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.Do students learn better when challenged (specifically, in math education)?

.Do students learn better when challenged (specifically, in math education)?


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Originally posted on Math.SE, but it was suggested cogsci.SE would be a more suitable venue.

I'm aware of two publications that have trickled onto the radar screens of non-specialists:

  • Fortune Favors the Bold by Diemand-Yauman & Oppenheimer
  • Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education by Derek Muller (TED talk)

The former focuses on the impact of "disfluency" on retention and success when processing written material, and the latter seems to focus on learning in the case where preexisting misconceptions need to be corrected (physics).

I'm interested to hear about similar research results in the learning of abstract concepts, specifically mathematics.

The motivation described in the original question on Math.SE is the fact that many mathematicians seem to hold the (painful, to students) belief that forcing students to struggle (in some sense) is beneficial. I've quoted multiple examples of this attitude from various sources in the original question, you are welcome to have a look.

Does current research support the belief that (in mathematics) difficult learning is better learning? This might be in terms of retention, long-term achievements, motivation, etc'.

Update

I've posted an expanded form of the question on matheducators.SE beta: https://matheducators.stackexchange.com/questions/875/

Still hoping for helpful answers from the cogsci.SE community.


Let me begin by saying that the answer is nowhere near as simple as you or I would like it to be. There are several reasons for this, but the main reason is that there are myriad ways that students can struggle through the material.

I became interested in this subject when I was a graduate teaching assistant in the Industrial Engineering program at Iowa State. One of the classes that I taught dealt with the concept of measurement variation, which inescapably includes several important statistical concepts, which to me (having had four advanced statistics/methods courses) were painfully obvious; however, my students had no hope whatsoever. When lab report grading time came around, I was very disappointed to see that even my brightest students completely missed the point of the experiment,despite my obviously brilliant instruction.

So, I set out to do research and conduct experiments into exactly why my students had trouble with this material. I've written two papers on the subject (with a third in-work). Here are some of my general findings:

  1. The learning process depends upon the learner (pre-existing knowledge and conceptions), the material (type and difficulty), and the teaching method. These three interact in a complex way, as several researchers have explored. The most comprehensive set of literature on this can be found by searchingCognitive Load Theory.
  2. Problem-based learning(which is what @JohnYetter describes in his answer) has been proven to be a highly effective teaching method for science and math when executed properly. Proper execution of PBL requires that students are familiar with the method, and my studies have shown that properly-designed scaffolding (things that help guide the process and point out key concepts) is a significant, essential component.
  3. Lecture does not appear to have any effect on learning (at least for measurement variation and the related concepts), and may actually harm the learning process (this is what I am studying further right now).

The theories agree that the reason PBL is effective is that it forces students to make the necessary schematic connections to build their knowledge. The intent of the process is to take novices and begin to develop their knowledge base such that it functions more like an experts' knowledge base (there are proven differences between how novices and experts explore problems). Along with this, I think that you need to have a particular type of student, one who has self-discipline and doesn't give up. Such students are well-suited for engineering and science; students who don't possess these abilities or who are not capable of rapidly adapting find themselves on the way over to a non-technical degree (so my studies of engineering students only automatically exclude this population of students, which is another piece I need to study further).


I have an anecdotal answer with regard to learning Physics. I sat in on a colloquium where a Physics professor discussed his experience with a course that was taught completely through experimentation. Students had to derive their learning of Physics completely through semi-guided experiments, and no lecture. In the beginning of the course, the professor reports that students found the process very tedious. However, as they got the knack for experimentation, they enjoyed it more, and retained their learning exceptionally.

In this case, I think that struggle can lead to better learning. If you personally derive a concept from first hand experimentation, you are very likely to remember it. In that case, you are not learning science, you are learning to be a scientist. That distinction between learning about versus learning to be almost always deepens understanding, and consequently recall.

On the other hand, this does not apply to struggle for struggle sake. It seems likely that there are some teaching methods that require students to struggle, and actually work. Yet there may be other methods where the struggle is fruitless.


Robert Bjork calls this desirable difficulties. That is, students seems to learn best when they are required to encode and retrieve information. Some examples of desirable difficulties include: testing, spacing/interleaving, generating information, changing studying environments, etc. In the long run, these seem to promote long term learning.


Norman Triplett's research on social facilitation shows, that people tend to be better in simple tasks or physical activity (cyclists were faster) in presence of others. However, in cases such as solving mathematical tasks, quantity of tasks solved increases, while the quality decreases (social loafing). The answer therefore depends on whether you use "be better than all these people" challenge or "show yourself you're the best" challenge. Most of the researches, however, show that motivating or challenging students causes rather stress and tension than better results.


.Do students learn better when challenged (specifically, in math education)? - Psychology

What&rsquos the key to effective learning? One intriguing body of research suggests a rather riddle-like answer: It&rsquos not just what you know. It&rsquos what you know about what you know.

To put it in more straightforward terms, anytime a student learns, he or she has to bring in two kinds of prior knowledge: knowledge about the subject at hand (say, mathematics or history) and knowledge about how learning works. Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge. We&rsquore comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself&mdashthe &ldquometacognitive&rdquo aspects of learning&mdashis more hit-or-miss, and it shows.

