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.


From the Oscars to the Classroom: Why Fictional Characters Matter

Little Asian girl reading a book with lovely Persian kitten on i

This year’s Oscars were fascinating not just because Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his well-deserved gold statue, but also because it reminded us that storytelling brings people together. The point was repeatedly made: no matter who we are, we all love a good story.

But what’s a good story if we can’t really identify with it? This year’s Oscar nominees notoriously lacked diversity and representation of all people–race, gender, sexual orientation.

Why does it matter? It matters because seeing ourselves and seeing our story being told is affirming. It helps us deal with the issues we face in our lives. It helps us feel understood, less lonely, and empowered to change.

The movie industry and the media in general play a huge role in today’s society. They shape what we see and who we identify with. When they fail to tell our story, or if they represent us in a meaningless way, it can feel as if we don’t matter.

But what we often forget is that schools play an equally–if not bigger–role in helping students understand how the world represents them and others, and how self-examination can lead to personal growth.

School is a catalyst for personal change

In a recent talk at Learning & the Brain, Sir Ken Robinson gave this summary of the aims of education:

“[Education aims] to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens”.

In short, school shapes the adults we see in the world. At the same time, children don’t leave their personal issues at the school’s doorstep, but instead carry them around throughout their school day. Their ability to navigate these issues may be a better predictor of adult outcomes than their grade on a standardized test. If the aim of education is to prepare our next generation of citizens, then carving out space to help students cope with life issues in the classroom should be as important as their academic performance.

Research has long showed that income, nutrition, racial issues, emotional trauma, or bullying can affect brain development and student performance1. Unfortunately, many students don’t have a safe place to work through the complex emotions that they feel once they get to school.

One way to address some of these non-classroom issues is by modeling attitudes and providing opportunities for students to identify with similar individuals and to be exposed to individuals that are different from them–even if they are fictional.

It’s about bringing the lessons from the Oscars to the classroom. It’s about building a safe environment for students to explore characters’ personalities, struggles, and desires.

Modeling through fiction

Thoughtfully incorporating characters or character-driven stories into the classroom can be powerful for two reasons: 1) students can feel empowered by seeing characters like themselves or characters that are different from them (whether it is gender, age, race, abilities) navigate situations successfully, and 2) situations that are difficult to talk about can be more easily explored through trusted characters.

Many of us think of fiction as a leisure activity. But really, fiction can contribute greatly to cognitive development. A group of researchers describes it best:

“Of course, we can understand others by interacting with them, but in real life misunderstanding often causes severe upsets. Fictional literature, in which we can misunderstand without suffering negative consequences, may be a gentler teacher”.2

Often, we stop at the end of the story. However, when we do that we miss the exciting opportunity to analyze, extend, or imagine interactions with the characters and situations. That’s where the real, practical learning can happen. Fictional characters lead to imagination, empathy, or pretend-play. These are all intrinsic parts of growing up and learning about the world that surrounds us.

What the research says

The power of characters in forming attachments and enabling students to work through problems with “someone” who is like them can yield many benefits across educational and character-building domains. Some studies have shown these benefits, including the following findings:

  • The guided reading of fiction and poetry–sometimes called bibliotherapy–is relevant to therapeutic needs. It is said to act on the same mechanisms as cognitive behavioral therapy3. This supports the idea that, in the right setting and with the right facilitation, reading fiction and identifying with characters can help students understand their own behaviors and change them accordingly.
  • People imitate others that are self-similar. A study found that the race of a model or actor can influence neural activity during imitation4. This underlies the importance of finding diverse characters that will be relevant to all students’ experiences.
  • Authentic representations of disabilities in literature can help nurture social acceptance for children who are not familiar with disabilities.5 Familiarity is key here: children with disabilities can benefit from seeing themselves represented in media, which can in turn make them visible to other children, and other children can understand more about a disabled individual’s experiences.
  • A study looking at character education in the social studies classroom showed that it helped students look inward at their own values, as well as at their beliefs, behaviors, and interactions with others.6

Conducting character analysis

It can be difficult to work with fictional or character-driven texts when they are not necessarily valued in the curriculum. Here are a few tips to offer students the opportunity to discuss how they feel and connect to others.

  1. Build vocabulary: most students are familiar with basic emotions but might get stuck with more complex ones. Here are some free emotion charts to print for your classroom [link].
  2. Distinguish traits: students need to differentiate between “outside” traits (physical expressions, appearance) and “inside” traits (emotions, thoughts, feelings) in order to truly understand how characters are. The movie Inside Out is a great example of this [link]
  3. Act the part: role playing, or “being an actor” can help students become active participants in the learning process. It will allow them to take risks and explore positive behaviors they hadn’t thought about before.

Resources for teachers

Below are some resources for teachers who wish to incorporate more character-driven stories in their classrooms.

  • Books that build character [link]
  • Books that teach empathy [link]
  • Books that inspire empathy [link]
  • Books that build self-esteem [link]
  • Books with characters who have physical or learning disabilities [link]
  • Movies that inspire empathy [link]

We have to be thoughtful about how school helps student grow into the adults that will lead the world of tomorrow. Helping students to understand each other and cope with the big picture issues that impact their academic performance is essential to their personal growth.

How do you help students deal with personal issues in your classroom? Share tips and suggestions below.

References & Further Reading

  1. Wolfe, P. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. ASCD. [Book]
  2. Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Moldoveanu, M. C. (2013). Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy. Scientific Study of Literature, 3(1), 28-47. [Paper]
  3. Montgomery, P., & Maunders, K. (2015). The effectiveness of creative bibliotherapy for internalizing, externalizing, and prosocial behaviors in children: A systematic review. Children and youth services review, 55, 37-47. [Paper]
  4. Losin, E. A. R., Iacoboni, M., Martin, A., Cross, K. A., & Dapretto, M. (2012). Race modulates neural activity during imitation. Neuroimage, 59(4), 3594-3603. [Paper]
  5. Rieger, A., & McGrail, E. (2015). Exploring Children’s Literature With Authentic Representations of Disability. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 51(1), 18-23. [Paper]
  6. Barry, A. L., Rice, S., & McDuffie-Dipman, M. (2013). Books with potential for character education and a literacy-rich social studies classroom: A research study. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 37(1), 47-61. [Paper]

Why Your Learning Style Isn’t Helping You Learn

I have a confession to make: I was an avid “visual learner” all through grade school and high school. No matter the assignment or the subject, if I could make a diagram or chart about it, I would. I even dabbled with verbal learning in elementary school: my Dad and I would make up songs about the words that would be on my weekly spelling tests and sing them in the car on the way to school.

