3 Strategies for Giving Yourself a Smarter Pep Talk


“I am a lean, mean, mathing machine.” 

In college, I’d repeat this phrase to myself, muttering under my breath before every calculus exam. This mantra reminded me that I was tough, prepared, and capable of setting aside my nerves.

People engage in self-talk all day long, and it’s a powerful tool for shaping emotional well-being. The pep talks we give ourselves can make daily stressors more manageable, helping us to push past bumps in the road. And changing the way we talk to ourselves may be a powerful tool for regulating our emotions. For example, in one study, adults at risk for depression who were coached to talk to themselves in ways that fought back at their “inner critic” saw a reduction in depressive symptoms.1

Being deliberately strategic about the way that we talk to ourselves in frustrating, stressful, or tempting situations may help us persist on challenging tasks, pursue actions aligned with our goals, and perform our best. So what does science suggest about the kinds of self-talk that might be more effective at steering yourself (and your students) toward better regulation?

Below are three lessons from current research on self-talk:

  1. Avoid “I”

Using your own name instead of first person pronouns (I, my, etc.) during self-talk may help you approach challenges more effectively.

In one experiment, scientists told participants that they were studying first impressions.2 They instructed participants to try to make a good impression when meeting a member of the opposite sex—a situation that usually provokes some anxiety. The researchers gave people 2 minutes to prepare. In one group, participants were instructed to use first-person pronouns while preparing. In the other group, they were instructed to use their own names.

People who used their own names reported greater decreases in anxiety after the interaction. Independent judges that watched videos of the interaction rated these participants as having made a better impression overall.

Because people use names and third-person pronouns to refer to other people, the authors of the study suggest that using this voice helps people move away from self-centered perspectives toward more objective thinking.

This fits into research on “psychological distancing,” which suggests that putting distance between yourself and the situation can support self regulation. In another study, using the third person and pretending to be a fictitious character (such as Batman or Dora) were both related to better executive functioning* in 5-year olds, but not in 3-year-olds.3 This suggests that pretend play may also be able to generate psychological distance. The authors suggest that the 3-year-olds in the study didn’t benefit from psychological distancing because they weren’t yet able to effectively take on different perspectives.

Why does psychological distancing help? In one study, 226 African-American adolescents were asked to reflect on a recent experience that made them angry. After reflecting, they were asked some questions about how they remembered the episode. The more teens reported feeling distant from the experience (e.g., like they were watching it from far away, or that it seemed like a movie), the less upset they felt.4 When researchers read the teens’ written reflections on the angry scenarios, describing the situation with more distance was linked to re-interpreting the situation with some potentially productive insight, rather than a straightforward summary of the experience.

  1. Embrace labels

Putting a label on your feelings may help regulate negative emotions. Some studies suggest that labeling emotions reduce people’s physical responses (specifically heart rate and sweat) after a stressful experience. In one study, the more anxiety-related words people identified (from a set) as describing their emotional state during exposure therapy, the more their body responses dropped after a stressful experience.5

The authors of this study suggest that practice with labeling emotions may help your brain learn to support better regulation. What do they mean?

Labeling the emotions is found to increase blood flow (suggesting neural activity) to an area in the far right part of the prefrontal cortex known as the right ventrolateral PFC.6 In one study, greater blood flow to this part of the brain was linked to less neural activity (inferred from from blood flow) in the amygdala, a brain region important in processing fear. This link between the prefrontal cortex-amygdala suggests a possible mechanism for emotional regulation supported by labeling the emotions. It is important to note that these brain regions are also involved in many other behaviors and emotions, so more work is needed to confirm this connection. However, it converges with other research suggesting that labels have value.

Unlike switching to using third-person language, emotion labeling seems to only change people’s body responses, not how anxious people report feeling.5 Some suggest that this means that labeling feelings isn’t helpful. But others suggest that people who have labeled their emotions still experience anxious feelings, but simply aren’t as upset by them, which is reflected in their body responses.

  1. Be specific

Some people tend to use more specific words to describe their experiences, while others use more general ones. For example, some people might describe a car accident they experienced as scary, terrifying, or harrowing, while others might describe the same situation as simply “bad.”

In general, more clarity and specificity regarding personal experiences is what some psychologists call “emotional granularity.” In adults, having higher emotional granularity is associated with better responses to different stressors, including less aggression and drinking when experiencing stress.7

Why is this the case? While no one knows for sure, some researchers speculate that by using more detailed language in their self-talk, people are giving themselves more information about the situation. This explanation suggests that people are perhaps then able to act on this information more clearly when deciding what to do next.7

Putting this in practice: the RULER program

The RULER Feeling Words K-8 curriculum puts these suggestions into practice using feeling-based units to teach students how to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions.8

Fifth and 6th grade students in classrooms with the RULER Feeling Words curriculum demonstrated improved language arts grades and work habits grades as compared to students in classrooms that did not implement this curriculum. Students in this program also showed higher teacher ratings related to positive relationships, leadership, and studying, as well as lower teacher ratings of problem behaviors. This research suggests that social and emotional curriculum can go hand in hand with educational goals.

Looking beyond Western culture

When moving research from psychological theory into practice, it also may be important to consider students’ cultural backgrounds. Much of the research featured here has emerged from Western frameworks about emotion and research with Western participants. However, some cross-cultural work suggests that, on average, East Asians may rely on less body-driven processes for understanding their emotions,9 with different implications for what regulation strategies may then be effective. In an era where classrooms are looking increasingly diverse, it may be important to seek a better understanding of how people from many cultures experience and regulate emotions.

Pass it on 

How can children get better at regulating their emotions and behaving in ways that support their goals, particularly when faced with frustration, stress, or temptation? This complex question about human development is far from resolved. However, educators have opportunities to share strategies that may help students get themselves through difficult moments—and these self-talk strategies may be among them!


* Previously, I’ve written about EF as an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate thoughts and actions. In this case, researchers studied children’s ability to switch between tasks, hold information in memory, and inhibit their responses.



  1. Kelly, A. C., Zuroff, D. C., & Shapira, L. B. (2009). Soothing oneself and resisting self-attacks: The treatment of two intrapersonal deficits in depression vulnerability. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33(3), 301–313. [Paper]
  2. Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–24. [Paper]
  3. White, R. E., & Carlson, S. M. (2015). What would Batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 3, 419–426. [Paper]
  4. White, R. E., Kross, E., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). Spontaneous Self-Distancing and Adaptive Self-Reflection Across Adolescence. Child Development, 86(4), 1272–1281. [Paper]
  5. Niles, A. N., Craske, M. G., Lieberman, M. D., & Hur, C. (2015). Affect labeling enhances exposure effectiveness for public speaking anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 68, 27–36. [Paper]
  6. Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428. [Paper]
  7. Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16. [Paper]
  8. Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., Reyes, M. R., & Salovey, P. (2012). Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 218–224. [Paper]
  9. Immordino-Yang, M. H., Yang, X.-F., & Damasio, H. (2014). Correlations between social-emotional feelings and anterior insula activity are independent from visceral states but influenced by culture. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(September), 728. [Paper]


Studying Mindfulness: An Interview with a Scientist on the Frontlines of Meditation Research

Dr. Sara Lazar (second from right) offers a brief weekly lunchtime meditation to her research team.

Dr. Sara Lazar (second from right) offers a brief weekly lunchtime meditation to her research team.

Dr. Sara Lazar began a yoga and mindfulness practice after a sports injury in the 1990s. Mindfulness – a practice rooted in Eastern philosophy of tuning into the body, mind, and environment – is quickly gaining credibility in the research world. Dr. Lazar has published several papers on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain, body, and wellbeing and is currently leading two studies in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about the history and future of mindfulness meditation in scientific research and its reach into classrooms.

Deshpande: What benefits can meditation have on the brain and wellbeing?

Lazar: Meditation practice is associated with changes in brain structure. Some of these changes are correlated with positive benefits.

Two structural changes in the brain are actually associated with decreased stress and increased wellbeing.  In other words, it’s not just self-reported measures – it’s that there is brain change (seen with magnetic resonance imaging) behind self-reports of lower stress, emotion-regulation, and greater wellbeing.

Research also suggests a preservation effect of brain structure and function with normal aging.  Our first data showed the brain structure was preserved with aging,1 and newer research supports that meditation may help preserve function.2 We also see increases in the hippocampus and in memory and more.

Deshpande: Can children and adolescents benefit from mindfulness practice in schools?

Lazar: There’s quite a bit of research on this actually, and the data is pretty clear. Mindfulness practice has a positive impact on stress and emotional regulation in children, teens, and young adults.

As a mother, I can tell you that stress in school these days is much higher than when I was in school. Drugs are being prescribed in record numbers. So from a stress-reduction standpoint, mindfulness practice would be highly beneficial for students.

There is also growing literature that mindfulness meditation can enhance various cognitive skills, which I think should be thought of as a secondary benefit. To me, the primary goal should be stress reduction and emotion regulation, rather than using meditation to try to achieve some goal, which will just create more stress. Plus, it might defeat the purpose.

There should not be pressure to meditate ever for any reason.  Children should enjoy the benefits of reduced stress so then they may actually choose to start practicing on their own and perhaps maintain a regular practice. With more pressure for a certain outcome, they’ll likely see it as a chore and stop doing it.  It’s basically just mental exercise. You really just want them to start practicing for themselves and like the experience. Mindfulness practice that has been incentivized by promising cognitive benefits likely won’t be as rewarding, at least probably not for the long-term.

