Article Archive for ‘January, 2012’

What does it mean when a student has poor crystallised knowledge and what can teachers do?

January 30th, 2012

Teachers often ask me what it means when a student scores poorly on the Verbal Comprehension Index of the WISC-IV (or a similar scale on another IQ test). The simple answer is that the scores don’t tell anything specific about how a student will perform in the classroom. However, classic intelligence theory claims that low Verbal Comprehension Index scores are an indication of poor crystallised knowledge.

Crystallised knowledge can be thought of as the information one acquires from one’s cultural and educational environment. There is an overlap between crystallised knowledge and semantic language skills. It develops largely as a result of formal and informal educational experiences and acquisition of this knowledge is heavily influenced by oral language skills and reading ability (Horn, 1994).

When students have a lot of crystallised information in their ‘mental hard-drive’, they not only make a good quiz teammate, but they are at an advantage when required to learn new information. This is because new learning is usually facilitated by prior knowledge (Engle, 1994). For example, it is much easier to learn about the concept of division when one already knows about multiplication. Likewise, it is easier to learn how to use an Apple computer if one is already skilled at operating a PC.

The student with a lot of crystallised information is also at an advantage when they have to perform higher-order reasoning functions. For example, it is hard to decipher the meaning of the first sentence below if one does not have prior knowledge of the Greek legend of Dionysius and the Sword of Damocles.

(a)   The threat hung over his head like the Sword of Damocles.

Likewise, one would have dififuclty understanding the second sentence below if one was not previously aware of the fact that La Paz is situated at high altitude and that flying into an area of high altitude without acclimatising is likely to lead to a mild bout of altitude sickness, a symptom of which is often a massive headache.

(b)   Tom spent two days in bed after flying into La Paz eating Aspirin like Jelly Beans.  

Prior knowledge is vital for classroom learning. For example, a student may not be able to understand a lesson on Hannibal’s role in the fall of Rome without prior knowledge of Hannibal, his elephants, and the Roman Empire. Lack of vocabulary (lexical knowledge) or in the depth and breadth of content (general knowledge) will also adversely affect written expression.

Other difficulties experienced by students who lack crystallised knowledge include reading comprehension problems despite having adequate word-reading skills. These students typically understand the ‘bare bones’ of the story. They can often retell the story, and they may be able to recall information that has been explicitly referred to in the story. However, they may not be able to draw meaningful connections to background knowledge and to draw inferences, both of which are crucial to developing the situation model upon which real understanding is based.  Students with adequate general knowledge, but poor vocabulary may read and understand well when they are reading about familiar topics. However, their comprehension suffers when reading about novel topics or when the text contains unfamiliar words.

Instructional strategies that may be useful include:

    1. Audit the lesson and identify the pre-requisite crystallised knowledge. Check that the student has that knowledge. If not, teach it! Make use of parents or teacher aides or whatever you need to. Just make sure that the student is pre-taught the pre-requisite knowledge before the lesson begins. Otherwise, they’re just set up for failure.
    2. Provide advanced organisers (e.g., an outline of material to be used in a lecture).
    3. Teach previewing strategies to identify aspects of texts, such as headings, index, chapter headings, that give clues to the background and structure of the text.
    4. Teach them how to identify and highlight key information.
    5. Point out when important parts of lessons are about to be introduced (e.g., “this is the most important thing”, “if you only learn one thing today, this is it”).
    6. Use “what we know, what we don’t know” strategies to help activate background knowledge before a lesson or reading a text.
    7. Help the student develop writing plans (mind maps) that specify ideas, background details, and vocabulary to which they will need to refer.
    8. Teach the student to use a thesaurus for writing.
    9. Pre-teach new vocabulary in key content areas of the curriculum.
    10. Write key terms on the board during lessons, particularly when introducing new concepts.
    11. Simplify instructions and pre-define terms (e.g., a feldspar is like a little crystal in a rock. Now listen carefully, granite is a very hard rock that is composed of tiny feldspars; that is, it is made up of lots of tiny feldspars. Remember that feldspars are like little crystals in the rock.)
    12. Consider providing the important components of a lesson in cloze format. Cloze sentences are sentences that have certain words missing. The job of taking notes is mostly done for the student, with the exception of key words that require them to consider the key points of the lesson or to access background knowledge.
    13. Teach related vocabulary in groups (e.g., get, obtain, purchase, borrow, commandeer). Teach the students how these related words have similar, but sometimes different applications. Provide them with opportunities to compare and contrast these words as they learn them.



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Managing arousal in students

January 27th, 2012

Students need to be able to regulate arousal levels to ensure optimal learning or task performance. Students who have weak mental energy control may simply lack the stamina required to maintain optimal behaviour/learning.  Their mental energy may be hard to start up and once started, used up quickly.  They may also waste energy on irrelevant details.

Students with reduced alertness can find their class experience tedious. They experience mental fatigue and/or boredom when they try to concentrate.  As a result of being tuned out, they tend to miss the beginnings and ends of statements or directions.