So did my penchant for (sometimes overly creative) learning styles help? Possibly, but not for the reasons you’d think.

Over the past few years, new research within neuroscience and psychology has begun to show that teaching in a person’s preferred learning style actually has no positive effect on their learning. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy one style more than another, but contrary to popular belief, enjoying it more does not appear to strongly predict success.

You’re not alone

When I first discovered the mounting evidence against catering to preferred learning styles, I was pretty surprised. My entire educational life had been structured around this idea. It seems almost intuitive to believe in such a concept. Not only do most of us have a desire to learn and to be seen as unique, but we also have a preference for how we receive information. On top of that, many of our teachers reinforced these ideas almost daily in their lesson plans.

But who can blame them?

With pressure from parents who understandably want their children to receive a tailored education, and teachers who are sympathetic to each and every students’ needs, preferred learning styles – or more specifically, the idea that we learn better when the information we are receiving is customized to our preferred way of learning – fills these voids. Not only are students receiving information in a unique way, but teachers also begin to feel that the information they are teaching is finally being comprehended by all of their students.

In 2014, an international survey1 found that 96% of teachers all over the world believed in the value of teaching to preferred learning styles. That’s an amazingly high number that publishers and corporations have taken advantage of: with hundreds of popular books on the topic, companies trying to sell you ways to measure learning styles, teacher training programs, and international associations, no wonder so many people believe in this idea. This idea seems so true, that many researchers have spent tremendous effort exploring it, while others seem to simply believe it without sufficient evidence – in the past five years alone more than 360 scientific papers have cited learning styles.

The evidence is clear

In 2008, a team of cognitive neuroscientists decided to review all of the scientific evidence that had been gathered or published about learning styles – both for and against the concept. The results were clear: teaching in a person’s preferred learning style had no beneficial effect on their learning. As one of the researchers put it 2, “the contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing”.

So, is there any evidence that supports the learning style concept? A little, but very few studies 2 have produced significant results. While studies in support of the preferred learning style idea should be able to show that people of one preferred learning style learn better when taught in this specific way, most of the evidence 3 actually contradicts this.

When researchers attempted to compare two groups, and therefore two preferred learning styles, in order to see the rate at which these groups learned the same material, they often found that both groups performed better when they were both taught in one particular style, rather than what they preferred. Why is this? This research suggests that the most effective way for people to learn is actually based on the material being taught to them and not how they prefer to learn. Imagine if you were only ever taught long division verbally, or if you attempted to learn a new language with only picture cards – things would be pretty difficult.

Evidence has shown that the questionnaires used are unreliable, mainly because they rely heavily on an individual’s self-reporting. While individuals may think that they are learning better when taught in their preferred style, the results actually show that there is a very poor correlation with this and their actual performance. Interestingly, a more accurate predictor of someone’s performance is actually their performance on past tests and assignments, rather than their learning style aligning with your teaching style.

Learning Styles, Multiple Representations & Individual Differences

So why are so many so attached to the idea of learning styles? And why did I believe that making up songs with my dad was so much more effective than reading a textbook?

One answer, it seems, is not the difference between the way we learn, but the ways in which we are similar. Research has shown that most typically developing people will respond strongly to multiple modes of teaching. In other words, if a proponent of learning styles decides to teach the same material using visuals, activities, and words, everyone in the class is likely to benefit from the multiple representations of information. This is a concept explored more fully by many research groups and non-profits, such as CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Platform.

In other words, rather than trying to tailor curriculum to each student’s “learning style”, it may be more helpful (and efficient) to incorporate some of the strategies that are likely to improve learning for all students – such as getting students to explain concepts to themselves or aloud (see my previous article here). Research has shown that almost all students learn from a mixture of verbal and visual, rather than one alone. Other research 4 has found that learning can be improved by combining different activities that relate to the same subject, such as having students participate in something creative like drawing or painting along with more passive tasks like reading. In their book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Hattie and Yates emphasize this in the following passage:

“We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, not just some of us. Laboratory studies reveal that we all learn when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media.”

While there’s very little evidence that supports the benefits of matching your teaching style to your students’ preferred learning style, there is evidence that shows that tailoring teaching style in other ways may improve learning. For example, one study 5 found that those new to a subject learn better from studying examples, whereas individuals with more knowledge of the subject learn better by solving problems themselves.

There are countless other factors that may have an impact on an individual’s learning trajectory (see Center for Individual Opportunity), often referred to as “Individual Differences”. Unfortunately, these differences can’t be accounted for based on preferred learning styles, and by releasing our grip on this myth, we can work towards building strategies based on more compelling evidence.

Teach to students’ intellectual weaknesses, rather than their strengths

Most importantly, in many cases, this isn’t just a harmless misunderstanding. Perpetuating the myth of preferred learning styles could actually harm students more than it can help them. One important point Scott Lilienfield and colleagues have emphasized in their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, is that the concept of preferred learning style actually “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses.”

This suggests an alternative approach: rather than catering to how students think they learn best; challenge them! Allow students to focus on their shortcomings rather than to avoid them. The differences between students aren’t defined by their learning style, but are determined by their prior knowledge and the patterns they recognize while learning.

And while it is still important for teachers to be attentive to the individual and unique differences of each student, evidence on learning styles suggests that they aren’t producing the results students deserve. Rather than putting all of your effort into a teaching method that isn’t supported by science, use your limited resources to use methods that have been proven effective, such as analogies 6 or praising effort instead of intelligence 7.