Deshpande: Do you have any reflections on existing mindfulness research or curriculum for the classroom?

Not being a teacher, I don’t know that I can make a formal recommendation for what’s useful or feasible for a particular classroom. What I’ve heard is that teachers like to offer mindfulness practice at the beginning of class for a minute or two to help students get settled.

I would say that it’s important to not to make it a forced thing no matter when it’s offered. Hopefully teachers and curriculum developers will figure out ways to make it a natural and effective offer. I don’t have the formula yet. And it might not be for everyone. Not everyone takes to it.  For example, children who may not want to participate in morning practice could sit and doodle. For some kids, it might not take it right away but then they might start liking it at some later time. If there’s a way to make it available to students but not necessarily mandate it, it may be more likely that these practices would be used as tools for self-management.

Deshpande: Do you engage in a personal mindfulness practice?

Lazar: Yes. My practice is highly erratic. Some days it’s 40 minutes, and other days it may be 5 minutes. It also goes through phases; sometimes more, sometimes less. My meditation practice varies tremendously.

Deshpande: How did you first become interested mindfulness meditation practice?

Lazar: A sports injury brought me to yoga in ‘94. The yoga teacher included five or ten minutes of mindfulness at the end of class, and I gradually switched over. Eventually I began practicing Vipassana, an insight meditation.

I started to go on retreats, and that deepened my practice in a lot of interesting ways. It made me practice more regularly than before and my metta practice – openness and loving kindness toward others- got deeper over time. I’d usually go on a one-week retreat about once a year here in Massachusetts. A few times, I went on a two-week retreat. By two weeks in, you’re really able to be more settled. It’s nice to have that second week.

Deshpande: Any personal reflections for people new to or considering a mindfulness practice?

Lazar: I was so nervous on my first retreat. I had done some regular daily practice for a few years and a few one-day retreats that helped prepare me.  I was just so nervous to practice all day for a whole week. But it completely changed my world. You get a to a place you might not normally know. Quiet, very quiet. And very centered. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a wonderful experience.


Traditional mindful practice was intended to alleviate our human suffering. As Dr. Lazar emphasizes, today’s research supports mindfulness meditation, body scan, mindful breathing, walking, and more as tools for emotion regulation and stress reduction both in child and adult populations.

While more research is needed to determine mindfulness’s effect on student performance in academics, I agree with Sara: mindfulness practice ideally should retain a primary purpose of psychological and physiological relief for students and teachers. In high stakes testing environments, mindfulness as a tool for stress alleviation – quieting the mind – would organically support a secondary purpose of enhanced focus and school performance.

Looking for more mindfulness resources?  

  • MARC: The Mindful Attention Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers some of the latest research and curricular resources for schools. Influential mindfulness researchers, like Dr. Lisa Flook, study the effects of Mindful Awareness Practices for pre-K through college classrooms.
  • MindUp: The Hawn Foundation enlisted educators and scientists to design this 15-lesson mindful awareness program. Accredited by CASEL, MindUp blends neuroscience research in executive functioning – self-regulation and more – with academic learning standards.
  • Yoga Ed: This program is more based in yoga movement (asana) than in seated meditation. It offers classroom practices that also align with national standards.


References & Further Reading

  1. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport,16(17), 1893-1897. [Article]
  2. Gard, T., Taquet, M., Dixit, R., Hölzel, B., De Montjoye, Y., Brach, N., . . . Lazar, S. (2014). Fluid intelligence and brain functional organization in aging yoga and meditation practitioners. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience [Article]



Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 2.14.31 PM“We should simply try to make the world as happy as possible” (P.333). That this principle might serve as a universal moral philosophy is one of the central claims in Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene, professor of psychology and director of the moral cognition lab at Harvard University, explains what morality is, why we develop it, how our brains support our moral decision making, why we sometimes fail to optimize universal happiness, and how a deeply pragmatic, universally-acceptable moral philosophy might help us achieve peace and flourish. Specifically, Greene argues that we developed morality because it promotes cooperation within a group—it allows people to favor “Us” over “Me.” Because we are more connected than ever before, many of today’s social problems arise because of a tension between moral tribes, or a tension between “Us” and “Them.” While the brain’s automatic moral reasoning makes us very efficient at solving “Us versus Me” problems, we must rely upon our more effortful and inefficient moral manual mode to address problems of “Us versus Them.” Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that suggests that our actions should be guided by the pursuit of the best outcomes for all involved in a situation, may be our optimal moral guide.

Greene distinguishes two types of moral dilemmas. The first is the well-known “tragedy of the commons” in which, if each individual pursues his own best interest (e.g., acquires more cattle to graze on the commons), doing so will undermine the collective good (e.g., the commons will be over-grazed). Cooperation within a group helps us avoid this problem and supports our group’s survival. We evolved a moral compass because it helps us cooperate. The second moral dilemma is the “tragedy of commonsense morality” in which the morality one tribe has developed to deal with the “tragedy of the commons” conflicts with the moral common sense of another tribe.

Greene explains research his and other research teams have conducted about the factors that shape moral decision-making and the brain systems that support it. The research uses variants of the following hypothetical scenario: five people are facing an impending death and an action the research participant takes could save the lives of those five people while costing one person to lose her life. All else being equal sacrificing one life to save five is desirable. Under certain conditions, however (e.g., if one must actively inflict force), people do not report that they would save the five lives.

Different regions within our prefrontal cortex (PFC) (i.e., the ventromedial and the dorsolateral PFC) are especially active when reasoning about different scenarios and the PFC is involved in planning the actions necessary to achieve the desired moral outcome. The anterior cingulate cortex is implicated in recognizing and managing conflicting moral outcomes and sends a signal to the dorsolateral PFC to help adjudicate.

To be moral individuals we need an evolutionarily and culturally shaped automatic intuition about moral behaviors, especially for Me versus Us problems. We need the discipline to reason about difficult moral situations such as Us versus Them situations. Finally, we need the meta-awareness to know when to trust our instincts versus when to reason more deeply about the situation. If different groups have different opinions about whether a moral transgression occurred, the moral quandary is likely an Us versus Them problem; if there is no controversy, the issue is likely a Me versus Us problem.

Utilitarianism, a flexible and pragmatic philosophy which attempts to maximize the overall quality of peoples’ experience in the long run for all relevant parties, may be the best way for everyone to address difficult moral quandaries. Some criticize utilitarianism for expecting too much of people. Greene reminds us that expecting people to be perfectly selfless would undermine their own happiness and thus is inconsistent with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism simply asks us to be marginally less selfish. Conversely, some misunderstand the term “happiness” and criticize utilitarianism’s pursuit of happiness as frivolous and hedonistic. Utilitarians intend to encompass all the qualities that facilitate living a long, productive, and fulfilling life within the term “happiness” not just fleeting pleasures.

Greene concludes by offering advice for transcending our moral tribalism and acting in more universally moral ways. We must seek to reason about complex moral issues rather than rationalize our positions. Acknowledging our own ignorance may moderate our moral opinions. We should recognize—but be weary of—our moral instincts when confronting complex Us versus Them issues. Appeals to “rights” and “duties” are often counterproductive, as they silence debate rather than facilitate discussion. Finally, we can all afford to give more to “make the world as happy as possible.”


Greene, J. (2013) Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.

The Clash of Brain Development and Classroom Technology

technology brain dev clash

“He makes bad decisions regarding iPad use.”

“She gets distracted by her iPad….”

“He gets sucked into the iPad….”

As an educator, I’ve seen and heard many comments like these from teachers about our mutual students. This trend has multiplied in the last few years.

Teachers seem more aggravated when having to tell “Johnny” and “Sally” to stop fiddling with –or inappropriately using– his or her digital device in class.

Students responded to the above teacher comments in the following ways:
“I was bored, so I played a video game.” (Teacher confiscated this student’s iPad.)

I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be on it.”

“I wasn’t paying attention.” (In these latter cases, students received lower participation scores.)

It seems that both teachers and students struggle with technology in the classroom at times. Is this disconnect a normal part of technology in the classroom, one we just have to get used to?

Or, is there something we could do to improve the digital classroom making this learning environment better for everyone?


The Bird’s-Eye View

I was eager to see if my students’ tech-in-classroom challenges mirrored challenges occurring elsewhere. I dug into the research and other sources to get a lay of the land.

What I found was somewhat unsettling, as well as heartening, since I see there are things we as educators could do to mitigate the challenges.


0-60: Digital Devices in Schools

The Apple iPad with touch screen was released in the US in 20101. Since then we have witnessed a meteoric rise of its use in schools as a learning tool. A large scale Canadian survey in 2013 revealed that the iPad alone had already secured 75% of the global education market2. The less expensive and more durable Chromebook with keyboard came on the scene a year later, and schools became their primary customer by 20121.

Gone are the days when one or two clunky computers with dusty covers sat at the back of a classroom, mostly unused. Today, students can spend up to 50% or more of their classroom time engaging with the ubiquitous personalized device: “…for every 60 minutes of teaching, 88.5% of the students reported using the iPad for an average of 30-minutes or longer…”2. Technology is saturating learning and teaching environments, but what are the effects?


Do Digital Devices Improve Student Learning?

The evidence is still inconclusive3, 4.  As researchers observed in 2014: “…there is a dearth of research exploring how students interact with these devices, and the factors that affect the quality and learning values from that interaction5.” In these early days of personalized technology in the classroom, it’s difficult to know the actual effects, but the inchoate body of research gives some signs as to potential benefits and challenges.


