Friday, July 27, 2012

Spatial skills may be improved through training

Spatial skills--those involved with reading maps and assembling furniture--can be improved if you work at it, that's according to a new look at the studies on this topic by researchers at Northwestern University and Temple.

The research published this month in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association, is the first comprehensive analysis of credible studies on such interventions.

Improving spatial skills is important because children who do well at spatial tasks such as putting together puzzles are likely to achieve highly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

David Uttal and fellow researchers at Northwestern University with Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation's Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, reviewed 217 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking.

"There are limitations involved with looking at individual studies one by one. What we found when we brought together this large body of literature on training effects and analyzed it was a very powerful message, said Newcombe. "People of all ages can improve at all types of spatial skills through training, period."

Although recent research confirms that spatial abilities uniquely predict STEM achievement, there has been some debate about whether spatial skills can be improved — and whether such improvement lasts or transfers to new tasks. The new meta-analysis answers all those questions in the affirmative.

The researchers found that spatial skills are indeed malleable and that spatial training transfers to other fields.

"Our findings have significant real world implications by showing that training can have an impact on a technological workforce. With the right training more high school students will be able to consider engineering and other scientific fields as a career option," said Newcombe.

One example of the type of training that can increase spatial abilities is having physics students use three-dimensional representations. Video game playing also increases spatial skills. "Perhaps the most important finding from this meta-analysis is that several different forms of training can be highly successful," the authors say.

"Our hope is that our findings on how to train spatial skills will ultimately lead to highly effective ways to improve STEM performance," said Uttal, the lead author on the study.

The study looked at gender and age differences in relation to spatial thinking and found that in males and females, adults and children, even a small amount of training can improve spatial reasoning and have long-lasting impact.

Tween texting may lead to poor grammar skills

Text messaging may offer tweens a quick way to send notes to friends and family, but it could lead to declining language and grammar skills, according to researchers.

Tweens who frequently use language adaptations -- techspeak -- when they text performed poorly on a grammar test, said Drew Cingel, a former undergraduate student in communications, Penn State, and currently a doctoral candidate in media, technology and society, Northwestern University.

When tweens write in techspeak, they often use shortcuts, such as homophones, omissions of non-essential letters and initials, to quickly and efficiently compose a text message.

"They may use a homophone, such as gr8 for great, or an initial, like, LOL for laugh out loud," said Cingel. "An example of an omission that tweens use when texting is spelling the word would, w-u-d."

Cingel, who worked with S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Penn State's Media Effects Research Laboratory, said the use of these shortcuts may hinder a tween's ability to switch between techspeak and the normal rules of grammar.

Cingel gave middle school students in a central Pennsylvania school district a grammar assessment test. The researchers reviewed the test, which was based on a ninth-grade grammar review, to ensure that all the students in the study had been taught the concepts.

The researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of New Media & Society, then passed out a survey that asked students to detail their texting habits, such as how many texts they send and receive, as well as their opinion on the importance of texting. The researchers also asked participants to note the number of adaptations in their last three sent and received text messages. Of the 542 surveys distributed, students completed and returned 228, or 42.1 percent.

"Overall, there is evidence of a decline in grammar scores based on the number of adaptations in sent text messages, controlling for age and grade," Cingel said.

Not only did frequent texting negatively predict the test results, but both sending and receiving text adaptations were associated with how poorly they performed on the test, according to Sundar.

"In other words, if you send your kid a lot of texts with word adaptations, then he or she will probably imitate it," Sundar said. "These adaptations could affect their off-line language skills that are important to language development and grammar skills, as well."

Typical punctuation and sentence structure shortcuts that tweens use during texting, such as avoiding capital letters and not using periods at the end of sentences, did not seem to affect their ability to use correct capitalization and punctuation on the tests, according to Sundar.

The researchers suggested that the tweens' natural desire to imitate friends and family, as well as their inability to switch back to proper grammar, may combine to influence the poor grammar choices they make in more formal writing.

Sundar said that the technology itself influences the use of language short cuts. Tweens typically compose their messages on mobile devices, like phones, that have small screens and keyboards.

"There is no question that technology is allowing more self-expression, as well as different forms of expression," said Sundar. "Cultures built around new technology can also lead to compromises of expression and these restrictions can become the norm."

Cingel, who started the study as a student in the Shreyer Honors College at Penn State, said the idea to investigate the effect of texting on grammar skills began after receiving texts from his young nieces.