And most importantly, don’t stop tailoring your teaching style! Just do it wisely.



  1. Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience Nat Rev Neurosci,15(12), 817-824. [Paper]
  2. Pashler, H., Mcdaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest,9(3), 105-119. [Paper]
  3. Massa, L. J., & Mayer, R. E. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences,16(4), 321-335. [Paper]
  4. Schmeck, A., Mayer, R., Opfermann, M., Pfeiffer, V., & Leutner, D. (2014). Drawing pictures during learning from scientific text: testing the generative drawing effect and the prognostic drawing effect Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39(4), 275-286 [Paper]
  5. Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23-31 [Paper]
  6. Glynn, S. M. (1991) Explaining Science Concepts: A Teaching-with-Analogies Model in Glynn, S. M., Yeany, R. H., & Britton, B. K. (Eds). The Psychology of learning science. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates. [Book]
  7. Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development,84(5), 1526-1541 [Paper]


Neurotoxicity: The Impact of Lead Exposure on Learning

It’s buzzing all over the news: the heroic act of pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and her colleagues bringing to light the dangerous effects of lead-contamination in Flint’s water system.1

Lead is a long-known neurotoxin with especially damaging effects on adult and child cognitive development (and therefore reason for serious alarm in Flint, Michigan).

Lead toxicity in drinking water is measured in “parts per billion” (ppb) with most researchers claiming that no amount of lead is acceptable for ingestion or exposure. Even with the generous consideration of 5 ppb in drinking water as “cause for concern,” extreme circumstances in Flint show that hundreds of houses have registered at 27 ppb in their water supply. Some homes fall between a totally jaw-dropping 1,000 and 5,000 ppb– what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers “toxic waste.” For an alarming visual explanation, read more by Christopher Ingraham here.2

The effects of lead-contaminated water and environmental lead exposure are exceptionally harmful to adult health and even more so to young growing children. In this article, we’ll review the meaning of neurotoxicity and expose research on lead’s long-term harm to cognitive development.

What is “neurotoxicity”?

Neurotoxicity is damage caused by particular natural or artificial substances (also called “neurotoxicants”) on healthy nervous system functioning. Depending on severity, a neurotoxin can kill nerve cells, therefore diminishing development and function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system.3

One of many concerns with neurotoxins like lead is their often invisible, immediate symptoms. When effects do appear soon or later, symptoms can range from impairment of physical motor skills such as manual dexterity and leg paralysis to cognitive and behavioral problems. If severe enough, neurotoxin exposure can be fatal.

Lead’s long-term effect on cognitive function

In a groundbreaking longitudinal study led by Dr. Brian Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University, declines in learning and memory were found to be associated with lead exposure many years after exposure took place, suggesting that lead’s dangerous impact on the body is progressive and lasting.

Over the course of three years in the study, researchers tested 535 former lead workers and 118 controls (participants who had not been exposed to lead) for cognitive decline each year using a neurobehavioral battery. Additionally, blood tests measured amount of lead present in the tibia bone (one of two bones between the knee and foot) to estimate “peak tibia lead,” or levels of lead in the tibia at the last time of exposure to lead. Lead is usually eliminated from bones over years, which can mask the severity of original lead exposure. For this reason, instead of solely observing current lead levels researchers wanted to account for level of toxicity during the time of peak lead exposure to see if this had any impact on cognitive decline.

Schwartz’s longitudinal study offered two very important findings: (1) Controlling for age, former lead workers (most of whom had not worked with lead for at least 16 years) had much larger annual declines in neurobehavioral test scores and cognitive decline than did the controls who had not been exposed to lead. (2) Peak tibia lead levels in former lead workers predicted their annual cognitive decline in learning and memory, executive function, and manual dexterity. The higher the peak lead level, the steeper the rate of cognitive decline.4

Given evidence of lead’s toxic impact on adult cognition even decades after lead exposure, imagine the impact on cognitive development of young growing children.

Lead’s impact on child cognitive development

Over the last twenty years, the amount of lead required in a child’s blood to consider her at an “elevated blood lead concentration” has gradually dropped. In other words, with each passing year it’s becoming clearer that amounts of lead once considered negligible in a child’s blood are actually severely harmful for body and brain development.

A number of studies have illustrated how extreme levels of lead concentration in the blood can strongly affect intellectual processing and behavior in young children and, in some cases cause encephalopathy, a brain-altering disease. In more recent research, however, we see that as seemingly small an amount as 10 micrograms of lead (.01 thousandths of a gram) per deciliter of blood can have persistent and potentially irreversible negative effects on health and cognitive development in children.

In a longitudinal study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, nearly 200 young children previously identified blood lead concentrations of <10 micrograms per deciliter were assessed first at age three and again at age 5 for IQ (memory, vocabulary, spatial pattern analysis, and quantitative reasoning). Blood lead levels (BLLs) were measured every six months throughout the study.

Results revealed that the higher the levels of lead in a child’s blood, regardless of how it was measured in the study, the lower the IQ score of the child. Controlling for a variety of extraneous influences, peak blood lead concentration, average lead concentration through the first five years of life, and blood lead concentration on the day of IQ testing all had a significant inverse correlation with a child’s IQ. In other words, the higher the markers of lead exposure, the lower the markers of intelligence. An important focus of this study was confirming that any amount of lead in the blood– even very low traces – had an inverse association with IQ in children.5

In a related study in Mexico City, researchers were interested in lead’s impact on mental and psychomotor development on infants. Among one and two year-olds whose blood lead concentrations were less than 10 micrograms per deciliter, researchers found an inverse relationship between blood lead levels and their mental development and psychomotor development. These findings further support that, even with previously considered acceptable amounts of lead exposure, lead’s neurotoxic effects on mental and motor development are present in infancy.6

In studies such as the aforementioned, evidence from measuring blood lead levels and cognitive performance strongly suggest that infants and young children are at high risk from any level of lead exposure, but causal claims are tough to make from observational research.