The Benefits: Freedom, Speed and Engagement

Studies indicate there are benefits to using personalized digital devices in the classroom, whether or not these benefits raise grades or test scores or even engage students in higher levels of thinking and learning.

Reports show that teachers and students in the US and beyond appreciate these devices for their mobility, versatility, access to information, and social learning aspects (i.e., collaboration, communication, and sharing)2,3,6-8. Students and teachers alike report the impact digital devices have made on student motivation to learn. The secret ingredients in these primary benefits seem to point to freedom, speed in learning and engagement with others.

These benefits are perfectly matched to adolescents, in particular, who we often think of as highly social beings that love freedom and speed. But these benefits could also exacerbate the challenges.


The Challenges

The top challenges of technology in the classroom2, 5, 8-14, as seen below, may relate to the fact that developing brains of youth are not yet fully primed for self-regulation, attention, switching (cognitive flexibility), and inhibition control15. Experts differ somewhat as to which of these skills are officially under the “Executive Function” umbrella, but most seem to agree that these components are affiliated with executive function processes15,16. The healthy development of these skills is the foundation for academic readiness15.

Formative development of executive function occurs in regions of the brain– including the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, hippocampus and partietal cortex — starting in early childhood, but continues to refine throughout young adulthood15. To better understand the development and purpose of executive function, watch this short video from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child: “InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning”.

Executive function issues seem to play a role in reported challenges of technology in the classroom. These challenges are synthesized here:


Challenge #1: Distraction due to technology

Both teachers and students mention lack of attention in class as a challenge of tech-in-schools2,3,17,18. In one Canadian survey2, 99% of the 6,055 teens in this sample said distraction was the number one challenge of technology in the classroom. Teachers identified texting and social media as the primary tech-in-classroom interrupters8.

These distractions can show up as hyper focus: difficulty staying attuned to the teacher’s directives due to the inability to pull away from the screen18, cognitive overload13, and delay when completing tasks9.


Challenge #2: Speed and Attention Span

Faster technology may shape young brains for speed, or to process information quickly. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Director for the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development in Seattle shared that “Part of the problem is the fragmented, action-packed nature of electronic media. Christakis found that faster-paced shows increased the risk of attention issues. The brains of children adapt to that speed, so when they’re forced to work in the slower pace of life, they often struggle to pay attention because it’s less stimulating and rewarding18.” Teachers shared their concern with researchers about having to entertain students, “tap dance” even, in order to keep students engaged in traditional forms of learning8.


Challenge #3: The freedom of multi-tasking

There’s no need to explain multi-tasking. We all do it. However, the freedom to use multiple platforms and devices simultaneously brings challenges to the developing brain of youth. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence looked at the relationship between media multitasking and executive function within several hundred pre-teens and teenagers. “Findings show that adolescents who media multitask more frequently reported having more problems in the three domains of executive function…. working memory, shifting, and inhibition11.”

Multitasking disrupts the ability for a student to focus on any one thing. Another interesting Carnegie Mellon study18 sought to understand multitasking’s influence on what they call “brainpower.” The researchers created three groups:  a control group of college students who were not interrupted as they read and answered questions, a group that was interrupted via instant message while they were reading, and a group that was only told they might be interrupted.

The two groups who either were interrupted or were warned they might be interrupted “answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group…. The distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80%) into a failure (62%) 19.”


An Interoperability Issue

When two things are interoperable in the tech world they seamlessly work together. Most cars are now interoperable with smart phones so we may engage in hands-free calls. Our computers are interoperable with wireless printers, and our homes are interoperable with digital tools that allow us to heat our homes from a distance.

We now expect interoperability across multiple devices and platforms in order for our days to be normal. The great upset comes when our world cannot seamlessly inter-operate with the push of a button. Such is partly the case, I believe, with the current tech-in-school frustrations.

Digital learning technologies and ecosystems do not yet seem fully interoperable to young minds. We are connecting young people to these new forms of technology without truly understanding the ways tech works well with children’s development and the ways they do not. Students are oftentimes penalized for not handling technology in ways that are appropriate, but some of this “mishandling” is related to child development15.


Human Development to Shape Technological Tools?

As Warren Neidich, post-conceptual artist and writer, mentions in his 2006 book The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness, “…each new generation has a living brain that has been wired and configured by its own existence within the mutating cultural landscapes in which it lives”20.

I understand and believe this to be true. We are shaped by our “cultural landscapes.” At the same time, I will champion the opposite. Is it possible to create classroom technology and learning ecosystems via this technology that are “wired and configured” to the way humans naturally and biologically develop and engage in learning?

The good news is that executive function skills seem to be refined and developed through experience15, 16 and explicit guidance15, 21, 22. We as educators can help students develop these important executive function skills as they engage with technology in the classroom.


Strategies to improve the tech-in-class environment for everyone  

For teachers:

  • Understand that youth are generally not trying to be difficult when they exhibit these distracting tendencies. Young people develop executive skills at different rates. Some youth will need more scaffolding than others in their journey toward appropriate tech behavior, self-discipline and control.
  • Co-develop explicit tech-in-class behavior protocols with fellow teachers and students.
  • Provide positive verbal and visual scaffolding for students needing more help with executive function + tech issues.
  • Adopt as your classroom motto: “one thing at a time.” Post visual reminders to help youth get back on track if distracted by technology.
  • Teach your students about the developing brain and why some executive function skills might seem challenging now; they will improve over time with experience and practice.
  • Create tech + executive function rubrics to show each student where he or she has improved as well as individual goals they could work on with guidance.


For schools:

  • Give teachers more time to learn from each other regarding tech tools and strategies for developing executive function skills in their students.
  • Provide teachers with more training in human development topics as well as in ways to scaffold executive function skills in their students when it comes to appropriate technology use.
  • Allow a “no phone” policy in classrooms.
  • Invite R&D researchers into schools so they may collect teacher wisdom and observe youth using technology in the classroom so they may develop the next generation of learning devices for the developing child.


References & Further Reading

  1. Murphy, M.E. (Aug. 5, 2014). Why Some Schools are Selling All Their iPads. The Atlantic. [Article]
  2. Karsenti, T., Fievez, A., Collin, S., Simard, S., Dumouchel, G., Giroux, P. (2013). The iPad in Education: Uses, Benefits and Challenges. A Survey of 6057 Students and 302 Teachers in Quebec, Canada. [Report]
  3. Henderson, S., Yeow, J. (2012). iPad in Education: A case study of iPad adoption and use in a primary school. Presented at the 45th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. [Case Study]
  4. Westervelt, E. (Oct. 2013). A School’s iPad Initiative Brings Optimism and Skepticism. NPR News: All Tech Considered. [Article and Audio]
  5. Falloon, G. (2014). What’s Going on Behind the Screens? Researching Young Students’ Learning Pathways Using iPads. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(4), 318-336. [Paper]
  6. Harrington, K. (2014). From Tablet to Tablet, from Mesopotamia to Galway. Adult Learner: The Irish Journal of Adult and Community Education, p94-102 2014. [Paper]
  7. Mango, O. (2015). iPad Use and Student Engagement in the Classroom. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 14(1), 53-57. [Paper]
  8. Common Sense Media (2012). Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The view from the classroom. Common Sense Media. [Survey]
  9. Bowman, L., Levine, L.E., Waite, B.M., Gendron, M. (2010). Can Students Really Multitask? An Experimental Study of Instant Messaging While Reading. Computers & Education Journal, 54(4): 927-931. [Paper]
  10. Lee, J., Lin, L., Robertson, T. (2012). The Impact of Media Multitasking on Learning. Learning, Media and Technology Journal, 37(1), 94-104. [Paper]
  11. Baumgartner, S.,E., Weeda, W.D., van der Heijden, L.L., Huizinga, M. (2014). The Relationship between Media Multitasking and Executive Function in Early Adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescents, 34(8), 1120-1144. [Paper]
  12. Perry, D.R., Steck. (2015). Increasing Student Engagement, Self-Efficacy, and Meta-Cognitive Self-Regulation in the High School Geometry Classroom: Do iPads Help? Computers in the Schools Journal, 32(2), 122-143. [Paper]
  13. McEwen, R., Dubé A. K. (2015). Engaging or Distracting: Children’s Tablet Computer Use in Education. Educational Technology & Society, 18 (4), 9–23. [Paper]
  14. Mokhtari, K., Delello, J., Reichard, C. (2015). Connected yet Distracted: Multitasking among College Students. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 45(2), 164-180. [Paper]
  15. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. [Paper]
  16. Baggeta, P., Alexander, P.A. (2016). Conceptualization and Operationalization of Executive Function. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(1), 10-33. [Paper]
  17. Roberts, D.F., Foehr, U.G. (2008). Trends in Media Use. Future Child, 18(1): 11-37. [Paper]
  18. Rock, M. (July 12, 2013). A Nation of Kids with Gadgets and ADHD:Is Technology to Blame for the Rise of Behavioral Disorders. Time Magazine. [Article]
  19. Sullivan, B., Thompson, H. (May 3, 2013). Brain, Interrupted. The New York Times. [Article]
  20. Neidich, W. (2006). The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness, p. 228. [Book]
  21. Willis, J. (Oct. 2011). Three Brain-Based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function in Students. Edutopia. [Article]
  22. Willis, J. (Sept. 2011). Improving Executive Function: Teaching Challenges and Opportunities. Edutopia. [Article].
  • Hansen, S. A. (2013). The executive functioning workbook for teens: Help for unprepared, late, and scattered teens. Oakland, CA: Instant Help Books.


