When Brain Training Works – Points of Controversy, by Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

August 23, 2016

Pre-publication publicity for a new book on the value of brain training claims that there are 5 conditions that make it effective.  While it surfaces some important considerations, it is likely to disappoint anyone who adheres strictly to the five conditions.

Here’s where the advice falls short:

  1. It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes.

Response:  First of all, if there is a brain-based capacity or neural circuit that hasn’t been identified as relevant to real-life outcomes, then it probably doesn’t exist.  The purpose of our brain is survival, so all mental capacities are arguably relevant to real-life outcomes.  But more importantly, it is insufficient to say that training must target a mental process shown in research to be relevant to real-life performance.  The training should actually be able to demonstrate improvement in whatever that real-life performance is.   This is actually where much brain training falls down.  It’s not that the training doesn’t connect the exercise to a specific neural process, but that it can’t demonstrate actual change in real life application.

2.  It must target a performance bottleneck.

Response: The issue here is the model of brain functioning that underlies the statement.  A bottleneck is relevant for a linear process.  If step 2 of 10 in a manufacturing plant is slow, then that produces a “bottleneck.”  Speeding up step 2 will speed up the whole manufacturing process.  But our brains are not manufacturing processes.  Rather, they are complex systems with multiple processes occurring simultaneously (and hopefully in coordination).  In fact, recent research supports the idea that multiple mental processes are involved in just about everything we do and they have to work together.  While there is some truth to targeting weaker functions, it is at least as true that brain training, to be effective, is about integrating multiple systems.

3.  It requires a minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function performed over 8 weeks or less.

Response:  It’s refreshing, actually, to see a consensus emerging that a few minutes or hours of training here and there won’t do much for cognitive fitness.  But there is a fundamental flaw in the implication that each brain function must be trained independently.  If that were the case, then a training regimen of 150 hours would be required to address 10 targeted brain functions.  In our research, we have found that a dramatic impact on multiple brain functions is achieved in 35 to 50 hours of training multiple cognitive skill areas in an integrated fashion (using BrainWare SAFARI 3 to 5 times per week, in 30-45 minutes sessions over about 12 weeks).  We can agree that noticeable differences start to appear at the 6-8 week mark, but much more can be accomplished than this description of the book suggests.

4.  Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty.

Response:  This is all true, but it neglects what we know about what actually motivates effortful attention and persistence in training.  Parents and clinicians we talk to tell us, over and over, that most other brain training programs they have experienced are BORING.  Even when they are adaptive, increase in difficulty, and require focus (effortful attention).  Human beings don’t expend effortful attention when things are not engaging.  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  The design of the training program needs to be motivational, engaging and reward, not just demand, persistence.

5.  Continued practice is required for continued benefits.

Response:  This condition suggests that one needs to continue training essentially forever.  First, we want to say, “Wrong,” but then we want to relent and acknowledge that, “It depends.”  It also requires that we consider what “practice” means.

When children complete a brain training program (which we think is better termed cognitive training), they bring their improved attention skills, working memory, or visual-spatial processing to an educational environment that, in most cases, continues to put demands on those very cognitive skills.  In other words, they are using and practicing those enhanced cognitive skills every day.

If you are an adult in the workplace, the same would be true, by and large.  You are in an environment where you “practice” your improved skills constantly.  After all, if they haven’t transferred to real life, what’s the point?  If your goal, as an adult, is not to perform better, but to be a “high functioning couch potato,” then that is another story altogether.

One situation where continued benefits may require ongoing training is for those who want to build cognitive reserve and/or mitigate the effects of the declining demands of everyday life as they age.  For many individuals who are not as active as they used to be in intellectually demanding activities, ongoing training makes sense.

The idea behind brain training is that getting skills to the level of automaticity so that they are used in real life, means that real life becomes the practice.  While continued training may be useful for some, the better the training, the better the transfer, the better the individual applies their stronger cognitive functions in everyday life, the more challenges they take on, the more problems they solve … and the less need they will have for ongoing training.

