learning engagement as evidenced by the frequency of their highlighting and notations. Professors could potentially use the learning analytics gleaned from digital readings as a formative assessment measure to check in on how students are faring with the academic material. However, it should be noted that in this study, while highlighting was related to final course grades, it was not statistically significant correlation. 

An article on digital textbooks and the Iowa State university study wouldn’t be complete without a note about CourseSmart, a publisher of eTextbooks and digital resources. Textbooks and resources created by CourseSmart include features that promote active reading and higher engagement. Students are able to take notes and highlight text within the digital text, as well as copy and paste to an external document for easy report writing. Students are able to use the multiple viewing functions or search the text for key words or ideas to help them better analyze and comprehend the text. CourseSmart e-textbooks can be read both online and offline, on a full range of device from laptops to phones to tablets. Further, several assistive technologies have been embedded into CourseSmart resources to meet the needs of vision and hearing impaired users. 

Missing from this study is an exploration of the privacy issues raised by this kind of analysis. The researchers note that they obtained online consent from the students whose reading patterns they examined to have their studying included and analyzed in the research project. However, as the researchers note, "The advent of digital textbooks ... affords educators the opportunity to unobtrusively collect learning analytics data from student use of reading materials." They go on to note that, "The CourseSmart analytics platform was developed to address [specific] steps of the learning analytics process. First, the analytics platform captures data on interactions with the digital textbook in real-time. Second, the platform translates the raw data into a calculated Engagement Index and reports this information to faculty." We wonder if the students using these digital books are fully aware that their professors have the capacity to see what they read, how often, and whether or not they highlight their work. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

The New SAT - Winding Up Our Series

Today we present the last post of our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Part II discussed how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and looked at minor changes to the reading sections. Part III examined changes to the writing and math sections and discussed the importance of reading for all aspects of the test. This final post of the series gives our recommendations about what students should do in the face of these changes.

Our Recommendations

First, we suggest that students who plan to take the SAT this year register to take the original test on January 23rd, the last time it will be offered. Students who sit for the old test can take advantage of tried-and-true test preparation materials. Also, the content is likely more familiar to them. Another reason not to wait for March: results for the first reconfigured SAT won’t be available until May, which is about twice as long as students usually have to wait. The deadline to register for the January test date is December 28th, so don’t delay!

Remember that students can take the SAT multiple times, and that colleges consider only their highest scores. Applicants can even combine their best scores on the math and verbal sections for the highest possible composite, so there’s no need to worry if your teenager nails the math portion on one test but aces the verbal section on another; the highest scores will simply be added together. With this in mind, we suggest that high school juniors, seniors, and maybe even sophomores who can spare the time and money may want to sit for the January test, even if they haven’t devoted too much time to studying. Because of the comparatively limited exposure many students have had to the CCSS, they may fare better on the old test than on the redesigned version. If they don’t score as well as they’d hoped, they can always test again; the poor scores won’t be considered.

In terms of preparing for the new test, keep a few things in mind:
  • Tutors, test preparation centers, and books are going to lag behind a little here. Though practice versions of the new test are available from the College Board’s website, no one has actually seen the real thing yet, so the test prep industry will need time to review the new exam and prepare effective study materials. Students who can’t test in January will probably want to skip the March test date if possible; waiting a while will allow time for the production of better preparation resources.
  • According to test tutors cited in The New York Times, the best way to prepare for the new SAT is to read. A lot. Students should read deeply and widely, meaning that they need to read in a thoughtful, critical way, and that they should dip into various genres. A fantasy novel habit or an addiction to the sports page won’t cut it, since passages on the test will be from various genres. And those who want to prepare for the test should practice reading shorter passages--rather than novels--that they can discuss and analyze with someone who can give them feedback and push their thinking further. 
  • Whether it’s a vocabulary quiz, the SAT, or the MCAT, gaining familiarity with a test’s format is enormously helpful. Those preparing to take either version of the SAT should know how many sections there are and how long they’ll get for each. They should understand which materials they will be allowed (e.g. scratch paper, calculator, etc.). Most importantly, they should have an idea of what the questions themselves will look like. So far, the only preparation materials available come from the College Board itself; find sample questions here. In addition, four full-length practice tests are available so that students can simulate test day. We suggest taking the first without time constraints, then looking for an error pattern and studying accordingly. Take the second or third test with a timer after studying strategically. 
  • Finally, students with special learning needs must make sure that their certifications for accommodations are up to date. The new SAT will require a tremendous ability to focus without interruption for long periods. Extra time could make a critical difference for those with attention difficulties. Students who struggle with decoding will want to use readers to help them access the test material so they can devote more mental energy to comprehension. Parents or teachers of younger children who have concerns should remember that when it comes to getting necessary accommodations on the SAT, earlier assessment and diagnosis is better. A young person with a history of receiving accommodations is much more likely to be granted what she needs for the SAT than someone who is given a formal diagnosis just before the test. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The New SAT - Part III of our Series

