Are You Ready for the Post-College SAT?

 

The Wall Street Journal

Employers Say They Don’t Trust Grade-Point Averages

      By

DOUGLAS BELKIN

    image

     Joe Philipson for The Wall Street Journal

    David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College outside Rochester, N.Y. The college will offer the new CLA + test.

    Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students’ real value to employers.

    A new test for college seniors that aims to be the SAT for prospective employers is the latest blow to the monopoly long-held by colleges and universities on what it means to be well-educated. Doug Belkin and Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni V.P. of Policy, discuss on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.

    The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills,” said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. “The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves.”

    The test is part of a movement to find new ways to assess the skills of graduates. Employers say grades can be misleading and that they have grown skeptical of college credentials.

    “For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, ‘Trust us, we’re professional. If we say that you’re learning and we give you a diploma it means you’re prepared,’ ” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “But that’s not true.”

    The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA +, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated.

    Even as students spend more on tuition—and take on increasing debt to pay for it—they are earning diplomas whose value is harder to calculate. Studies show that grade-point averages, or GPAs, have been rising steadily for decades, but employers feel many new graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce.

    Meanwhile, more students are taking inexpensive classes such as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, but have no way to earn a meaningful academic credential from them.

    HNTB Corp., a national architectural firm with 3,600 employees, see value in new tools such as the CLA +, said Michael Sweeney, a senior vice president. Even students with top grades from good schools may not “be able to write well or make an argument,” he said. “I think at some point everybody has been fooled by good grades or a good resume.”

    The new test “has the potential to be a very powerful tool for employers,” said Ronald Gidwitz, a board member of the Council for Aid to Education, the group behind the test, and a retired chief executive of Helene Curtis, a Chicago-based hair-care company that was bought by Unilever in 1996.

    Only one in four employers think that two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy, according to a 2010 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

    Meanwhile, GPAs have been on the rise. A 2012 study looking at the grades of 1.5 million students from 200 four-year U.S. colleges and universities found that the percentage of A’s given by teachers nearly tripled between 1940 and 2008. A college diploma is now more a mark “of social class than an indicator of academic accomplishment,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University geophysics professor and co-author of the study.

    Employers such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. long have used their own job-applicant assessments. At some companies such as Google Inc., GPAs carry less weight than they once did because they have been shown to have little correlation with job success, said a Google spokeswoman.

    At Teach for America, which recruits college students to teach in rural and urban school districts, the GPA is one of just dozens of things used to winnow nearly 60,000 applicants for 5,900 positions. Candidates who make it to the second step of the process are given an in-house exam that assesses higher-order thinking, said Sean Waldheim, vice president of admissions at the group. “We’ve found that our own problem-solving activities work best to measure the skills we’re looking for,” he said.

    The Council for Aid to Education, the CLA + test’s creator, is a New York-based nonprofit that once was part of Rand Corp. The 90-minute exam is based on a test that has been used by 700 schools to grade themselves and improve how well their students are learning.

    The CLA + will be open to anyone—whether they are graduating from a four-year university or have taken just a series of MOOCs—and students will be allowed to show their scores to prospective employees. The test costs $35, but most schools are picking up the fee. Among schools that will use CLA + are the University of Texas system, Flagler College in Florida and Marshall University in West Virginia.

    The CLA + is scored on the 1600-point scale once used by the SAT “because everyone is familiar with that,” said Chris Jackson, director of partner development at the Council for Aid to Education. Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication.

    Cory LaDuke, a 21-year-old senior at St. John Fisher, said he had mixed feelings about taking the CLA + but understood why employers might be skeptical of some graduates because “some people don’t work that hard and fake their way through it,” he said.

    “It kind of sucks that an employer can’t trust your GPA, but that’s the way it is right now, so this also an opportunity,” said Mr. LaDuke. “It’s another way to prove yourself.”