We welcome the opportunity to explore the fascinating topic of brain training – and everything we know and don’t know – with you.  Please comment or feel free to email us at bhill@mybrainware.com or rstark@mybrainware.com.


The Mystery of Reading Comprehension, by Betsy Hill

June 18, 2016

Many students can read a passage,but afterwards are unable to tell you what they read.  Or perhaps they can answer simple factual questions (regurgitate), but it really has no meaning for them and will be forgotten the next day.

How students make the leap from decoding to understanding is something that has challenged teachers since the very beginning of reading and writing (I don’t really have a reference for comprehension problems with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I suspect that I’m not far off the truth).

And what is reading comprehension, anyway?

The way our minds comprehend what we hear or read is to connect what we are hearing or reading to knowledge and information we already know.  Regurgitating is not comprehending.  Regurgitation only involves short-term memory.  Our brains are designed to discard what is held in short-term memory if we haven’t found a way to make it meaningful.  So, of course, we can “read” but still not have understood a darn thing.

Comprehending involves making meaning, by visualizing and applying the information from the text being read, relating ideas to what is already known, and holding ideas in mind while we think about them.  But most reading instruction doesn’t address “visualizing”, or “holding ideas in mind.”  In fact, those mental processes are only two, although a very important two, of the cognitive skills (or mental processes) that must be working efficiently and accurately for comprehension to take place.

More importantly, these are the very skills that stand int he way of that leap to comprehension for many students.  It isn’t enough to hope that students will magically solve the mystery of comprehension themselves and make that leap.  Reading comprehension requires a mind prepared for that challenge.

Learn more at http://www.mybrainware.com/Skate-Kids-and-Ramps-to-Reading.

 


Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam, by Betsy Hill

February 4, 2015

A recent article asked the question: Are Brain Training Programs a Scam? Like many articles on the subject these days, the analysis was right in some respects, but missed several key points. The numbered statements below in italics are from the article. The comments following each point are mine.

1.  Most brain training programs are based on well known neuroscience and cognitive science research tests.

This is a fundamental flaw of many brain training programs. They involve training on the tests themselves. We know that our brains become better at what they do over and over. So, if we practice the very same skills that we will be tested on, you will get better at them and perform better on the test. The real question is how you train skills so that they will be available in everything you do in life.

2.  Brain training companies may claim unique or revolutionary training techniques, but they typically are offering more complex and appealing variations of these basic neurocognitive tests.

This is one of the important ways BrainWare SAFARI is different from other brain training programs. It was built on clinical therapy practices from multiple disciplines over several decades designed to help people function better in school or the workplace or in life, not to perform better on a test.

3.  Cognitive training relies on the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the biological method for how the brain responds to its environment – learning the skills and adaptive behavior necessary to survive. This pattern of learned behavior, skill acquisition, and memory encoding is also known as experience and wisdom.

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all brain training; that is clear. Neuroplasticity is not a method; it is an attribute or property of brains and means that they are constantly changing. Everything we do changes our brains physiologically. Every interaction with the outside environment changes our brains. The purpose of a brain is survival. Brains learn from experience, but I think that the word “wisdom” is misapplied here. Does being able to walk or drive a car connote wisdom? Most brain training programs are about skill acquisition and automaticity, not about judgment, perspective, complex analysis and other hallmarks of wisdom. In discussions of these topics, it is very important to use terminology correctly.

4.  The more specialized a cognitive training program can be will increase the likelihood of effective skills transfer. A good example is immersive cognitive training for military and commercial airline pilots. This is true in one sense. When skills are very specific to a situation, like knowing how to land a plane, then it is important to practice that skill. However, another analogy is executing a football play. Football players do training of basic skills and then apply them in a variety of situations so that the skills generalize. There is a distinction between transfer and generalization.