Today we present the third part of our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards. Part II discussed  how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections. Today's post will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test. The final post of the series will give our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Writing Section is Optional, but Get Ready to Read

One of the biggest differences between the new test and the old one is that the writing section is now optional. This means a return to the old 1600-point scale, with an additional 800 points possible for an excellent essay. An elective writing portion is great news for both students who struggle to compose a strong essay under time constraints and those who feel fatigued after a long day of testing. While the old test took three hours and 45 minutes to complete, without the essay section the new test will take three hours. Those who wish to write the essay will sit for an extra 55 minutes.

Students who opt to try the essay in hopes that a strong score will wow colleges should know that this portion of the test is just as much about reading as it is about writing. Test-takers must read a passage - samples provided by the College Board are between 650 and 700 words - and then write an evidence-based essay (meaning that it makes specific references to the passage) explaining how the author “builds an argument.” In the past, students were scored on their ability to present and explain their own stance inspired by a reading passage; now they must critique someone else’s work, leaving their own opinions and conclusions out of it and merely presenting facts. Since reading critically goes a step beyond basic comprehension, it’s safe to stay that a student’s shaky reading skills will likely impact his or her writing score.

Virtually all college applications require at least one essay, so students who wish to showcase their writing skills will certainly have other chances to do so. Those who benefit from the drafting process may want to skip the SAT’s essay and concentrate on submitting a polished, outstanding application essay instead.

Math: Broader Focus, Longer Questions, Limited Use of Calculators

In addition to lots and lots of algebra, students will find more trigonometry and statistics on the new SAT and less geometry. Although statistics is generally not a popular course for high school students, it is a concentration that’s built into the math curriculum across grade levels in schools that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, so students who study CCSS-aligned curriculum should find the content familiar. But young people who don’t get as far as trigonometry will suffer. The more math courses a test-taker has under his or her belt, the better, so those who didn’t begin algebra until high school will be at a disadvantage.

Reading plays a large role in the math portion of the test, too. Instead of simply asking students to solve equations, many math problems on the SAT require them to analyze mathematical situations described in passages. Alternatively, some questions are comprised of fairly short statements about equations, but each answer choice is presented as a dense sentence. Students may wish to practice underlining and making notes while reading word problems to help narrow their focus to the essential elements presented.

Many students in high-level math courses have become accustomed to using calculators for every problem; teachers often reason that the students’ primary job at that level is to wrestle with complex concepts and not arithmetic. But calculators aren’t allowed on one of the math sections of the new SAT, so students would do well to leave these tools in their backpacks during the occasional homework assignment to remind themselves how to tackle equations by hand. Those who have lost some fluency with simple math facts may find that performing these rusty skills the old-fashioned way drains mental energy they need to work through complex problems on the test. Practice will help.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The New SAT - Part II of our Series

We are continuing with our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards. Today's post looks at how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections. The remaining sections will be posted later this week:
  • Part III will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test.
  • Finally, in part IV, we will provide our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Test-Taking Strategies Will be (Somewhat) Less Important

