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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Improving Memory Involves More Than Gimmicks

Two elderly couples were enjoying friendly conversation when one of the men asked the other, "Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?"
"Outstanding," Fred replied. "They taught us all the latest psychological techniques - visualization, association - it made a huge difference for me."

"That's great! What was the name of the clinic?"
Fred went blank. He thought and thought, but couldn't remember. Then Fred smiled and asked, "What do you call that red flower with the long stem and thorns?"

"You mean a rose?"
"Yes, that's it!" He turned to his wife. . ."Rose, what was the name of that clinic?"

Memory techniques, like visualized associations, are important for improving memory. I sometimes get chided, as in a recent commentary, for writing about things that readers think are unrelated to memory.

But memory is not independent of everything else that brains do. This includes general thinking abilities, motivation, attitudes, lifestyle, and the mental challenges that a person seeks. General health, exercise, sleep, response to stress, and diet are also important. I have elaborated on these influences on memory in my books and learning and memory blog. Research continually expands our understanding of these indirect influences on learning and memory, and I try to keep readers informed of the practical applications of these developments.

Another under-appreciated area about memory is the role of learning. As two sides of the same coin, learning and memory are interdependent. How we approach a learning task has enormous impact on how much of it we remember. These factors include study strategy, attentiveness, distractibility and cognitive interference, and organization and categorization of learning material. Likewise, how much you remember of learned material affects one’s capacity for understanding and memorizing new material. Experts in a given field have become experts because what they have memorized includes learning templates and schema that help them to be better learners than non-experts. They may have learned to increase working memory capacity, which in turn improves the ability to think and solve problems.  That is, the more they know, the more they can know.

Memory ability is multi-dimensional. The complete learner employs all the means of improving knowledge.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Your Kid May Be Smart. Just Don’t Tell Him So Too Often

Some people say that we learn best from our mistakes. But all of us know about people who never seem to learn from their mistakes. This failure to learn is most obvious with people who keep making poor decisions and lifestyle choices. The psychological explanations are many and complex.

For simplicity, let us restrict explanation to the world of education. Educational philosophy has changed a great deal in the 50 years since I was in school. Back then, for example, I had the highest grades in school, but many of my teachers went out of their way to cut me down a notch or two so I wouldn’t get conceited. Aside from the debatable question of whether that worked, the point is that today, the educational establishment has the opposite philosophy. They tend to tell all kids they are smart. I have seen elementary schools where most students are selected as “Honors Students.” I know college education professors who won’t give anything less than an A.  Why is praise so liberally applied? In part, the idea is to bolster student self-esteem. Also motivating teachers is the reluctance to admit that some kids are smarter than others. Equal outcome is the politically correct expectation. That’s why we have the No Child Left Behind law. Everybody is supposed to succeed because all are presumed equal. Of course the reality is that this is a lie, and the only way everybody achieves the same is to lower the standards to the least common denominator.

Research clearly shows that whether students learn best from their mistakes depends on a student’s self-perception. Research by Carol Dweck and colleagues at Stanford demonstrated that the students who are most likely to learn from their mistakes are those who don’t think of themselves as smart as such but smart enough to get smarter. They have a “growth mindset,” a belief system that they can get better if they will just invest the time and effort. In one of the group’s experiments, half of the students were repeatedly praised for “being smart,” and these students were not good at learning from mistakes. It is not clear why. Maybe they thought the problem was in the learning material, not in them. The other half of students were praised for effort and improvement and these students got better and made fewer mistakes. Several months later, all students repeated a standardized test, and the “smart” students’ scores dropped 20%, while the “growth mindset” students scored 30% higher.

Jason Moser followed up this idea with an experiment in which subjects performed a tedious task in which some mistakes were inevitable. Those who did best at learning from the mistakes were those who believed most strongly that they could get better at this task and make fewer mistakes. Brain electrical recordings during the task revealed two electrical signatures of the mindset, the first being an error-related negative voltage about 50 milliseconds after an error occurred, and a second positive voltage up to about a half a second later. The size of this second signal correlated with how intensely the subject paid conscious attention and was distressed by the mistake. This second signal was larger in those subjects that were the best learners, and they made even fewer mistakes as the task was repeated.

Ego is probably a factor. The “smart” students may seem to have plenty of self-esteem, but apparently failure is too painful a challenge to their ego and they find ways to rationalize or dismiss the mistakes. Students with a growth mindset may have better self-esteem, because they accept the challenge to their ego, and believe they can get better, which usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A little humility is a good thing. Most of us, even the smartest, have a lot to be humble about. There is even a book on the subject, “Why Do Smart People Make Such Stupid Mistakes.”


2. Mangels, J. A. (2006) Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. SCAN, 1, 75–86. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl013

3. Merrington, C. (2011). Why Do Smart People Make Such Stupid Mistakes, St Albans, Herts, United Kingdom: Ecademy Press.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My other blog activities

I am delighted to have so many followers. However, it is not nearly as many as I apparently have at Psychology Today, where the reader views of my posts there now total over 65,000 (see Some of my posts there are cross posts from this blog, but others are unique.

You may want to know about my other blog on excuse-making, misplaced blame, and how to grow in competence and self-esteem by dealing with deception of self and others. See

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Save Us From the Education Experts

The New Framework for K-12 Science Education. 
What They Missed.

The National Research Council of the National Academies recently released their landmark epistle, A Framework for K-12 Science Education. This book advocates the practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas that students should know at each K-12 grade level. The purpose is to influence the science educa

While I applaud the purpose, I find much to criticize about these recommendations from this august body of experts. I won’t burden you with the details on everything I find lacking, but one whole category of recommendations seems to have been overlooked. Their guidelines say almost nothing about brain and behavior. Students are humans, and the most distinctive and important feature of being human is the brain and the behavior it controls. Why don't we require students to understand more about their brain and behavior, particularly as to the relationships to social interactions, emotions, and learning and memory? This is the one category of human experience where children especially need guidance and education. And in this category something that is especially applicable to school children is the science about learning and memory. We tell school children WHAT to learn (much of which is irrelevant to their life at the moment), but not HOW to learn. That is really bizarre. U.S. education needs to be rescued from the clutches of the establishment “experts.”

Bill Klemm
Author of e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fix Bad Federal Education Policy

Fix Bad Federal Education Policy

Congress is now going through the ritual of tweaking the No Child Left Behind law for the nation’s schools. The law is vigorously opposed by both teacher unions and the TEA party. That should tell you all you need to know about this bad legislation. Of course the reasons for opposition are quite different, but all have a large degree of validity. Teachers don’t like bureaucrats judging them and their schools, and the TEA party thinks we have too much federal government intrusion in general.

The law, however tweaked by revision, is fatally flawed by its basic assumptions. Foremost is the fantasy that government should provide not only equal opportunity but equal outcome. The only way you can get all students to have equal learning is to dumb down the curricula, which is what is done. Schools cater to the lower performing students at the expense of good students. For example, over the last two decades an analysis by the Wall Street Journal revealed that the lowest-performing students have shown clear gains in test scores but little improvement for other students.