Research in neuroscience to continues to explore the neurological deficits caused by lead exposure. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, scientists observed the neurological effects of lead exposure on embryonic development of zebrafish, an abundant fish species that shares 70% of our genetic code and is now commonly used in medical research.7 The study revealed that zebrafish exposed to lead commonly displayed symptoms such as slow swimming movements and impaired escape action. Scientists Dou and Zhang attribute these findings to inhibited neurogenesis (nerve cell birth) and increased apoptosis (nerve cell death) resulting from lead-induced neurotoxicity.8

While the results of this animal study offer some insight about the harmful effects of lead on neurodevelopment, it’s unnerving to realize just how profound the damage may be on the health of Flint citizens.

How can we help Flint through the crisis?

It’s easy to feel powerless against lead contamination given the research, but there are ways to help. In a recent article featured on the Huffington Post, Sandra Grossman shares quick and impactful ways to support Flint amid its emergency.9

  • To support immediate need of clean water in Flint, consider donating to the United Way of Genesee County. 100% of donations will be used toward purchasing filters and bottled water that goes directly to Flint communities.
  • To support ongoing research on child health and development including interventions for lead contamination, consider donating to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund. Mona Hanna-Attisha herself is the founding donor.

For more ways to help, read the full article here.

In light of the evidence and the 8,000+ children exposed to lead-contaminated water, it’s clear why Dr. Hanna-Attisha is regarded as hero.


References & Further Reading

  1. Gupta, S., Tinker, B., and Hume, T. (January 28, 2016). “‘Our mouths were ajar’: Doctor’s fight to expose Flint’s water crisis.” [Article]
  2. Ingraham, Christopher. (January 15, 2016). “This is how toxic Flint’s water really is.” The Washington Post. [Article]
  3. National Institute of Health: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NINDS Neurotoxicity Information. Retrieved on January 31, 2016. [Link]
  4. Schwartz, B., Stewart, W., Bolla, K., Simon, P., Bandeen-Roche, K., Gordon, P., . . . Todd, A. (2000). Past adult lead exposure is associated with longitudinal decline in cognitive function. Neurology, 55(8), 1144-50. [Article]
  5. Canfield RL, Henderson CR, Cory-Slechta DA, Cox C, Jusko TA, Lanphear BP. 2003. Intellectual impairment in children with blood lead concentrations below 10 microg per deciliter. N Engl J Med 348(16):1517–1526. [Article]
  6. Téllez-Rojo, M., Bellinger, D., Arroyo-Quiroz, C., Lamadrid-Figueroa, H., Mercado-García, A., Schnaas-Arrieta, L., . . . Hu, H. (2006). Longitudinal associations between blood lead concentrations lower than 10 microg/dL and neurobehavioral development in environmentally exposed children in Mexico City. Pediatrics, 118(2), E323-30. [Article]
  7. McKie, Robin. (2013). How the diminutive zebrafish is having a big impact on medical research. The Guardian. Retrieved on 2-1-16. [Article]
  8. Dou, Changming, & Zhang, Jie. (2011). Effects of lead on neurogenesis during zebrafish embryonic brain development. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 194, 277-282. [Article]
  9. Grossman, Sarah. (Januray 20, 2016). “5 ways you can help Flint, Michigan, amid the water crisis.” The Huffington Post. [Article]



March 24, 2016


Kristin Dunay

(781)-449-4010 x 104



Researchers in cognitive neuroscience and psychology have shown that imaginative play, creativity and curiosity are essential for learning. Some have found that reading imaginative fiction, such as the Harry Potter series, can improve reading and empathy in students. Yet, in an age of standardized testing, the most important elements for learning in schools has been overlooked or discarded: the desire, curiosity and passion to learn through children’s imagination and creativity.

Next month, a distinguished group of cognitive scientists, psychologists and innovative educators will gather before 1,200 educators at the Learning & the Brain® Conference in Orlando, FL, to explore the science behind childhood imagination, creativity and curiosity and how they can transform schools, classrooms and learning.

SPONSORS:  The program is co-sponsored by several organizations including the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, the Mind, Brain and Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Comer School Development Program at the Yale University School of MedicineThe Dana Foundation’s Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, The Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Edutopia and The George Lucas Educational Foundation, the Center for Childhood Creativity, the Learning & the Brain Foundation and both national associations of elementary and secondary school principals. The event is produced by Public Information Resources, Inc.

Renowned Speaker Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, will present on “Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education From the Ground Up” during a keynote on Friday, April 8. Sir Ken Robinson, one of the world’s leading speakers on creativity and innovation in education and author of Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (2015) and Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2001), will make a case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity, passion and imagination.

In addition to Sir Robinson, the program features some other leading experts on the learning sciences including:

Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, Cognitive Scientist; Scientific Director, The Imagination Institute; Researcher and Lecturer, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania; Creator and Host of the Psychology Podcast; Blogger, “Beautiful Minds” at Scientific American; Author, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (2013); Co-Author, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (2015) and The Philosophy of Creativity (2014); Co-Editor, The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talents or Practice (2013)

Susan L. Engel, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychology; Founding Director, Program in Teaching, Williams College; Author, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood (2015), Your Child’s Path: Unlocking the Mysteries of Who Your Child Will Become (2013), “Is Curiosity Vanishing” (2009, Journal of Child Psychiatry) and “Harry’s Curiosity” (2007, Psychology of Harry Potter) 

Todd B. Kashdan, PhD, Professor of Psychology; Senior Scientist, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University; Author, The Power of Negative Emotions (2015), “3 Ideas to Prevent Schools from Killing Creativity, Curiosity and Critical Thinking” (2011, Psychology Today) and Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life (2010)

Helen Hadani, PhD, Developmental Psychologist; Head of Research, Center for Childhood Creativity; Former Instructor, University of California, Davis and San Francisco State University; Former Product Developer for Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog 

Angela Maiers, MA, Educator; Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, Choose2Matter, Inc.; President, Maiers Educational Services; Author, Classroom Habitudes: Teaching Learning Habits and Attitudes in the 21st Century Classroom (2012, Revised Edition); Co-Author, The Passion Driven Classroom: A Framework for Teaching and Learning (2010)

Marc A. Brackett, PhD, Director, Center for Emotional Intelligence; Senior Researcher Scientist in Psychology; Faculty Fellow, Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University; Co-Creater of RULER; Co-Author, “Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Creativity” (2007, Journal of Personality)

WHEN: Thursday, April 7 – Saturday, April 9. Conference begins 1:30 PM. General registration is $579 through March 31 and $599 after March 31. Contact Kristin Dunay at 781-449-4010 x 104 for media passes.
WHERE: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando, Orlando, FL
Learning & the Brain® is a series of educational conferences that brings the latest research in the learning sciences and their potential applications to education to the wider educational community. Since its inception in 1999, more than 50,000 people in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago have attended this series.


