Thursday, July 21, 2016

Background noise may hinder toddlers' ability to learn words

The environments children are in, including how much and what kinds of stimulation they are exposed to, influence what and how they learn. One important task for children is zeroing in on the information that's relevant to what they're learning and ignoring what isn't. A new study has found that the presence of background noise in the home or at school makes it more difficult for toddlers to learn new words. The study also found that providing additional language cues may help young children overcome the effects of noisy environments.

Conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the research appears in the journal Child Development.
"Learning words is an important skill that provides a foundation for children's ability to achieve academically," notes Brianna McMillan, doctoral student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study.

"Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages. Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they're interacting with young children."

Studies on the impact of environmental noise suggest that too much noise can affect children both cognitively and psycho-physiologically, as seen in more negative school performance and increased levels of cortisol and heart rate. However, most studies of word learning are conducted in quiet laboratory settings. This study focused on word learning but attempted to replicate the noisy environments children may inhabit at home and at school. In the study, 106 children ages 22 to 30 months took part in three experiments in which they were taught names for unfamiliar objects and then tested on their ability to recognize the objects when they were labeled. First, toddlers listened to sentences featuring two new words.

Then they were taught which objects the new names corresponded to. Finally, the toddlers were tested on their ability to recall the words.

In the first experiment, 40 toddlers (ages 22 to 24 months) heard either louder or quieter background speech when learning the new words. Only toddlers who were exposed to the quieter background speech successfully learned the words. In the second experiment, a different group of 40 toddlers (ages 28 to 30 months) was tested to determine whether somewhat older children could better overcome the effects of background noise. Again, only when background noise was quieter could the older toddlers successfully learn the new words.

In the third experiment, 26 older toddlers were first exposed to two word labels in a quiet environment. Next, the toddlers were taught the meanings of four word labels--two they had just heard and two new ones. Toddlers were taught the meanings of all these labels in the same noisy environment that impaired learning in the second experiment. The children learned the new words and their meanings only when they had first heard the labels in a quiet environment, suggesting that experience with the sounds of the words without distracting background noise helps children subsequently map those sounds to meaning.

In sum, the study shows that while louder background speech hindered toddlers' ability to learn words, cues in the environment helped them overcome this difficulty. "Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary," suggests Jenny Saffran, College of Letters & Science Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who coauthored the study. "But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children's attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate."

Children will rarely be in a completely quiet environment when learning. Parents and teachers may find that reducing background noise or highlighting important information can help children learn even when there is background noise. These suggestions may be especially important for low-income households because research shows that such homes on average have higher noise levels due to urban settings and crowding.

Why run-down schools trigger low test scores

Social scientists have known for several years that kids enrolled in run-down schools miss more classes and have lower test scores than students at well-maintained schools. But they haven't been able to pin down why.

A Cornell University environmental psychologist has an answer.

Lorraine Maxwell, an associate professor of design and environmental analysis in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, studied more than 230 New York City public middle schools and found a chain reaction at work: leaking toilets, smelly cafeterias, broken furniture, and run-down classrooms made students feel negatively which lead to high absenteeism and in turn, contributed to low test scores and poor academic achievement.

"School buildings that are in good condition and attractive may signal to students that someone cares and there's a positive social climate, which in turn may encourage better attendance," Maxwell said. "Students cannot learn if they do not come to school."

Maxwell found that poor building conditions, and the resulting negative perception of the school's social climate, accounted for 70 percent of the poor academic performance. She controlled for students' socioeconomic status and ethnic background, and found that while these student attributes are related to test scores, they do not tell the whole story. School building condition is also a major contributing factor, Maxwell said.

"Those other factors are contributing to poor academic performance, but building condition is significantly contributing also. It's worth it for society to make sure that school buildings are up to par," she said.

Her study, "School Building Condition, Social Climate, Student Attendance and Academic Achievement: A Mediation Model," appears in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

In an earlier, related study, Maxwell asked a handful of middle-school students what difference they thought a school building makes.

"I will never forget one boy," Maxwell said. "He said, 'Well, maybe if the school looked better, kids would want to come to school.' And that sparked me to think, 'OK, they notice.'"

Maxwell's latest study analyzed 2011 data from 236 New York City middle schools with a combined enrollment of 143,788 students. The data included academic performance measures and assessments of physical environments done by independent professionals in architecture, and mechanical and electrical engineering. Maxwell also analyzed surveys on how parents, teachers and students felt about the school's social climate; that dataset developed by the New York City Department of Education is the largest of its kind in the United States.