A second flaw is that the law ignores the extraordinary range of mental development in children. Some students cannot be salvaged at a given grade level. Moreover, student motivation for learning is a highly mutable, often changing from year to year. Some students cannot be salvaged at any stage, either for reasons of neglect, abuse, bad parenting, or the students’ own negative attitudes. “Do-gooder” focus on these students drags down the whole educational enterprise.

Then there is the problem of misplaced incentives. Where are the incentives for students to do better? In fact, the students are being asked to help make their school and teachers look good.

Finally, this era of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing fails to help us understand how to accomplish the basic purpose of assessment: figuring out what students know and need to learn. Multiple-choice tests are certainly not reliable. In fact, these tests mostly measure recognition memory, the least reliable indicator of what has been remembered.

One teacher, Ryan Kinser, endorses the idea of “teaching to the test,” but we need better tests: ones based on “curriculum-embedded performance assessments that are valid, reliable, and accurate measures of what and how students learned.” I would add that testing per se is not the problem. Indeed, research shows that tests reinforce retention of what has been learned. At a local school level, low-stakes benchmark tests should be routine and frequent.

Teachers do need to be held accountable. But not for the weaknesses of the culture of their community, or for bad school administrators and policies, or for the poor educations they get in Colleges of Education, or for the flawed requirements of No Child Left Behind.  Teachers have no control over many of the bad things schools do. The school year is too short, summer vacation is too long, more short holidays are needed, the school day needs to be restructured, most textbooks are just terrible, subjects are taught along academic themes rather than the integrated real world students live in, and the school environment in general just kills the joy of learning.

What should the role of the federal government be in education? It should be in administering meaningful educational research, providing guidance (not mandates) on academic standards, and disseminating “best practices.” No more, no less.

W. R. Klemm
Professor of Neuroscience

Friday, October 14, 2011

New e-book on Better Grades, Less Effort

Better Grades News Release, Sept. 20, 2011
From: Benecton Press

Dr. Bill Klemm, "Memory Medic," has just released a new e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort. The book is available from IN ALL E-FORMATS for only $2.49 (order from Read the 5-star reviews there. Amazon has it for Kindle.

The book explains the memory tips and tricks he used to become valedictorian, an Honors student in three universities -- including graduating with a D.V.M. degree, and to secure a PhD in two-and-a-half years. He shares what he has learned about student approaches to study over 47 years as a professor. Klemm claims that poor memory is what holds most students back from superior achievement.

Dr. Klemm has priced the book so that every student can afford it. He argues that this book can change a person's life, as his own experience with learning how to learn changed his life. He says, "If you won't invest the cost of a burger in your future, what does that say about your future?"

The ideas in the book are directed to students in high school or college. Parents are urged to explain these ideas to their elementary-school children.

This book is also for any working professional engaged in on-the-job training programs. Dr. Klemm claims It will also help workers master their field and become more competent -- and more likely to be successful.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Neuro-education: hot new area in education

I just returned from the Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning conference that I attended in Aspen, Colorado. Neuro-education is a hot new education movement based on transitioning discoveries about brain function into teaching practices. Actually, this is what I have been doing since 2004 with my efforts to find practical applications in memory research and explain them to teachers and students (see

You would never guess who the conference organizers invited to be the keynote speaker. It was Goldie Hawn. Yes, I mean the famous actress many of us think of as a ditsy blonde. She is a grandmother now, but still vivacious and attractive (and I was thrilled with our brief visit). Goldie has created a neuroscience-based “Minds Up” educational Foundation and program to improve learning in elementary school children (see Her program espouses some of the things that are central to brain-based education. She shows that even those we think of as ditsy blondes are interested in neuroscience and how it can help us learn and remember. Elementary school teachers are using her approach not only to teach neuroscience (see, it is not arcane), they also teach kids to be more introspective about how what they feel, think and do affects the brain and their learning.

Showing kids how to be aware of and control their feelings and behavior is a key part of neuro-education. The experts refer to this capability as “Executive Function,” which they simplistically ascribe to the prefrontal cortex (pfc). The pfc is the part of the brain that is most developed in higher primates, such as chimps, apes and humans. As such, the pfc is certainly crucial to executive brain functions. But many researchers, including me, have shown that higher cognitive functions arise from widespread action across many parts of the neocortex.

Anyway, from a teaching perspective, what is important about Executive Function training is teach kids how to be better at it. Goldie’s program emphasizes teaching kids to recognize when they are wired, upset, angry, or have other emotions that interfere with their learning. By being more self-aware, they have a better chance to control themselves.  

I also met at that conference, Nobel Prize physicist, Carl Wieman, now Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology. His talk stressed that educators need to emphasize concepts and principles. He also made the point that everybody who has gone to school tends to think they are an expert in learning. But he emphasized, “novices seldom recognize what they do not know, especially in education.”

Also presenting at the conference was the U.N.’s World Bank’s education director, Helen Abadzi of the (and fellow Auburn graduate), She told me about the science-based reform initiatives the Bank is pursuing in developing countries.

We all know that U.S. education is in crisis. Many think the solution is just to spend more money. But there is plenty of non-partisan research showing there is no reliable correlation between funding and educational achievement. The plea for more money is akin to the fallacy of solving the federal budget deficit crisis by borrowing still more money. No, the solution for both problems is to stop doing things that don’t work and do more of what does. The ideas of “neuro-education” are crucial to effective reform.

Research in this area includes, in addition to training Executive Function, such things as reasoning training, improving working memory, ways to improve memory consolidation and retrieval, and treatments for reading disabilities and ADHD. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Infectious" Memory

We all know that people tend to conform their thinking and beliefs to those of their social group. We call this  peer pressure or “group think.” What many do not realize is that similar effects occur with what we remember. The conformity effect of group think and “infectious” memory is the reason it is so frustrating trying to argue over polarized positions, like politics or religion. In politics for example, conservatives, believing in lower taxes, recall that Regan  lowered taxes, while apparently forgetting that the rate then was an outrageous 90%, counting all taxes. I have heard liberals, believing in higher taxes, say that lowering taxes does not raise federal revenues and that Regan actually raised taxes. In other words, people tend to remember what supports their belief system and forget what does not It’s more comfortable intellectually not to be confused by the facts.

When people reminisce in groups, like family reunions, political rallies, or other social groups, they tend to remember many of the same things, even when some of those things are factually wrong.  Think about how people tell stories. Most of us embellish the story to make it more interesting. With repeated telling, the embellishments gradually get incorporated into the story teller’s memory, even to the point where it becomes a different story. This is an example where the storyteller has infected his own memory. But the group of listeners add their own small embellishments, some of which may even be wrong, to the recollection, and these provide memory infection from the group.

Group contamination of remembered fact can have serious consequences, ranging, for example, from political and religious intolerance, prejudices of all sorts, and wrongful criminal convictions resulting from false eyewitness testimony.