The Cognitive Benefits of Quizzing Your Students

quizzing students

On some days, I just want my students to pay attention. Really, is this too much to ask?

“Attention” can be difficult indeed, and for multiple reasons. In the field of psychology, that is, “attention” includes several subcategories.

First of all: are my students awake enough to pay attention? Or, perhaps Red Bull overload has made them too awake?

In either case, I can help students pay attention by moderating their levels of alertness. (“Alertness” is one subcategory” of “attention.”)

If they are already appropriately alert, then perhaps the world around them has too many distractions: the smell of formaldehyde in the Biology classroom, or the sound of the squeaky door outside my English classroom, or the symphonic melodies of text message DINGS resounding down the corridors. If my students orient to these distractions, they can’t orient to me. (“Orienting” is another subcategory of “attention.)

In these cases, I can make attention likelier by reducing these disorienting stimuli: I’ll lemon pledge the lab, oil those hinges, and persuade teens that texts aren’t that important. (How hard can this be?)

But perhaps I need to look in the mirror. Perhaps the problem is that my own teaching isn’t quite zippy enough. All those other stimuli might be disorienting because, frankly, my own work doesn’t pull students in. What, then, can I do?

Beyond the Basics

This question is, I suppose, among the most basic a teacher can ask: how do I make my teaching interesting enough for my students to notice? In a perfect world, intrinsic motivation would keep them panting for more knowledge, but few schools in that perfect world are hiring.

Here’s one excellent source of ideas: in Teach Like a Champion1 Doug Lemov offers dozens of practical strategies to improve a teacher’s craft. From lesson plans to behavioral expectations, Lemov has advice drawn from years of observing highly effective teachers.

Throughout TLAC, Lemov offers strategies to make classroom content the center of attention. For example, he argues (persuasively) for the advantages of cold calling—as long as the technique is used correctly—and offers multiple ways to extend the wait time between questions and answers.

These techniques, and others he outlines, go well beyond the basics in helping teachers make classroom content our students’ focus.

WAAAAY Beyond the Basics

Lemov’s answers, although interesting and helpful, don’t draw on research from neuroscience and psychology—certainly not with the emphasis that Learning and the Brain readers expect. What brain research, then, can most helpfully answer this question?

For me, one research finding stands out for its surprising usefulness. Karl Szpunar’s lab looked at the effect of quizzes on attention, and his results certainly upended my predictions.

Here’s the setup:2

Szpunar had two groups of students watch an online lecture on statistics. (As many graduate students know, it can be a real challenge to make Stats an interesting topic, so this video serves as a useful test case of our teaching problem.) For both groups, the lecture video was divided into 4 segments. One group took a brief break between those 4 segments, but the second group took a short-answer quiz on the factual information they had just learned.

While students were watching these videos, Szpunar’s team interrupted them occasionally to ask if they were paying attention, or if their minds were wandering. In other words, were they orienting to the lecture, or were they disoriented?

And, after the video was over, they gathered two more kinds of data. First, they had students take a test on the lecture, to see who had absorbed more of the material. And second, they asked students to rate the experience in a number of ways. (We’ll get back to these ratings in just a moment…)

Good, Better, Worst

When looking over the data, Szpunar’s team first wanted to know what effect the short quizzes had on mind wandering; that is, did the students who took those quizzes focus on the lecture more or less than the students who simply took a break between the video segments?

Answer: the quizzes cut the mind-wandering in half. Students who took a break between video segments said they were mind-wandering 39% of the time, whereas students who took quizzes said so 19% of the time.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that if I know I’m about to be quizzed on something, I’m much likelier to attend to it.

Did those quizzes affect how much students ultimately learned? Szpunar’s data show that quizzed students did much (MUCH) better on the final test as well. Group 1 students—who took the break between video segments—scored, on average, 59% on that test; Group 2 students—who took short quizzes—scored an 84%.

Because they were taking quizzes, they were focusing more on the lecture; because they were focusing more, they got a B on the final test, not an F.

So, the good news is that, at least in certain contexts, short quizzes make it likelier that my students will focus on the content that we’re covering (and, perhaps, less likely that they’ll focus on that text message). And the better news is, they learn more when they do so.

But the classroom implication of this research could be alarming indeed: do we really want to be adding more testing pressure to the classroom? Do we—in this age obsessed with high stakes testing—want to have still more tests?

Anxiety is Underrated

I promised we’d get back to ratings. You remember that Szpunar had students rate their experience: in particular, he had them rate their anxiety levels. And the students in the Quiz Group were less anxious…not more anxious, LESS anxious…than those in the Break Group. (Their average anxiety rating was a 2, compared to a 3.75 for those who didn’t take quizzes.)

We associate tests and stress so readily that these results seem baffling. How can it be that quizzes reduced stress? Two answers stand out.

First: the quizzes helped the students monitor their own progress. Every fifteen minutes or so, they got feedback about their own understanding. If they knew the answer to a question, then they could be confident that they were in fact learning the material. And, if they didn’t know the answer, they could look to pick up that information in later segments of the lecture. Quizzes provided feedback that boosted confidence.

Second: the quizzes themselves were low stakes and formative. The quizzes weren’t graded, or fussed over, or factored into class averages. The students simply answered a few questions, and then kept going with the lecture. The tone surrounding the quizzes shaped the students’ experience of them.