In our schools, "the emphasis is on what students need to learn, whereas little emphasis&mdashif any&mdashis placed on training students how they should go about learning the content and what skills will promote efficient studying to support robust learning," writes John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, in an article just published in American Educator. However, he continues, "teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important&mdashif not essential&mdashfor promoting lifelong learning."

Research has found that students vary widely in what they know about how to learn, according to a team of educational researchers from Australia writing last year in the journal Instructional Science. Most striking, low-achieving students show &ldquosubstantial deficits&rdquo in their awareness of the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that lead to effective learning&mdashsuggesting that these students&rsquo struggles may be due in part to a gap in their knowledge about how learning works.

Teaching students good learning strategies would ensure that they know how to acquire new knowledge, which leads to improved learning outcomes, writes lead author Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And studies bear this out. Askell-Williams cites as one example a recent finding by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which administers academic proficiency tests to students around the globe, and place American students in the mediocre middle. &ldquoStudents who use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment&mdashthat is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years&mdashthan students who use these strategies the least,&rdquo the PISA report reads.

In their own study, Askell-Williams and her coauthors took as their subjects 1,388 Australian high school students. They first administered an assessment to find out how much the students knew about cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies&mdashand found that their familiarity with these tactics was &ldquoless than optimal.&rdquo

Students can assess their own awareness by asking themselves which of the following learning strategies they regularly use (the response to each item is ideally &ldquoyes&rdquo):

&bull I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.

&bull I make up questions that I try to answer about this subject.

&bull When I am learning something new in this subject, I think back to what I already know about it.

&bull I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.

&bull I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject.

&bull I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the ideas in this subject.

&bull When I don&rsquot understand something in this subject I go back over it again.

&bull I make a note of things that I don&rsquot understand very well in this subject, so that I can follow them up.

&bull When I have finished an activity in this subject I look back to see how well I did.

&bull I organize my time to manage my learning in this subject.

&bull I make plans for how to do the activities in this subject.

Askell-Williams and her colleagues found that those students who used fewer of these strategies reported more difficulty coping with their schoolwork. For the second part of their study, they designed a series of proactive questions for teachers to drop into the lesson on a &ldquojust-in-time&rdquo basis&mdashat the moments when students could use the prompting most. These questions, too, can be adopted by any parent or educator to make sure that children know not just what is to be learned, but how.

&bull What is the topic for today&rsquos lesson?

&bull What will be important ideas in today&rsquos lesson?

&bull What do you already know about this topic?

&bull What can you relate this to?

&bull What will you do to remember the key ideas?

&bull Is there anything about this topic you don&rsquot understand, or are not clear about?


If You Learn A, Will You Be Better Able to Learn B?

I n 2015, we published our book Urban Myths about Learning and Education. 1 An excerpt of one section of that book, “Technology in Education: What Teachers Should Know,” was published in the Spring 2016 issue of American Educator. An unexpected effect was that after the book’s publication, all three of us received a number of requests per week for new educational fact checks. At first, we blogged or tweeted our short answers to these queries, but at a certain point we decided to bundle the questions and expand upon our answers. This has resulted in a new book with all new “myths,” More Urban Myths about Learning and Education: Challenging Eduquacks, Extraordinary Claims, and Alternative Facts, from which this article is excerpted. Here, we discuss some of the most often asked questions related to one basic principle in particular: transfer of learning.

Transfer of learning is seen as the use of knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes that you’ve learned in one situation in a different situation. 2 This new situation can be either a similar situation (near transfer) or a dissimilar situation (far transfer). In recent years, we’ve encountered numerous different forms that claim to be examples of far transfer:

  • Learn how to program, so that you can more easily learn mathematics.
  • Learn Latin, so that you can better learn other languages.
  • Learn music, so that you can better learn arithmetic.
  • Learn chess, so that you can better learn to do just about everything!

But are these claims justified? Are they really examples of far transfer?

Near versus Far Transfer

Imagine that you’ve learned to drive. You quickly become accustomed to your own car: how the gears work, where to find all the right buttons on the dashboard, etc. If you need to drive a rented car on vacation, some of these things may be different, but your past experience in your own car will soon help you to get the hang of things. It will even help you if you ever need to learn how to drive a bus. This is what we mean by near transfer. 3 Many things from one situation are fairly similar to many things in the new situation, although there may be minor differences here and there.

Far transfer was an idea first examined in 1923 by Edward Thorndike. 4 It was Thorndike, for example, who discussed whether learning Latin could have a positive effect on logical thinking. Even in those days, it was apparent that this was not the case. According to him, it merely seemed that way because so many of the stronger students and thinkers were automatically encouraged to study Latin. In other words, it was more a question of a correlation than a causal relationship. Consequently, the result was the product of something else, namely smarter students or students from a higher social-economic background.

There is, however, another problem with the delineation of near and far transfer. Perhaps you’ve come across the following situations in your own classroom. During a geography lesson, students learn how to read a map, but then have difficulty in reading a historical map during a history lesson—which, at first glance, you might think should be an example of relatively near transfer. In a comparable way, mathematics is also used during physics lessons, but here the transfer is much easier to accomplish.