Not surprisingly, infectious memory is not only caused by faulty memory processes in brain but also help create the faulty brain processes. Researchers in Israel and Great Britain teamed up to use brain imaging to study infectious memory. They tested how subjects remembered from recollection of others.
The strategy was to show a movie to groups of five and then test for individual recall.  The first memory test revealed how much the person initially remembered and how confident the person was about the recall accuracy.  Then, a second test of recall occurred after attempts to socially manipulate the memory. Finally, a third memory test occurred after the  social manipulation was removed. The social manipulation,  given four days after Test 1, involved presentation of fabricated recollections of the movie from the other four group members.

A given subject tended to conform his own memory to that of the group, even when the group’s memory was fabricated by the experimenter. With Test 2, after social manipulation with false information, subjects conformed their memory to that of the group’s recall in 68.3%  of the test trials, versus only 15.5% in the non-manipulated condition. Test 3, performed 11 days later, revealed that memory error still persisted but at a lower rate. Even so, errors were significantly greater in the socially manipulated group than in the non-manipulated group.

Brain imaging (functional MRI) revealed that infectious memory modified the brain activity representation of memory. That is, whether a person would form a long-lasting memory that conformed to erroneous memories of the group could be predicted by a particular imaging signature of increased activity in the two major areas known to form memories, the amygdala and the hippocampus. Such increased activity was only seen when the infected memory became long-lasting, not for memories that did not survive.

One might question why humans have this tendency for group think and group memory. Presumably, it has value because “two minds are better than one,” that is, most individuals can benefit from the thinking of others.  Learning should be more efficient and accurate. However, serious problems can arise when the group is wrong, as in religious cults, authoritarian governments, and social prejudices.

All of this makes a strong case that you should not spend all your time with people who think like you do. Likewise, what you read and watch on TV should be diverse. If you are religious, maybe you should read both the Bible and the Koran (a little Buddhism might help too).  If you are a news junkie, maybe you should watch both Fox News and the mainstream networks. If all your friends are in the same ethnic or socio-economic group, maybe you need some new friends..I am not arguing that you should be all things to all people, just that your opinions and the remembered basis for them be more completely informed and accurate.

Source: Roediger, H. L. III and McDermott, K. B. 2011. Remember when? Science. 333, 108-111.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

U.S. Dept.of unEducation

In a my last blog post, I argued that the  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is counterproductive. This is just one of many examples where government bureaucrats seem to sit around all day thinking up things to tell us we can and cannot do. These anointed experts think they know best. Worse yet, they can’t seem to recognize when their mandates don’t work.

There is another most recent example where government pontificators want new educational programs to foist on the public. Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu and Patty Murray proposed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a mandated solution to the very real problem that there are three million job openings in the U.S. right now that cannot be filled because people lack  the training. Instead of our protective treatment of illiterate illegal immigrants while discriminating against foreigners who have the training that could fill those jobs, they propose a taxpayer-funded special jobs training programs. Clearly, their claim they want to help business won’t wash. They just want  to buy votes.

First, they know about the report of the National Commission of Adult Literacy showing that 90 million adults are too educationally challenged to likely succeed in post-secondary training. Every year 1.8 million students don’t even make it out of high school. A poll of businesses showed that 67% of the owners said they had trouble finding competent workers. Another poll showed that 42% of small business owners hired fewer people than they really needed because of the scarcity of skilled workers. Landrieu and Murray acknowledge that one reason companies are moving off shore is to find good workers. Notably, these Senators won’t acknowledge that government over-regulation and tax policy have anything to do with business leaving America. All of this contributes to a very real economic problem. But the Senators’ solution is to expand and develop multiple government programs funded with money we don’t have. They want to treat the symptom (lack of skills) instead of the underlying causes (social deterioration and poor public education).

The social deterioration is promoted by a government entitlement environment in which politicians urge the “have-nots” to envy and hate the people who have things they do not. Envy is  poisonous for  individuals and for society. Just such an environment has spawned the recent riots in England, and I fear it will break out soon here (so-called “flash mob attacks already have). The losers in our society are told they have an excuse (being exploited by the “rich”) rather than being told they have to become more personally responsible. These folks need to read my “Blame Game” book.

The poor public education is generally acknowledged, but nobody seems to know how to fix it. The supposed fixes coming from the Dept. of Education just do not work. There are legitimate roles for the DOE, but they need to stop telling us what we have to do. They should focus on promoting educational research and more inclusive think-tank activities for ideas (not mandates) for educational reform.

Implicit in the NCLB law is an assumption that states can't be trusted because many of them don’t really care about improving education. How absurd! The states, above all, have the greatest vested interest in producing a competent work force to stimulate their local businesses. States compete with other states for tax-generating business. Most states are ineffective in educating their youngsters, but it is because their policy makers don’t know any better and because federal educational law causes more problems than it solves. The federal government should help, not be in the way.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Time to Change the No Child Left Behind Law

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was originally proposed by the administration of George W. Bush immediately after he took office. The bill, shepherded through the Senate by co-author Senator Ted Kennedy, received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and passed in 2001. You would think any law that attracts the support of polar-opposite politicians must be a good idea. Not only that, the federal government has committed enormous amounts of money to make it work. Since enactment, Congress increased federal funding of education from $42.2 billion in 2001 to $54.4 billion in 2007. Funding tied to NCLB received a 40.4% increase from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $24.4 billion.

The law had worthy goals, requiring the states to: 1) set specific academic standards by grade level, and 2) provide accountability testing to assure the standards are being met by all students. The 100% student compliance requirement lies at the heart of the problem. The Obama administration ardently supports NCLB, as expressed by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius in the July 25th issue of Time magazine. She said, “U.S. competitiveness depends on ensuring that all children can reach their full potential. Our reform agenda will help us reach that goal.” Now, after 10 years of this grand — and very expensive — experiment in government intervention in education, it is clear that the goal is unrealistic for all children.

Moreover, the premise that this goal is needed for U. S. competitiveness is wrong. Just the opposite is true. How is promoting mediocrity of value to the nation’s welfare? For a  country to dominate economically and militarily it must nurture its most talented people, not hold them back with educational goals aimed at the lowest common denominator. NCLB has no requirements for gifted and talented students. The emphasis on assuring success of the least able students  causes many states to reduce their programs for superior students. NCLB forces schools to devote so much time, money, and energy to underperforming students that they neglect gifted and talented students. School systems are doomed to fail when they become devoted to children who are hostile to learning, can’t speak English, who are mentally disabled, or come from families who are not interested in the education of their children. And we have plenty of failed schools in the U.S. to prove the point.

The major reason NCLB does not work is that it has caused the states to lower achievement goals, water down curriculum, and motivate teachers to "teach to the test."  Students are sentenced to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. And we wonder so many students,  good and bad, don’t like school. Learning should be fun.

Because it is a major logistical problem to hand-grade so many tests, the tests are typically in multiple-choice format, the least reliable measure of what a student knows. Students with real  potential are not challenged. Although accountability is supposed to be the watchword, the least accountable are the underperforming students. Many of them could care less. If they fail to measure up, it is the teacher and the school that suffer the consequences. Social promotion is still the common practice.

Schools are sorely tempted to “game” the system, especially by lowering standards and focusing ever more on teaching to the test. Some teachers are so tempted, as recently witnessed in the Atlanta schools, that they help students cheat or actually change the student answer sheets to get the over-all grades up.