All test-takers would do well to be strategic when sitting for a high-stakes exam. But the elimination of the so-called “guessing penalty” from the SAT means that students can devote a little more focus to the new test’s content and less to its form. The previous SAT offered students five answer choices for each question. A correct answer earned a point, and students were not penalized for questions left unanswered. Each incorrect answer, however, cost test-takers a quarter of a point, so many testing prep courses urged students not to make a guess unless they could eliminate three of the five answer choices with fair certainty. This structure forced students to try to identify correct answers and calculate their odds of success simultaneously, an extra tax for active working memory.

The new SAT will present students with only four choices, and instead of incurring a penalty for wrong answers they simply won’t get credit. In our book, this difference is a good one for students because it allows them to devote their mental resources to the questions themselves, not to the format of the test. It also levels the playing field a little for students with less access to test preparation courses and materials; these young people are less likely to learn about useful testing strategies and so face a disadvantage. Students should still expect some sneaky tactics, however, such as answer choices designed to mislead the inattentive or unsure.

Reading: Small Changes

Much of the reading section looks the same as it has in the past, though there may be more informational passages and fewer texts from novels and stories. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a large emphasis on evidence-based conclusions, however, and this may be tricky for some students. For example, one question on a practice test provided by the College Board asks students to draw a conclusion, and the following question asks which part of the passage provides the best evidence for their previous answer. A student can’t get the second question right if he misses the first.

Studying for the SAT’s vocabulary questions used to entail memorizing sometimes obscure words and definitions. Instead of relying on long-term memory to answer vocabulary questions, students taking the new test will need good reading comprehension skills. The revamped exam will query students on words that are more “practical,” but in order to answer questions about their definitions, readers will have to understand how they are used in context. For example, one of the sample reading questions asks whether “intense,” as used in the passage, most nearly means “emotional,” “concentrated,” “brilliant,” or “determined.” Simply being able to define “intense” isn’t enough to answer this question; one must understand the word’s function within the text.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about reading and the new SAT, however, is that good reading skills are essential for success on the whole test, not just the language arts sections.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Our Thoughts on the New SAT

Today we begin a four-part series on changes to the SAT. We start with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards.
  • Part II will look at how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections.
  • Part III will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test.
  • Finally, in part IV, we will provide our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Part I
The SAT test has recently undergone the biggest set of changes since the writing section was introduced in 2005. The new test, which will be available for the first time on March 3, 2016, reflects the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to The New York Times. It purports to identify students who can analyze, not memorize. Should students welcome the change, or feel apprehensive? We’ll go over some of the major changes and offer some commentary about how they will affect students, particularly students with learning differences. Spoiler alert: Strong readers will bear up to the changes best.

Common Core is Underscored

The CCSS, which teach students to be critical evaluators who draw evidence-based conclusions, are heavily reflected in the new SAT. Regardless of one’s personal opinion about the controversial curriculum, it is safe to say that the transition can be challenging. Many students have struggled to meet the new standards, and many teachers, too, are engaged in a game of pedagogical trial and error.

These growing pains are natural for any school that undergoes major changes. But current students experiencing the transition are likely to see its effects reflected in their SAT scores as well as in their day-to-day lessons. Although most states that adopted the standards did so in 2010, a majority have implemented changes incrementally. Eighteen states, including New York, committed to full implementation by 2014, meaning that students who take the new SAT this year may have had only one full year exposed to the new curriculum (and taught by teachers still learning the ropes). Thirteen states will fully implement the standards during the course of this year. Nevada does not plan to implement the Common Core in full until 2016, and California will not do so until 2017. But even students in those states have an edge over those in Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, and Alaska, where the Common Core has not been adopted at all.

It is possible that this unevenness will mitigate somewhat as time passes: More students will spend more time with the new standards under the tutelage of teachers who have grown comfortable with the new expectations. But young people in states like North Dakota and Georgia, where the CCSS was fully implemented by 2013, may have an initial edge on test day.