What does it Mean to be Information-Literate Today?

information literacy

Nowadays, not only is information everywhere, it is also literally at our fingertips. I can ask my phone how many calories are in my food, self-diagnose my headache on a medical website, look up a research article on a database, or search for a tutorial about my favorite hobby on social media. Thanks to technology, I can retrieve a massive amount of information that I otherwise would never have had easy access to. It’s like living in a candy store…of information.

Not a bad thing, right?

But what happens if the information I look at is not credible? What happens if I am misled by false information or misrepresented facts?

Today, knowing how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information has become a necessary skill.

A few facts about online information seeking

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of Americans believe that their use of the web helps them learn new things and to stay informed on topics of their interest1.

Here are other interesting facts revealed in this survey:

  • 99% of surveyed AP and NWP teachers agreed that the Internet enables students to access a great range of resources.
  • 65% of these teachers also agreed that the Internet makes today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.
  • Yet, 60% of them agreed that today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

Looking for information online is like walking in the candy aisle in a huge supermarket. It can feel daunting. Actor and musician Henry Rollins said it very appropriately: “there’s tons of junk food for your mind on the Internet.” So how do we sort through all this information and find what’s right for us?

We can find and evaluate information through a set of skills called information literacy.

What is information literacy?

Information literacy originated in the field of library sciences. According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions2:

Information literacy is concerned with teaching and learning about the whole range of information sources and formats. To be “information literate” you need to know why, when, and how to use all these tools and think critically about the information they provide.

Similarly, the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy described3:

Information literate people know how to find, evaluate, and use information effectively to solve a particular problem or make a decision — whether the information they select comes from a computer, a book, a government agency, a film, or any number of other possible resources.

Advances in technology and the growing access to information online have pushed the concept of information literacy out of the library sphere and into the Internet arena. This transition reflects our work as educators as well: we continually update our skills to teach things that reflect the world students need to navigate.

The effects of globalization–such as the opening of borders through the Internet and intercultural dialogue–have prompted international organizations to place information literacy as both a lifelong skill and as a human right4. President Obama also recognized that the crisis of authenticity that had emerged with the mass consumption of digital technologies, information literacy had become a national priority5.

Why is information literacy important?

Information providers are competing for our attention. As a result, we face a lot of unplanned or unconscious exposures to messages that often rely more on quantity than quality (catchy ads, for instance).

There is so much to process online that we’ve gotten to a point of information overload, and this overload has repercussions–some even call it infobesity.6 That is, being stuck in a candy story might have its perks at first, but after a while, you will start paying the consequences.

Once information overload happens, decision-making abilities decrease. In other words, any information received beyond that point will not be processed, or may lead to confusion.7

When there’s so much information out there, it is easier to not carefully assess its validity. As a result, we tend to resort to automatic processing: we try to filter the information we need and to ignore the one we don’t want. When our minds go on autopilot mode, we tend to screen out all information until something valuable triggers our attention. But unfortunately, processing information automatically doesn’t reduce exposure, it only reduces attention. Instead, it can easily lead to faulty interpretations. As James Potter, a cognitive researcher put it “unconscious exposure is still exposure.”8

The consequence of this unconscious exposure is that is can impact our beliefs and attitudes.

For instance, people tend to believe information more when it has been repeated, whether they agree with the information or not. This is known as the “truth effect.” This means that if we are repeatedly exposed to the same idea from multiple sources, we may believe it as true. Whether the fact is true or not doesn’t matter, the repetition will create the illusion that it is and, in some cases, our memory will not be able to distinguish truth from belief9. This is a technique widely used in advertising. The more exposure you have to a product–however absurd said product is–the more you will feel that the product works and that you absolutely need it.

Similarly, research has shown that, often, we are unable to recognize our sources of information for attitudes, beliefs, or stereotypes. We usually fail to recognize whether it came from an actual event or from a fictional one like a movie, an ad, or a tv show. That means that when we are overloaded with information, we unconsciously open ourselves to the suggestibility of the information we’re exposed to. And this information can affect our moods, attitudes, stereotypes, and even worldview.10

So if being able to sort through the overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to is so critical, how come it is not emphasized more in schools?

Information literacy in educational standards

Information literacy is not entirely integrated in schools. It is often presented by librarians or media specialists, or through specific interventions, but it is not always embedded within the curriculum.

However, progress is being made, and some schools and educational organizations are starting to recognize the importance of information literacy for students. Some of them have included it in and across their standards:

  • The Common Core Standards acknowledge that to be ready for college, workforce, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas. More on these standards here.11
  • The Next Generation Science Standards explain that obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information is an important scientific practice, especially regarding scientific claims in popular media. More on these standards here12.
  • The C3 Framework for Social Studies recognizes that students should use various technologies and skills to find information and express their responses to questions through well-reasoned explanations and evidence-based arguments. More on these standards here13.

Tips for fostering information literacy in your classroom

Here are a few tips to help you guide students in their use of information. These can be applied to either online or offline information.

  • Ask students to go beyond the resources you provide for them
  • Discuss evidence and arguments with students
  • Let students explore their own topics of interest
  • Design information literacy activities that promote independent learning

TILT (Twenty-First century Information Literacy Skills) is a framework with a set of exercises aiming at developing literacy skills through the necessary skills to evaluate, curate, and apply information to everyday lives. The program is managed by Learning & the Brain Editor, Stephanie Fine Sasse, through the non-profit, The People’s Science. The illustration below represents TILT’s objectives and mechanisms14. You can learn more about TILT training and workshops here, or visit The People’s Science website or an overview.

TILT tableThe following toolkit also has resources and activities related to information literacy that can be implemented in the classroom.

Historian Caleb Carr reminds us that “it is the greatest truth of our age: Information is not knowledge.” Gaining awareness and skills about information literacy will help us and our students evolve from passive consumers of information to learners engaged with said information–what educational author Marc Prensky labeled digital wisdom15.


References & Further Reading

  1. Purcell, K., Rainie, L. Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, A., Chen C., & Zickuhr K. (2012). How Teens Do Research in the Digital World. [Paper]
  2. International Federation of Library Associations. (2015). Current IFLA Standards. [Report]
  3. American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential
  4. UNESCO. (2005). The Prague Declaration “Towards an Information Literate Society.” [Report]
  5. Obama, B. (2009). National information literacy awareness month. [Press Release]
  6. Rogers, P., Puryear, R., & Root, J. (2013). Infobesity: The enemy of good decisions. [Brief]
  7. Ruff, J. (2002). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions. [Brief]
  8. Potter, W. J. (2004). Theory of media literacy: A cognitive approach. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. (P.10) [Book]
  9. Dechêne, A., Stahl, C., Hansen, J., & Wänke, M. (2009). The truth about the truth: A meta-analytic review of the truth effect. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 14(2) 238–257. [Review]
  10. Wyer Jr, R. S., & Adaval, R. (2004). Pictures, words, and media influence: The interactive effects of verbal and nonverbal information on memory and judgments. In Shrum, L. (Ed.) The psychology of entertainment media (137-159). [Book Chapter]
  11. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers Title. (2010). Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C. [Report]
  12. NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [Report]
  13. National Council for the Social Studies (2013). C3 Framework. [Overview]
  14. The People’s Science (2016). Twenty first century Information Literacy Tools. [Website & PDF]
  15. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3). (2013). Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS. [Overview]


The Waiting Game: Why Students Procrastinate and What To Do About It


Ah, April what a beautiful time of year! We have all heard the jingle: April showers bring May…test preparation?!

Yes, that’s right, it’s that time of year again for students and teachers in high schools and colleges across the country. To help students prepare for the end of year and semester exams, instructors assign review packets, create practice tests, and recap many of the key concepts from the year. For students, it’s one of the last academic commitments before their two-month long summer vacation. Many are anxious to perform well and validate their hard work from the academic year.

Enter procrastination (cue ominous orchestral music): students begin to engage in habitual avoidance behaviors, to the disapproval of their teachers. As a result, some students have trouble budgeting their study time, attending after-school extra help or office hours, and spending far less time than they originally intended to spend on their studying. This behavior is often bound up in a surfeit of emotions and confusion, leaving students wondering what to tackle first. Although procrastination is often seen as a negative phenomenon, some students report that it helps their academic performance.

We are all familiar with this phenomenon but what do we do about it? Why do students procrastinate in the first place? What can teachers, students, and parents do to help curb this and get students back on track?

The Basics

Procrastination, delaying the completion of an intended task, is a widespread phenomenon, with 80-95% of college students reporting that they engage in the behavior.1 It has been found to be associated with a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional characteristics2 including fear of failure3, anxiety2, and task aversiveness, or the avoidance of a particular type of activity.3 In order to manage these uncomfortable feelings and task demands, students employ a range of coping strategies. Much of the recent research on procrastination underscores the importance of thinking about procrastination as being related to more than just a lack of time management skills.

In one study, procrastination was correlated with both short-term benefits such as reduced stress and long-term drawbacks such as higher levels of stress later in the semester and lower quality academic work4. Even when considering the short-term positive effects of procrastination early in the semester, the total effect of procrastination across the semester was negative. Interestingly, some research suggests that procrastination may increase the further students advance in college!5

Benefits of Procrastination?