A big source of the problem is reading. Although the funding for reading quadrupled from $286 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion today, there is little evidence of improvement. Every teacher I encounter in professional development workshops says they have many kids who are 2-3 grade levels below expected reading standard. Many teachers say none of their students are at grade level.

Another problem is that NCLB diverts attention away from practices that might be much more effective. Local school board flexibility and control are restricted. Little attention is given to thinking of new ways of structure use of time during the school day and school year. Curriculum innovations are discouraged in favor of using only accepted practices (which obviously don’t seem to work very well). NCLB provides no guidance or incentive for teaching students how to learn as opposed to what to learn. There is no incentive for students to be creative. Indeed, they are often discriminated against for thinking “outside the box” of high-stakes tests.

I think our system of education at all levels has been corrupted by the move away from academic merit. The mentality of progressives that everyone should have equal outcomes is well meaning but destructive. All a liberal society should owe its citizens is equal opportunity. Of course, progressives may argue that students with a bad attitude, or who don’t speak English, or who can’t read, or who are mentally disabled do not have equal opportunity because of their limitations.  And trying to fix that is what has gotten U.S. education into uncorrectable trouble.

Many advocacy groups are mobilizing to get NCLB changed or scrapped.  Unfortunately, most of these groups still endorse the goal of closing the gap between achievers and underachievers, which will only perpetuate the weakness of public education.

Law makers can’t agree on how to reform education. Maybe it is time to get the federal government out of regulating education. It certain does not have a winning track record nor a  compelling plan to get education right. We don’t need more spending on education.  Over-all, the U.S. will spend $0.9 trillion this year on education. It has been going up every year. We need to stop mis-spending so much on policies that don’t work.

It is also a good idea for the federal government to stop dictating how schooling should be done. Every state has incentive enough for its citizens to become as educated as possible. They don’t need a one-size-fits-all dictate from Washington.


1. U.S. Department of Education. "Press Releases", 2006-02-06. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More Bad News About U.S. Students

Recently released national geography test scores add to the growing list of surveys showing the ignorance of U.S. students. This survey from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed for example that only a third of U.S. students know how to determine distance on a map or that the American Southwest has water-shortage problems. Less than a half of 8th graders know that Islam originated in Saudi Arabia.
On the latest national exam, the percentage of students scoring as “proficient” or higher was only 23% of fourth graders, 30% of eighth graders, and 21% of twelfth graders. When the scores were compared with those on the test when last given in 2001, there was no improvement in either eighth or twelfth graders.

The only good news is that some mild improvement occurred with lowest-scoring students. This is a dubious achievement of the “No Child Left Behind Law” which otherwise stated should be called the “No Child Pushed Forward.” In other words, the obsessive focus on the poorest students is punishing students with more promise. Of course, this is totally congruent with our current political climate of pushing for equal outcomes and  punishing success.
Similar dismal results have been reported in recent surveys of performance in history and civics. And student mastery of science and math is notoriously unimpressive. The education professionals don’t seem to understand the cause. I’ll tell you the cause: students don’t know how to learn. That is the one skill that schools studiously seem to avoid. They are so focused on teaching to these high-stakes tests that little attention is devoted to anything else, particularly learning skills.  
Students these days do almost everything wrong when it comes to learning. They can’t pay attention, they multitask like crazy, their mind is abuzz with everything other than school, and they don’t know how to study or memorize.
And only a handful has been willing to spend a meager $2.49 on my e-book which could change their life. I am about to decide they won’t buy the book because it has to be read. In general, students hate to read. I give many professional development workshops to teachers and at every single one teachers complain about so many of their students being at least two grades below the expected reading grade level. Some teachers say none of their students are at grade level.
So, guess what: I am starting to make the book an audio book. We’ll see what their excuse is now. I am not sanguine about the  possibilities. Teachers tell me the real problem in education is that too many students don’t want to learn anything. They just want to be entertained.
More and more of these poorly prepared students are going to college. You have to be my age to know just how markedly the quality of college students has deteriorated since 1950. I used to love to teach. It’s not fun any more.

The e-book, by the way, is available in all formats from The title is Better Grades. Less Effort.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Learning With Fewer Teachers

State budget deficits are causing schools all across the nation to cut expenses, often including cutting teaching staff. Colleges are increasingly under fire for rising tuition and professors who don't teach enough classes. What all this boils down to is the pressing need to "do more with less." But how? Schools already have too many problems. Schools should not get distracted from the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

A recent study from University of Washington professors compared two approaches for teaching large introductory biology classes: 1) traditional lecture method, and 2) “active learning” without lecture. Eliminating lecture does not in itself improve teacher-student ratios. Indeed, some have said it doesn’t matter whether one lectures to 20 students or a thousand.

What is important is to address the question of what happens to educational quality if you reduce the number of teachers. There is certainly no evidence that increasing the number of students in a lecture hall will improve teaching effectiveness, and in fact the opposite is likely. Statistically, increasing class sizes in lecture courses has a disproportionate deleterious effect on socio-economically disadvantaged students. So, as number of teachers decreases in response to economic necessity, we can expect the educational gap to grow between advantaged and disadvantaged.

So, how should educators respond to having more students and fewer teachers? The educational literature has been building for decades toward the  conclusion that lecturing is a poor way to teach. We teachers know about many alternative “active learning” strategies, but just don’t use them much, because lecturing seems so intuitive and for most of us, it has become a habit. And lecturing is the environment in which most of us were trained.

In the U. Washington study, the professors compared grade performance in classes based on lectures with classes based on active learning. The type of active learning they used included pre-class reading quizzes, daily multiple-choice “clicker” questions, a peer group instruction format that included so-called “constructivist” learning exercises, and weekly practice exams. Also, they adjusted learning requirements to require more creative and critical thinking, since most college students have little experience with higher cognitive tasks of synthesizing and  applying learned material in new contexts (as specified in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). The learning activities went beyond the lower levels of learning vocabulary and understanding of concepts.

Large student populations were involved for both comparison groups, and the classes studied spanned several semesters. Student performance was measured in terms of difference from the predicted performance based on college grades prior to entering this biology class and SAT scores (which are highly reliable predictors, based their previous analysis of five year’s of class data). This analysis also revealed a reliable prediction that disadvantaged students were twice as likely to fail this course  than non-disadvantaged students.

Not surprising (to me at least) was the consistent result of better final grades in the classes that had active learning instead of lectures. The benefit was especially noticeable on exam questions that demanded higher-level thinking. Moreover, the disadvantaged students improved disproportionately.

The authors did not examine possible explanations for why active learning yielded better results than lecturing. I think the explanation is obvious, based on what I know about mechanisms of learning and memory. First, learning from lectures requires sustained paying attention, but a whole generation of multitasking students has emerged who are not very adept at sustained attentiveness. Accordingly, the short attention spans of these students make it difficult for them to be engaged with the lecture content. Engagement lies at the heart of effective learning.

Secondly, active learning requires more engagement because the students have to “do something” instead of just listen. They have to find, assimilate, and use information to solve problems — all of which enhance understanding and are effective memory rehearsal strategies. The social dynamic of student learning teams facilitates these activities. It is much harder to drift off task, daydream, or sleep in class when a student has to interact socially with peers to perform a learning activity.