Szpunar’s research, although surprising, aligns with other studies on the effect of frequent assessment. When Frank Leeming used daily tests instead of one term-end exam in his college Psychology class, his students were skeptical.3 (You’d be skeptical too if you had to prepare for a test each class.) By the end of the term, however, he found that they learned more than students had in previous years, that they preferred daily tests to final exams, and that they recommended he continue the test-a-day plan in future years.

Lab to Classroom

In my experience, frequent low-stakes quizzing creates a virtuous cycle. The feedback that quizzes provide—here’s what I do know, here’s what I don’t—gives students confidence in the work that they’re doing effectively; it also helps them focus specifically on the problems they identify. Their confidence and focus, in turn, motivate them to work more effectively. And they see the results of this redoubled effort when their quiz grades improve.

In other words, frequent, low-stakes quizzes help create the intrinsic motivation we typically expect to find only in that perfect world school—the one that isn’t hiring.

Two final caveats.

First, the tone of these formative quizzes really does matter. We can tell our students why we’re using them, and even get feedback from them on their usefulness. If they feel burdensome and alarming, then they might cause more harm than good.

Second, note that both of the studies quoted here focus on college students: students who have seen enough academic success to get into college, and whose self-regulatory skills have allowed them to do so. As is always true with this kind of research, teachers must translate the ideas into our own contexts: the school where we teach, the students and the material we teach, and our own personalities.

But for now: put away the Red Bull, shelve the Lemon Pledge, and start thinking of fun quizzes to elevate your students’ attention.


References & Further Reading

  1. Lemov, Doug. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [Book]
  2. Szpunar, K.K., Khan, N.Y., and Schacter, D.L. (2013) “Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16) 6313-6317. [Paper]
  3. Leeming, Frank C. “The exam-a-day procedure improves performance in psychology classes.” Teaching of Psychology3 (2002): 210-212. [Paper]

Messy Science: How to Prepare Students for the Real World of Evidence

messy science

Last year, a paper in Science led to a public spotlight on the scientific process. It pointed to a problem that’s being called the replication crisis (or reproducibility crisis) that has led many to wonder: Is science broken?

Here’s what happened: The Open Science Collaboration asked labs across the nation to repeat others’ experiments as closely as possible and share their results. The original experiments were taken from papers published in three widely respected, peer-reviewed journals in psychology and cognitive science. Of the 100 experiments that were chosen for replication, 97 had statistically significant results when initially published.

But only 36 of the replications of those studies reported significant results.1

Most research studies use tests to gauge how likely the results researchers found are due to chance. “Significant results” means that the results passed those tests according to a generally agreed upon rule of thumb, which is often what’s called a “p-value” of at least .05. Getting a p-value of .05 roughly translates to “there is a 5% chance you would get these results even though they are not accurate.” Using p-values to determine “significant results” is the standard (though there is a lot of longstanding controversy about this practice2) so this was one of the primary measures in the big replication study.

So, statistically speaking, only replicating “significance” in 36 of the original results doesn’t mean that all of the original studies were wrong. If all of the studies were replicated a third time, we would probably see a different array of studies with significant results. This is one reason why replication over time is such an important theoretical part of the scientific process, though replication studies, especially costly ones, are rarely a priority because of the pressures on modern researchers.

This mega-experiment does suggest that many (perhaps even a majority!) of psychology’s published results might be due to error or chance. And this problem isn’t limited to psychology—the biomedical research community is dealing with serious replication challenges, too.*

Of course, even replication studies can be prone to messiness and error, as many researchers, such as Dr. Dan Gilbert of Harvard University, have contested these results in recent weeks. You can follow the ongoing debate here.

The replication crisis brings to light the reality that the answers to many important questions are buried in messy evidence. Educators will influence how the next generation of scientists and citizens make decisions on challenging issues (sometimes called “wicked problems”) at the intersection of science and society, including climate change and global health crises. In classrooms everywhere, students from Pre-K to college are learning how to understand, integrate, and evaluate evidence.

Here are three ideas on how we can do this better, in all kinds of classrooms.

  1. Tackle conflicting evidence

In one classroom, students listened to the popular podcast Serial, which reports on the true story of Adnan Syed, convicted of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999.4 The students dissected its transcripts, mapping out a maze of inconsistent claims and evidence to examine their beliefs about Syed’s guilt or innocence.

Can students learn from this approach? Many teachers worry that introducing conflicting information only confuses students. However, research in higher education suggests that tasks with “cognitive conflict” (involving different viewpoints and no single answer) can lead to better mastery of the basic concepts5, though it’s unclear whether this is true for younger children.

Tackling conflicting information might support deeper learning of the content material, while giving students a chance to develop critical thinking skills in ways that closely mirror the challenges of ambiguity in the professional workplace.


  1. Consider student’s developing ideas about causation, probability, and statistics

What were Juliet’s motives? What started the War of 1812? And how do kidneys work, anyway? Causes and effects are discussed across the sciences and humanities, but little attention is paid to the structures of causal reasoning.

One distinction worth being aware of is the difference between deterministic and probabilistic causation. In deterministic causation, effects follow causes. In probabilistic causation, effects follow causes, but not always. For example, smoking causes lung cancer, but not always. Plants grow from seedlings, but not always.  

Many of the challenges that we face as a society involve complex probabilistic causation, including our changing climate, the collapse of ecosystems, and the global transmission of disease.6 And children struggle to learn and apply models of probabilistic causation (among other types of causal models) in science classrooms.6 Some research recommends probing students’ developing ideas about causality via explicit discussions, introducing and paying careful attention to causal language.6

Others are calling for a greater general emphasis on statistics and probability in mathematics education.7 These subjects present a structured approach to evaluating claims and grappling with uncertainty, while opening the door to interdisciplinary learning as students use mathematical approaches to answer empirical questions.