    Other groups also have been seeking ways to better judge graduates’ skills. The Lumina Foundation, which aims to boost the number of college graduates, is offering a way to standardize what students should know once they earn a degree. The MacArthur Foundation has helped fund a system of “badges” for online learning to show mastery of certain skills. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama said he wants the federal government to devise a ratings system to gauge colleges’ performance based on student outcomes.

    Meanwhile, established testing companies are introducing new tools. Earlier this year, Educational Testing Service, which developed the Graduate Record Exam, announced two certificates to reward high marks on its Proficiency Profile, which assesses critical thinking, reading, writing and math.

    And ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam of the same name, has a National Career Readiness Certificate, which measures skills such as synthesizing and applying information presented graphically.

    Educational Testing Service was surprised to learn through a survey last spring that more than a quarter of businesses were using the GRE to evaluate job applicants, said David Payne, an ETS vice president.

    Sean Keegan, a 2011 graduate of Tufts University, has posted his GRE on his resume because he landed in the 97th percentile, even though he isn’t applying to graduate school. “I think it shows I’m relatively smart,” said Mr. Keegan, who is looking for work in finance. “So far, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from employers.”

     

    Proven Study Techniques

    The Brilliant Report by Annie Murphy Paul

    Put down that highlighter!In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us—from schoolchildren to college students to working adults—needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

    The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have done the job for us. In a comprehensive report released earlier this year by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely examine ten learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed. Here’s a quick guide to the report’s conclusions:

    The Worst
    Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

    The Best
    In contrast to familiar practices like highlighting and rereading, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab. Take distributed practice, for example. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions, rather than engaging in one marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

    The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. Yes, more tests—but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy—despite the robust evidence supporting it—there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards. And now flash cards can be presented in digital form, via apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine. Both spaced-out learning, or distributed practice, and practice tests were rated as having “high utility” by the authors.

    The Rest
    The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground—not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar—so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word).

    All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards. (You can browse past issues of the Brilliant Report by clicking here.)

    I love to hear from readers. Please email me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com. You can also visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook. Be brilliant!

    Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?

    The Wall Street Journal

    Ben Nelson: The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard

    Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders? 

        By

    MATTHEW KAMINSKI
    San Francisco

    ‘If you think as we do,” says Ben Nelson, “Harvard’s the world’s most valuable brand.” He doesn’t mean only in higher education. “Our goal is to displace Harvard. We’re perfectly happy for Harvard to be the world’s second most valuable brand.”

    Listening to Mr. Nelson at his spare offices in San Francisco’s Mid-Market, a couple of adjectives come to mind. Generous (to Harvard) isn’t one. Nor immodest. Here’s a big talker with bold ideas. Crazy, too, in that Silicon Valley take-a-flier way.

    Mr. Nelson founded and runs the Minerva Project. The school touts itself as the first elite—make that “e-lite”—American university to open in 100 years. Or it will be when the first class enters in 2015. Mr. Nelson, who previously led the online photo-sharing company Snapfish, wants to topple and transcend the American academy’s economic and educational model.

    And why not? Higher education’s product-delivery system—a professor droning to a limited number of students in a room—dates back a thousand years. The industry’s physical plant (dorms, classrooms, gyms) often a century or more. Its most expensive employees, tenured faculty, can’t be fired. The price of its product (tuition) and operating costs have outpaced inflation by multiples.

    In similar circumstances, Wal-Mart took out America’s small retail chains. Amazon crushed Borders. And Harvard will have to make way for . . . Minerva? “There is no better case to do something that I can think of in the history of the world,” says Mr. Nelson.

    Some people regarded as serious folks have bought the pitch, superlatives and all. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, agreed to be the chairman of Minerva’s advisory board. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who led the New School in New York from 2001-10, heads the fundraising arm. Stephen Kosslyn, previously dean of social sciences at Harvard, is Minerva’s founding academic dean. Benchmark, a venture-capital firm that financed eBay and Twitter, last year made its largest-ever seed investment, $25 million, in Minerva.

