Does music help or hinder revision?

In the run up to the Summer exam season, when even the most laid-back students begin to think that some revision might be a good idea, teachers are likely to be asked if music is a help or a hindrance.

The current crop of GCSE and A Level students are probably too young for their parents to have been devotees of the ‘Mozart Effect’; Those claims made in the 1990s have long been debunked and were a mixture of overgeneralisation from Frances Rauscher’s original research on the effect of a particular Mozart piano sonata on a specific type of spatial learning, popularisation by the media, and marketing of Mozart recordings. The results could not be reliably replicated and the wider claims for an effect on IQ were never made in the original research.

So, listening to Mozart won’t make us smarter, but there is research showing that music can raise task performance. The most likely reason for this is that music raises the arousal level of participants, increasing their performance. An example is a study by Shellenberg et al (2007) who reported improved cognitive and creative task performance in children and adults after listening to music (see the abstract here).

On the other hand, some research has shown that listening to music is counter-productive to learning. Jones et al (2000) found that the variability in the auditory input was the key factor. Alley & Greene (2008) found that vocal music impaired performance (as did listening to speech) but not instrumental music. These effects happen because processing an additional, auditory, channel is a distraction to cognitive processes which require us to use our working memory capacity to hold and process items of information.

Why then does some research point towards a beneficial effect, and other studies indicate that music impairs performance? The answer may lie in these areas:

1) individual differences between participants.

Most studies report summary results: the overall effect among all the participants, but this may obscure differences in individual responses. There is some evidence that personality traits play a role in this, with negative effects on introverted participants but not extroverts (Dobbs, Furnham & McClelland, 2011), possibly because of differences in optimal arousal levels between these two groups.

In a recent study, Researchers looked at how prone students were to boredom (Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019), Advance online publication). They found that more boredom-prone individuals who tended to seek distraction (and so perhaps are most likely to play music while working) were the most distracted by background music. This is possibly because they tended to focus more on the music than the set tasks, whereas for less boredom-prone individuals the music provided just enough stimulation to prevent them becoming bored with the tasks.

2) Differences between the type of tasks studied. Crucially are they like revising for an exam?

Often research features simple, easily replicable tasks. Exam revision in contrast is complicated, involving not only recall of information, but also the formation of complex associations, the understanding of abstract models and application of all this to novel questions. Research studies such as that by Alley & Greene (2008) indicate that the more complex the task, and the greater the requirement for abstract reasoning, the greater the reduction in performance caused by music. It may be that the harder the learning gets, the more we should avoid distractions such as music. In a study specifically looking at revision, Perham & Currie (2014) found that music with lyrics impaired learning (irrespective of whether the students liked the songs or not), but there was no significant difference between performance when listening to instrumental music or in quiet conditions.

3) What is the type of music?

Many of the research studies mentioned featured instrumental music. That probably isn’t the first choice for most students but it may be the option that doesn’t interfere with cognitive processes. Perham and Currie (2014) reported that instrumental music did not impair revision significantly and Hallam, Price and Katsarou (2002) found that 10-12 year-old pupils actually performed better at a memory task when listening to a pleasant melodic piece than no music and much worse when listening to to an unpleasant aggressive piece.

4) What is the alternative to music?

Typically in a research study the control will be silence, but what will conditions be like where a student is revising? Hopefully they will have a quiet space to work in but this is not always the case. Schlittmeier et al (2012) collected data on the impact of 40 different sounds on working memory task performance. These included background speech, traffic noise, music and duck quacks. All these impaired performance, the greatest interference being produced by background speech. For those who don’t have a quiet study space and need away of blocking out such distracting sounds, listening to music over headphones could be beneficial.

How to decide?

Overall, most of the research indicates that while pleasant instrumental music doesn’t impair cognitive performance for most people, it won’t enhance it either. So the safer option would be not to play music when revising. In some circumstances, however it could be helpful. Answering these questions will help students decide:

1) Is there a lot of background noise where I have to revise?