These ideas have been advocated for several decades. But now, it seems imperative for teachers to use these approaches in an age where there will be fewer teachers and where more students are unable to benefit from lecturing. This requires for many teachers a sea-change in teaching attitude and strategy. It is no longer suffices for a teacher to be a source and dispenser of information. Information already exists in many places, text books, Web sites, and videos, often in better presentation form than a typical teacher can produce. Even the expected role of teachers in explaining everything is problematic. Students remember much better that which they have to figure out. Working in groups makes it easier to figure out difficult material. Students can often explain things to each better than teachers can because teachers have more difficulty in knowing why students are having a comprehension problem.

The teacher must become a manager of learning activities. This means structuring in-class time so that students work collaboratively on learning activities. Students also need homework that gets beyond “busy work.” And, as I have been advocating for some time now, students will benefit from more frequent testing, especially under lower-stakes conditions.

Effective managers are those who can “scale up” to manage more and more people. We can’t wait for a new generation of teachers and professors. We need professional development programs now that emphasize management of student learning.


Haak, D. C., et al. 2011. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology.  Science. 332: 12131-1216.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Learning: No Pain, No Gain

The “best” teachers are the one’s who make learning easy. At least that is what the poorer students say. They may be wrong. The popular belief that it is easier to learn things that are easy rather than harder is also probably wrong. Easy material may not elicit enough attention and engagement to produce lasting learning. So, educators may need to re-think the whole notion of what makes a teacher effective. Making learning easier makes the teacher more popular, but that does not necessarily translate to real student achievement.
Kent State psychology professors have just reported a study of this matter with college students. They find that when students think something is easy to learn they may have only a superficial level of learning that does not last much beyond the next test. Just staring repeatedly at learning material is not nearly as effective as forcing retrieval of the information. Moreover, students can develop an easy-learning attitude that leads to bad study habits and an ineffective learning style.
Other research that I have summarized elsewhere shows that students likely do not know material as well as they think they do. That is, if they perceive they have “got it  in the bag,” they may find out they are sadly mistaken at test time. Likewise, students tend to quit study too soon, thinking the material was easy and they have learned it. In fact, repeatedly studying material you assume you know makes it more likely that you really do know it.
Easy learning, as in a single cramming session, is deceptive. It is not nearly as effective as the harder learning of spreading out the study over many days and weeks. The self-testing under the delayed conditions is much more effective precisely because it is harder to recall material learned days ago .
In the Kent State studies, college-aged students were asked to study for a week a pack of 48  flashcards that paired Swahili vocabulary words with their English translations. The students were divided into two groups and in both groups, students asked  to use a mediator — word, phrase or concept — link both words of a pair. Students in one group were given practice quizzes where they were shown a word and asked to name the other member of the pair. An examination at the end of the week revealed that the practice-quiz group performed much better on the final exam, especially if they were asked to recall the mediator.
In a study recently reported at an American Educational Research Association  meeting in by Katherine Rawsom at Williams College, students studied 35 Swahili-English word pairs on flash cards. The students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each. Researchers instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a week later. Getting the stack correct five times was three times more effective for the final quiz than the stack was correct only once. Also, study of one big stack was better than five little ones.
Students had predicted just the opposite. They expected studying smaller groups of flashcards would be more helpful than studying the big stack, and they expected no real benefit from studying cards more than once. They remembered about as many words as they expected to recall when studying the entire pack, 43 percent to 46 percent. Yet those who had studied the small stacks expected to remember nearly 60 percent of words yet recalled only 17 percent. In general, students were incorrect in two ways: 1) they give too little value to learning strategies that are difficult (using multiple sessions on the big stack), and 2) they give too much credence to strategies that were later documented to be less effective.
The deceptiveness of ease of learning was reinforced in a study reported in Psychological Science by Nate Kornell and collaborators at three other universities. Participants  were asked to predict how easily they would remember vocabulary words after studying them once or multiple times. Some of the words were presented in the standard font size on the person’s computer screen, while others were presented four times larger —something that makes the text feel easier to process but prior research shows does not improve memory. In addition, for some words, participants were told they would be allowed to study more than once.
The participants uniformly predicted that studying the words in larger font would help them remember more than studying the words multiple times. In fact, increased font size did nothing to help them, but studying even once more improved their recall of the new words.
Some school authorities have it all backwards. They want teachers to make the material as easy to learn as possible. I don’t mean to excuse teachers whose instruction is disorganized and confusing. But teachers who challenge students with difficult material and assignments, as well as frequent testing, are actually doing their students a favor. They are just the opposite of the accusation of being “bad” teachers.
This also relates to “dumbing down” the curriculum, which may actually interfere with learning. If we raised standards, we would find that students have to get more engaged. Better learning is  predictable. I think that when learning is difficult, learners are obliged to be more engaged. And it is the engagement that achieves lasting learning. Of course this only works for students who are motivated to learn.


Cavallos, M. (2011) How testing improves memory. Science News. November 6th, 2010; Vol.178 #10

Kornell, N., Rhodes, M. G., Castel, A. D., & Tauber, S. K. (2011). The ease of processing heuristic and the stability bias: Dissociating memory, memory beliefs, and memory judgments. Psychological Science. 22(6) 787 –794

Sparks, Sarah D. (2011). Studies find “desirable difficulties” help students learn. Education Week, April 26.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

U. S. Students Memorize Too Much?

Making kids memorize too much is the problem with U.S. schools, according to a new movie documentary, "Race to  Nowhere." This movie, produced by a housewife and first-time film maker, is being embraced all across the country by teachers and parents. It is a hot item, especially in New Jersey, where the teacher's union has locked horns with Governor Christi over cost cutting of teacher benefits. Wall Street Journal assistant editor, James Freeman, has done us all a favor by exposing this clap-trap propaganda. Yet this movie is called "a must-see" by the New York Times, an endorsement source that may tell you all you need to know about the movie. Schools, especially in New Jersey, are helping to arrange public showings. Parents, teachers, and educational policy makers are urged to join this propaganda campaign and shown how to do so on the  movie's web site.

But let us examine the premise. Are  students really stressed out by too much memorization? I am not a uninformed housewife. I  have worked with middle-school teachers and their schools for 10 years in developing and deploying science curriculum. I think students are asked to memorize too little, not too much. The movie contends that students don't know much because they are overwhelmed with more material than their little brains can handle. B.S.! I know what state standards require. Trust me, students are not asked to learn too much.

I wrote a book recently, Blame Game, How to Win It (available at Amazon), that focuses on the damaging consequences of misplaced blame. I point out that people make excuses for problems to avoid confronting the pain of dealing with the real causes. The book is not oriented around schools, but it certainly could have been, because schools are prime examples of misplaced blame.

For example, the movie places blame on George Bush for the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) law. Many, perhaps most, teachers share in this perverse belief that standards and accountability testing are the cause of poor schools. Nobody wants to remember that schools were just as bad during Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton eras when there was no NCLB. SAT scores, for example, were just as low then as they are now. The real problem with NCLB is "No Child Pushed Forward." The emphasis in schools I know about is on the lowest common denominator of getting the lowest performing students to meet standards. Students who really care about learning and those who have talent are being cheated by NCLB. We have to rely on the U. S. Army to inspire our kids to "be all they can be."

