Homework vs the Incredible Computer Games of Doom

For a long time now various people and institutions have been suggesting that computer games stop kids from learning effectively. Explanations suggested – often assumed – include brain damage, reduction of ability to engage with other people, delay in development of social skills. More recently it has been suggested by Susan Greenfield (blogs covering some of the reports include Ars Technica and Bad Science)that computer use ‘rewires’ kids brains – with a fairly limited amout of evidence – to stop them engaging fully with the details of their lesson content. Now, I must admit that some of my students have a tendancy to print off huge chunks of Wikipedia if they can’t find an exact answer in the first paragraph, but I am working on methods of forcing them to read more carefully to extract detailed information. This has been a problem, I suspect, since kids first copied answers from their parents’ encyclopedias. It’s just easier and faster to do electronically.

Rather than complicated neuroscience, details of changes in brain chemistry and subtle alterations in the stimuli experienced by young children, I find myself delighted that in this case, Ben Goldacre’s common response (as seen here) is wrong; it turns out it might be much simpler than that.

It turns out that when kids are given computer games to play, they spend less time on homework!

This results comes out of a proper study, what we call an RCT. The kids in the study were randomly (that’s the R) allocated to one of two groups. Half got a games console, and half didn’t (the Controls). After four months, results showed that those given the games to play on had stalled in their literacy progress, and diaries kept suggested that this was because they spent more time playing and less time doing relevant activities like reading. As a nice bonus, there wasn’t an effect on maths progress, probably as very few kids would spend time on that at home anyway, even without a distraction.

So it’s not brain damage or ‘rewiring’. It’s just that kids who are busy playing can’t be busy learning. As I’ve suggested on Ed Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, where I first found out about the study, perhaps a useful follow-up would be to compare students given a games console with those given the chance for other distracting, non-academic activities such as sports or drama.

I’ll update this post once I’ve had a chance to look into some of the references; in the meantime, the trial itself is reported here.

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9 days and counting…

It amazes me sometimes. Both of my Year 10 groups have their next pair of (AQA) module exams on Wednesday next week. Both had homework set to produce evidence of revision (a long list of suggestions was made available) so I knew they were doing something. Both groups walked in to their lesson today and expressed total shock that they would be doing a past paper in exam conditions. They seemed surprised that I expected them to have calculators and pens for said exam. And please note, I teach in a good school, in a good area, with good results. Over the past few years I’ve started to come to the conclusion that these results are despite the kids, not because of them.

Anyway, complaint over. I wanted to share two activities that I’ve produced to help them with understanding, and distinguishing, different methods of heat transfer.

The first is fairly straightforward – in fact it is adapted from an activity I found in a textbook older than I am. Students are asked to explain various phenomena, such as wrapping chips in newspaper to keep them warm, or the rising of a hot air balloon, using key facts about conduction, convection and radiation. I ask them to look for common features in their explanations once they are finished. If time is short different groups can work on one of the three methods rather than completing all of the explanations. Ideally explanations should be shared with the class, perhaps by having them write up their main points on the board as they work and summing up at the end.

If there is time, I then ask them to complete the second activity. If not, it can be done independantly or at a later point, or perhaps as homework. In this, they are given some key phrases which can be used as ‘signposts’ towards specific kind of heat transfer. If a component is painted black, for example, I explain that radiation is probably a factor. Once the phrases and words are sorted into three categories they are asked to use them in a series of activities, such as producing a mind map or writing questions with these answers.

The two activities are complementary; the idea is to help students realise that by focusing on the key points, they can often identify which kind of heat transfer is most relevant. That domestic ‘radiators’ are painted white suggests that radiation is not the most important way they heat the room, for example.

printables: CCR explained as docx : CCR signposts as docx 

 Good luck to all colleagues who have similar students and hope these are useful – please let me know if so, if not or if you have any ideas I can steal…

Cornell Notes for revision

I like the Cornell note-taking system (at Wikipedia and at Lifehacker) but I have to admit that I’ve not found it very useful for most of my students. I’d love to believe that the average fourteen year old could make and organise notes, but the evidence so far is against it. I’m planning to try it when I next have my classes watch a video, but for most lessons I need to know that they’re going to leave with a set of useful notes. Instead, I’m using it to help students focus their revision.

I explain the concept in a lesson after students have had the chance to choose their priorities, using an audit. (described in the previous post) I then ask them to write three or four questions they need to answer, or areas they need to focus on. Their homework is then to produce revision notes, summarised from memory, folders, textbooks or the internet, on those areas. Alternatively, students can produce their plans and then use the lesson and available resources (textbooks, folders, educational software, internet, me) to fill the gaps. A blank pdf and a word version which is probably best suited as an electronic blank are below.

Printables: cornell revision as docx : cornell revision as pdf

In theory, the small space available means they will choose the main points. By planning the ‘target’ areas in advance, they’re not left sitting at their desk – or perhaps more realistically, in front of the TV – wondering what to revise. It emphasizes the idea that at least some revision should result in something new written down. The summary at the bottom leaves room for 3-6 questions they could not have answered before completing the sheet, allowing future checking of their progress.

If repeated, this ends up with a student who has a set of complete revision notes, with headings and summaries, starting with the areas they personally find tricky. Can’t really ask for more than that.

Planning Effective Revision

Previous posts and a dedicated page cover some revision ideas. Today I – for what feels like the hundredth time – spoke to a class about planning their revision to make sure it is time well spent.

It would be lovely to think all students stared revision early, covered every item several times, and then was able to ask me questions in plenty of time to pass the exam. Our module exam (P1a Energy and Electricity from AQA, for what it’s worth) is in a month and I can assure you they’re not that well organised. These are a few ideas to help.

Students need to know what they need to know. Referring to the exam specification or syllabus can help, or try using an audit to tick off areas they’re happy with and focus on those they’re not. Revision guides can also be useful if they’re exam specific, but a ticklist such as the ones I issue to my students (one below, more to follow) let them set their own priorities. Taking responsibility for their own revision is something which puts them, hopefully, in the right frame of mind too!

Printable: P1a revision checklist

Of course, one of the dreaded situations is when you ask “What don’t you understand?” and they answer “Everything!”

A traffic light system can be very effective – and is easy for a teacher to use in lessons. Simply ask students to grade topics as green (I understand this now and would be confident to answer questions on it) amber/orange/yellow (I’m not sure about this and could do with more time or extra examples) or red (I don’t get this and need someone else to help me). Bullseye diagrams or similar can also be used to think through which topics are better understood than others.

Sometimes I ask students to add post-it notes to a board on which I’ve written headings so they can add those topics they are confident on. This can be modified so they volunteer themselves as ‘tutors’ on one topic and get help on others, an activity that can be long or short (saved as Word doc: Students as Tutors).

In general, these activities or similar ones – as usual, please add any of your own in the comments – help students to figure out what they need to know as far as the exam board are concerned, and what they specifically aren’t good at yet. Next step: effective revision that fills the gaps they’ve identified.