To explain such situations, Thorndike formulated his theory of identical elements, which posits that near and far transfer can best be regarded as a continuum. Or to paraphrase his basic conclusion: transfer is easier in relation to the extent that there are more similar or identical elements between what has already been learned and what needs to be learned in the future. Accordingly, he argued that near transfer is, by definition, much easier than far transfer. 5 If we were to take the precepts of this “old” theory at face value, the outlook for the advocates of far transfer might be fairly pessimistic. But is this really the case? Let’s take a closer look at a number of examples.

Is Chess the Key to Success at School and in Life?

In 2011, chess became a compulsory subject in Armenian schools. Armenian authorities were convinced that chess is the key to success at school and in life. By making chess mandatory, they hoped to teach children how to think creatively and strategically. As a result, they will become more intelligent and be better able to solve problems. What’s more, this does not just mean chess problems, but all problems in all other school subjects, as well as in later life. If true, this is extremely far transfer. There are indeed research studies that demonstrate a link between chess mastery and improved cognitive skills and work performance. 6

In essence, what the Armenian Ministry of Education was saying is that learning how to play chess not only is the key to developing general skills (in particular, problem solving), but also has a crucial impact on general character traits, such as emotional stability, intellect, memory, alertness, and, above all, creativity.

General Character Traits and Creativity

Creativity is not a skill, and it cannot be taught or learned. Creativity is a quality or characteristic that a person possesses. In other words, it’s a trait and not a state. Researcher Charles Reigeluth explains it as follows: “Traits are student characteristics that are relatively constant over time, … whereas states are student characteristics that tend to vary during individual learning experiences, such as level of content-specific knowledge.” 7 Viewed in these terms, it’s not simply that creativity can’t be learned it’s also very difficult to influence. All that teachers can do is to provide a learning climate that offers psychological safety—a climate in which learners feel sufficiently secure—so that they have the courage and the confidence to do things and say things that, at first glance, perhaps seem odd or not completely right. In other words, teachers can provide an environment that encourages students to take risks, safe in the knowledge that their mistakes will be tolerated with understanding. We call this psychological safety.

Memory is also a trait, so it, too, cannot be learned. This does not mean that it cannot be trained or improved, but such training needs to be highly focused and demands a huge investment in time. Consequently, this is not something that can be achieved “en passant” simply by learning to play chess.

If we look at this in the context of the Armenian claims about chess and creativity, a chess teacher who provides a psychologically safe climate may indeed be able to teach one or more children how to play chess creatively, but the basic starting point is that the child must possess both the necessary chess knowledge (moves, tactics, strategies) and the necessary chess skills (by using that knowledge repeatedly in practice games and competitions). This has been known since 1946, when Adriaan de Groot wrote his famous doctoral thesis, Het denken van den schaker (Thought and Choice in Chess). 8

In our previous book, we discussed the work of Sir Ken Robinson and formulated a number of reservations about his rather narrow definition of creativity (in his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education), but even this narrow definition is applicable in this present context. According to Robinson, creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.” The key word here is “value.”

Without knowledge and skills, it’s impossible—except by sheer luck—to create something of value. In fact, if you don’t have the requisite knowledge, you are not even in a position to assess the value of what you have done. If you don’t know how to play chess, just see how far you get if you are ever asked to develop a creative and valuable solution to a chess problem!

The Effect of Learning to Play Chess on Other Skills

The ability (or otherwise) to change personality traits is still a matter of much discussion, but does chess perhaps have a positive influence on other disciplines and areas of study? This is a subject that has been intensively researched over the years. Some of the resultant studies do indeed suggest a positive effect, 9 whereas others have reached very different conclusions. To help clarify this situation (if we can), it’s useful to look at the reviews of the various studies, also bearing in mind the quality of the research methodology used.

One review on the subject of chess and education came with a painful conclusion: “Research in psychology and education suggests that cognitive skills acquired in one domain are not easily transferred to another domain. Do the empirical results of chess research undermine this contention? Unfortunately, the answer is: no.” 10 In other words, chess is not an exception to Thorndike’s theory of identical elements. A more recent review also found very little real evidence for transfer, although the researchers’ final assessment was somewhat milder. 11 They concluded that the test results show that learning to play chess can sometimes have a positive effect on student learning, but this is confined to arithmetic/mathematics in primary and secondary education.

Moreover, this positive effect is only for the short term there is nothing to suggest more long-term, permanent benefits. And there is more bad news. They further concluded that there is a correlation between the quality of the research design and the level of the effect identified: the better the design, the smaller the effect. In fact, the most rigorous studies found almost no positive effect whatsoever. 12

Finally, mention should also be made of a large-scale meta-analysis conducted in 2016 that investigated the possible link between intelligence and chess. 13 The conclusion could not be clearer: intelligent players play better chess. This causality follows the same direction that Thorndike established with regard to Latin.

Does Learning How to Program a Computer Encourage Problem-Solving Thinking?

