Brain Homework

A previous article argued, paradoxically, that remembering can cause forgetting. Today’s entry reverses the paradox: forgetting, you see, benefits remembering.

You read that right: if you want to remember, it helps to forget.

Let me explain.

Today in class, I taught my students a new verb tense (or a new technique for proving that lines are parallel, or the Ideal Gas Law). I’ve got twenty practice problems for them to do: what’s the best schedule for those problems?

When I learned French (and Geometry, and Chemistry) in high school, the answer was clear: do all the practicing right now. Whatever I studied in class today, I should practice tonight. In other words, I did those 20 practice problems then night after I learned the new material.

There is, of course, another conceptual option: I could ask my students to spread that practice out over time. They could do five problems tonight, and five tomorrow night, and so on.

Either plan seems plausible: which was is better? Happily, teachers don’t have to guess—we can look at research.

Here’s an example2. Hal Pashler’s research team had students come to his lab to learn an unusual math procedure, and practice it by doing 10 problems. A week later, half of those students returned to take a quiz on this procedure; the other half of the students took the same quiz…a MONTH later.

Then, Pasher had another group of students learn the same unusual math procedure—which they practiced by doing 5 problems (not ten, five). They all returned a week later, and did five more practice problems. A week later, half of those students returned to take the quiz; the other half of the students, again, took that quiz a month later.

So, both groups studied the same procedure, and did ten practice problems. The only difference: the schedule on which they did that practicing. Half of them did all the practice at once; the others spread their practice out.

Which group did better?

To put that picture into fewer than a thousand words: by spreading their study out, the second group remembered twice as much as the first group did.

Why did this technique work? Simply put, the second group had time to forget. The first group spent all their time learning. The second group learned, and then forgot, and then learned again. The forgetting benefitted ultimate remembering.

Two serious problems, however, might interfere with our ability to put this research result to practice.

Problem number 1: the students.

Pasher’s research result feels intuitive to most teachers—we’ve always known its’s better to spread practice out over time—but it feels profoundly counter-intuitive to students. They feel deeply in their gut that they should practice, practice, practice RIGHT NOW.

To help students see the benefits of spacing their practice, I regularly show them Pasher’s study. Students LOVE the idea that they can double the amount they remember (61%, instead of 31%) without doing any more practice problems.

Problem number 2: the syllabus.

Although “The Spacing Effect” sounds like a good idea when I think about any one topic, it leads to a potential problem with my syllabus. In the old days, I’d teach one topic on Monday, and then have my students practice that topic Monday night. On Tuesday we’d do the next topic, and they’d practice it on Tuesday night. In short, my syllabus looked like this:

Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
In Class
Topic A
Topic B
Topic C
Topic D
And So On
Homework
20 A Problems
20 B Problems
20 C Problems
20 D Problems
And So Forth

However, if spread my practice out—perhaps by doing 5 problems per topic each night—my new syllabus will look like this:

Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
In Class
Topic A
Topic B
Topic C
Topic D
You
Homework
5 A Problems
5 A Problems
5 B Problems
5 A Problems
5 B Problems
5 C Problems
5 A Problems
5 B Problems
5 C Problems
5 D Problems
Get
The
Idea

The result: Thursday’s homework is a mess. It seems entirely possible that Spacing benefits learning when you do it with one topic in the psychology lab, but that—when teachers try it in the classroom—the muddled syllabus might undermine all the benefits that Spacing should provide. In brief: Spacing Good, Muddling Bad.

Researcher Doug Rohrer has investigated this question, and here’s what he found3.

He had one group of students come to his lab to learn four unusual math procedures. These students read one tutorial, and did practice problems for that procedure; they then read the next tutorial, and did those practice problems, and so forth.

Topic A
Topic B
Topic C
Topic D
A Practice Problems
B Practice Problems
C Practice Problems
D Practice Problems

Another group read all four tutorials, and then did the same practice problems. However, their practice problems were all jumbled together:

Topic A
Topic B
Topic C
Topic D
B
D
A
C
D
B
C
A
C
B
A
D
A
C
D
B

You can see that the first group looks like my first syllabus: nicely organized; the second group looks like Thursday night on my second syllabus: a jumbled muddle. (Rohrer, more politely, calls this second structure “interleaved.”)

When it came to the practice problems, as I feared, the students in the jumbled group didn’t do very well: they got 60% of the problems right, compared to 88% in the traditionally organized group.