2) Do I prefer to work in a lively environment with a group, as opposed to working quietly on my own or with a good friend?

3) Do I find it easy to concentrate on a single task, such as revising one topic?

4) Is the music I want to listen to instrumental, rather than songs with lyrics?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then you can probably listen to music quietly with no harmful effects on your work (and if you need to cut out distracting ambient noise it will be helpful). Otherwise, it’s probably best to save the music for the times between revision sessions.

References

Alley, T. R., & Greene, M. E. (2008). The relative and perceived impact of irrelevant speech, vocal music and non-vocal music on working memory. Current Psychology, 27, 277-289.

Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 307-313.

Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.

Jones, D. M., Alford, D., Macken, W. J., Banbury, S. P., & Tremblay, S. (2000). Interference from degraded auditory stimuli: linear effects of changing-state in the irrelevant sequence. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 108, 1082-1088.

Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(2), 279-284.

Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5-19.

Schlittmeier, S.J., Weißgerber, T., Kerber, S., Fastl, H. & Hellbruck, J. (2012). Algorithmic modeling of the irrelevant sound effect (ISE) by the hearing sensation fluctuation strength. Atten Percept Psychophys 74: 194. 

Image: Pixabay
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The Student Strike for Climate

On Friday thousands of students across the UK left their lessons to take part in demonstrations demanding action to tackle climate change.

I currently teach part time in Oxfordshire and the protest in Oxford had one of the highest turnouts, with the media reporting an estimated 2,000 young people rallying to the protest in the city centre. I’m not in school on Fridays, it’s one of the days I work in the education team at the Bodleian Libraries, so I went along in my lunch break to see how the demonstration was going.

In common, I suspect, with many teachers, I felt some internal conflict over this student strike for climate. On the one hand I find it extremely encouraging, indeed inspiring, that young people should be taking a leading role in this crucial issue; on the other there are, of course, difficulties in condoning time out of school and missed lessons, especially in the run-up to GCSE and A Level exams. How many students would be genuinely concerned and actively engaged in tackling climate change and how many just taking an easy opportunity to bunk off on a Friday afternoon?

The headteacher of my school made a very reasoned response when approached by students about the strike; not authorising their absence but celebrating their desire to speak out and prompting them to think beyond attendance at an event arranged for them, to organising practical action in their own time. He commented on the strike in the newsletter Take Me Home and also included the Students’ eloquent letter to their local MP.

I was very impressed by the demonstration itself. Before reaching the venue in Oxford’s Bonn Square I encountered a march along Cornmarket (pictured above), with banners flying and some well-coordinated chants. This got the message across in a forceful but good-humoured way and was certainly getting a lot of interest from the public.

The main protest in Bonn Square was still in full voice, with impassioned speeches, music, chanted slogans and banners. It was the latter that really impressed me. Although there were a few of the inevitable printed placards from Socialist Worker (say what you like about Trotskyists, they know how to run a printing press), most banners were individual and imaginative hand-made, labours of love. My particular favourites were “Think or Swim” accompanied by a picture of Westminster flooded by rising sea levels, “The Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?” and, with a nod to the Green Party, “We’ll listen to UCAS when you listen to LUCAS”. I do hope the creators find a way to work their banners into their art portfolios.

The vast majority of people were actively engaged. Yes, there were a few kids in town who were out of school but didn’t seem to be connecting with events in any way, but nothing like the numbers of opportunists some commentators had predicted.

In education we tend to be judged on outcomes. I can’t think of a better outcome from schools’ work on citizenship and Fundamental British Values (not to mention the science input on the greenhouse effect and climate change) than that students stand up for what they believe in and attempt to effect change by engaging in the democratic processes of a free society, including petitioning elected representatives and making peaceful public protest. The alternative is for the youth of our nation to be disengaged and at best apathetic, at worst disillusioned and disconnected from the rest of society.