Progressives also falsely blame insufficient funding for education. The evidence is abundantly clear that there is no correlation between spending per pupil and academic achievement. Time magazine, not noted for conservatism, points out in an article last December that spending on public schools more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1970 and 2007. Moreover, up to 44% of school expenditures today are kept "off budget," so the real expenditures are grossly under reported

Few people, especially teachers,  blame the teachers. And few parents or teachers blame the kids. Kids are considered victims of an over-demanding education establishment. Nobody seems to admit that kids might be spoiled with indulgences of all sorts, which includes having their poor performance blamed on anything but them. Anybody who thinks there are not large numbers of lazy, unmotivated kids who are uninterested in learning hasn't been in a classroom lately. Dedicated teachers knock themselves out trying to get such kids up to standard. The problem is not the standards or NCLB.

A lot of kids think they are smarter than they really are. They get this inflated view reinforced from doting parents and anybody over 50 gushing over how smart kids are to multi-task with all their electronic gizmos. I have explained before in earlier posts  that experts have shown multi-tasking to be educationally destructive. Other studies show that kids over-estimate what they know for upcoming tests and undervalue added study.

Here's a paradox. Nobody blinks or complains when school athletic coaches get in the kids' faces to upbraid them when they are being lazy, unmotivated, and under performing. But let a teacher do that and he/she would likely be fired on the spot. Teachers can make excuses for their students. But coaches know that excuse-making won't cut it on the playing field. Why should classrooms be any different?

To return to the point of progressives that school is too hard, I have examined state science standards in great detail because I write middle-school science curriculum. The standards do not demand too much emorization. They don't demand enough, especially the kind of memorization where students have to know how to use knowledge in their thinking. I think that the low-level of memorization required of students today is a main reason why so many students have  under-developed thinking skills. Too many of them mouth platitudes and parrot what others have said. They can't think on their own because they don't know enough to generate original and rigorous thought. Yet, too many educators dismiss the importance of memorization, assuming falsely that kids can think with an empty head. Educators tried that a few years back with "new math," which failed miserably. Now, it appears the same ill-begotten beliefs are re-surfacing in the context of state standards and accountability testing.

Critical and  creative thinking skills are best honed when students are expected to think for themselves, have opinions they can defend with facts and reason, and can persuade others to recognize flaws in their knowledge and thinking. But public schools have a politically correct culture where conformity is valued and individuality is suspect and anti-social. Conformity and tolerance of ignorance and irrationality are considered the virtues to seek, because all belief systems and views are typically considered equivalent (unless they are conservative). Unequal outcomes are just not fair. So standards have to be set low enough so everybody can master them. We therefore don't expect much and we don't get much.

Those who are bent on placing blame on public schools are often looking in the wrong places.Their blame game should target real causes, such as:

  • misguided education professionals
  • dumbed-down curricula and lowered expectations of students
  • teachers who make excuses
  • students and  parents who make excuses
  • political correctness and the philosophy that unequal outcomes are unacceptably unfair
  • devalued memorization. 

Don't hold your breath waiting for any this getting corrected soon. In the meanwhile, urge the kids in your life to read my e-book on learning how to learn: Better Grades, Less Effort, available at Smashwords or Amazon.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