However, what happened when Rohrer’s groups came back two weeks later to take a test? The jumbled group, once again, remembered about 60%. The traditionally organized group remembered 20%.

Yes, 20%. Their score fell 66% in two weeks.

Why did that happen?

Two ideas seem most plausible.

First: Rohrer’s first group learned the four math procedures, but they didn’t practice deciding when to use each one. Because their practice problems always aligned with the technique they had just practiced, they never had to figure out when to use which one. So, two weeks later, they struggled to know which equation to use.

Second: Rohrer’s group had more opportunities to forget. Because their practice problems required them to switch from technique to technique, they never could get into a groove. Each problem, they had time to forget the techniques they weren’t practicing, and so had more opportunities to remember those techniques anew.

These two research pools lead to these conclusions: spacing benefits learning (because it allows forgetting). And, spacing requires a jumbled/interleaved syllabus—which also benefits learning (because, again, it allows forgetting).

A final note about research. The “Spacing Effect” is very well documented, and at this point is not controversial. The benefits of interleaving, however, have been shown by fewer studies; and some of the studies with high-school aged students have been equivocal1. But this much is clear; the combination of spacing & interleaving leads to more learning than the traditional syllabus.

Because, as you now remember, forgetting can help you learn.

References & Further Reading

  1. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1), 4-58. [Paper]
  2. Pashler, H., Rohrer, D., Cepeda, N. J., & Carpenter, S. K. (2007). Enhancing learning and retarding forgetting: Choices and consequences. Psychonomic bulletin & review14(2), 187-193. [Paper]
  3. Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies.Educational Researcher39(5), 406-412. [Paper]
  • Brown, P., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. [Book]
  • Carey, B. (2014). How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. New York: Random House. [Book]

category: L&B Blog

For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about homework. I haven’t had any in a long time, and I stopped giving it out as a teacher (sort of stopped) years ago.

I want to know why my best friend in high school went to Harvard and I didn’t. I want to know why I would eat lots of cookie batter after track practice day after day and then lie on the living room carpet, waiting for the world to stop spinning so I could focus enough to get my work done.

I want to know what in me let myself get a D (or was it an F?) in molecular biology and more than one C in any number of classes. My daughter gets almost all A’s almost all the time. Why didn’t I?

The other day I was talking to my therapist friend and she said something about ADD and I said, “I don’t have that,” and she started laughing. “Yes, you do,” she said. I was looking at Instagram as I listened to her talk, and I was thinking about what I was going to do when we were done talking, and I was looking at my feet and wondering if toenails grow more slowly as you age, and I realized that maybe she was on to something.

I don’t want to have ADD. I don’t want to be labelled as having ADD, but I will tell you that the ability to focus on one thing for a sustained period of time has never been my strong suit. It was one reason I fell in love with driving cross country in my twenties. The first day was almost always torture, road and road and road, but the next days would be a dreamy heaven. I would feel a sense of peace and focus and possibility I never had access to normally for sustained periods in my life. I had a therapist who suggested I meditate, but when you are sitting in a body and thinking with a mind that you have decided are unacceptable, meditating feels like sitting underwater. I could only last so long before I came up gasping for air.

Something happened the other day that gave me insight into my younger self. I noticed that I had tiny red bumps on my legs, and I started both to worry and self-reject. My first thought was that this was the beginning of the end, and soon the red dots would consume me and then I would die. My next thought was one of shame. There was something unacceptable and ugly about me, and so I should keep myself from public view. I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of my life with so much to hide.

The first time I actively remember reacting negatively to the physicality of my body was when I was in junior high and I noticed that the tops of my thighs touched. This was a big problem, and I started taking diet pills at 13. I know this type of behavior in girls in not uncommon, but I think the brain of an adopted girl does something even more extreme than the brain of a girl who is not adopted. What the adopted brain has is the decision that the world is not safe and that at any moment we are going to die. It has the knowledge there is something fundamentally wrong with us since our mother didn’t embrace and keep us. Because of this, when an adopted brain senses a problem in the body: I have pimples: I have fat thighs: I have oddly shaped feet, the next thought is I should die.

