Friday, January 30, 2009

Self-Regulation: Floating the Balloon

Self-regulation shows its influence in unusual ways. For example, a recent study found that adults who could brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand for a month were also more successful at sticking to a diet than those who could not make it through a month without brushing with their dominant hand. Why? Self-regulation, self-discipline, stick-to-itiveness.

As mentioned in previous postings, self-regulation plays an influential role in student achievement. How can we help students develop this nonacademic but critical capacity?

  • Exercise the “muscle” of self-regulation. By engaging students in activities that require delayed gratification or perseverance, we provide a self-regulation workout. Just like exercising yields slow but steady results, gradually increasing the amount of self-regulation required for tasks slowly builds self-regulation capacity.

  • Teach students stick-to-it and wait-for-it strategies, such as self-talk. The messages we consciously “speak” to ourselves influence our thinking, and our thinking influences our actions. In several recent studies, researchers have found that motivational and instructional self-talk has “small but significant effects” on “physical exertion…[and] performance” and help us stay “focused.”

  • Teach students “cognitive transformation.” Cognitive transformation involves distracting the mind by shifting the focus. For example, in the famous “marshmallow test,” some children managed to avoid eating the marshmallow by imagining it as something else—a cloud, a table, a chef’s hat. This “distraction” prolonged their ability to resist eating the marshmallow.

  • Engage students in attention training, such as listening for details, observing closely, and solving complex puzzles. Again, increasing the level and duration of attention required for success can strengthen the self-regulation “muscle.”

  • Implement a school FITNESS program. The emphasis needs to be on fitness, not on competition or learning a specific sport. Students engaged in regular physical activity score higher on self-regulation measures. When I taught in a middle school, I noticed an anecdotal correlation between high achieving students and members of the cross-country team. I always wondered what about running could influence achievement. In addition to more efficient brains, these students probably possessed high self-regulation capacity.
Self-regulation empowers potential fulfillment. While nonacademic in nature, its influence on academic achievement makes it a worthwhile classroom emphasis. It is like hot air in a balloon; the more there is of it, the higher the balloon (and student) can fly.

Sources: Duckworth, A. L. (2008). Self-discipline, IQ, and academic achievement. Presented at Learning & the Brain: Using Emotions Research to Enhance Learning. Boston (Fall 2008).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Self-Regulation: The Muscle of Achievement

Self-regulation is also known as self-discipline. Researchers describe it as the ability to consciously suppress or delay responses in order to work for a higher goal. Examples include “deliberately modulating one’s anger rather than having a temper tantrum, reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions, paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming, saving money so that it can accumulate interest in the bank, choosing homework over TV, and persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration” (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006, p. 199)

Adolescents with high self-regulation capacity outperform peers on “every academic-performance variable, including report-card grades, standardized achievement-test scores, admission to a competitive high school, and attendance” (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005, p. 941). It’s a better predictor than IQ; a student can possess a high IQ and significantly underperform due to low self-regulation capacity.

Interestingly, self-regulation is much like a muscle. First, it can be exercised and strengthened. Any task that requires ignoring and delaying reward or that requires persistence through boredom or challenge exercises self-regulation.

Second, like a muscle, self-regulation can be depleted. Have you ever lifted weights to the point of exhaustion when your muscles truly cannot complete even one more repetition? Self-regulation is similar. As an individual applies self-regulation, the “muscle” fatigues and eventually can be exhausted; the marshmallow simply must be eaten, the task simply must be stopped, the scenery simply must be changed. (By the way, this is why keeping tempting foods in the house eventually proves fatal to a diet!)

Self-regulation influences student achievement, and it can be developed. But how? How can teachers aid the self-regulation development of their students? What advice can be offered to parents?

We’ll explore these questions in the next posting.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science 16(12), 939-944.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Self-discipl;ine gives girls the edge: Gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(1), 198-208.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

IQ vs. Self-Regulation, or Why Smart Students Can Fail

Imagine the following scenario: it’s late summer and you’re diligently working to prepare your classroom for the coming school year when your administrator approaches you with an unusual class list. In the left column you notice students’ initials. The next two columns presents the scores from two different tests: one reports an IQ score, and the other reports a score for something called “self-regulation.” Your principal offers to compose your class of students with higher scores in either of the two categories.

As you examine the scores, you notice that the two do not necessarily correlate; high IQ scores do not always align with high self-regulation scores. In fact, in some cases the differences in scores are astonishing. Which do you choose—students with high IQ scores or students with high self-regulation scores? What characterizes high-achieving students? Do they simply have higher IQs?

Before deciding, consider the following: when academic performances of high IQ students are compared, the results vary. Greatly. Widely. What would cause this? Why would students with high IQ scores fail to demonstrate their potential?

Raw intelligence cannot empower success in or outside of school. Recent studies reveal that self-regulation, the “nonintellectual” ability to exert effortful control over one’s behavior, predicts academic success better than IQ. It also better predicts GPA, standardized test achievement, homework completion, television watching, and the potential for GPA gains during the course of a year. Self-regulation in children even correlates with SAT scores, adult body mass index, and even things like professional and marital satisfaction.