Friday’s protest made a point. Maybe the protest could have been at the weekend, but I think we all know that would have gained less coverage and prompted less debate. Let’s hope we can all now move from protest to effective action because our young people are right: whatever our age, the climate clock is ticking and there is no planet b.

Adventures in Whole Class Feedback: Planning for Feedback

I have been interested in the claims made for whole class feedback for some while, but have had some reservations. I have always seen formative assessment as a central element of teaching and learning, and providing written (as well as verbal) feedback as crucial to helping children understand what they have done well and what they need to do to improve further. I also quite like marking and enjoy both the immediate reaction of children to seeing their hard work appreciated, and their longer term journey of progress over time.

Nevertheless, while I may like marking, I don’t always like the time it takes. As I write the same comment on the fourteenth piece of work from a class, I find myself thinking that this probably wasn’t the best use of my time. As Anthony Radice wrote in this post Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round, it’s important for teachers to consider what else we could be doing with the time we spend in close marking like this, and whether other activities, such as planning or creating resources, might be more useful in helping pupils make progress.

With all this in mind, I agreed with my line manager that development of whole class feedback would be an objective for my performance review this year. I’ll be developing my practice in class and feeding back to the departmental team.

When and what to mark

I have decided to focus on year 8 as I have three mixed ability computing classes in this year group.

There are several types of task that these classes do:

  1. Work in class which will be directed to an element of a unit, for example editing sound files in a unit on podcasts, or the use of subroutines in a unit on algorithms.
  2. Half-termly Homework. In computing pupils choose a task for each half of each term. This is an individual project they work on for several weeks. Examples include designing a website on a theme, or designing a revision resource for a topic. Pupils work on different tasks.
  3. Discrete homework. These are shorter homework tasks, taking a few minutes, for example reinforcing key vocabulary, or a quiz on PEGI game ratings. They are set one lesson for completion by the next. The tasks may be differentiated, but everyone is doing the same thing.

I think some of this work lends itself more to whole class feedback. In class we are usually all working towards the same goals. It’s easy for me to pick up on good examples and also to spot errors or misconceptions. In class it makes sense to give verbal feedback to the class (as well as taking opportunities to talk to individuals. The written feedback is for myself: picking up on what happens in the lesson to better inform my teaching.

Pupils put a lot of work into the half-termly homework and I think they deserve some individual feedback from me. What I’m aiming to work on is making that feedback truly individual. Rather than repeating comments on common themes, though, I intend to note these and address them as feedback to the class.

The discrete homework tasks are usually self-marking tasks such as quizzes, so my focus is usually in picking up on what the scores mean, such as a misunderstanding of a particular concept. Often I will revisit this on teaching, rather than give specific feedback on the homework, but I’ll see if doing so is more effective.

So, that sets the scene for what I plan to do:

  • Continue to use verbal in-lesson feedback as I do already, but keep better track myself of how it informs my teaching.
  • Restrict individual feedback for the truly individual elements of homework projects and add whole class feedback of common learning points.
  • Give whole class feedback a try for discrete tasks, where previously I might have just revisited the learning in the course of a lesson.

I’ll make sure to feedback how We get on!

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Learning and long-term memory

A while ago I wrote a post about how we can structure learning to make the most of pupils’ working memory capacity. A recent conversation on Twitter prompted me to write this post on how an understanding of long-term memory can inform our teaching.

Short-term and long term memory

Both these terms are used in everyday English, but psychologists tend to use them in a specific way. Our short-term memory is thought to have a limited capacity and duration, holding a few items for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds. In contrast, our long-term memory has a huge capacity and stored memories can last a lifetime.

Types of long-term memory

Our common experience is that we have different types of memory. We may, for example, have a memory of a childhood birthday which allows us to recall sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. This seems quite distinct from the memory of what the word ‘elephant’ means, or what the capital of France is. Psychologists have classified these memories into three types (although further distinctions are possible):

Semantic memory – memories of facts and figures, for example knowing what a bicycle is, being able to name the parts of a bike and explain their function.