Buildings also have symbolic value, Maxwell said. For example, government buildings in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals are well maintained, with gold-leaf roofs, Greek columns and polished marble stairs meant to inspire awe, she pointed out.

"Those buildings are kept well. Why? They give us a certain impression about what goes on inside and how much society values those activities," she said "So you can understand why kids might think a school that doesn't look good inside or outside is giving them a message that perhaps what happens in their school doesn't matter."

The study has serious implications for policymakers, Maxwell said. They must understand that school conditions are especially important for kids in minority and low-income communities.

"Those students are already potentially facing more of an uphill battle, and sending more positive messages about how the larger society values them is critical," she said.

School moves during adolescence lead to lower peer integration but not higher exposure to delinquent peers

School moves during adolescence predict lower peer integration and higher exposure to delinquent peers. Yet mobility and peer problems have several common correlates, so differences in movers’ and non-movers’ social adjustment may be due to selection rather than causal effects of school moves.

Drawing on survey and social network data from a sample of seventh and eighth graders, this study compared the structure and behavioral content of new students’ friendship networks with those of not only non-movers but also students about to move schools; the latter should resemble new students in both observed and unobserved ways.

The results suggest that the association between school moves and friends’ delinquency is due to selection, but the association between school moves and peer integration may not be entirely due to selection.

Visual Processing in Generally Gifted and Mathematically Excelling Adolescents

Little empirical data are available concerning the cognitive abilities of gifted individuals in general and especially those who excel in mathematics. This study examined visual processing abilities distinguishing between general giftedness (G) and excellence in mathematics (EM). The research population consisted of 190 students from four groups of 10th- to 12th-grade students who differed in their G and EM levels. The students performed a battery of visual processing tests: visual-spatial memory, visual speed of information processing (SVIP), visual perception (VP), and visual attention (VA). 

The results demonstrate that EM type has a significant effect on the Backward Corsi-Span, whereas G type has a main effect on the Pattern-Recognition test and d2-CP (concentration performance) and d2-E (number of errors) scores in the attention test. SVIP and the fluctuation rate in VA tests (d2-FR) were associated with both G and EM types. 

The study identified two different components of visual processing that were accordingly termed Visual-Serial and Pattern-Recall. It seems that G-EM students can be characterized by superior performance on Visual-Serial processing. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fewer high school students,especially females, express confidence in math abilities

A new study released today (July 14, 2016) explores how the nation’s students perceive their math and science abilities as they move through high school.

The National Center for Education Statistics, in the Institute of Education Sciences, released the report, which uses data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. Students were asked in 2009, when they were freshman, and in 2012, when most were juniors, about their confidence in their ability to do math and science coursework and perceptions of them as a “math person” or a “science person.” Results are broken down by male and female students. Among the findings:

•    The percentage of female students who were confident they could “do an excellent job on assignments” in math decreased from 73.9 percent in 2009 to 71.0 percent in 2012;

•    The percentage of female students who were confident that they could do an excellent job on science assignments increased from 67.1 percent in 2009 to 72.0 percent in 2012; and

•    The percentage of both female and male students who thought others considered them to be a “math person” decreased from 2009 to 2012. For female students, the percentage decreased more than 8 percentage points, from 52.2 percent in 2009 to 44.0 percent in 2012. For male students, the percentage dropped from 53.5 percent in 2009 to 48.8 percent in 2012.

Calculus I discourages women out of STEM degrees

It's no secret that Calculus I is a major hurdle in the quest for a science degree. But, according to a new paper by Colorado State University researchers, the class is far more likely to discourage women than men from continuing on in their chosen field. How much more likely? One-and-a-half times. And it doesn't take a math degree to spot that as a serious imbalance.

The findings, published in PLOS ONE, suggest that a major factor in women's decision to leave a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) path after Calculus I isn't ability, but confidence in their ability.

Both men and women experience a loss of confidence in their math skills at a similar rate in Calc I, says co-author Jess Ellis, an assistant professor of mathematics in the College of Natural Sciences. The problem, says co-author Bailey Fosdick, an assistant professor of statistics, is that women arrive with lower math confidence to begin with. "When women are leaving, it is because they don't think they can do it" -- not because they can't do it -- she says.

The study was a product of Ellis' graduate work on a larger investigation, funded by the National Science Foundation and backed by the Mathematical Association of America, of college-level calculus. Students across the country were asked about their interest in and intention to pursue a STEM degree, their test scores, preparation, learning experience, plans and backgrounds -- before taking Calculus I and after. A student was considered to "persist" in the STEM track if they went on to take Calculus II.