As alluded to above, procrastination is often perceived as a negative and unitary phenomenon: all students who delay starting tasks hurt their academic performance, whether it be tests, homework assignments or other school-related responsibilities. However, some research suggests that this story many be more nuanced.

In their model of academic procrastination, Gregory Schraw and colleagues6 identified various adaptive aspects of procrastination, in addition to the maladaptive characteristics that many are familiar with. In their interviews some students reported that they needed the time pressure associated with procrastination in order to reach what researchers call a state of “flow”7,or the engaged experience commonly referred to as being “in the zone”. As opposed to more passive procrastinators, these “active” procrastinators may deliberately delay beginning an assignment because they work more efficiently under pressure.8 Some evidence suggests that active procrastination is associated with less stress and higher grades, as compared to passive procrastination.8 However, other research has failed to find replicate this type of result, muddling our understanding of this relationship.9

Should teachers let students who claim to benefit from delaying assignments continue to procrastinate?

The answer to this question isn’t completely clear and other researchers have argued against the notion that procrastination is beneficial for learning. In a 2015 meta-analysis10, researchers Kyung Ryung Kim and Eun Hee Seo found an overall negative association between procrastination and learning across 33 studies. While it’s safe to say that some students believe that there are positive benefits of procrastination, the important question is whether they would be better off not procrastinating. This research does highlight the importance of thinking about the reasons why students are procrastinating, how they cope with stress, and if they usually succeed under conditions of procrastination. As with many issues in the classroom, understanding individual students is key. In order to begin addressing the complexities of procrastination in the classroom, consider the following strategies:

  1. Cultivate student interest

In a qualitative study of college students’ procrastination behaviors, Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson6 found that many students attributed their procrastination to being bored. The researchers speculated that these students may have procrastinated to make the assignment more exciting or thrilling, under the pressure of a near deadline. For students who seem to fit this profile, try to think of ways to make the assignment more relevant and authentic.

  1. Break down a task into more frequent deadlines

The theory of temporal discounting (as mentioned in a previous post on rewards) says that people are more influenced by immediately available incentives and may not act if the costs or benefits are too far in the future11, a theory that researchers have tied to procrastination. In order to make the incentives more immediate try to break down the task into smaller chunks and communicate and enforce clear expectations for the completion of those sub-tasks.6 It may also be helpful to talk about the interdependence of the tasks, or how each tasks fits into the larger assignment.12

  1. Encourage students to choose productive environments

It may be useful for students to reflect on the contexts where they are most productive and least distracted and commit in advance to a certain plan.11 Anticipating conflicts before they arise and avoiding certain environments could make it easier to exercise the self-control they need to maintain a consistent study schedule.1, 12

  1. Address the cognitive distortions

One of the leading experts in procrastination research, Joseph Ferrari and colleagues, developed an intervention13 that attempts to reduce procrastination by having students in a group setting reflect on their behavior and coping styles, identify unhealthy or unrealistic thinking patterns, and discuss reasons why it is important to alter their behavior and consider other ways of dealing with procrastination. Coming up with similar activities for your classroom may be useful in addressing some of the underlying reasons why your students are procrastinating.

Other Helpful Resources

The Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canda has a website that lists recent research on procrastination, useful strategies, and other articles on the topic. Dr. Joseph Ferrari, the expert mentioned above, has also written a book on procrastination, for those who want to learn more!

So what about those procrastination specialists that many of us have the pleasure of teaching in our classrooms?! We now know that procrastinators are a complex bunch. They have many different motivations and degrees of academic success, depending on individual circumstances. For teachers confronting this issue in their classrooms (I’d be interested in talking to you if you aren’t!), hopefully these strategies and resources are a helpful starting point improving your students’ academic habits and performing as well as they can on that state test or end of semester exam. We would also love to hear about strategies you have tried and how they worked out! Feel free to leave a comment or share a resource below.


References and Further Reading:

  1. Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65. [Paper]
  2. Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of counseling psychology, 31(4), 503. [Paper]
  3. Ferrari, J. R., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in personality, 34(1), 73-83. [Paper]
  4. Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological science, 454-458. [Paper]
  5. Ferrari, J. R. (1991). Self-handicapping by procrastinators: Protecting self-esteem, social-esteem, or both?. Journal of Research in Personality, 25(3), 245-261. [Paper]
  6. Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational psychology, 99(1), 12. [Paper]
  7. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperCollins. [Book]
  8. Chun Chu, A. H., & Choi, J. N. (2005). Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of” active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance.The Journal of social psychology, 145(3), 245-264. [Paper]
  9. Lee, E. (2005). The relationship of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in university students. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 166(1), 5-15. [Paper]
  10. Kim, K. R., & Seo, E. H. (2015). The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 26-33. [Paper]
  11. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224. [Paper]
  12. Tuckman, B. W., & Schouwenburg, H. C. (2004). Behavioral Interventions for Reducing Procrastination Among University Students. In Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (91-103). American Psychological Associtation. [Chapter]
  13. Ozer, B. U., Demir, A., & Ferrari, J. R. (2013). Reducing academic procrastination through a group treatment program: A pilot study. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 31(3), 127-135. [Paper]


  • Urban, Tim. Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. [Ted Talk]
  • The Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University. [Link]
  • Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Still procrastinating: The no regrets guide to getting it done. John Wiley & Sons. [Book]

The Neuroscience of Standardized Test-Taking

standardized testing

It’s no secret that the American education system is saturated with standardized tests.

As of 2016, the average student in America takes a staggering 112 mandatory standardized tests before graduating high school. This averages out to be eight a year according to one 2-year study by the Council of Great City Schools1.

The tests are “standardized” because all students answer the same questions under comparable conditions and their responses are scored using measured criteria, whether the questions are multiple choice or open-ended2.

However, there are numerous reasons to believe that high stakes standardized tests are actually quite damaging to education and have received forceful criticism over the past dozen years as a result. Examples include their propensity to drive out teachers, encouraging teaching “to the test” as well as increasing grade retention and school dropout rates, all of which question the imposition of high quantities of standardized tests throughout a student’s school career2.

Furthermore, the disadvantages that standardized tests pose for the many students who take them are substantial. Although these tests were conceptualized to ensure fairness and equity for all, the reality is much more grim. In addition to the problematic application for students with diagnosed (and undiagnosed) learning disabilities and to non-native English speakers, these tests are unfair to countless others due to a host of social, cultural, economic and even biological reasons. One example is the marked disadvantage for students from underprivileged groups, for which there is a proven departure between test scores and actual academic potential3.

In other words, standardized tests can undermine the very abilities they seek to assess.

The goal of this article is to look “under the hood” into some of the research investigating what occurs in the brains and minds of test takers, with an emphasis on studies that employ neurophysiological (e.g. EEG) and functional neuroimaging (e.g. fMRI) methods. These methods allow researchers to look inside the working brain to explore the neural underpinnings of the psychological processes that so many students experience during test taking. The hope is that, by better understanding these mechanisms, we can craft better environments for teaching and evaluating our students.

This article will be limited to discussing neuroscience research on three interrelated psychological processes that occur during standardized test taking, namely i) testing anxiety, ii) “choking” under pressure and iii) stereotype threat. However, it should be noted that this is by no means a comprehensive list and should be viewed as a small glimpse into what happens in the brain during high-pressure standardized testing. 

The consequences of falling into socially constructed stereotypes 

Over the past twenty years, stereotype threat has become one of the most investigated topics in social psychology. It invokes the age-old nature vs nurture debate, as well as questions related to group differences observed in cognitive performance.

Broadly speaking, stereotype threat can be defined as a situation in which individuals believe they are at risk for confirming negative beliefs about their social group. It rose to prominence via a pioneering 1995 study by Steele and Aronson4, which found that African American student performance varied depending on the immediate messaging from the environment. Aware of the negative stereotypes regarding their intellectual abilities and thus fearing confirming the stereotype, students exhibited suboptimal performance when asked to display such abilities (in the case of Steele and Aronson, a difficult verbal test) after being reminded of their stereotyped group membership. African American students performed better in a control condition, in which they were not primed with the threat. As a result, the concept is considered highly salient within education.

These findings have been replicated by many others over the years and are generalizable to other stereotyped groups, including (but not limited to) women’s mathematical abilities5 and memory recall abilities in elderly populations6. Importantly, enthusiasm for this work is bolstered by the notion that these findings help explain the discrepancies observed in academic and cognitive performance among at-risk groups7, undermining the assumption that the differences are a result of innate (in)ability.

In an attempt to review the reasons behind impaired performance, one review article8 revealed patterns of activation demonstrating that individuals “under threat” have heightened activity in parts of the brain devoted to regulating emotions. Simultaneously, they showed decreased activation in areas typically associated with executive function (such as working memory and attention).

In another study9 evaluating a negative stereotype regarding women’s spatial reasoning skills, researchers found that in addition to activation in areas of the brain associated with spatial rotation, participants in the threat condition also had increased activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion regulation and social knowledge (e.g. the rostral-ventral anterior cingulate cortex and right orbital gyrus) synonymous with feelings of anxiety regarding one’s social group.

These results are consistent with a study from 2014 using EEG10 – a physiological measure favored for its ability to secure very accurate readings of when electrical activity occurs in the brain – which investigated the effect of stereotype threat on women’s performance on a series of math problems. Here, the authors reported that the threat condition negatively affects the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which was not found in women placed in the condition in which the stereotype threat was not activated. In other words, the bias caused by the stereotype threat had damaging consequences for attention, memory and general information processing – systems highly likely to play a key role in undermining performance in the math task.