    Mr. Nelson calls Minerva a “reimagined university.” Sure, there will be majors and semesters. Admission requirements will be “extraordinarily high,” he says, as at the Ivies. Students will live together and attend classes. And one day, an alumni network will grease job and social opportunities.

    But Minerva will have no hallowed halls, manicured lawns or campus. No fraternities or sports teams. Students will spend their first year in San Francisco, living together in a residence hall. If they need to borrow books, says Mr. Nelson, the city has a great public library. Who needs a student center with all of the coffee shops around?

    Each of the next six semesters students will move, in cohorts of about 150, from one city to another. Residences and high-tech classrooms will be set up in the likes of São Paulo, London or Singapore—details to come. Professors get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. Minerva is for-profit.

    The business buzzword here is the “unbundling” of higher education, or disaggregation. Since the founding of Oxford in the 12th century, universities, as the word implies, have tried to offer everything in one package and one place. In the world of the Web and Google, physical barriers are disappearing.

    Mr. Nelson wants to bring this technological disruption to the top end of the educational food chain, and at first look Minerva’s sticker price stands out. Freed of the costs of athletics, the band and other pricey campus amenities, a degree will cost less than half the average top-end private education, which is now over $50,000 a year with room and board.

    His larger conceit, inspired or outlandish, is to junk centuries of tradition and press the reset button on the university experience. Mr. Nelson offers a fully-formed educational philosophy with a practiced salesman’s confidence. At Minerva, introductory courses are out. For Econ or Psych 101, buy some books or sign up for one of the MOOCs—as in massive open online course—on the Web.

    “Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know,” he says. “We just feel we don’t have any moral standing to charge you thousands of dollars for learning what you can learn for free.” Legacy universities move students to their degrees through packed, required lecture classes, which Mr. Nelson calls their “profit pools.” And yes, he adds, all schools are about raking in money, even if most don’t pay taxes by claiming “not-for-profit” status.

    In the Nelson dream curriculum, all incoming students take the same four yearlong courses. His common core won’t make students read the Great Books. “We want to teach you how to think,” Mr. Nelson says. A course on “multimodal communications” works on practical writing and debating skills. A “formal systems class” goes over “everything from logic to advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning, to behavioral econ.”

    Over the next three years, Minervaites take small, discussion-heavy seminars via video from their various locations. Classes will be taped and used to critique not only how students handle the subjects, but also how they apply the reasoning and communication skills taught freshman year.

    The idea for Minerva grew out of Mr. Nelson’s undergraduate experience. As a freshman at Penn’s Wharton School, he took a course on the history of the university. “I realized that what the universities are supposed to be is not what they are,” he says. “That the concept of universities taking great raw material and teaching how it can have positive impact in the world is gone.”

    Undergraduates come in, take some random classes, settle on a major and “oh yeah, you’re going to pick up critical thinking in the process by accident.” By his senior year, Mr. Nelson was pushing for curriculum changes as chairman of a student committee on undergraduate education. As a 21-year-old, he designed Penn’s still popular program of preceptorials, which are small, short-term and noncredit seminars offered “for the sake of learning.”

    A Wharton bachelor’s degree in economics took him to consulting at Dean & Company in Washington, D.C. “My first six months, what did the consulting firm teach me? They didn’t teach me the basics of how they do business. They taught me how to think. I didn’t know how to check my work. I didn’t think about order of magnitude. I didn’t have habits of mind that a liberal arts education was supposed to have given me. And not only did I not have it, none of my other colleagues had it—people who had graduated from Princeton and Harvard and Yale.”

     

    After joining Snapfish in 1999 and leaving as CEO a little over a decade later, Mr. Nelson, who is 38 and married with a daughter, wrote and shopped around his business plan for Minerva. He says he considered partnering with existing institutions, but decided to build a 21st-century school from scratch to offer the “ideal education.”

    Ideas like his are not in short supply. The catch? No one has found a way to make a steady profit on an ed-tech startup.