But will immersive cognitive training in a simulated flight deck improve the pilot’s ability to learn a foreign language faster or be better at playing blackjack? This is an excellent question. Another question is, are there skills that can be developed that are more basic than landing a plane or speaking a language or playing blackjack that, if developed, will help performance in all those activities? That doesn’t mean that training of basic cognitive skills is sufficient to be able to land a plane, but the right kind of training in visual-spatial processing, visual span, oculomotor skills, attention, reaction time, etc., might, and probably would, drive improvement in landing a plane … AND taking off … AND changing course during flight … AND dealing with a sick passenger … AND communicating with passengers when there is a delay  … AND …

5.  Highly specialized cognitive training (for highly specialized occupations) can be effective, and also tends to be very expensive. DARPA, the research and technology arm of the US Department of Defense is working on several cognitive training efforts to boost focus, coordination and control for drone pilots as an example. 

R&D is expensive. That doesn’t mean that it will be expensive to deliver once they develop it, and in fact will probably result in tremendous cost savings once developed because everything else they do will be more efficient and effective.

6.  Structured cognitive training holds the future promise of addressing a host of neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric conditions. There is a substantial amount of venture capital and government research dollars flowing into this area, but independent research validation for most structured cognitive training is still lacking and off in the future.

It is true that independent research validation is not conclusive yet for many training programs. Different programs are at different stages of proof. Research reports on BrainWare SAFARI, which include both peer-reviewed published research and field studies, are available at http://www.mybrainware.com/research.

7. The brain training industry as a whole faces a serious problem that will be hard to solve, namely, the barrier to market entry for brain training services and products is very low. Any company can create a few online brain games “based on neuroscience” and then market them as a cure-all for Alzheimer’s or dyslexia, or as a quick and easy way to raise your IQ.

This is very true. This is why I take this time to clarify some very important points.

There is new territory for all of us. Consumers, educators, health care practitioners and the media themselves will need to become educated in this area so that they can make appropriate judgments. It will require that people be open but skeptical. And it will require some standards or principles of how to make decisions about brain training programs. For a list of criteria for an effective brain-training programs, click here.


Giving Every Student the Equivalent of a Time Turner — by Betsy Hill

October 28, 2014

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger manages to attend extra classes with the help of a Time Turner. The Time Turner allows her to go back in time so that she can, in effect, take two classes at once. To use the parlance of renowned education Robert Marzano and others, it gave her “more time on task.” Of course, Hermione was “quite the brightest witch of her age” and so learned an even more prodigious amount with extra class time.

Many educators would like to figure out how to put more hours in the day – both for teachers and students. But, of course, the time-space continuum is what it is, using a Time Turner isn’t an option. Sometimes, schools look at extending the school day, or the school year, and that seems to have helped in some situations, but perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the time-on-task equation in a slightly different way.

Here is the equation. If Johnny needs an hour to learn to a particular concept, or a series of steps to solve a problem, or set of vocabulary words, then 30 minutes of instruction and study time will leave Johnny short of mastery. The problem for many teachers is that they are pressed to simply “cover” the material. If “covering” a topic takes 30 minutes, that’s just the way it is. The question then becomes whether there is a way to help students learn more material in less time.

I can think of two, and neither of them is a Time Turner. Both ways of helping students learn more material in less time can be effective for those that are the “brightest of their age” and those that are not.

The first is to teach more effectively. It may be that students will “get” whatever it is more quickly if the material is presented in a more effective way. Teachers who understand how learning happens in the brain can often get more and better learning to happen for their students in less time.

The other is to improve the efficiency of learning by building a student’s learning capacity.   What if Johnny could grasp that concept in less time, or manipulate the steps of a story problem more effectively? What if he could sustain his attention better so that he is actually attending to the instruction rather than needing it to be repeated multiple times? What if he could take notes while listening to the teacher? What if he could monitor his own pacing and progress to finish his work?

Many teachers assume that they are stuck with their students’ learning capacity, leaving them to choose between just “covering” the material or taking more time to teach. That assumption no longer holds. Dramatic improvements in students’ capacity to learn are possible in a very short period of time. In 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI, for example, students have improved their cognitive skills by an average of 4 years, according to peer-reviewed published research.

So, if we can help students learn more in less time, how much time will we spend helping them get to that point? Is it worth the investment of time?