The more time Ellis spent with the data, she says, "it seemed like there was a big issue with gender -- it just kind of jumped out."
Of the students who switched out after Calculus I, when asked why they decided against taking Calculus II, most of the possible explanations fell fairly equally across the genders (too many classes, not needed for major, etc.) -- except for one: "I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II." Of those who had been planning to major in a STEM area, 14 percent of men who switched out listed this as a reason; 35 percent of women did. But fewer than one in five of the departing students of either gender reported that their Calc I grade was actually too low to continue.

Of grads entering careers in STEM, only one quarter of them are women. However, interest at early ages is just about equal, with about two-thirds of fourth graders, male and female, stating an interest in science.

Closing this gap could help fill some major projected shortages in the U.S. workforce, note Ellis, Fosdick and their co-author Chris Rasmussen, a professor of math at San Diego State University. Over the next decade, there will be an estimated shortfall of about 1 million STEM workers compared to demand. One simple way to help fill that deficit would be to stop the female STEM student "pipeline leak" at the Calculus I juncture.

If the same percentage of women as men stuck with STEM after Calc I, the percentage of women entering the STEM workforce could be closer to 37 -- rather than the current 25. Still not equal, but moving closer to parity. And there are lots of incentives. STEM jobs offer the highest starting salaries for college graduates, according to a 2016 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The findings offer opportunities for improvement. For one, the data showed that teaching quality did have an impact on all students' plans to stay in the field. Part of that could be better relating introductory calculus to students' chosen area. "Students usually don't come into science saying, 'I want to study calculus!'" Fosdick says. They arrive on campus energized by experiences they had in high school biology or chemistry. And calculus often doesn't come into play in those disciplines until higher-level courses, she points out. This leaves students feeling like the pains of calculus won't have a payoff for them.

Another lesson is that supporting and encouraging students along the way is important. "In my classes, I try to do things to raise the confidence of all people in the class," Ellis says. Since completing the study, she says, she finds that she is now more attune to "trying to make sure women have a voice -- and if they get something wrong once, to let them know that's good and not bad." In fact, she is now looking at foundational calculus classes in a completely different light: as an avenue to rebuild students' confidence in math.

In addition to focusing on students who intended to pursue a STEM degree, Ellis and Fosdick also see this wakeup call as a chance to bring more people into the field. Even for people who never intended to take Calculus II, a first college calculus class, if taught well, "could be an opportunity to have them leave not hating math, but actually to bring them in," Ellis says. And for those who continue in their chosen non-STEM field, whether business or social work, "having more people who are STEM- and calculus-literate would be great," she notes.

Ellis and Fosdick are now looking deeper into the data for trends of students from minority, lower socioeconomic status and first-generation backgrounds.

In the meantime, all students at CSU can get extra calculus support at the Department of Mathematics' new Calculus Center, opening this fall. It was inspired, in part, Ellis says, based on her and her colleagues' earlier research. "We are seeing changes at a lot of institutions." Which is exciting, she notes. Because for a career in STEM, calculus is integral.

New Data on Postsecondary Tuition, Fees and Degrees

The average tuition and required fees at 4-year public institutions increased by nearly 4 percent (after adjusting for inflation) for both in-state and out-of-state students between 2013-14 and 2015-16, according to a report released today (July 14, 2016). However, for-profit institutions reported a 1 percent decrease in tuition and fees.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the Institute of Education Sciences, released a First Look report on the cost of attendance, enrollment, and degrees conferred at postsecondary institutions. This First Look presents preliminary data findings from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) fall 2015 collection, which included three survey components: Institutional characteristics for the 2015-16 academic year; completions covering the period July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015; and data on 12-Month Enrollment for the 2014-15 academic year. Among the other findings in the report:

•    Of the 7,164 Title IV institutions in the United States and other U.S. jurisdictions (2015-16), 3,085 were classified as 4-year institutions, 2,081 were 2-year institutions, and the remaining 1,998 were less-than-2-year institutions;

•    Nearly 59 percent of the roughly 3.2 million students receiving degrees at 4-year Title IV institutions earned a bachelor’s degree. This percentage varied by control of institution, with bachelor’s degree received by 65 percent of the 1.8 million students at public institutions, 53 percent of the roughly 1.0 million students at private nonprofit institutions, and 40 percent of the roughly 326,000 student at for-profit institutions; and

•    Institutions reported a 12-month unduplicated headcount enrollment of about 27.4 million individual students. Of these, roughly 23.6 million were undergraduates and approximately 3.8 million were graduate students.