    Going back to the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, many have tried. With $120 million from Michael Milken and Larry Ellison and a board of big names, UNext launched in 1997 as a Web-based graduate university. It failed. Fathom, a for-profit online-learning venture founded by Columbia University in 2000, closed three years and several million in losses later.

    In the current surge of investment in new educational companies, Minerva has no direct competitor but plenty of company. Udacity and Coursera, two prominent startups, are looking to monetize the proliferation of MOOCs. UniversityNow offers cheap, practical courses online and at brick-and-mortar locations in the Bay Area. And so on.

    Education accounts for 8.7% of the U.S. economy, but less than 1% of all venture capital transactions in 1995-2011 and only 0.3% of total public market capitalization, as of 2011, according to Global Silicon Valley Advisors. The group predicts the market for postsecondary “eLearning” and for-profit universities will grow by double digits annually over the next five years.

    Mr. Nelson’s vision will be beside the point if Minerva fails to attract paying students. He makes a straightforward business case. Harvard and other top schools take only a small share of qualified applicants, and for 30 years have refused to meet growing demand. A new global middle class—some 1.5 billion people—desperately wants an elite American education. “The existing model doesn’t work,” he says. “The market was begging for a solution.”

    Audacious ideas are easy to pick apart, and Mr. Nelson’s are no exception. He repeats “elite” to describe a startup without a single student. Reputations are usually earned over time. Many prospective students dream of Harvard for the brand. Even at around $20,000 a year—no bargain for middle-class Chinese 18-year-olds—Minerva won’t soon have the Harvard cachet.

    Any education startup must also brave a regulatory swamp. By opting out of government-backed student-loan programs, Minerva won’t have to abide by many of the federal rules for so-called Title IV (of the relevant 1965 law) schools. Americans won’t have an edge in admissions and Minerva expects most students will come from abroad.

    But Mr. Nelson wants to be part of the club whose price of entry is accreditation. A cartel sanctioned by Congress places a high barrier to entry for newcomers, stifling educational innovation. Startups face a long slog to get accredited. So last month Minerva chose to partner with the Keck Graduate Institute, or KGI, a small school founded in 1997 that is part of the Claremont consortium of colleges near Los Angeles. Minerva degrees will now have, pending the regulatory OK, an accreditor’s seal of approval.

    With this move, Mr. Nelson eased one headache and raised some questions. KGI offers only graduate degrees in life sciences, an unusual fit for an undergraduate startup. KGI isn’t a recognizable international name for Minerva to market. Yet Mr. Nelson says the schools are “completely complementary” and the deal represents “zero change in our mission.”

    Among the other marketing challenges: Won’t Minerva undergrads miss out on lifelong bonding built in classrooms, dorms and next to the keg? Traveling across the world, Mr. Nelson says, will bring people even closer together. Campus activities? Imagine a college newspaper with 25 foreign bureaus, he shoots back, or the cultural attractions of the world’s great cities. “If you want to be an intercollegiate fencer, do not come to Minerva. Bad idea,” he says. “There are a lot of traditional experiences that a traditional university will provide you that we will not.”

    Effusive on every other topic, Mr. Nelson turns vague when I bring up Minerva’s finances. Skeptical investors have seen this movie before. Mr. Nelson doesn’t even hint at projected profit or a growth timetable. He says the school has to become roughly the size of an Ivy League university, enrolling around 10,000 students, to break even. “Making your profit, your substantial revenue, based on 18-year-olds is not the mover,” he says. “It’s what you do with them. It’s how you build the brand.”

    If the bulk of revenues won’t come from undergrads, then where? “We’ll see,” he says. Perhaps executive education, or licensing classroom content or technology, or putting on conferences. “Our enterprise value will not be derived nearly as much from our ‘E’ as much as P/E,” he says, as in the price/earnings ratio. “It isn’t about maximizing profits. It’s all about how the brand unlocks the future potential earnings.” Harvard, a multibillion-dollar operation, is a business more than an academic model.

    Whether or not Mr. Nelson and Minerva shake up American higher education, someone will.

    Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

    Planning for Processing Time Yields Deeper Learning

    ASCD August 2013 | Volume 55 | Number 8 

    Planning for Processing Time Yields Deeper Learning

    Jessica Roake

    DJs and teachers often share a common fear: the dreaded dead air. Like an awkward quiet between songs, a seemingly endless silence after a question has been posed can be enough to send even the most seasoned teacher into a panic. Building processing time into lessons has long been standard in special needs classrooms, but every student, regardless of learning pace, benefits from increased and better quality think time. As Wendy Ostroff, ASCD author and associate professor in the Program for the Advancement of Learning at Curry College, says, “Faster learning is not necessarily deeper learning. In our fast-paced culture, that is difficult to remember.”

    Why Think Time?

    The classroom teacher’s goal is to successfully integrate material into a student’s working, relational, and ultimately permanent memory. When students are rapidly overloaded with material, however, the teacher’s chances of achieving this goal decrease. Judy Willis, an ASCD author and noted authority in the field of learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies, explains, “Every brain needs periodic rests during which neurotransmitters can be replenished and executive function can process the new material. You can see when your students are entering a state of depletion of neurotransmitters in their synapses, as they will become fidgety, distracted, and unfocused. When this happens, information processing takes longer, leading not only to student frustration, but also to less successful memory.”

    Increasing processing time in the classroom begins with investigating preconceived ideas about how long it should take for students to “get” new information. “The most common misconception about processing time is that those who process slower are comprehending less or are inferior learners,” says Ostroff. “In fact, students with processing speed disorders often do very well on tests of achievement (e.g., math reasoning, word reading).

    Jillian Darefsky, the cohead of school at The Siena School in Silver Spring, explains, “Students need to hear the information, process it, and provide a response. Actively providing at least four to five seconds of think time is an essential component of lesson planning. This multistep process seems easy and natural to the majority of people but can be incredibly frustrating for some students. Imagine being one of the smartest students in the room but having difficulty participating in a class discussion or answering a question posed by the teacher because it takes you longer than your peers to formulate a response. For these students, think time needs to be much longer than four to five seconds.”

    Teachers face constant pressure to cover material in an extensive but timely manner; however, the amount of information students are expected to process every day can be overwhelming. “People don’t always consider the complexity of what we ask our students to do six to seven hours a day,” continues Darefsky.

    “Some students quickly respond with ‘I don’t know,’ and the teacher wrongly assumes they don’t understand the material. In reality, they may know, it’s just they haven’t had the opportunity to formulate a response. Alternatively, some teachers assume students aren’t paying attention or are off task when they simply require more processing time than their peers.”

    Although it takes conscious effort and creativity to build effective think time into lessons, the rewards are undeniable. “Teachers who deliberately plan think time into their lessons tend to elicit deeper responses from their students, and more students participate in class activities and discussions,” says Darefsky.

    How to Build In Think Time

    Set goals that work for everyone. Decide which idea is most important in a particular lesson, and consider a variety of ways for all students—regardless of their processing speed—to gain that understanding. “When planning lessons,” Darefsky suggests, “deliberately plan opportunities to provide at least four to five seconds of think time (more for students with language and processing difficulties), and take think time into consideration when deciding what will be achieved during the class.” Ostroff adds, “Teachers and adults should understand that every child will arrive at learning outcomes in very different ways. They should strive to create a classroom in which all learners are measured by successes that are applicable to them.”

    Enjoy the silence. “Being comfortable with silence is not an easy thing to do,” acknowledges Darefsky, “but it is essential. Teachers have a tendency to fill the silence after a question is posed, viewing it as an uncomfortable void rather than an opportunity for the students to process what is being asked of them.” She suggests, “Learn to appreciate silence in the classroom. If you think you have a tendency to rush the students, count to 10 before breaking the silence!”