Let’s do the math again. The time spent using BrainWare SAFARI is typically 30 to 50 hours over those 12 weeks – usually no more than 30 hours.

If we assume that a typical school year involves 1,000 hours of instruction, 30 hours of cognitive skill development is a one-time investment of 3 percent of instructional time in that particular school year. If one considers that the improvement could be amortized over three years of elementary school (since 3rd grade is a common year in which to incorporate BrainWare SAFARI in the curriculum), the investment of time diminishes to about one percent of instructional time. If learning capacity, then, is only one percent more efficient, it would be an even trade, but learning capacity is likely to be much more efficient than that because learning is not linear and learning one thing better provides the groundwork for learning everything that comes afterward more efficiently. It also doesn’t account for the cumulative effects of students who go on to middle school and high school with the capacity and preparation to succeed at those levels.

Maybe, Time Turners aren’t an option, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enable our students to learn more than they currently do.


Rethinking Remediation in Higher Education – by Betsy Hill

July 23, 2014

The remediation statistics are sobering. Over half of students who enroll in 2-year colleges take remedial courses in English and/or math. Almost 20% of those enrolling in 4-year colleges do so. The rates for low-income students are even higher – 68% and 39% respectively.

Of even greater concern is that higher education’s remediation efforts don’t seem to be working. Of those enrolled in remedial courses in a 2-year college, 62% complete remediation, but less than 10% graduate within 3 years. For students taking remedial courses in 4-year colleges, almost 75% complete remediation, but only 35% graduate within 6 years. It doesn’t seem that remedial courses in college are delivering the skills required for post-secondary academic success.

While remediation at the college level has traditionally focused on bringing student up to speed in reading and math, being ready for post-secondary work is not simply a matter of reading at a sufficient level, or knowing algebra. It is also a matter of “non-academic” skills like communication and collaboration, as well as the level of a student’s cognitive development. In fact, cognitive development is not a requirement for high school graduation nor is it measured as a prerequisite to college admissions, but it is nonetheless critical for success. And the lack of fully developed cognitive skills may, in fact, be the root cause of students’ lack of achievement in reading and math. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in a recent report, “The evidence points to differences in cognitive skills as an explanation of a majority of the differences in economic growth rates across OECD countries.”

In fact cognitive skills are more than just a complement to academic skills. They are foundational, and in many respects they are precursors to educational success and the learning process itself. In the last several years, an awareness of the connection between cognitive skills and educational success has grown and research is showing that cognitive abilities contribute to academic achievement.

Many researchers have illustrated how brain development can impact school readiness and achievement, including cognitive control, visual-spatial skills, planning, attention, simultaneous and successive processing and a variety of other cognitive processes. As a result of these and other research efforts, educational and developmental psychology researchers are starting to see the need to find ways to add training of cognitive skills to the education system.

While the principles of cognitive skill training have been developing over several decades, only recently has there emerged a practical and scalable approach to the development of cognitive skills that can rapidly improve cognitive capacity and a student’s potential for success. The effectiveness of cognitive skills training in a video-game format was shown in research published in 2007. The software program that was the subject of the study was, of course, BrainWare SAFARI. Since then, we have worked with public, private and charter schools across the U.S. to replicate and extend the findings from the original research. While the initial study and much of the subsequent field research has examined the impact on elementary and middle-grade students, what is known about the plasticity of the brain and the essential principles of cognitive development would suggest that positive results could also be achieved in a college-age population.

The evidence suggests that it is time to rethink remediation in higher education and make sure that college students have access to cognitive skills training to address their lack of preparedness, academically and cognitively. Doing so may provide an opportunity for many students to achieve their dreams of a college education and the advantages that entails by giving them the foundation and the capacity for academic success at the post-secondary level.

If you’d like a copy of a more expansive and referenced white paper on this topic, please click here.


Emphasize the “Learning” in “Extended Learning Time” – by Betsy Hill

May 6, 2014

There seem to be a lot of people talking about extending the school day lately.