Steve Jobs once said: “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer, should learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think.” 14 But was the Apple boss right? You might be excused for initially thinking that this is an area where very little research has been carried out, so that it’s difficult to reach firm conclusions. And you would be right—up to a point. After all, it’s only recently that a teaching module for programming was introduced in the United Kingdom, and computers like the BBC micro:bit, the Arduino, and the Raspberry Pi are all relatively new in education. That being said, in reality, these developments are merely the latest wave in the process of “programming in education,” which actually stretches back over a number of decades and has repeatedly investigated the basic idea that Jobs reformulated. Consider, for example, Logo, the programming language developed for education as long ago as 1967 by Seymour Papert, with its characteristic “turtles.” These turtle robots were first invented in the late 1940s by, among others, William Grey Walter, 15 but only became widely known in educational circles thanks to Papert, who used them as a means to promote Logo as a programming language for schools, with the specific aim of stimulating problem-solving capabilities. 16

The oldest research into such matters was conducted by Richard Mayer and dates from 1975. His work suggested that learning how to program could have a positive effect on problem-solving thinking, although in reality his study focused more on the best way to effectively teach programming. 17

In contrast, a series of subsequent studies generally concluded that there is no such positive effect. A 1990 study based on a randomized controlled trial found no link between programming and the ability to solve problems. 18 This was also the conclusion of a comparable study by Mayer. 19 Other research suggested that programming might have a limited beneficial effect on divergent thinking, but this cannot be taken as evidence that it has a major beneficial effect on problem-solving capabilities. 20

That being said, a review study carried out in 1985 that specifically looked at Logo and its effect on other domains added an important nuance. Just teaching students how to program with Logo had little or no effect. However, if teachers used Logo for specific tasks with a specific purpose, such as mathematics or problem-solving thinking, a “moderate” effect could be achieved. But the input of the teacher was crucial to generate this effect the programming itself played only a marginal role. 21

Similar conclusions were reached in a 1990 research project. The researchers found evidence of a clear benefit for problem-solving thinking as a result of learning how to program. Once again, however, there was an important “but”: their research focused on students in further education who all wanted to learn programming. Moreover, there was no control group. 22 Much the same applies to another study that found a positive effect but also concluded that simply teaching students how to program is not enough to generate this effect. 23 The only effective way that the learning of programming can stimulate problem-solving capabilities is for the teacher to give a clear focus on using those skills in a problem-solving context. And once again, there was no control group to compare, for example, the results of attempts to deal with the same problem-solving content without the benefits of programming skills.

It would be possible to carry on like this for quite some time, but we have probably already quoted enough research to make our point: perhaps the problem is not the teaching of programming the problem is the idea that it’s possible to teach students how to think in a problem-solving manner. Or, as researchers concluded in 2010:

In over a half century, no systematic body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of any general problem-solving strategies has emerged. . There is no body of research based on randomized, controlled experiments indicating that such teaching leads to better problem solving. 24

Does Music Help You Perform Better in School in General?

Since all three of us are music lovers, we need to be wary of possible confirmation bias when it comes to this particular subject: it’s sometimes all too easy to search for evidence that confirms what you would like to be true! That being said, a very recent longitudinal study (i.e., a study that follows the same people for a number of years, here also using a randomized design with a control group) gives some grounds for optimism. 25

More specifically, Artur Jaschke and his colleagues examined the effects of learning how to play music on executive functions, the higher cognitive processes that are necessary to plan and direct activities. Over the duration of the study, the scores periodically given to the intervention group for impulse suppression (inhibition), planning, and verbal intelligence all improved significantly. It’s also possible that the improvements in these three qualities helped account for a similar improvement in general school results. The idea that music can have a positive effect on executive functions is nothing new, 26 although it’s still far from clear how long this effect lasts. 27 The Jaschke study attempted to avoid the limitations and shortcomings of many previous studies. Consequently, there is hope that its conclusions will prove more reliable. And this hope is necessary because, in contrast, a previous meta-analysis found no evidence of far transfer as a result of learning how to play music. 28 Yes, it concluded that musicians are indeed often more intelligent than others (we love you, yeah, yeah, yeah), but this is more a correlation than anything else. As far as a possible causal link is concerned, in most studies this is negatively reflected in the quality of the study itself. The better the research, the smaller the link.

But is it actually a good thing to search for far transfer in relation to music? This is the question that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) asked in its own review of the influence of art education in general and music education in particular. 29 By asking what value music has for improving performance in other disciplines, there is a risk that this effectively devalues music’s worth as a discipline in its own right. This is a fair point: much far transfer thinking is based on the utility principle that makes one discipline subordinate to another. In wider cultural and educational terms, chess is less important than music. But perhaps chess also has the potential to make students better at something else. And perhaps it can do this more effectively than music. What then would be the future of music as an academic subject?

And it doesn’t just have to be chess. Imagine that something else comes along—the use of classroom rituals, for example—that is proven to have a more significant impact on improved executive functions than music. 30 If music is regarded purely as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, this might even lead to its removal from the curriculum! It’s surprising that this issue should be raised by an economic organization like the OECD, but it’s important that someone raises it. In art education, the desire for possible far transfer must remain subordinate to the wider cultural value of artistic disciplines—and not the other way around.

Does Learning Latin Help You to Learn Other Languages Better?

Apart from a huge fortune in the bank, what do Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling and Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They both learned Latin in school. 31 Various universities still use Latin names to add a certain cachet to the study of classics and classical languages. It is as though they seem to say that knowledge of Latin is the secret to success!