Procedural memory – memories of how to perform an operation, for example being able to ride a bike.

Episodic memory – memories of specific events and personal experiences, for example the first time you rode a bike unaided. Episodic memories contain not only the specific details of the event, but the context and emotions of the experience.

Evidence that these types of memory are associated with distinct areas of the brain comes from studies of brain-injured patients, and from brain imaging. Some patients who have sustained brain injuries retain abilities in one area but not others. An example is the much-studied amnesiac HM who could form new procedural memories, such as the skill of mirror-drawing, but not semantic or episodic ones (Corkin, 2002). While memory function can be highly distributed in the brain, procedural memories are associated with activity in the cerebellum and motor cortex, episodic memories are associated with activity in the hippocampus and semantic memories with activity in the temporal lobe.

Long-term memory and learning

The two are inescapably related and we could define learning as a change in long term memory. This happens when information is transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and incorporated with the information already held there. To make use of this information, we must retrieve the information from long-term memory.

Teachers can use an understanding of these processes to improve the efficiency of learning:

    Introduce new information gradually Information must be processed to be effectively incorporated into memory. Introducing new information too rapidly will not only reduce the proportion that is retained, but prevent it being effectively integrated with prior learning. This risks creating an incomplete understanding of concepts and a limited ability to apply knowledge to problem solving because of gaps in our understanding. This will of course vary from pupil to pupil, so it’s important to build in assessment that will inform the pace of future planning. Resist the temptation to plough through content at the expense of learning.
    Contextualise new information In everyday life we find that it is easier to remember information that has meaning. It’s easier to remember a friend’s phone number or birthday than a random string of digits with no context. Research supports this idea. Our consolidation of information into long-term memory and subsequent ability to retrieve it is improved when that information is presented in context, allowing us to readily make connections between new and existing information.
    Provide time and tools for practice To effectively consolidate new memories, connections must be made with existing knowledge. We need to give students enough time to do this. For semantic memories, this includes opportunities to explore new knowledge and concepts by applying them to novel situations and problems. For procedural memories, opportunities should be given to practise operations and procedures, and to use any equipment or materials needed to do this.
    Testing works better than reviewing Students May view revision as literally that, re-reading information that they have previously learned. Research shows that repeatedly attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a much more effective strategy. Quizzes, tests, and opportunities for self-testing will help students learn new information much more effective than reviewing content. For semantic memory, recall quizzes and tasks requiring the correct use of information, including past exam questions, will help. For procedural memory, opportunities to do things, and recount how procedures work will be beneficial.

Practical examples

Some practical examples of these strategies include:

  • Quizzes at the start of a lesson about the content covered previously
  • Checkpoints in the lesson to assess understanding of information
  • Taking time to look at the ‘big picture’, placing new learning in the concept of overarching principles or concepts of the subject
  • Drawing diagrams that connect new information with existing knowledge, within and across topics / subjects
  • Practice at applying new knowledge to solve problems, either in class or as homework, to consolidate semantic memories and improve their recall
  • Practice of new routines, operations and skills to achieve goals or solve problems to consolidate procedural memories and improve aptitude
  • Explaining new learning to others, either verbally or in writing
  • Writing test questions and answers, rather than just reviewing knowledge.