So, which students would you choose? All of them need teaching, of course, but if you were trying to compose a class of high achieving students, the self-regulation scores may be the better choice.

What is self-regulation? If it is critical to student achievement, how can we help students develop it? We’ll be exploring these questions in future postings.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"A-ha!": Insight and Learning

Researcher Mark Jung-Beeman, leadership and coaching expert David Rock, and author Jonah Lehrer presented the seminar “The Anatomy of an A-ha” at October’s Neuroleadership Summit in New York City. An “a-ha” is an insight, often a solution to a problem, that seems to “pop” into an individual’s mind as a whole. Insights trigger thought reorganizing, foster new connections between concepts, and often come “out of nowhere” at a time when the individual is not consciously focusing on the issue or problem the insight addresses.

Insight formation (for lack of a better term) follows a pattern. An individual becomes aware of ideas, issues, or problems that prompt additional thought. Periods of focused reflection and mysterious, unconscious processing follow. During one of these periods, the insight arrives with the feeling of, “A-ha!” fMRI scans reveal activity in various brain regions, including the right anterior temporal lobe, seconds before an insight is recognized.

Researchers believe the periods of focused reflection and unconscious processing are critical for developing insights—as if the brain needs to be consciously distracted in order to engage in the unconscious processing that ultimately produces the insight.

My experience illustrates this pattern. Many of my best ideas seem to “pop” into my head when I’m out of my office doing something totally unrelated, such as running or riding my bike. Periods of focused attention followed by seeming inattention yield the insights. (The change in scenery may also play a role, some researchers are now finding.)

How does this relate to teaching? Authentic learning mirrors insight. To learn, students need periods of focused attention and indirect or unconscious processing. You can see this in the classroom when a student raises their hand in the afternoon to let you know that they suddenly understand something you taught that morning. New connections formed in during indirect processing produce the greater understanding.

Unfortunately, time for reflection, focused and indirect, is often sacrificed for coverage. With textbooks hundreds of pages in length, teachers often feel that unless they are constantly talking, they will never “cover the textbook” within the school year. This is an unfortunate trade-off. Schools are learning institutions, and as such should model teaching that understands the necessity of reflection in learning.

Recently a teacher shared with me that using Architecture of Learning caused her to “slow down a bit” and allow the students to actually think about what was being taught. As a result, she saw more than a 60% increase in the number of students who mastered the new content over previous years when she focused on just “covering the material.”

There’s an insight worth our conscious reflection: engaging students in thought produces learning and increases achievement.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mind Hacks on Learning

The team at the Mind Hacks blog has an interesting posting on learning. Check it out here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What about Memorizing?

It’s a question I get every time I lead a training. “What about memorization? Aren’t there things kids just need to memorize?” This is usually followed by the comment, “Like the multiplication tables, for example.”

Learning’s core processes include experience (the input of new sensory data), comprehension (labeling and sorting of new data), elaboration (blending of new data and known concepts), and application (expression of understanding via communication or use). Let’s examine memorization in relation to these core processes.

Obviously, to memorize something you need data. For example, if I want students to memorize the Bill of Rights, I need to give them the data—a copy of the Bill of Rights. Students then rehearse the information, repeatedly saying the words in the correct order. They engage in comprehension with multiple rehearsals.

What if I stop there? After sufficient time for rehearsal passes, I can give the students a test that requires them to recite the Bill of Rights. Then I can move on, satisfied that, for the moment, the students have committed the data to memory.

But what is lost by stopping there? What value would the remaining core processes—elaboration and application—have? Remember that elaboration blends new data and known concepts to construct understanding. If the Bill of Rights, or any other memorized data, possesses additional value when understood, then I should proceed to engage my students in elaboration.

And understood data possesses value for application. For example, students may communicate their understanding by illustrating the Bill of Rights or identify situations in which the Bill of Rights is illustrated, violated, or could apply.

If my goal is simply getting the data memorized, getting the data into the students’ heads, then stopping with mere memorization may be acceptable. But if I want the memorized data to become a part of the students’ thinking and living, memorization is not enough. I need to engage students in constructing understanding of the new data and in seeing it/applying it in real life.

James H. Stronge (2007) reaches a similar conclusion:

Effective teachers emphasize meaning. They encourage students to respond to questions and activities that require them to discover and assimilate their own understanding, rather than to simply memorize material (Marzano et al., 1993). A study of 3rd and 8th graders found that students who received instruction that emphasized analytical, creative, and practical thinking performed better on assessments than students who received instruction that emphasized memorization or analytical thinking only (Sternberg, 2003). Eisner (2003/2004) explained that effective schools, and thus, effective teachers emphasize critical thinking, and they cultivate a propensity for applying critical thinking in order to make good judgments (p. 74).

It’s not that students do not need to memorize. It’s that memorization is insufficient for subject matter we actually want them to learn. Yes, learning involves memorizing, but memorizing does not equal learning.

References: Stronge, J. H. (2007). Qualities of effective teachers, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.