  1. Do experiments

A report on a 2011 survey conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress states:

Although doing grade 8 hands-on science activities is nearly universal, carrying out the steps of an investigative process is not. Twenty-four percent of the grade 8 students never discuss their results, thirty-five percent never discuss measurement for their science project and thirty-nine percent of the grade 8 students don’t design an experiment.8

This suggests that the majority of hands-on activities occurring in science classrooms do not involve conducting experiments. Limited time, resources, and the pressure to cover content can make it hard to prioritize experimentation.

However, experiments and inquiry are integral to science education9 by supporting content knowledge and fostering critical thinking.10 Other hands-on learning activities (building models, observing demonstrations, etc.) don’t give students experience with the process and tools to answer questions for themselves. The opportunity to conduct experiments pushes students to grapple with challenges of measurement and when to consider new evidence as “proof.”

Conceptual breakthroughs that might push students to understand more complex ideas can come from close examination of issues related to experimental error. When initially confronted with trying to understand why they didn’t see anticipated results, why results look different from one day to the next, or why results look different between groups, students might be tempted to excuse their results or patch their current understandings. But looking more closely at error in discussion and written reports might add to students’ mental models by falsifying certain ideas, or giving room for students to build from counter-evidence.6

Finally, embracing failure has received tremendous attention in education for building character. Viewing “error” in experimentation as a learning experience may have similar potential.



Understanding the replication crisis is a complex, authentic challenge for science and society. It’s the kind of issue that students might examine in a classroom striving to deeply engage students in understanding the nature of science. It takes depth and nuance to reconcile the notion that science is a limited, biased, human endeavor with the idea that it’s also a powerful tool for understanding the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about skills that are critical for evaluating evidence, follow the Twenty-first Century Information Literacy Tools initiative via The People’s Science. Run by the Learning and the Brain Blog Editor, Stephanie Fine Sasse, this non-profit organization is developing a framework for tackling these issues. You can read more about their model and other models in the recently released book, “Four-Dimensional Education,” whose authors include one of our own contributors, Maya Bialik.

The ideas presented here—including student opportunities for experimentation, tackling conflicting evidence, considering causality, and a different outlook on error—can be used across grade and subject levels to help students understand the nature of science and its place in society more deeply.

For a few starting points on how to carry these out in the classroom, check out the teacher resources below. If you know of other resources, feel free to share in the comments!


References & Further Reading

  1. Collabo, O. S. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science, 349(6251). [Paper]
  2. Cohen, J. (1990). Things I Have Learned (So Far). American Psychologist, 45(12), 1304–1312. [Paper]
  3. Prinz, F., Schlange, T., & Asadullah, K. (2011). Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? Nature Reviews. Drug Discovery, 10(9), 712. [Paper]
  4. 4. Flanagan, L. (2015, March 11). What Teens are Learning From ‘Serial’ and Other Podcasts. KQED: Mindshift. [Link]
  5. Springer, C. W., & Borthick, a. F. (2007). Improving Performance in Accounting: Evidence for Insisting on Cognitive Conflict Tasks. Issues in Accounting Education, 22(1), 1–19. [Paper]
  6. Perkins, D. N., & Grotzer, T. A. (2000). Models and Moves: Focusing on Dimensions of Causal Complexity to Achieve Deeper Scientific Understanding. [Paper]
  7. Fadel, C. (2014). Mathematics for the 21st Century: What should students learn? Boston, MA. [Paper]
  8. Ginsburg, A., & Friedman, A. (2013). Monitoring What Matters About Context and Instruction in Science Education : A NAEP Data Analysis Report. [Paper]
  9. National Science Teachers Association. (2007, February). The Integral Role of Laboratory Investigations in Science Instruction. [Link]
  10. Committee on the Development of an Addendum to the National Science Education Standards on Scientific Inquiry; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. (S. Olson & S. Loucks-Horsley, Eds.). The National Academies Press. [Link]
  • Causal Cognition in a Complex World, Teacher Resources. [Link]
  • Critical Media Literacy, Teacher Resources [Link]
  • Ongoing Reproducibility Debate, Harvard University [Link]



On the Bright Side: The Science of Good Stress

A Google image search for “stress” makes our culture’s attitude about the concept immediately clear. There are pictures of people pulling their hair, eyes wide and mouth gaping, a word cloud filled with words like “worry” and “depression,” and even a woman intensely biting her laptop.

In short, we hate stress.

Although it is often an unpleasant feeling and is linked to a host of health problems from headaches to Alzheimer’s Disease, stress is not all bad. In some forms, it can motivate and push us to excel. We can reap these benefits by keeping stress under control, but another, less obvious way to harness stress productively is to reframe the way we think about it.

Although it might be easy to imagine children’s lives as carefree, students of all ages face stress. Whether from standardized testing1, non-ideal home situations like poverty2, or even being around others who are stressed3, children’s minds and bodies can become acquainted with stress and anxiety from a young age. When we become stressed, our brain becomes doused in norepinephrine, and our body receives a rush of adrenaline4. This sympathetic nervous system response is often referred to as our body’s fight-or-flight mode because the arousal it triggers will allow us to react quickly (by doing things like fighting or fleeing) in the face of immediate danger. The amygdala plays a crucial role in stimulating this often automatic physiological response to a threatening situation.5

This can be a beneficial response, for example, if we need to save a child from drowning or hammer our a paper right before a deadline. In these cases, stress is often referred to as eustress, because it positively affects our performance in the moment. It can also become a deleterious response if it becomes a lasting state, making our body feel like we may need to save a drowning child at any second, when in reality we are simply sitting in traffic on the highway. This is the type of stress we often think of – referred to as distress for its negative impacts on our mental wellbeing.


Stress in the Classroom

Prolonged stress compromises classroom performance. It produces dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain necessary for high-level cognitive tasks like reasoning, decision-making, and memory. As such, long-term stress hurts a person’s working memory capacity6, a trait that is linked to different features of intelligence7. Although this working memory impairment is likely to be evident in the classroom, chronic childhood stress resulting from poverty or other adverse situations predicts working memory deficits as a young adult8.