You may be interested in other posts on Psychology and education:Exams and stress – Exams: use the motivation, lose the stress

Academic success and exercise – Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE

Working memory and learning – Making the most of working memory capacity

Things to look forward to in the 2019 Spring term

With Christmas and new year celebrations gone, the winter weather and long dark nights may seem just the time to hunker down and count the days till summer, but don’t despair: there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the 2019 Spring term!
Christmas isn’t over yet! Christmas isn’t just a single day, but lasts until 6th January (twelfth night). Traditionally the decorations stay up till then. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year isn’t until Monday 7th January.
While it may seem dismally dark outside when the alarm goes off each morning at the start of term, remember that from now on the days will be getting longer. The Spring equinox is on Wednesday 20th March so from then on we’ll have more daylight hours then night, with the clocks going forward on Sunday 31st March for the start of British Summer Time.
There are a multitude of feasts, festivals and special events to look forward to this term:

    2 January to 23 February RSPB Big Schools Bird Watch. A chance to get pupils involved in some citizen science by contributing to this annual bird survey. You can find out more and get class resources from the RSPB website.
    Friday 25 January Burns Night. Scots the world over celebrate their national poet.
    Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion many schools mark or build into their teaching. The theme this year is Torn from home. You can find out more and order free resources from the HMDT website.
    Thursday 31st January Young Carers Awareness Day. Championing the needs of Young Carers, the theme this year focuses on mental health. You can find out more from the Carers Trust website and via the #CareForMeToo hashtag.
    Tuesday 5th February Chinese New Year. Commencing the Year of the Pig.
    Thursday 14th February Valentine’s Day
    Monday 25th February to Sunday 10th March is Fairtrade Fortnight. The focus this year is on fair trading of cocoa. You can find out more and get school resources from the Fairtrade Foundation.
    Friday 1st March is St David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, and a bank holiday in Wales
    5th March is Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day), with the next day, Ash Wednesday marking the first day of Lent.
    Thursday 7th March is World Book Day in the UK (although the rest of the world celebrates this on 23rd April). You can find out more about this, and events throughout the year from the WBD website.
    Friday 15th March is Red Nose Day. This charity event takes place every two years and is a firm fundraising fixture in many UK schools. You can find out more and order a fundraising pack from the Comic Relief website.
    Sunday 17th March is St Patrick’s Day, when half the world discovers its Irish roots. Monday 18th March is a bank holiday in Eire & Northern Ireland.
    Thursday 21st March marks both the Hindu festival of Holi (‘festival of colours’) and the Jewish festival of Purim.
    31st March is Mothering Sunday in the UK (the international date is 12th March).
    Monday 1st April is April Fools Day. It’s the first time in several years that this has fallen on a school day, so watch out for jokes!
    14th April is Palm Sunday in the western Christian Calendar, with Good Friday bank holiday falling on 19th April, although with Easter falling later this year, most schools will already be on holiday on these dates.
    Saturday 20th April is the First day of the Jewish Passover
    Sunday 21st April is Easter Sunday, with the Easter bank holiday on Monday 22nd April. This date is also the first Stephen Lawrence Day. This day was announced by the Prime Minister in 2018 as a national day of commemoration for murdered teenager. You can find out more from the website of the Stephen Lawerence Memorial Trust.
    Tuesday 23rd April is St George’s Day. He’s the patron saint of England, but there’s no bank holiday for the English, so it will be back to school for many.

The list contains something for everyone, I hope, and plenty to look forward to. Let me know if I have missed any important dates and I’ll add them.
Whatever you are looking forward to this spring, have a Happy New Year!

Festival and event dates from www.timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

Getting the measure of snow

“Snow provokes responses that reach right back into childhood.” Andy Goldsworthy

The origin of this post was a staffroom conversation about childhood memories of snowfall. I wondered why there isn’t a scale to measure the severity of snowfall in the way that, for example, the Beaufort Scale measures windy weather.

A little bit of research (a couple of minutes on google) revealed that there isn’t an established measure of snowfall. The Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale is used in the USA to measure snowstorms on a 1-5 scale, much in the same way as storms and hurricanes, but it measures the impact after the event, and is designed for far more serious weather events than we normally experience in the UK. Weather forecasters do of course, comment on the depth of snow, but that quantitative measure can’t fully describe the experience of snow; the excitement that can be generated its mere prospect, whether the type of snow will bring trains to a halt, or, crucially in the world of education, whether there will be a snow day.