A New Way to Fix Ailing Schools

Most people may be tired of hearing about failing schools, because it has been so frustrating trying to get our schools fixed. It’s hard to find any good news about U.S. public schools. Public schools in the U.S. should embarrass us. As arguably the most advanced nation in the world, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of first-world nations in the education of its children.
Examples of student ignorance include survey results showing that two thirds of American teens can’t begin to identify when the Civil War occurred. A poll I read the other day stated that  40% of young adults didn’t know who the U.S. fought in the Revolutionary War! Unbelievably, 20% of students don’t know who the enemies of the U.S. were in World War II. A third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion. Just half know that The Federalist Papers were written to encourage ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The percentage of 17-year-olds who report reading for fun daily declined from one in three in 1984 to one in five in 2004. The middle-school teachers I work with say that most of their students are below grade level in reading.
College students are not impressing either. Less than half of college seniors know that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%.
If you are still sanguine about U.S. student competence, you should read Frederick Hess’ book, “Still at Risk. What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.”
So  what’s the fix? Politicians and teacher unions say we don’t spend enough money. They ignore the many formal studies showing there is no correlation between how much money a school district spends and the academic achievement of its students. Nor can money explain this: the  Washington, D.C. school district spends more per student than any district in America, yet its students rank at the bottom. Still not convinced that we spend enough of education? Explain this: cost per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled between 1975 and 2005, while test scores remained flat.
There is a new way that is actually the old fashioned way of restoring the pre-eminent role that memorization has in academic success.
I recently read Josh Foer’s provocative new book on memory, “Moonwalking With Einstein.” Foer is a journalist, who once had the same fallible memory as the rest of us until he discovered memorization techniques. He got interested in memory improvement while covering the U.S. Memory tournament. He learned the tricks used by “memory athletes,” and within one year of training, he became the U.S. Champion.
The techniques he learned were not new. They were actually perfected by the poet Simonides and others back in 5th Century B.C. Greece when everything had to be memorized because there were no written places to look up information. These techniques allow “memory athletes” to do such astonishing feats as memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in less than an hour  or memorize the sequential order of two decks of cards in less than five minutes. A memory champion from Malaysia memorized the entire 56,000 word, 1,774 page Chinese-English dictionary. Foer himself learned how to memorize the sequence of playing cards in one minute and 40 seconds, setting a U.S. competition record. Foer spent many days visiting with, as well as competing against, these memory athletes. What he learned was that he and the other memory athletes had just average memories when they didn’t use their special techniques.
Memory training can have major impact on school systems.  Foer cites the example of Raemon Matthews, an award-winning teacher in a minority-enrollment vocational high school in South Bronx. His students come from a neighborhood where nine out of ten are below average in reading and math, four out of five live in poverty, and nearly half don’t graduate from high school. Students and visitors entering the building must pass through a metal detector and their bags inspected by a policeman.
Matthews teaches memory techniques. His students stay after school for an extracurricular class in memory. Every class begins with a three-minute memorized recitation. Students memorize every important fact, date and concept in his history class. He requires every essay to contain at least two memorized quotations. A group of his African-American students competes every year in the adult U.S. Memory championships. His corps of elite, all-minority, students have all passed the New York state academic skills test each of the last four years, and 85% of them had a grade of 90 or higher.
Memory techniques obviously increase one’s knowledge. Perhaps even more important, memorization promotes mental  discipline. Kids could use a lot more of both knowledge and mental discipline.
So why don’t we teach memory techniques to school children in every school? Of course, you will say there is no practical reason to  remember long strings of numbers or card sequences like they do in memory tournaments. Even in Vegas, they know how to neutralize card counters. But the principles of memory techniques have great practical value for learning history, math equations, geography, science — anything academic. I had pretty good success academically using these techniques when I was in school, finishing as valedictorian and making A in every class every year since the 6th grade, despite having an IQ only slightly above average. One teacher snorted that I had no right to make such good grades: I was just an over-achiever. This was some 60 years ago when teachers didn’t give away grades to stroke student self-esteem or to avoid whining over grades. The techniques I used in school, plus others I didn’t know about then, are shared in my current e-Book for students, “Better Grades. Less Effort.”
At numerous science teacher meetings over the past four years, I have given presentations on memory principles and techniques in the hope that teachers will teach memorization skills to their students.  But I don’t think I am getting through. Teachers don’t seem to show much interest and the number of e-Book sales is miniscule, despite being priced at a very affordable $2.49 in any format.
I scratch my head in astonishment. I jumped all over these ideas when I was a student. Why don’t others do it?
It could be a combination  of things. For one, we have a progressive educational  culture that regards memorization as old fashioned and out-dated. After all, we can just Google what we want to know.  Nobody seems to believe or understand that a good memory contributes to IQ and thinking productivity. Memory is critical to thinking. You think with what you know and you can’t think in an information vacuum. I doubt that many teachers know that a good memory enhances thinking ability (I have an earlier post on that).  Teacher Matthews is quoted as reminding  us that “You can’t have higher-level learning — you can’t analyze — without retrieving [memorized] information.” He adds, “You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning.”
The educational establishment dismisses Matthews’ philosophy, which they regard as  a conservative throwback to the days when it was standard practice for students to memorize things like the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, famous poems, and other classics of our cultural heritage. Today, unfortunately, at all levels of the educational system, the role of memory in learning is under appreciated, and even disparaged.
In science teaching, in particular, it is common for teachers to actively disparage memorization. Part of the reason is the long tradition of old-fashioned science teaching in which pointless memorization was demanded of students. I was subjected to a lot of that in my student days: memorizing all the bumps on bones, classification details of plant species, biochemical pathways, and so on. Too much of this still goes on in the college science courses that pre-service science teachers have to take. No wonder so many college students steer away from science. No wonder so many science teachers hate memorization.
The buzz word in science teaching these days is “inquiry.” When I try to tell teachers how important it is to teach kids how to memorize, they look at me as if I don’t understand real science. Pardon me, lady/sir, your ignorance is showing, I AM a scientist. Trust me when I say understanding and knowledge are fundamental pre-requisites to meaningful inquiry. And without knowledge, the results of research are just data.
No, today, we must be progressive, not old-fashioned. Modern educational theory gained traction from the  dominant educational philosopher, John Dewey, who challenged the value of memory, asserting that what is important in education is not knowledge but experience. Currently, mainstream educational theory embraces such attributes as insight, creativity, inquiry learning, and self expression. But these emphases, laudable as they are, lead to a bias against the role of memory in learning.
The bias against memorization may be even worse at the college level. A  faculty colleague chastised me for my emphasis on memorization. This colleague thinks education should be all about understanding and using knowledge to solve problems. We need, he says, to teach students how to think. This colleague is like so many teachers these days who emphasize insight, creativity, inquiry learning, communication skills, and the like without appreciating the role of memory.
I agree wholeheartedly with these higher aims of education. But in the process of educational reform, the progressives discount the importance of memory. Paradoxically, increasing emphasis is being placed on end-of-year high stakes testing, and successful student performance depends heavily on how much they remember from instruction earlier in the year. The teachers I know all complain about having to repeat the same material over and over. They think “one-try” learning is not possible.
My dealings have been with science teachers. They confront another new problem of the fad of “inquiry learning.” Science seems to progressive educators as the natural home for the Dewey’s experiential philosophy. As a successful scientist for over 50 years I can tell you that Dewey certainly did not fully understand science (nor do many teachers today). Science is all about creativity and discovery, but that does not spring from an untutored mind. Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.
Consider how Darwin constructed the theory of evolution. He amassed, and remembered, volumes of factual observations over decades, and using this information he was able to put together a coherent theory that had baffled scholars dating back to St. Augustine and earlier. This point is not realized by many science teachers, many of whom teach Creationism instead of the scientific evidence for the origin of species.
In biological sciences, it is no accident many biologists make their most important contributions when they are older, after they have learned a lot. Do you think I could have written this book when I was performing public memory stunts at 16? I may have known the memory  techniques, but did not yet have the knowledge.
Scientific illiterate educators like to point to Einstein who many believe was a poor student. What they apparently don’t know is that when Einstein worked on his research, he was a master learner and memorizer. He read and learned virtually everything written by Newton, Galileo, Bohr, Planck, Doppler, Reimann, Boltzman, Faraday, Maxwell, Poincare, Lorentz, dePretto, Bose, and numerous other scientists over the centuries. He learned Minkowski’s mathematics and curved geometry. He even knew Ben Franklin’s electricity research and cited one of his papers. In short, Einstein’s was so creative because he remembered and built upon the knowledge of numerous predecessors and contemporaries. If he were going to school in 21st century America, the 22nd century world would never hear of Albert Einstein.
Mastering the classical memorization techniques requires creativity. Foer’s book shows how he used creativity to become a memory champion. My book gives other examples of how I used creativity to succeed in school. The ability to be creative requires a “proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on,” as Foer puts it. The Einstein example above is a classic illustration of the point.
  Another possible explanation for neglect of memory skills is that many people, teachers and students alike, think their memory ability is fixed and can’t be improved. This view is false. Formal studies reveal that people can even increase their working-memory span and in the process increase IQ. Other studies show that students preparing for exams erroneously believe that their performance on the test will not be improved by further study beyond what they think is the best they can do. Also, students know less than they think they know and therefore stop studying for an exam too soon.
Underperforming students have an understandable lack of faith in their academic ability. They don’t try to succeed, because past efforts have failed. They come to believe they are stupid, with mediocrity as their destiny. There is a psychological term for this: learned helplessness.
Teachers need convincing that the more students know, the more they can know. Teacher Matthews makes the point, “Even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts.”
Educational fads come and go, yet nothing seems to do much good. Why not try what used to work in education: old fashioned memorization? By the way, the best memorization techniques require learners to think.

Monday, March 21, 2011

B vitamins and Brain Shrinkage

Did you realize that after age 70, the average person’s brain shrinks more than 1% a year? At this rate, serious mental deterioration can become evident by age 80. Scientists have few clues about why this shrinkage occurs, nor why it is less in some Seniors than in others.

One of the few leads involve B vitamins. Certain B vitamins can reduce brain shrinkage and memory loss in people over 70, according to a randomized, double-blind clinical trial study in Britain of the effect of the B vitamins folic acid, B6 and B12.

All 168 volunteer participants were over age 70 and all had mild memory problems. Half of the subjects received daily a placebo, and the other half got a tablet containing 0.8 mg folic acid, 20 mg pyridoxine HCl (B6), and 0.5 mg cyanocobalamin (B12).

Brain shrinkage was measured by MRI scans. The mean rate of brain atrophy per year was 0.76%  in the active treatment group and 1.08% in the control subjects who took placebo pills 

The investigators also measured mental function, and the highest test scores occurred in the subjects that had the least brain shrinkage.