Clearly, this is not something every adoptee feels, but I have done enough research to know I am hardly the only one whose brain does this. It is helpful for parents to know this because then they are better equipped to act proactively. If, as a parent, you know chances are good your child is going to have self-esteem issues, you’ll know you should have an adoption-competent therapist on your team. Not as someone you’ll call if there is a problem, but someone your child sees before there is a problem.

That’s the key: do not wait until a problem arises. Adopted children (and adults) more often than not don’t even know they are thinking about adoption and that they are affected by relinquishment. They just feel something (themselves) is wrong. You may be the last person they would tell this to because secretly (even from themselves), they are afraid you will also leave them if you see just how busted up and confused they are.

My new awareness helps me deal with the red dots on my legs. I have learned to talk myself off the cliff of fear. They’re just dots, I tell myself. It’s winter. Skin changes. You can ask a doctor. They may even be gone tomorrow. They don’t mean everything is wrong. They just mean there are red dots on your legs. I don’t let my brain take the wheel and tell me I’m a mistake and therefore these dots are more proof that I shouldn’t even be here. I just pull on my pants and go for a walk and call a friend and tell her about the dots and find out she has the same thing.

This is work. I have to be two steps ahead of my brain because much of the time instead of words, my brain is feeding me emotions which tell me, with no stories or real proof to back up the message, that I’m in big trouble. That’s what being adopted sounds like. Mayhem. So no wonder I didn’t get into Harvard. First of all, I didn’t even apply. Secondly, how can anyone reach their highest potential when the brain is burning through glucose worrying about things that don’t even exist?

Let’s give adopted kids the boost they need to succeed in school. Let’s help them see they are safe. Let's get them help before they ask. Let's get them help before you think they need it. If you don’t know of any adoption-competent therapists, ask me. I’ll find you one.

You could put out a raging fire that you didn’t even know was burning right in your own house.

I now realize that the cookie batter, the sugar rush, was a way of avoiding so much. As an adopted daughter, I knew I was chosen. I knew I was special. This made me feel good. It also made me feel I was supposed to be...to be what? Just how high was the bar? I didn't really know what was expected of me, so a way to avoid the whole issue was to get amped on sugar and then not be able to focus. That way, I could get the failing over with and not 100% blame myself because I wasn't even fully there. It would have been much worse if I'd tried my best in school and ended up with a bunch of B's and some C's. Who knows what would have happened then? I might have spontaneously disappeared because I wasn't good enough. I wasn't special. I wasn't wanted. I was gone. 

You can see why I avoid sugar these days. You have to be present to succeed. You don't have to be present to fail. Beyond that, you have to be present to live your life in a way that feels authentic and real. If I take a class, I want an A, but more than that, I want to be myself, and that changes everything.

The end result isn't the focus. The focus is on the intention to be me. I needed so much help to get here. I just didn't know until I was 50 how to ask. 

What Lesli says:

It’s hard to multiply fractions when you’re wondering if your firstmom  thinks about you.

Worrying whether you have biological siblings or who you might look like makes it difficult to study Shakespeare.

If you feel like one family “didn’t want you” and you’re terrified to disappoint your current family it might be impossible to complete or even begin a science project.

When you identify with your perceived birth-culture’s societal reputation for “brainy-ness” while struggling to maintain a C average, it might lead to feelings of defeat and worthlessness, culminating in a “why bother” attitude.

These are just a few discoveries I’ve uncovered in my collaborative work with adopted kids and their parents. Together we act as curious detectives in our exploration of “Why won’t Katie do her homework?” or “Why can’t Sam finish his reading assignments on time?”

Adoptees experience trauma – even when they are adopted at birth or shortly after. Older children adopted after multiple placements may experience further trauma. Separating a child from his or her biology is traumatic. As Bessel van der Kolk, noted trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score, wisely explains, “We have learned that trauma is not just an even that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”

That said, we also know that our brains change throughout the lifespan and much of that change can happen in the context of relationships.

Adoptive parents can help their children by being curious to their experience. I consider adoptive parents their child’s best advocate. When adoptive parents have done their work around adoption, educated themselves about what it means to be adopted and the effects of trauma, they are best prepared to help their kids navigate the adoption experience.

Adoptive parents can lead conversations about the adoption experience even when their kids aren’t talking. By doing so they let their children know it’s ok to be curious, it’s ok to ask questions and it’s ok to experience whatever feelings they have.

If parents find themselves perplexed or at an impasse, it’s important that they reach out to an adoption informed therapist who can help them continue their journey.

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