While in many countries (foreign) language education has given way to education based on the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), in the Netherlands and Belgium, Latin is still an important part of the curriculum. 32 For centuries, Latin was the language of knowledge and erudition, and, consequently, also the language of the elite, as it was also an important key to the door that led to university. It was only when education became more readily accessible at the start of the 20th century, and when Latin gradually disappeared as the language of science and learning, that arguments for its teaching began to change. Latin was now seen as being important for the general education of students, which was effectively the same as saying that Latin was a good way to teach students how to think. As a subsidiary argument, it was also suggested that learning Latin made it easier to learn other languages, such as French, Spanish, and/or Italian. 33

But is this true? Does learning Latin teach you anything more than just Latin? During the past century, research has focused primarily on this second argument: Latin as a linguistic facilitator. A review study 34 found evidence supporting a weaker form of this argument, namely that learning Latin helped American children first and foremost learn their own language better. Unfortunately, many of the studies in this field lack reliability as a result of serious methodological shortcomings or due to a failure to properly check out all relevant related factors, such as the socioeconomic background of the students (see also Thorndike’s conclusions on this matter). One small study that is both relevant and reliable monitored a group of German children learning Spanish. Some of the children also received lessons in Latin, others in French. The results showed that the children benefited more from first learning French, rather than Latin, before Spanish. In fact, the students who learned Latin made more grammatical errors in Spanish than those who had learned French. 35 Once again, Thorndike’s identical elements theory would seem to hold.

As far as the second question is concerned—can learning Latin help you to think better?—very little meaningful research has been conducted, largely because it’s so difficult to define what we mean by “thinking” to everyone’s satisfaction. Be that as it may, one study 36 concluded that there was no relationship between the skills needed to learn Latin and the skills needed to learn other languages or mathematics. But that is more or less as far as the research goes at this stage. In other words, there is nothing to suggest a link between “learning Latin” and “better thinking.”

If it’s unlikely that Latin makes it possible to learn other languages more easily, and if Thorndike’s theory suggests that far transfer is equally improbable, we can then reasonably ask the same question that we asked of music: Should Latin still be taught because of any intrinsic value of its own? Up to a point, the answer is yes. There are indications that learning Latin can lead to greater self-confidence and a deeper appreciation for other cultures, 37 although this can just as easily be said for many other foreign languages, such as Chinese.

The British classicist Mary Beard offers a more specific reason for learning Latin: it gives young people access to the literary tradition that forms the basis of Western culture. 38 Again, this might well be the case, but it’s open to discussion as to whether that argument alone is sufficient to merit including Latin in the curriculum. In fact, all the “old” arguments in favor of Latin—that it has specific characteristics that make it easier to learn other languages and also improves a student’s general ability to think—no longer seem relevant or credible in this modern day and age.

I n this article, we investigated four popular examples of claims for far transfer, but in each case the results were disappointing. This is not to say that there is no evidence whatsoever for far transfer, but it’s very clear that the level of reliable evidence decreases in relation to the quality of the research: the better the research, the scanter the evidence.

One insight—in fact, a slight irritation—that came to light during our investigation and writing is that Thorndike’s theory—devised more than 100 years ago—still seems applicable. Throughout the past century, repeated efforts have been made to contradict his claim that the greater the number of identical elements, the greater the likelihood of far transfer. To date, no one has really succeeded, us included. Even so, it remains clear that far transfer is not the magic remedy for cross-discipline learning that many in education once hoped it would be.

Pedro De Bruyckere is an education scientist at Artevelde University in Belgium and a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Paul A. Kirschner is an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands, a visiting professor of education at the University of Oulu in Finland, and a guest professor at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Belgium. Casper Hulshof teaches at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. This article is excerpted from their book More Urban Myths about Learning and Education: Challenging Eduquacks, Extraordinary Claims, and Alternative Facts (Routledge, 2020). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


About Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are present in at least 10 percent of the population. By following the links on this page you will discover many interesting facts about learning disabilities as well as uncover some of the myths. You will also be provided with practical solutions to help children and adolescents with learning disabilities greatly improve their academic achievement as well as their self-esteem.

What is a learning disability?

Interestingly, there is no clear and widely accepted definition of “learning disabilities.” Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the field, there is ongoing debate on the issue of definition, and there are currently at least 12 definitions that appear in the professional literature. These disparate definitions do agree on certain factors:

  1. The learning disabled have difficulties with academic achievement and progress. Discrepancies exist between a person’s potential for learning and what he actually learns.
  2. The learning disabled show an uneven pattern of development (language development, physical development, academic development and/or perceptual development).
  3. Learning problems are not due to environmental disadvantage.
  4. Learning problems are not due to mental retardation or emotional disturbance.

How prevalent are learning disabilities?

Experts estimate that 6 to 10 percent of the school-aged population in the United States is learning disabled. Nearly 40 percent of the children enrolled in the nation’s special education classes suffer from a learning disability. The Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities estimates that there are 6 million adults with learning disabilities as well.

What causes learning disabilities?