So here then, I present the Experiential Snow Scale, covering the full range of snow events, from the briefest of flakes upwards. Comments and suggestions for improvement welcome.

1. Disillusioning Snow. Is it? Yes it is! There are definite snowflakes, but even as you rush excitedly outside, they melt away as if they were never there.

2. Light Dusting. Like icing sugar on top of a Victoria sponge cake, just enough snow to make the world look a little bit prettier.

3. Snowball. Enough snow to make snowballs that hold onto their structural integrity in flight and create a satisfying ‘whump’ as they disintegrate on contact with their target.

4. Snow Angel. Enough snow covering the ground that you can lie down in it and make a discernible snow angel.

5. Snowman. Enough snow to build a snowman over 4 feet tall, sporting a carrot nose and your choice of accessories.

6. Snow Day. With school buses cancelled, roads and paths blocked, and staff unable to to get into work, a snow day is declared. Columnists writing from home in their pyjamas call it a disgrace and claim that billions will be lost from the national economy.

7. Igloo. OK, so not an actual one cut from blocks of ice, but enough snow to build a dome large enough to house at least a small child drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows.

8. Where’s my car?

9. Where’s my house?

10. Penguin Ramp. David Attenborough narrates as a film crew digs a ramp to help the penguins to get out.

I hope that made you smile, but If you’re faced with the more serious business of school planning for extreme weather, you may want to read my post on severe weather planning in schools.

Computing, creativity and cheating

Creativity and coding

I believe that creativity is at the heart of computing. A couple of years ago I marked the passing of the creator of Logo, Seymour Papert with this post on his legacy. He created and promoted that computer language to foster creativity in students. The focus on creativity also drives many of the current generation of educational developers. Scratch, a free online scripting language allows all users, most of whom are children, to create and share stories, games, and animations. Created in 2007, Scratch now has more than 4.3 million users worldwide, mainly between the ages of 8 and 18, and nearly 7 million projects. It is used widely in UK schools and is many children’s first experience of scripting code instructions. Creativity is also a driving feature behind other computing innovations commonly used in UK schools such as the coding language Python, the Raspberry Pi and BBC Microbit.

Problems with assessment

If we accept this central role of creativity, it follows that the assessment of computational thinking, and its practical output as novel solutions to coding problems, must take account of this. Unfortunately, in recent years the assessment of GCSE Computer Science coursework has been bedevilled by the appearance of programming solutions to the set problems on the internet. This has forced the exams regulator, Ofqual, to remove this element from the assessment. The current situation is that a programming task forms part of the course, but marks do not form part of the assessment, which is therefore based solely on terminal exam papers. Unfortunately this is an issue that occurs not just at GCSE, but at all levels of education.

Ofqual consultation

Ofqual are currently consulting on this issue for exams from 2020 onwards through a consultation document on the future of assessment for GCSE Computer Science. You can respond to the consultation document here.

I think that they have thought carefully about the pros and cons about different methods of assessment. I am disappointed, however, that there is not more explicit mention of creativity in Computer Science. Ofqual make a comparison with other subjects with a coursework element, such as design technology, but this seems to be in consideration of practical skills which, while important, are not the whole picture. I feel that what is missing is the role of creativity in the elements and practice of computational thinking.

Nevertheless, I think Ofqual have left the door open to a solution that will allow students to demonstrate creativity in their thinking. In enabling exam boards to issue pre-release material to candidates (in a similar way to creative subjects such as art), there is scope for students to think and prepare for a creative response to a particular context, without the details of the specific task being revealed. I hope that in the future, developments in technology will mean that creative computational thinking can be securely assessed in a way that more closely mirrors the reality of programming than the exam hall.

The consultation closes at 4pm on Monday 3rd December 2018. I would urge anyone involved in teaching computing to take some time to make a response.

Image: Pixabay