On the pro side of the argument are those who believe that our students’ ability to compete in a global economy requires more time devoted to academics.  In some cases, the champions of the longer day identify the need as remedial; some students need more time and more instruction, they say.  In other cases, the need identified is enrichment – and extending the day is about restoring time that has been removed from the school day for arts or foreign language or other enrichment activities focused on 21t century skills.

Opponents of an extended school day tend to focus on the increased costs and on the lack of clear direction for what exactly is supposed to be achieved in that extra time.  Some critics of the concept assert that the time in the current school day could be better used.  And often teachers are not supportive of extending the school day, for all the reasons that one might imagine.

There can be a variety of reasons for extending the school day, but the critical thing according to most of the schools that have taken the step is to not just to offer more of the same in the extra time. If you combine all those different inputs, what schools need to fill the time of the extended day is something that:

  • Is different that what typically goes on in the school day
  • Serves as enrichment
  • Serves as an intervention, for students whose progress is lagging
  • Will enhance all students’ academic performance
  • Gets students motivated and engaged in learning
  • Does not require a significant amount of additional teacher preparation or lesson planning

It may seem strange, but there actually are such things – perhaps not a lot, but cognitive skills development is one of them.  Programs like BrainWare SAFARI, SkateKids and Ramps To Reading are ideally suited to make “learning” the focus of “Extended Learning Time.”  They will challenge students who need more challenge.  They will help students who are behind to catch up.  They are fundamentally and demonstrably about helping students learn to learn.

If you have questions or thoughts about how cognitive skills development fills the bill for an extended learning time environment, I invite you to comment on this blog or email me directly at bhill@mybrainware.com


Closing the Achievement Gaps: The Need for a Cognitive Intervention

March 29, 2014

Despite great effort, the achievement gaps in education persist. While some progress has been made increasing the percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math, the national average is only about 35% for 3rd graders. That’s one big gap. And the gaps are even bigger for historically low-performing students – students who are economically disadvantaged, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners.

Here is what some recent research suggests about these populations and the potential to make dramatic, rather than incremental, strides in raising performance levels.

Economically Disadvantaged Students

The gap for economically disadvantaged students is not just an achievement gap; it is a cognitive gap. Low-SES (socioeconomic status) students have less well developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. This impacts their ability to visualize and see patterns, to manage spatial relationships and sequence, to control the focus of their attention, to learn and understand words, to hold and manipulate information in the mind. These cognitive skills are essential in reading and math, in particular, and in being a successful and organized student, in general.

Consider the situation of two classes of 4th and 5th grade boys, low-SES, and with a history of behavior problems. The students were tested and shown to be performing, cognitively, 3 years behind their chronological age. Understanding that these students’ minds were functioning like those of 1st and 2nd graders, what would you predict for their academic performance (and their behavior) when challenged with 4th or 5th grade work? Twelve weeks later, following a cognitive intervention, these students were performing on average 3 years ahead of their chronological age. What would you predict now for their potential for academic performance?

Students with Learning Disabilities

The gap for a large portion of students in Special Education – those with learning disabilities – is also not just an achievement gap, but a cognitive gap. Working memory, short-term memory, attention, processing speed and similar cognitive functions are what stand in the way of making adequate academic progress for these students.

A group of students in 2nd through 4th grades, identified as having specific learning disabilities, were tested and shown to be performing cognitively at just above 60% proficiency, where 90% proficiency is the level expected of a normally developing student. These students were reading at about 28% proficiency and performed in math at about 45% proficiency. Twelve weeks later, the students who received a cognitive intervention were performing at 89% proficiency cognitively, 68% proficiency in reading, and 77% proficiency in math.

ELL Students

Cognitive processes play a role in language acquisition and the ability to function in a second language. Working memory, visualization, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility are especially important.

ELL students who received a cognitive intervention in various studies accelerated gains in reading comprehension, performed better than students in a control group on state tests in reading and math, and performed better on measures of academic performance in reading, writing and math.

The cognitive intervention: BrainWare SAFARI

Learn more at www.MyBrainWare.com.