Little is currently known about the causes of learning disabilities. However, some general observations can be made:

  • Some children develop and mature at a slower rate than others in the same age group. As a result, they may not be able to do the expected school work. This kind of learning disability is called “maturational lag.”
  • Some children with normal vision and hearing may misinterpret everyday sights and sounds because of some unexplained disorder of the nervous system.
  • Injuries before birth or in early childhood probably account for some later learning problems.
  • Children born prematurely and children who had medical problems soon after birth sometimes have learning disabilities.
  • Learning disabilities tend to run in families, so some learning disabilities may be inherited.
    Learning disabilities are more common in boys than girls, possibly because boys tend to mature more slowly.
  • Some learning disabilities appear to be linked to the irregular spelling, pronunciation, and structure of the English language. The incidence of learning disabilities is lower in Spanish or Italian speaking countries.

What are the “early warning signs” of learning disabilities?

Children with learning disabilities exhibit a wide range of symptoms. These include problems with reading, mathematics, comprehension, writing, spoken language, or reasoning abilities. Hyperactivity, inattention and perceptual coordination may also be associated with learning disabilities but are not learning disabilities themselves. The primary characteristic of a learning disability is a significant difference between a child’s achievement in some areas and his or her overall intelligence. Learning disabilities typically affect five general areas:

  1. Spoken language: delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking.
  2. Written language: difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.
  3. Arithmetic: difficulty in performing arithmetic operations or in understanding basic concepts.
  4. Reasoning: difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts.
  5. Memory: difficulty in remembering information and instructions.

Among the symptoms commonly related to learning disabilities are:

  • poor performance on group tests
  • difficulty discriminating size, shape, color
  • difficulty with temporal (time) concepts
  • distorted concept of body image
  • reversals in writing and reading
  • general awkwardness
  • poor visual-motor coordination
  • hyperactivity
  • difficulty copying accurately from a model
  • slowness in completing work
  • poor organizational skills
  • easily confused by instructions
  • difficulty with abstract reasoning and/or problem solving
  • disorganized thinking
  • often obsesses on one topic or idea
  • poor short-term or long-term memory
  • impulsive behavior lack of reflective thought prior to action
  • low tolerance for frustration
  • excessive movement during sleep
  • poor peer relationships
  • overly excitable during group play
  • poor social judgment
  • inappropriate, unselective, and often excessive display of affection
  • lags in developmental milestones (e.g. motor, language)
  • behavior often inappropriate for situation
  • failure to see consequences for his actions
  • overly gullible easily led by peers
  • excessive variation in mood and responsiveness
  • poor adjustment to environmental changes
  • overly distractible difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty making decisions
  • lack of hand preference or mixed dominance
  • difficulty with tasks requiring sequencing

When considering these symptoms, it is important to remain mindful of the following:

  1. No one will have all these symptoms.
  2. Among LD populations, some symptoms are more common than others.
  3. All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.
  4. The number of symptoms seen in a particular child does not give an indication as whether the disability is mild or severe. It is important to consider if the behaviors are chronic and appear in clusters.

Some of these symptoms may indicate dyslexia. For more information go to About Dyslexia.

Some of these symptoms may indicate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For more information go to About ADHD.

What should a parent do if it is suspected that a child has a learning disability?

The parent should contact the child’s school and arrange for testing and evaluation. Federal law requires that public school districts provide special education and related services to children who need them. If these tests indicate that the child requires special educational services, the school evaluation team (planning and placement team) will meet to develop an individual educational plan (IEP) geared to the child’s needs. The IEP describes in detail an educational plan designed to remediate and compensate for the child’s difficulties.

Simultaneously, the parent should take the child to the family pediatrician for a complete physical examination. The child should be examined for correctable problems (e.g. poor vision or hearing loss) that may cause difficulty in school.

How does a learning disability affect the parents of the child?

Research indicates that parental reaction to the diagnosis of learning disability is more pronounced than in any other area of exceptionality. Consider: if a child is severely retarded or physically handicapped, the parent becomes aware of the problem in the first few weeks of the child’s life. However, the pre-school development of the learning disabled child is often uneventful and the parent does not suspect that a problem exists. When informed of the problem by elementary school personnel, a parent’s first reaction is generally to deny the existence of a disability. This denial is, of course, unproductive. The father tends to remain in this stage for a prolonged period because he is not exposed to the child’s day-to-day frustrations and failures.

Research conducted by Eleanor Whitehead suggests that the parent of an LD child goes through a series of emotions before truly accepting the child and his problem. These “stages” are totally unpredictable. A parent may move from stage-to-stage in random. Some parents skip over stages while others remain in one stage for an extended period. These stages are as follows:

DENIAL: “There is really nothing wrong!” “That’s the way I was as a child–not to worry!” “He’ll grow out of it!”

BLAME: “You baby him!” “You expect too much of him.” “It’s not from my side of the family.”

FEAR: “Maybe they’re not telling me the real problem!” “Is it worse than they say?” “Will he ever marry? go to college? graduate?”

ENVY: “Why can’t he be like his sister or his cousins?”

MOURNING: “He could have been such a success, if not for the learning disability!”

BARGAINING: “Wait ’till next year!” “Maybe the problem will improve if we move! (or he goes to camp, etc.).”

ANGER: “The teachers don’t know anything.” “I hate this neighborhood, this school…this teacher.”