The mechanism of the beneficial effect is not known, but these vitamins are known to reduce blood levels of homocysteine, which has been correlated with the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, that is not proof that homocysteine causes the disease or that these vitamins will help prevent it. Homocysteine is an amino acid, but is not found in food. It is a metabolite of the amino acid, methionine, which does occur in food.  We do know that deficiency of folic acid, B6, an B12 causes increase in homocysteine, so it is possible that older people are deficient in these vitamins. But while we await further research, it seems prudent for Seniors to  take these B vitamins daily.

Smith, A. D. et al. 2010. Homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins slows the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. PLoSOne.  5(9): e12244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012244.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Sleep Helps Memory

 There is no longer any doubt. Sleep does improve the gelling or consolidation of memory for recently encoded information. Research is now focusing on how this happens and what other factors interact with the sleep effect. At least two processes seem to be at work: 1) sleep protects new memories  from disruption by the interfering experiences that are inevitable during wakefulness, and 2) sleep consolidates memories according to their relative importance and the learner’s expectations for remembering.
A good illustration of reducing interference comes from a study of napping at the University of Lübeck in Germany. The researchers knew about the extensive evidence that in wakefulness, new situations and stimuli can readily prevent new memories from consolidating. This is even true when learned material is recalled, because at that point the memory has to be reconsolidated and is therefore again vulnerable. The authors assumed that similar interference with memory formation could occur even after a sleep interlude.
To test the idea, they asked 24 volunteers to memorize  the two-dimensional location of 15 pairs of cards with pictures of animals and everyday objects. During the study time, they were also exposed continuously to a slightly unpleasant odor, which was intended to be an associational cue.
Forty minutes later, the volunteers were asked to learn a second, slightly different set of card pairs. This second task was to act as an interfering disruptor of the initial learning. The difference is that after the first memorization session, half of the group stayed awake and the other half took a nap. For 20 minutes during the break after the first study session, the odor cue was presented with the intent of helping to reactivate the memory of the first session. The awake group got the odor cue for 20 minutes just before starting the second learning session, while the sleep group got the odor cue during the last 20 minutes of the nap (dreaming did not occur, because it normally requires more than 40 minutes of sleep to start appearing).
When both groups were tested for recall of the first set of cards, the sleep group remembered much better (85% correct versus 60% for the awake group). The explanation begins with the knowledge that when temporary memories (as for the first card set) are recalled, they are vulnerable to being destroyed by new mental activity (as with the second card set). In this study, memory was reactivated in both wakefulness and sleep by the odor cue. Yet, the memorization processes that apparently persisted during sleep made the original memories more resistant to disruption. By the time of the second interfering task some 40 minutes later, much of the initial learning had gelled during sleep, but less so during wakefulness.
These authors also performed brain imaging that showed that the nap group had mostly completed a shift in activity from the temporary processing area (in the hippocampus) to storage areas in the cortex. This was not true for the awake group. You might say that sleep  enabled the information to be “uploaded from RAM to the hard drive” better than in the constant awake condition. Of course this computer metaphor breaks down in other respects. Biological memory is dynamic, readily degraded over time or changed by new experience. Also, recall of biological memory launches a reconstructive process whereby the memory can be reinforced or drastically altered.
        The practical application, as I see it, is to take a short nap as soon as possible after trying to memorize something really important. For example, during a study session for a school exam, take a nap right away so that it has a better chance to consolidate than if you stayed awake and got exposed to many new interfering situations and stimuli.
       Two new studies shed some light on prioritization of memory formation during sleep. We all have had the experience of improved memory if we know others expect us to  remember. I guess such improvement occurs because we work harder at it, using more intensive rehearsal and perhaps using deliberate association strategies..But we now find out from a recent study that the sleep effect on improving memory formation benefits from the relevance of the learned information. Since sleep usually occurs significantly later than the learning and original encoding, this effect must arise from the consolidation  process during sleep.
      A recent study from this same German research lab has revealed that sleep helps memory formation the most if you know you will need the information later. That is, it seems that the brain prioritizes its consolidation operations during sleep to favor consolidation of information that is most important. The study tested 193 volunteers for recall of a variety of memory tasks. Some subjects were exposed to the learning material early in the day, when there would be no sleep involved. The others were exposed to the same material late, just before the night’s sleep. When subjects were told they would be tested later, they were more likely to remember if they had slept immediately after the learning. This was true for both procedural tasks (like finger-tapping sequences) or declarative tasks such as word matching or stating card-pair locations. Moreover, subjects who were told they would be tested later spent more total time in the deepest stage of Sleep (Stage IV) than did comparable subjects who were not told they would be tested later. Presumably, the brain is using Stage IV to accomplish this differential consolidation process.
      In a recent study from a French group, the study focus was on sleep’s apparent ability to prioritize memory formation based on prior instructions to remember or forget items in a learning task. In the learning task, volunteers were shown 100 French words, one at a time. Fifty of these had accompanying instruction “to be remembered” and the other 50 “to be forgotten,” presented in a pseudorandom sequence that prevented more than three words of the same type being presented consecutively. After the training session, subjects were divided into two groups, one which was sent home to continue their normal activities and to sleep on their usual schedule for the  next three nights. The other group was denied the first night’s sleep after training, where they stayed up all that night watching movies or playing games.  Otherwise, this group was treated the same. On the fourth day, both groups were tested for recall with presentation the 100 of the original words and 100 new ones to serve as distracters. The task was to identify which words were in the original list.
      Questionnaires revealed any strategies the subjects used in trying to remember “to be remembered” words and trying to ignore “to be forgotten” words. No subject intensively rehearsed the original items during the three-day interval, but of course casual rehearsal was going on. Generally, subjects made associations of “to be remembered” words with memories of personal events or with short stories or sentences. Mental images were much less used. Of course, no such rehearsals occurred with “to be forgotten” words.
      Upon testing, both groups had about the same degree of correct recall for “to be remembered” words. But the sleep-deprived groups remembered more of the words they were not supposed “to be forgotten.” Thus, it would seem that during sleep, the brain preserved its ability to remember words that were expected to be remembered and discriminated against remembering words that were unimportant. Recall that the instructions to remember or forget were given at the  time of initial encoding. Thus, the brain must have preserved these instructions and followed them in the consolidation process during sleep. Though the authors did not mention it, the poor ability of sleep-deprived subjects to discriminate between the two categories of words could have arisen because being awake for a whole day after learning interfered with remembering and following instructions at the time of encoding.

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Diekelmann, S., Büchel, Born, J., and Rasch, Björn. 2011. Labile or stable: opposing consequences for memory when reactivated during wakefulness and sleep. Nature Neuroscience. Jan. 23. doi: 10.1038/nn.2744

Rauchs, G. et al. 2011. Sleep contributes to the strengthening of some memories over others, depending on hippocampal activity at learning. J. Neuroscience.  31 (7): 2563-2568.

Wilhelm, I. et al. 2011. Sleep selectively enhances memory expected to be of future relevance. J. Neuroscience. 31 (5): 1563-1569.