    Preview. Lesson previewing can help students prepare in advance for the following day’s class. Asking students to prepare for the next day’s discussion the evening before can also be highly beneficial, adds Darefsky. Students can “complete graphic organizers on the topic in preparation for a discussion” as homework. Darefsky suggests privately providing students who face processing delays with a question the night before a discussion and letting them know that they will be called on first. This gives the students increased processing time and the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Think-pair-share is another think time–friendly alternative to whole-class discussion.

    Get physical! Instead of continuously barreling through material for an entire class period, build minibreaks into the schedule to help integrate material into student memory. Willis explains, “This doesn’t mean major activity. Simply stretching and changing to a different position in the classroom, such as sitting on the floor, can provide a fresh outlook. A bit of physical activity, such as jumping jacks, can be quite revitalizing. During these rests, the newly learned material has the opportunity to go from working or short-term memory to relational memory while students relax and refresh their supply of neurotransmitters.”

    Partial participation. When the goal is for students to understand a concept in a deeper way, partial participation is an effective strategy. It allows all students to approach a common curriculum using different tactics. “For example,” says Willis, “students whose faulty memory tracking slows their mastery of the multiplication tables may need to use calculators temporarily. Other students may initially need to write their notes about the new topic on outlines that are already partially filled in. This strategy keeps students motivated because they are stimulated by suitable challenge while working within their own comfort zones.”

    While this process does require careful student observation to ensure that teachers can give specific feedback and adjust the level of challenge, Willis suggests that partial participation “creates opportunities for discovery learning within each student’s zone of proximal development—the gap between the student’s current or actual level of development and his or her potential level of development—while avoiding the frustration or resentment that activates the information-blocking power of the affective filter.”

    Chunk! Break down larger themes and ideas into smaller, more manageable steps. This will make it easier for each idea to work its way into the student’s long-term understanding.

    Get creative with connections. Link subject matter to the real world through art, literature, film, storytelling, and hands-on activities. Incorporate kinesthetic activities, drama, charades, artistic responses, music, and hands-on building or fixing into a lesson plan. Through these activities and real-world links, students are able to make deeper connections to the subject matter. These activities also allow time for students to “cement” the information in their memory while using it in new, brain-building ways. Explains Willis, “The goal is to provide an inclusive experience that will resonate with each student.”

    Repeat, rephrase, relay. Teachers should make sure to expose students to new material multiple times before assessing their retention of the information.

    Provide and practice. For students with processing difficulties, Darefsky suggests providing both written and verbal information, increasing processing time for one-on-one conferences, and shortening assignments as they will need more time than their peers to complete them.

    Adds Ostroff, “Children with processing speed issues also tend to look at the big picture of a problem first and then break it down into pieces, which takes considerably longer. Interventions for these students involve predicting words from a context and practicing timed activities. It is important that these students have time to work on fluency—or the automatic ability to answer simple questions quickly.”

    Syn-naps refill the tank. Willis suggests that teachers build in more effective think time by utilizing “syn-naps,” or brain rests, during instruction. “Students can start the break with a complete change of pace by drinking water, stretching, singing, dancing, or taking a bathroom break.”

    In the same way in which a quick change of setting or subject can be restorative for adults, these regular syn-naps refresh students’ processing abilities. Willis finds that, “Not only do they prevent overloading of the circuits and interference with maximal memory storage conditions, but they also help maintain positive emotional states.

    Carefully planning these syn-naps for times when students are feeling good—every 15 minutes for complex and/or lectured material—also helps to avoid negative associations with the subject. Says Willis, “The best time to give students ‘syn-naps’ is before synaptic overload causes them to tune out and act out.” Willis also advises that following a syn-nap with an activity is critical to “cementing the working memory into relational and long-term memory.” Creating Venn diagrams, generating mental images, and creating metaphors and analogies all help students to solidify material after a brain rest.

    Regardless of the processing speeds of students, building effective think time into every lesson ensures that students gain deeper and more positive comprehension. By understanding and using processing time more effectively, teachers can conquer their fear of dead air and enable students to more firmly grasp the concepts being taught.