GUILT: “My mother was right I should have used cloth diapers when he was a baby.” “I shouldn’t have worked during his first year.” “I am being punished for something and my child is suffering as a result.”

ISOLATION: “Nobody else knows or cares about my child.” “You and I against the world. No one else understands.”

FLIGHT: “Let’s try this new therapy–Donahue says it works!” “We are going to go from clinic to clinic until somebody tells me what I want to hear.!”

Again, the pattern of these reactions is totally unpredictable. This situation is worsened by the fact that frequently the mother and father may be involved in different and conflicting stages at the same time (e.g., blame vs. denial anger vs. guilt). This can make communication very difficult.

The good news is that with proper help, most LD children can make excellent progress. There are many successful adults such as attorneys, business executives, physicians, teachers, etc. who had learning disabilities but overcame them and became successful. Now with special education and many special materials, LD children can be helped early.


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Keywords : teachers’ attitudes, stereotypes, judgments, challenging behavior, learning difficulties, inclusive education

Citation: Krischler M and Pit-ten Cate IM (2019) Pre- and In-Service Teachers’ Attitudes Toward Students With Learning Difficulties and Challenging Behavior. Front. Psychol. 10:327. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00327

Received: 10 October 2018 Accepted: 02 February 2019
Published: 25 February 2019.

Ann X. Huang, Duquesne University, United States

Angela Jocelyn Fawcett, Swansea University, United Kingdom
Angeliki Mouzaki, University of Crete, Greece

Copyright © 2019 Krischler and Pit-ten Cate. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.


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Module 1 - Learning and Teaching

Module 2 - Research and Theory in Educational Psychology

Clutster 2: Cognitive Development 

Module 3 - Development: Some General Principles

Module 4 - Piagetian and Information Processing Theories

Module 5 - Vygotsky's Sociocultural Perspective

Module 6 - Implications of Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories for Teachers

Cluster 3: The Self, Social, and Moral Development

Module 7 - Physical Growth as a Context for Personal/Social Development

Module 8 - The Social Context of Development

Module10 - Understanding Others and Moral Development

Cluster 4: Learner Differences and Learning Needs

Module 11 - Intelligence and Thinking Styles

Module 12 - Inclusion: Teaching Every Student

Module 13 - Students Who Are Gifted and Talented

Cluster 5: Language Development, Language Diversity, and Immigrant Education

Module 14 - Language Development and Emergent Literacy

Module 15 - Language Development

Module 16 - Students Who Are Immigrants and English Language Learners

Cluster 6: Culture and Diversity 

Module 17 - Social and Economic Diversity

Module 18 - Ethnicity, Race, and Gender

Module 19 - Diversity and Teaching: Multicultural Education

Part II  Learning and Motivation

Cluster 7: Behavioral Views of Learning 

Module 20 - Behavioral Explanations of Learning

Module 21 - Possibilities and Cautions in Applying Behavioral Theories

Cluster 8: Cognitive Views of Learning

Module 22 - The Basics of the Cognitive Science Perspective

Module 23 - Working Memory and Cognitive Load

Module 24 - Long Term Memory

Cluster 9: Complex Cognitive Processes

Module 25 - Metacognition and Learning Strategies

Module 26 - Problem Solving and Creativity

Module 27 - Ciritcal Thinking, Argumentation, and Transfer

Cluster 10: The Learning Sciences and Constructivism 

Module 28 - The Learning Sciences and Constructivism

Module 29 - Constructivist Teaching and Learning

Module 30 - Learning Outside the Classroom

Cluster 11: Social Cognitive Views of Learning and Motivation 

Module 31 - Social Cognitive Theory and Applications

Module 32 - Self-Regulated Learning and Teaching

Cluster 12: Motivation in Learning and Teaching 

Module 33 - Motivation Basics

Module 34 - Needs, Goals, and Beliefs

Module 35 - Interests, Curiosity, and Emotions

Module 36 - Motivation to Learn in School

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Cluster 13: Creating Learning Environments 

Module 37 - Positive Learning Environments

Module 38 - Encouraging Engagement and Preventing Problems

Cluster 14: Teaching Every Student 

Module 39 - Planning for Effective Teaching

Module 40 - Teaching Approaches

Module 41 - Differentiated Instruction and Adaptive Teaching

Cluster 15: Classroom Assessment, Grading, and Standardized Testing 

Module 42 - Basics of Assessment

Module 43 - Classroom Assessment, Testing, and Grading

Module 44 - Standardized Testing


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As recent high school graduates prepare for their migration to college in the fall, one item is sure to top most students&rsquo shopping wish lists: a laptop computer. Laptops are ubiquitous on university campuses, and are viewed by most students as absolute must-have items, right alongside laundry detergent, towels, and coffee pots.

Without question, personal laptops can enhance the college experience by facilitating engagement with online course material, providing access to sources for research, maximizing internship searches, and even improving communication with friends and parents. Many students also opt to bring their laptops to class so that they can take notes, view online lecture slides, and search the web for course-related material. This practice, it turns out, may be a mistake.