Collectively, what these studies illustrate is that participants under stereotype threat are hypothesized to do worse due to the allocation of important cognitive resources to things like emotion regulation and social knowledge as opposed to concentrating on the task at hand.

Although these studies test abilities within an isolated experimental environment, educational neuroscientists studying the effects of high-stakes testing argue that even when not primed, at-risk groups “underperform relative to their ability merely because they are aware of a negative stereotype about how they should perform”11. An example of these worries can be seen in the female math test-taker who is apprehensive given the stereotype that “guys are better than girls at math”11. 

“Choking” under pressure & testing anxiety

Another dire consequence of high-stakes testing is choking under pressure, a phenomenon associated with poor performance on a cognitive task and one easily relatable to standardized test taking. This is the tendency for some individuals to have their performance hindered by the stress of a given situation. In the case of standardized testing, many controlled laboratory experiments have found evidence of this on a wide range of tasks, most notably math problem solving, category learning, and tests of fluid intelligence.12,13,14

But what are the mechanisms behind choking under pressure? Researchers have detailed three (not mutually exclusive) explanations for why testers choke under pressure; i) the “distraction account” whereby the pressure of doing well distracts the individual from the task(s) at hand, ii) the “over-monitoring account”, when task performance is worsened due to a hyper vigilance in attending to every required step and finally iii) the “over-arousal account” leaving the person in a heightened, and often stressed, emotional state due to the lingering fear of large losses.15, 16

The Distraction Model vs. The Over-Monitoring Model 

The “distraction” model can be understood in terms of a distraction caused by the pressure to do well on a demanding task (e.g. math problem solving), making it difficult for a person’s working memory to perform optimally. By contrast the “over-monitoring” model argues the opposite of the “distraction” model: instead of being distracted by the pressure to do the task at hand, this theory argues that the extra attention, control and motor operation given to the task actually hinders performance16. In other words, focusing too much on specific details of a task can take away from the cognitive “horsepower” (e.g. executive function) needed to complete the task successfully.

Although these theories diverge, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive; both can occur simultaneously depending on the nuances and demands of the task as well as the source(s) of motivation provided. Indeed, both theories are supported by fMRI evidence revealing a statistically meaningful relationship between choking and compromised executive control in prefrontal areas of the brain.

Strikingly, further analyses in this area has suggested that individuals with higher working memory capacities are actually even more susceptible to this kind of stress than people with lower working memory capacities, given their reliance on this strength to perform well.17

The Over Arousal Model 

The third model concerns the neural mechanisms behind reward and motivation. One theory favored by behavioral economists suggests that degraded performance is a result of the flooding of emotion due to high pressure or incentive. You can think of it along the lines of being stressed out by thinking about how big the stakes are. To make matters worse for standardized test takers, many studies have shown that performance is only diminished when the task at hand is one that is complex or not well-learned, such as the ones required during test taking18, 19. By contrast, this phenomenon is not observed during very simple conditioning tasks such as those that require considerable physical effort (e.g. weight lifting), whereby the increased incentive or social pressure can actually enhance performance.20

From a neural perspective, one study found significant deactivation in areas of the brain that are crucial for memory recall as well as hormone and emotion regulation (e.g. the hippocampus, hypothalamus, medial orbital cortex and ACC) in participants subjected to the stress condition. These participants also displayed increased levels of cortisol, which is linked to heightened stress or emotion21. Specifically, the extent of deactivation in the parts of the brain implicated in memory was strongly related to the release of cortisol in response to a stress task.

Test Anxiety

A similar yet distinct notion common amongst standardized test takers is that of test anxiety, which can come into play during any of the situations discussed previously. Generally speaking, test anxiety refers to an unpleasant emotional and physiological reaction that can include feelings of worry, fear of failure or dread before or during a test. The two key features of test anxiety are thought to be i) emotionality (i.e. feeling anxious) and ii) worry. This is corroborated by neuroimaging evidence showing test anxiety to involve enhanced attention devoted to the threat and poor ability to control the feelings of threat.

Some theorists have conceptualized test anxiety as a dispositional factor, whereby “test trait anxiety” can be considered a trait of a person’s personality that make them predisposed to experience greater-than-average levels of stress or anxiety during a testing situation22. Others have defined it as a genuine phobia, based on the elevated physiological responses linked to heightened emotion and stress23.

Regardless of its characterization, test anxiety (with math anxiety specifically being the most common) is highly prevalent, with one source claiming it affects an estimated 25% of 4-year college students and up to 80% of community college students in the U.S.24. One such sources comes from outside the U.S., where researchers from the University of Grenada found 6 in 10 Spanish university students to suffer from math anxiety, with greater incidence among women compared to men25.

Crucially, a fascinating 2011 study showed math anxiety doesn’t just occur during math problem solving, but also in anticipation of doing math. Using fMRI, the researchers were able to detect differences in brain activation between the anticipation stage and actually doing the math task26. What they found was that high-anxiety individuals showed increased fronto-parietal network, which is linked with control of negative emotions. In a follow-up study, they revealed that this anticipation stage is also associated with pain networks in the brain (e.g. mid-cingulate cortex and insula).

This suggests that for some people, merely being faced with the prospect of doing math can be psychologically painful27.

To muddy the waters, reports have pointed to the similarities between stereotype threat and test anxiety and how they may overlap11. Although further research is needed to pinpoint interactive effects, recent studies have indicated test anxiety and stereotype threat might share certain mechanisms within the brain, such as their mutual negative impact on working memory. Furthermore, it has been found that stereotype threat perpetuates states of worry, with worry being a key element in test anxiety. However their interaction is a complex one not yet fully fleshed out in the literature22.

Despite this evidence, it stands today that the primary objective of standardized tests is to reliability measure a student’s academic potential. 

So, now what?

So if we shouldn’t use standardized tests, then what should we use?

It is established that standardized tests can be incredibly debilitating, not only for students with disabilities or those from underprivileged backgrounds, but also for many others who suffer from the high-stakes pressure and/or testing anxiety. Yet individual differences along with the complex interplay of social-economic status, culture, social pressure, motivation and reward are all important determinants of performances success or failure. Based on the research that is currently available, it’s hard to dispute the notion that standardized tests are a far from perfect measure of academic ability and assessment, with many students being unfairly penalized and undermined for things that they cannot control.

Many have proposed plausible solutions to the standardized test epidemic. Examples include i) simply reducing the number of standardized tests given, ii) replacing data from assessments with data collected “passively” over long periods of time iii) increasing the prevalence of game-based assessments, or iv) implementing more social and emotional skill surveys. Further details on these proposals can be found in the 2015 book by Anya Kamenetz.

As the field of educational neuroscience continues to expand, it behooves the test prep industry to take into consideration the latest research on how the brain works under test conditions. In addition, given the relatively small number of students with the background and resources necessary to achieve very high scores on standardized tests, the scientific markers discussed in this article should play an active role in redefining ability and educational assessment, in the hopes that one day, educational decisions will never be based solely on a number.

References & Further Reading

  1. ­­­­Strauss, V. (2015, October 24). Confirmed: Standardized testing has taken over our schools. But who’s to blame? The Washington Post. [Article]
  2. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. (2007, December 17). The Dangerous Consequences of High-Stakes Standardized Testing.  [Article]
  3. Rooks, N. (2012, October). Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests,  [Article]
  4. Steele C.M., Aronson J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69:797–811. [Paper]
  5. Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28. [Paper]
  6. Hess, T.M., Auman, C., Colcombe, S.J. Rahhal, T.A. (2003). The impact of stereotype threat on age differences in memory performance. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58(B):3–11. [Paper]
  7. Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115, 336–356. [Paper]
  8. Derks, B., Inzlicht, M., & Kang, S. K. (2008). The neuroscience of stigma and stereotype threat. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 11, 163–181. [Paper]
  9. Wraga, M., Helt, M., Jacobs, E., & Sullivan, K. (2007). Neural basis of stereotype-induced shifts in women’s mental rotation performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 12–19. [Paper]
  10. Forbes, C.E., Leitner, J.B. (2014). Stereotype threat engenders neural attentional bias toward negative feedback to undermine performance. Biological psychology, 102, 98–107. [Paper]
  11. Maloney, E.A., Schaeffer, M.W., & Beilock, S.L. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and stereotype threat: shared mechanisms, negative consequences and promising interventions, Research in Mathematics Education, 15:2, 115-128. [Paper]
  12. Beilock, S.L., Carr, T.H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological Science, 16, 101–105. [Paper]
  13. Markman, A.B., Maddox, W.T., Worthy, D.A. (2006). Choking and excelling under pressure. Psychological Science, 17, 944–948. [Paper]
  14. Gimmig, D., Huguet, P., Caverni, J.P., Cury, F. (2006). Choking under pressure and working memory capacity: when performance pressure reduces fluid intelligence. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 13, 1005–1010. [Paper]
  15. Yu, R. (2015). Choking under pressure: the neuropsychological mechanisms of incentive-induced performance decrements. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience9, 19. Doi: http://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00019 [Paper]
  16. Lee T. G., Grafton S. T. (2015). Out of control: diminished prefrontal activity coincides with impaired motor performance due to choking under pressure. Neuroimage,105, 145–155. 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.10.058 [Paper]
  17. Mattarella-Micke A., Mateo J., Kozak M. N., Foster K., Beilock S. L. (2011). Choke or thrive? The relation between salivary cortisol and math performance depends on individual differences in working memory and math-anxiety. Emotion, 11, doi: 1000–1005. 10.1037/a0023224 [Paper]
  18. Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, doi:18: 459–482.doi:10.1002/cne.920180503 [Paper]
  19. Eysenck, M. W., & Calvo, M. G. (1992). Anxiety and performance: The processing efficiency theory. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 409 – 434. [Paper]
  20. Strauss, B. (2002). Social facilitation in motor tasks: A review of research and theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3, 237 – 256. [Paper]
  21. Pruessner J. C., Dedovic K., Khalili-Mahani N., Engert V., Pruessner M., Buss C., et al. . (2008). Deactivation of the limbic system during acute psychosocial stress: evidence from positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. Biological Psychiatry, 63, 234–240. 10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.04.041 [Paper]
  22. Temple, T., & Neumann, R. (2014). Stereotype threat, test anxiety, and mathematics performance. Social Psychology of Education, 17, 491-501 [Paper]
  23. Faust, M.W. (1992). Analysis of physiological reactivity in mathematics anxiety. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio
  24. Adelson, R. (2014). Nervous About Numbers: Brain Patterns Reflect Math Anxiety. Observer: Association for Psychological Science, 27, September. [Article]
  25. University of Granada. (2009, April 2). Six Out Of 10 University Students Have Math Anxiety, Spanish Study Finds. ScienceDaily. [Article]
  26. Lyons, I. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Mathematics anxiety: Separating the math from the anxiety. Cerebral Cortex, 22(9): 2102-10. [Paper]
  27. Lyons, I. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2012). When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLOS ONE.7(10): e48076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076 [Paper]