Children and teenagers whose minds are preoccupied by stressful circumstances — whether in the of excessive pressure to perform, discord at home, or bullies at school — are less able to focus on their academic work. Since much of what we learn in school is cumulative, building on previous concepts that teachers assume that students have learned, we can see how the effects of stress on educational performance can quickly snowball into a situation that adds even more stress for the student.

Fortunately, there are many ways of coping with stress. One antidote that continues to gain traction is to cultivate mindfulness, an enhanced awareness of one’s surroundings and stressors. In particular, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has proven effective for reducing both physical and psychological consequences of stress9. As previously discussed on Learning & the Brain, children can and should be taught to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into their lives.


Changing the Way We See Stress

Another effective method for dealing with stress that has received less popular attention than MBSR is reframing our mindset. Through a process known as reappraisal, we can alter the way we feel about a situation by altering the way we think about it.10 Focusing on the positive features of stress — for example, its ability to encourage the development of initiative, mental toughness, and a sense of mastery — can influence not only our subjective experiences of stress, but our body’s physical responses to it as well11. If the idea of stress stresses us out, it can become an endless feedback loop. If we can come to terms with the time and place for stress in our lives, it may actually be easier to keep under control.

In one study by Alia Crum and colleagues, employees of a large company were exposed to three different 3-minute long videos over the course of a week. The three videos were different, but for each employee, all three either presented stress as an enhancing or debilitating force. By the end of the week, a questionnaire revealed that people changed their mindsets about stress. Those who saw the debilitating videos began to think of stress as more negative, while those who saw the enhancing videos began to think of it more positively. Further, people in the enhancing group reported better psychological symptoms and work performance after the week, which did not happen for the debilitating group. These findings suggest that changing the way people think of stress can have important downstream consequences for their mental well-being and performance.

A follow up study investigated the effect of stress mindsets in undergraduates. At the beginning of the semester, students completed a personality assessment, and later in the semester, they provided saliva samples. During a subsequent class, they were asked to rate themselves on dimensions including confidence, emotional intelligence, persuasion, and presence/authenticity, and to prepare a speech in ten minutes that they could deliver to the class. They were told that 5 students would be randomly selected to deliver their speeches, and their classmates would rate them on their charisma. This setup created a realistic stressful situation for the students, and saliva samples were again collected to compare to the baseline samples taken earlier. The students also learned that those who were chosen would have the opportunity to receive feedback from professionals, and those who weren’t chosen could also receive feedback on their speeches at a later time. All students rated their desire for feedback. Students whose personality assessments revealed that they had a “stress is enhancing” mindset were more likely to desire feedback than those who thought of stress as debilitating. The students who believed stress could be enhancing also showed more adaptive cortisol profiles in their saliva.


Implications for the Classroom

Believing that stress could be positive encouraged students to put themselves in a position to grow by expressing more willingness to receive feedback. Beyond influencing behavior, this mindset also affected students’ physiological responses to a stressful situation, allowing them to be less reactive than students who held the “stress is debilitating” mindset. Together with the previous study, these results demonstrate first that our mindsets about stress are malleable, and can be shaped simply by watching a few short movies. They also show us that students who took on a more positive mindset about stress reacted less to acute stress and put themselves in a situation to receive valuable feedback and grow from their experience. These are exactly the traits most educators would like to see more of in their students.

What steps can we take to help more students achieve these positive results?

  • Emphasize that stress can enhance performance. Help students learn to cope with distress while promoting the beneficial effects of eustress.
  • Provide students with opportunities to thrive under stress. Creating situations that are moderately stressful, such as delivering a speech to the class, will show students that they can thrive under stress, thus solidifying that stress can truly enhance performance.
  • Practice what you preach. Students often learn from example, so they will internalize their educators’ stress mindsets, whether those mindsets are made explicit to them or not. As such, it is important for teachers to also adapt a “stress is enhancing” mindset.
  • Make metacognition a part of your classroom culture – or encouraging your students to think about their own thinking. Be honest with your students about what stress is, what it’s for, and when it becomes dangerous. Sometimes having an understanding of how we work can provide us with the tools to better control and reappraise our experiences and emotions. Provide resources for students who feel distress, as well as strategies for them to practice reframing.

Although all people will undoubtedly face some negative stress throughout their lives, being mindful to the way we react to all stress, physically and mentally, will help us cultivate more positive mindsets. Mindsets are often self-fulfilling prophecies, and the key to thriving under stress may simply lie in believing that we can do so.


References & Further Reading

  1. Fleege, P.O., Charlesworth, R., Burts, D.C. & Hart, C.H. (1992). Stress begins in kindergarten: A look at behavior during standardized testing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 7(1), 20-26. [Paper]
  2. Curry, A. (2015). Why living in a poor neighborhood can make you fat. Nautilus, 31. [Web Article]
  3. Scully, S.M. (2015). You can “catch” stress through a TV screen. Nautilus, 31. [Web Article]
  4. Tennant, V. (2015). The powerful impact of stress. New Horizons for Learning. [Web Article]
  5. LeDoux, J. (2015). The amygdala is not the brain’s fear center. The Huffington Post, [Web Article]
  6. Mizoguchi, K., Yuzurihara, M., Ishige, A., Sasaki, H., Chui, D & Tabira, T. (2000). Chronic stress induces impairment of spatial working memory because of prefrontal dopaminergic dysfunction. Journal of Neuroscience, 20(4), 1568-1574. [Paper]
  7. Oberauer, K., Sϋß, H., Wilhelm, O. & Wittmann, W. (2010). Which working memory functions predict intelligence? Intelligence, 36(6), 641-652. [Paper]
  8. Evans, G.W. & Schamberg, M.A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. PNAS, 106(16), 6545-6549. [Paper]
  9. Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 593-600. [Paper]
  10. Ochsner, K. N., Silvers, J. A. & Buhle, J. T. (2012). Functional imaging studies of emotion regulation: A synthetic review and evolving model of the cognitive control of emotion. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1251, E1-E24. [Paper]
  11. Crum, A.J, Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716-733. [Paper]