New research by scientists at Michigan State University suggests that laptops do not enhance classroom learning, and in fact students would be better off leaving their laptops in the dorm during class. Although computer use during class may create the illusion of enhanced engagement with course content, it more often reflects engagement with social media, YouTube videos, instant messaging, and other nonacademic content. This self-inflicted distraction comes at a cost, as students are spending up to one-third of valuable (and costly) class time zoned out, and the longer they are online the more their grades tend to suffer.

To understand how students are using computers during class and the impact it has on learning, Susan Ravizza and colleagues took the unique approach of asking students to voluntarily login to a proxy server at the start of each class, with the understanding that their internet use (including the sites they visited) would be tracked. Participants were required to login for at least half of the 15 class periods, though they were not required to use the internet in any way once they logged in to the server. Researchers were able to track the internet use and academic performance of 84 students across the semester.

Ravizza and colleagues evaluated the time that students spent online, the specific sites they visited, and the number of different requests sent to the server each session. They also asked students to estimate their own time online during class and to judge how time online affected their learning. Finally, the researchers obtained measures of intelligence (here, ACT scores), final exam performance, and self-reported interest and motivation.

Together, these led to a number of important insights into computer use in the classroom. First, participants spent almost 40 minutes out of every 100-minute class period using the internet for nonacademic purposes, including social media, checking email, shopping, reading the news, chatting, watching videos, and playing games. This nonacademic use was negatively associated with final exam scores, such that students with higher use tended to score lower on the exam. Social media sites were the most-frequently visited sites during class, and importantly these sites, along with online video sites, proved to be the most disruptive with respect to academic outcomes.

In contrast with their heavy nonacademic internet use, students spent less than 5 minutes on average using the internet for class-related purposes (e.g., accessing the syllabus, reviewing course-related slides or supplemental materials, searching for content related to the lecture). Given the relatively small amount of time students spent on academic internet use, it is not surprising that academic internet use was unrelated to course performance. Thus students who brought their laptops to class to view online course-related materials did not actually spend much time doing so, and furthermore showed no benefit of having access to those materials in class.

Why do students spend so much class time online? The finding that surfing the web and diminished learning go hand in hand is fairly intuitive, so Ravizza and colleagues sought to understand why students chose to do it. One possibility is that although internet use is related to poor academic performance, it is a symptom rather than a cause, in the same way that low energy is a symptom of obesity and not a causal factor in heart disease. If students disengage with a lecture when they are disinterested or bored and instead check social media, then boredom and not internet use may be the source of lower exam scores. Indeed in other studies, Facebook and internet use increased when people were bored with an ongoing task, and students reported that they texted in class as a result of boredom.

In this case, however, boredom was not the answer &ndash at least not entirely. Students who reported lower interest in the class did tend to have lower exam scores, but this relationship did not account for the relationship between internet use and exam performance. Similar findings held for motivation and intelligence. For example, students with high versus low ACT scores were equally likely to browse the web during class, and were similarly affected by that browsing on their final exams. Thus although interest, motivation, and intelligence all contributed to course performance, analyses showed that internet use negatively influenced exam performance over and above these factors.

Perhaps students are woefully unaware of their internet use. Other research shows that people perceive fun tasks as taking less time than dull tasks, and so it is possible that time spent enjoying social media or video sites is misperceived as short. In line with this idea are data from studies showing that students may underestimate their actual internet use. Surprisingly however, Ravizza and colleagues found that their participants were fairly accurate in estimating the time they spent on the internet. They also found that participants had a good sense of whether their internet use had a disruptive effect on their academic performance. Students who rated their internet use as having &ldquono effect&rdquo on their learning tended to use the internet less and showed no relationship between internet use and exam performance in contrast, those who rated their internet use as having a &ldquodisruptive effect&rdquo tended to use the internet more, had lower exam scores, and showed a negative relationship between internet use and exam performance.

It is possible that the internet use during class reflects habit or even an inability to inhibit the disruptive behavior. Use of social networking sites can be addictive for some, and the amount of time students spent online in this study suggests their attachment to technology was significant. In addition to the nearly 40 minutes students spent surfing the web, they also reported using their phones to text for an additional 27 minutes. It&rsquos a wonder they learned anything at all!

Regardless of the reason for internet use during class, it is clear that students are not experiencing the oft-touted benefits of laptop use in class. They spend minimal time accessing supplemental course material or surfing the web for content related to the ongoing lecture, and these activities do not appear to enhance course performance. Although students may use the internet to download slides and take notes, related research shows that taking notes by hand is more effective than doing so with a laptop. Thus, there seems to be little upside to laptop use in class, while there is clearly a downside. Students are distracting themselves for significant periods of class time by using laptops to surf social media sites, visit chat rooms, watch videos, and play games, and these activities harm the learning process. Furthermore, related research suggests that multitasking laptop users also distract their classmates, as peers with a direct view of those laptops suffer academically. Perhaps it is time for students to consider going &ldquoold school,&rdquo and adding one more item to their shopping wish lists: a good old fashioned spiral notebook.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. Gareth, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is the series editor of Best American Infographics and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Cindi May is a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston. She explores avenues for improving cognitive function and outcomes in college students, older adults and individuals who are neurodiverse.


Watch the video: Εξισώσεις με παρονομαστή βήμα βήμα. Λυμένα Παραδείγματα. Β Γυμνασίου. Proper Education (June 2022).


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