Can meditating make us remember things that didn’t happen?

False Memories

Is mindful meditation good for learning?

If you work in or near a school—or if you often read this blog1—you have surely heard about meditation’s potential benefits for just about everything: executive function, stress reduction, strategic backgammon decision making. (I think I made that last one up.)

So what do you make of an article with this title: “Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation”?

If you’re like me, such an article might give us pause. If meditation promotes “false-memory susceptibility” of any kind, it must be bad for learning. No? Time to call a halt to all those meditation programs. Am I right?

List vs. Gist

Here’s a fun game you might try at your next dinner party.

I’m going to give you a list of words, and your job is to remember them.2 Ready? Here we go:

Table, sit, legs, seat, soft, desk, arm, sofa, wood, cushion, rest, stool 

A few minutes from now, when I ask you to write all those words down again, you’re likely to remember several of them. You’re also likely to include a word that wasn’t actually on the list: chair.

After all, while the word “chair” doesn’t appear in that list, it is implied by or associated with all the other words. Tables and desks and sofas and stools often accompany chairs; people sit on chairs; chairs have legs and arms and cushions.

In other words, when you remember that list of words, you remember not only the specific items on it, but also its gist. The gist includes the idea of “chair,” even though the list itself did not.

The Beginning of the End?

Brent M. Wilson and his colleagues wondered if meditation would increase the formation of gist memories. Their thought process went like this:

Because meditation promotes judgment-free observation of the world, people who have recently meditated might be less likely to distinguish between (that is, form judgments about the source of) internally and externally generated words. If this hypothesis is correct, meditators are less likely to see differences between (external) list memories and (internal) gist memories. They are therefore likelier to include gist words when they join us for our dinner party game.

To test this idea, Brent Wilson invited 140 college undergraduates to dinner. (Ok, no. The students did this exercise in a psychology lab. You have to admit, however, that my version sounds more fun.)

For fifteen minutes, half of the participants were invited to “focus attention on their breathing without judgment”: that is, they were guided through meditation. The other half spent fifteen minutes in a mind-wandering exercise: a common control task in studies of mindful meditation.3

Sure enough, when Wilson tested the post-meditation students, they were likelier to include gist words than students in the control group. Seemingly, meditation promotes the formation of false memories.

To make doubly sure, Wilson tried another research paradigm as well. Students saw 100 words on a computer screen; each word was half of a common pair (shoe/foot, for example, or hot/cold). They were then shown another 100 words—half of which were on the first list, and half of which were pairs of words from that list. Students who meditated were likelier than those in the control group to “remember” a new word as if it were an old one.

So, there you have it: meditating increases false-memory susceptibility. By definition, anything that promotes false memories harms learning. No doubt, Wilson’s study is the beginning of the end of school-based meditation.

Let Me Count the Ways

And yet, perhaps you do have some doubts. So do I. And here’s why…

First, it’s important to emphasize that Wilson and his crew never draw the conclusion that I have implied. As teachers, we might read the title of the article and plausibly extrapolate that meditation must be a terrible idea. But the study’s authors never say so.

And, even if they did, we must keep in mind that this study is…one study. The effects of mindfulness have been researched in hundreds of studies. Given that volume, we should expect some studies to show negative results, and others to show neither benefit nor harm.

In short, we should be interested in bodies of research as well as individual studies.

Second, when we read the specifics of this individual study, we can see how small the effects really are. In that dinner party game, for example, 26% of the control group thought that they “remembered” gist words, whereas in the meditation group, 34% did. This increase is statistically significant, but hardly alarming.

(For you statistics junkies, the Cohen’s d values are 0.38 and 0.28 in the two studies I described. Again: not nothing, but not much of something.)

Third: say it with me now—context always matters.

In some classes, a gist memory might be a bad thing. For example, a colleague of mine has her students learn a song to help them memorize all English prepositions. In this case, she doesn’t want her students to add to that list by forming a gist memory. Instead, she wants them to remember all the words in the song, and only the words in the song.

Specifically: “although” might feel like a preposition, and a student’s gist memory might try to incorporate it into that list. But “although” isn’t a preposition; it’s a conjunction. For this reason, Wilson’s research suggests that my colleague might not have her students meditate just before they learn the song. In this case, gist memory detracts from learning.

In other classes, however, gist memory might be my goal. When I teach Macbeth, for example, I want my students to recognize how Shakespeare constantly pits forces of order against forces of chaos. Every page of text includes multiple instances.

For instance: Lady Macbeth is extravagantly polite to King Duncan when he arrives in her castle. And yet, her display of social order masks her determination to commit regicide—the ultimate form of social disorder.

While I certainly want my students to remember specifics from the text, I also want them to feel the bigger picture, to identify both trees and forest. In other words, the event that Wilson calls “false memory” a teacher might call “learning.” Wilson’s research, thus, suggests that I might want my students to meditate before Macbeth class.

Context always matters.

Or, to paraphrase my wise blogging colleague Rina Deshpande, “our role as educators is not to dismiss or adopt a practice right away, but to consume with care.”4

Balancing Curiosity with Skepticism

I’ve explored this study in some detail because it points to helpfully contradictory points:

A. Although mindful meditation has gotten a lot of recent buzz, teachers should pause before we make it a part of our practice. All classroom techniques have both benefits and perils, and we should seek out information on both. In this case, for example, meditation might lead to a particular sort of false memory.

B. Terminology from psychology and neuroscience—terminology such as “false memories”—might be unhelpful, even misleading. In some cases—lists of prepositions—we don’t want students to create gist memories; in other cases—themes of literary works—we do. But alarming phrases like “false memories” shouldn’t distract us from thinking through those possibilities.

In other words: “false memory” sounds like a bad result, but once we realize that “gist memories” are a potentially useful kind of “false memory,” the phrase isn’t so scary any more.

C. For this reason, we must always look at the specific actions performed by specific study participants. If an article’s title claims that “high ambient temperature reduces learning,” you might find that interesting; your classroom often seems unreasonably warm, and your students unreasonably sluggish. However, if you read the study’s particulars, you might find that mice learn a water maze faster in cold water than in warm water. Because your students aren’t mice, aren’t learning mazes, and—I’m assuming—aren’t up to their necks in water, this study may not really apply to you. Perhaps you’ll find more relevant research elsewhere…5

Once More, With Feeling

So, to return to my initial question: Is mindful meditation good for learning?

My answer is: that’s too big a question to answer sensibly. Reading studies (like Wilson’s), we can balance specific potential perils of meditation against the specific potential benefits that Rina has wisely summarized.

References & Further Reading

  1. Deshpande, R. What we’re getting right—and wrong—about mindfulness research. [Blog]
  2. Roediger, H.L., & McDermott, K.B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of experimental psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21 (4), 803-814. [Paper]
  3. Wilson, B.M., Mickes, L., Stolarz-Fantino, S., Evrard, M., & Fantino, E. (2015). Increased false memory susceptibility after mindfulness meditation. Psychological science, 26 (10), 1567-1573. [Paper]
  4. Deshpande, R. What we’re getting right—and wrong—about mindfulness research. [Blog]
  5. I made this study up too. Just for fun, here’s an article on the complex relationship between room temperature and working memory: Sellaro, R., Hommel, B., Manai, M., & Colzato, L.S. (2015). Preferred, but not objective temperature predicts working memory depletion. Psychological research, 79 (2), 282-288. [Paper]

What One Massive UK Study Says About How to Design a Great Classroom

Classroom Design

To commemorate World Teacher’s Day last year, Reuters’ photographers shared images of students around the world in different classrooms—including those without electricity, books, chairs, or walls. These photos serve as a reminder of extreme global inequality in the distribution of educational resources. But they also suggest that few physical materials are strictly necessary for building a rich world of learning.