"I received text messages from my two younger nieces that, for me, were incomprehensible," Cingel said. "I had to call them and ask them, 'what are you trying to tell me.' "

Boys’ Impulsiveness May Result in Better Math Ability

In a University of Missouri study, girls and boys started grade school with different approaches to solving arithmetic problems, with girls favoring a slow and accurate approach and boys a faster but more error prone approach. Girls’ approach gave them an early advantage, but by the end of sixth grade boys had surpassed the girls. The MU study found that boys showed more preference for solving arithmetic problems by reciting an answer from memory, whereas girls were more likely to compute the answer by counting. Understanding these results may help teachers and parents guide students better.

“The observed difference in arithmetic accuracy between the sexes may arise from a the willingness to risk being wrong by answering from memory before one is sure of the correct answer,” said Drew Bailey, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in psychological science from MU. “In our study, we found that boys were more likely to call out answers than girls, even though they were less accurate early in school. Over time, though, this practice at remembering answers may have allowed boys to surpass girls in accuracy.”

The MU study followed approximately 300 children as they progressed from first to sixth grade. In the first and second grades, the boys’ tendency to give an answer quickly led to more answers in total, but also more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded more slowly and to fewer questions. By sixth grade, the boys were answering more problems and getting more correct.

“Developing mathematical skill may be part ‘practice makes perfect’ and part ‘perfect makes practice,’” Bailey said. “Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice.”

“Parents can give their children an advantage by making them comfortable with numbers and basic math before they start grade school, so that the children will have fewer trepidations about calling out answers,” said David Geary, MU professor of psychological science and co-author of the study. “As an adult, it seems easy to remember basic math facts, but in children’s brains the networks are still forming. It could be that trying to answer a problem from memory engages those networks and improves them, even if the answers aren’t correct at first. In time, the brain develops improved memories and more correct answers result.”

The study, “The codevelopment of skill at and preference for use of retrieval-based processes for solving addition problems: Individual and sex differences from first to sixth grades,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. David Geary is Curators’ Professor and a Thomas Jefferson Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science. Drew Bailey will be starting as a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University this fall.

The Role of Master's Degrees in Teacher Compensation

A new report released by the Center for American Progress argues that states across the nation spent nearly $15 billion a year in bad investments because of the so-called master's degree bump. Teachers with advanced degrees are generally compensated with additional salary or stipends, known as the master’s degree bump, but some states are paying far more into this inefficient and unwise policy than others. In New York, for instance, the state spends more than $460 per student each year on its master’s degree bump. In others states, such as Utah, that number is $39 per student each year, illustrating the tremendous range in values.

Most of the nation’s school districts remain shackled to what the report calls traditional, simplistic salary schedule in which just two measures matter: years on the job and the advanced degree. Although teachers with master’s degrees generally earn additional salary or stipends research suggests that they are no more effective, on average, than their counterparts without master’s degrees. The analysis, entitled "The Sheepskin Effect and Student Achievement," dissects the nation’s sizeable investment in master’s bumps as a means of highlighting policy obstacles to a more smartly differentiated compensated approach.

Using the most recent data available, the report’s authors Raegen Miller and Marguerite Roza found that in the 2007-08 school year, $14.8 billion was spent nationwide on this form of teacher compensation. A similar analysis released by CAP in 2009 found that during the 2003-2004 school year, nearly $8.6 billion was spent on so called master’s bumps. The findings of today’s report reveal that the nation’s annual outlay for this form of compensation has surged by 72 percent. This increase is plausibly related to steep increases in school budgets during the period and to the growth of online providers of master's degrees.

Key findings from the state-by-state analysis include:

• Spending on master's bumps exceeds $400 per pupil in Ohio, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, and Illinois.
• The average master's bump exceeds $10,000 in Washington, D.C., Illinois, and Minnesota.
• The estimated percentage of teachers holding a master's degree ranges from 28 percent in Louisiana to 88 percent in New York.
Based on these findings, the report’s authors propose the following recommendations:
• State policymakers should dispose of policies that mandate differential pay for teachers with advanced degrees or that make advanced degrees a requirement for remaining in the profession.
• In districts where the master’s bump takes the form of an annual stipend sitting on top of a teacher’s salary, rather than increasing stipends in conjunction with cost of living increases, districts should avoid directing new resources towards them.
• In districts where the master’s bump has penetrated the salary schedule, districts should create different salary schedules for new teaching hires that are neutral with respect to master’s degrees while grandfathering the master’s bump of existing teachers.