While learning can potentially take place anywhere, aspects of the immediate physical environment, from the arrangement of desks to the air quality of the neighborhood, may impact student learning. But how much does the physical environment relate to students’ academic growth?

Designed to address this question, the Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) Project published its results in 2015 and was named one of Edutopia’s Education Research Highlight studies of the year. This study deliberately incorporated geographic and socioeconomic diversity in their sample by collecting information about 3,766 students from 1st through 6th grade at 27 schools in three districts!1

The results? Taking into account reading, writing and math scores, the HEAD study estimates that moving an “average” elementary school student in the UK from the least effective learning environment to the most effective one has the impact of more than half a school year of growth.

Rather than examining the impact of a single factor like air quality, this study examined a wide array of school and classroom features. Taking this holistic stance and measuring student growth over the course of a school year allowed the researchers to answer two other key questions:

1. Which aspects of the physical environment seem to relate most strongly to student learning?
2. What does this suggest about how to improve schools?

First and foremost, they found that the immediate classroom environment, rather than the overall school environment, was much more strongly related to student outcomes.1,2 The authors of the study point out that this may be because they conducted research in the elementary grades, where students spend the majority of the school day in a single classroom. Further research with secondary students, who spend more time in hallways and moving between many different classrooms, may support different findings.

To gather their data and break down their results, the researchers considered elements of naturalness, individualization, and complexity in the classroom environment.

Naturalness: Let there be Light

Across all aspects of classroom design in the study, lighting had the strongest link to student learning.1,2 The availability of natural daylight and/or good quality electrical lighting were important. The researchers recommend keeping classroom windows free of obstruction from furniture or displays, allowing in natural light while actively monitoring glare during the day as needed with blinds.1

Good lighting is of course critical to sight, but different levels of light also provide signals to the body related to alertness and attention via the circadian system. This system is related to sleep/wake cycles, as well as micro-shifts in hormones over the course of a day.3 In addition to supporting attention during the day, we speculate that good lighting may support learning and memory by promoting quality sleep at night.

Air quality (recently covered by my colleague Gabriella Hirsch in this post) and temperature were also strongly linked with student learning. Two aspects of classroom design with weak links to student learning include sound factors (such as noise pollution from busy nearby streets) and the availability of nature (such as natural views from classroom windows).1

Individualization: Find the Flair

Having a distinctive look and feel to the classroom was related to improvements in student outcomes.1,2 This “distinctiveness” may be accomplished by a unique, built-in aspect of the classroom, such as shape or layout. It can also be accomplished by displaying student work and/or by having special areas of the classroom with students’ names and spaces, such as drawers or lockers.

Why might classroom uniqueness and personalization matter? The authors of the HEAD study suggest these issues may increase students’ sense of classroom ownership.1 This hasn’t been shown conclusively, as many explanations are possible. One study of kindergarteners and 1st graders suggests that environmental personalization may be related to higher self-esteem.4 A separate study of adults suggests that personalization may buffer emotional exhaustion in workplace environments that have little privacy.5 While current evidence is limited, these studies support the hypothesis that personalization in working environments may support psychological well-being across the life span.

Another important aspect of classroom individualization in the HEAD study was flexibility; the authors of the study recommend that teachers create clearly defined classroom zones to support different types of activities and/or small group instruction, particularly in the younger elementary grades.1

Complexity: Hit the Sweet Spot

How visually complex should classrooms be? On average, classrooms in the HEAD study that were Spartan—filled with blank, white walls—didn’t do so well. Yet, on average, ones with every inch of the walls spattered with color didn’t do well, either. It seems that there may be a “sweet spot” between minimalism and high-intensity chaos that is associated with better student outcomes. The researchers recommend keeping 20-50% of the wall space clear and including some elements of color in the classroom environment (which also sounds aesthetically pleasing!).1

One study has found that in highly decorated classrooms, as compared to very sparse ones, kindergarteners score worse on teacher-administered tests and spend more time off task. The authors of this study suggest that visual complexity can be distracting to young children.6 However, other scientists suggest that these results were driven by the newness of the décor rather than visual complexity itself.7 No study has yet comprehensively examined the effects of various levels of classroom décor complexity on student attention across grade levels, and further research may be needed to understand and support the “sweet spot” hypothesis.

One caveat
The HEAD study aims to describe what was happening in classrooms and correlates student outcomes with different classroom types. Like other studies of this kind, it can’t establish causality between different classroom environments and student learning. They can’t rule out the possibility that something else might be driving their results. For example, it may be that teachers who attend to classroom design also tend to create effective visual displays in worksheets and/or more organized activities that better support student learning.

What’s next? Probably Pinterest
As you consider your own teaching and learning environments for the final stretch of spring quarter or the next school year, keep the design elements of naturalness (especially light), individualization/personalization, and the level of complexity in mind. And know that the time and care you put into creating a great space to work and learn may make a difference.


References & Further Reading

  1. Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89, 118–133. [Paper]
  2. Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, D. F., & Barrett, D. L. (2015). Clever Classrooms. [Report]
  3. Boyce, P., Hunter, C., & Howlett, O. (2003). The Benefits of Daylight through Windows. Lighting Research Center, 1(1), 1–88. [Report]
  4. Maxwell, L. E., & Chmielewski, E. J. (2008). Environmental personalization and elementary school children’s self-esteem. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 143–153. [Paper]
  5. Laurence, G. A., Fried, Y., & Slowik, L. H. (2013). “My space”: A moderated mediation model of the effect of architectural and experienced privacy and workspace personalization on emotional exhaustion at work. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 144–152. [Paper]
  6. Fisher, A. V, Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362–1370. [Paper]
  7. Imuta, K., & Scarf, D. (2014). When too much of a novel thing may be what’s “ bad ”: commentary on Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014), 5 (December), 1–2. [Commentary]
  • Evans, G. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annu Rev Psychol, 57, 423–451. [Paper]

Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD

Educators have long known that students’ emotional experiences greatly impact their learning. Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang offers a neurobiological account of why this may be the case. In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Immordino-Yang explains in a series of essays that the brain constructs complex emotional experiences that help us learn, socialize, and act morally by coopting the same brain regions that help us regulate our viscera and basic survival-related mechanisms. She argues that, contrary to centuries old theory that emotions interfere with rational thinking, our “emotional rudders” steer our rational actions and ability to learn. Learning occur through a complex interplay of our biological beings, psychological selves, and cultural contexts.

Immordino-Yang is uniquely positioned to offer insights from affective neuroscience for education because of her interdisciplinary background and experiences; she was a junior high school science teacher and currently is a human development and affective neuroscience researcher, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the rising president of the International Mind Brain and Education Society. She encourages educators to join with her in a critical conversation about how to build bridges between an understanding of the complex process of students’ learning and feelings in real-world classroom settings and the lab-based neuroscientific research about the brain’s construction of emotion.

Immordino-Yang argues then that our ability to learn is contingent upon our ability to feel emotions. For example, individuals who suffered brain damage in a part of the frontal lobe that impacted their social and emotional behavior (but not IQ) were subsequently unable to develop intuitions in new learning situations to guide rational thought or action. Students benefit when emotions, such as interest and inspiration, are harnessed in the classroom and when educators respect students’ emotional intuitions. It is not surprising that these social emotional experiences matter so deeply for learning and creativity when we consider that our ability to feel these emotions is evolutionarily entwined with our ability to regulate our basic life-supporting physiological functioning (e.g., breathing).

In an fMRI experiment Immordino-Yang found that feeling admiration or compassion for other people activated brain networks associated with inwardly-directed thoughts rather than thoughts about the outside world. As such, she constructs a compelling argument that supporting students in developing their ability to reason complexly about the future and about social, emotional, and moral quandaries may necessitate giving students time to reflect and direct their thoughts inward.

Immordino-Yang offers a fascinating case-study about the affective skill, emotional prosody, and general functioning of two boys—Nico and Brooke—who have each had one hemisphere of their brains removed. These boys are both remarkably successful and even show a good deal of proficiency with tasks typically thought to be governed by the hemisphere that they have lost. For neurologically typical students these boys’ ability suggests the power of capitalizing on one’s unique strengths and the importance of reframing problems such that they are solvable given the skills that one possess. Immordino-Yang suggests also that these boys show that our emotional experiences affect us throughout the learning processes—even in the way we come to gather information when learning. Drawing on her work with Nico and Brooke as well as recent advances in our understanding of the brain’s mirror neuron areas, which maps both one’s own actions and the observation of another’s’ actions, Immordino-Yang argues that our interpretation of actions is culturally situated. Students must understand a teacher’s goals and intentions and develop an appropriate plan for their own actions.

Immordino-Yang concludes with a timely discussion about the way in which social and affective neuroscience can help us understand how to facilitate interactions with digital devices. The more the human-computer interaction is like an authentic social interaction—in which goals are transparent and each party has a role in shaping the exchange—the more satisfied people are likely to be with the design of the technology.

Howard Gardner aptly summarized Immordino-Yang’s strength in the foreword of this fascinating book: “Mary Helen stands out for the way in which she has drawn on the findings and perspectives of [multi-disciplinary] scholars, initiated important lines of research in these areas, brought together her work with those of other innovative scholars into original powerful syntheses, and articulated the educational implications of cutting edge work in psychology, neurology, and other strands of the cognitive sciences.”


Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2015) Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.