These students are frequently misunderstood.  They can be accused of not trying or laziness.  Their inconsistency is particularly puzzling and frustrating.

How to help at home

  1. Because these students can have difficulty “tuning in”, parents should always prompt them to: “Listen very carefully, I am going to tell you something important about………”.
  1. Students with weak mental energy control need frequent breaks during homework time.  Use a kitchen timer and allow ‘stretch breaks’ every ten minutes (some students will need even more frequent breaks).
  1. Many students who have difficulties with mental effort have trouble getting started with work.  Parents can assist by helping them get organised, and perhaps by performing the first step themselves.  Anything that can get the child going helps to facilitate the flow of mental effort.
  1. Sometimes combining regular changes of work site with frequent breaks can enable students to renew mental effort.  They may need ten minutes working at a desk, ten minutes at the kitchen table, followed by ten minutes of mathematics on the lounge room floor.
  1. The stimulant medications can assist with behavioural and motor inhibition and aid development of the executive functions such as mental energy control.

Managing weak mental energy control in the classroom

  1. Teachers can help students with reduced mental alertness and mental effort by requiring them to put forth relatively small amounts of work or focused attention at any one time.  For example, there may need to be brief breaks between components of a writing task or mathematical problems.  Better to have five minutes of focused effort than 15 minutes of unfocused, ineffective work.
  1. Teachers should also have an inconspicuous method of providing the student with a reminder to tune back in during periods of high distraction or when s/he is obviously tuned out (e.g., a tap on the shoulder).
  1. These students should be allowed to stand up and stretch, walk to the back of the room, or even visit the toilet a number of times per day or section of the day.  They can keep a checklist documenting such breaks and receive praise for not needing to take all of them on some occasions.  Students taking these breaks must understand they cannot be disruptive or talkative.
  1. Teachers may need to signal a student with limited alertness when something especially important is to be taught.  For example, the teacher could stand directly in front of him/her when addressing the class and say: “Now listen carefully, I’m about to give you important instructions about our book assignment”.
  1. Teachers and teacher aides may assist with work initiation by spelling the first word, writing the first sentence, doing the first math problem and so on.
Here are some additional sites that provide more information on attention weaknesses.


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Some of the cognitive characteristics in the autism spectrum

January 27th, 2012

The autism spectrum includes a number of conditions including Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s. In this post I will use the term autism.

There seems to be controversy about whether autism is a disorder of development and therefore represents a bunch of abnormal characteristics or whether it is a separate cognitive phenotype that represents a different way of communicating and interacting with the world. It may be that autism researchers still need to answer this question. However, as a clinician I prefer the latter concept because it allows autism to be “sold” much more positively. Michelle Dawson’s blog provides good examples of a positive world view of autism.

This blog aims to provide a brief summary of some of the cognitive characteristics that are common in autism. It is by no means an exhaustive list. I have selected some of those things I have seen in autists that are most relevant for the education content.

Theory of Mind

Autists are described as having poor “theory of mind”. Essentially, this means that they have difficulty understanding other peoples’ perspectives or “getting inside their heads”. Another way of putting it that seems to appeal to some individuals with autism is that they lack “social recognition software”. They lack the ability to recognise social situations and what is going on in those situations, what the appropriate responses to people might be, and the awareness of why people respond to their behaviour in certain ways.

As a consequence, individuals with autism or those with milder characteristics may not respond as well to praise or punishment in the classroom. Those with learning difficulties often detest being asked to repeat things, particularly in intervention-type programmes. Rather than recognising that the teacher may be asking them to ‘try again’ because it will help them learn, the child with autism may consider the teacher’s motives to be more sinister (i.e., “She thinks I’m dumb” or “She’s a mean person”). Equally, educators can sometimes be shocked or upset when the child with autism does not respond as expected to praise. For example, after finding out that the child has worked hard over a fortnight and can now do long division, we might get a bit excited and expect the child to look and sound proud and happy. Sometimes though, the child will look at the adult as if they are stupid or even with disgust. You might imagine that they are thinking, “Of course I can do it. Do you think I’m stupid?”

Cognitive Inflexibility

Some people have difficulty being flexible and creative in their thinking. They tend to develop one method of doing things and they stick to it even when it doesn’t always result in success. Note that the existence of cognitive inflexibility in autism is controversial.

Fact vs. Fiction

Many individuals with autism are oriented towards fact rather than fiction. They may not see the point in reading about or discussing fictitious material. This inclination can have positives and negatives in the classroom.

Specialist vs. Generalist

There are some people in the world who are what we call generalists. They are reasonably good at most things and take a broad interest in the world. Other people, including many individuals with autism, are more specialised in their orientation. Both are valid: can you imagine a world without Van Gogh, Hans Christian Anderson, or Bill Gates? All are people who have developed a specialty or have been consumed by a particular area of interest.

The trick in the classroom is that it is a place built for generalists. The specialist is disadvantaged until they can leave school and focus attention on their specialty.

Concept vs. Detail

Conceptual development is an important part of social and academic learning. Concepts help us cut through detail and to focus on the big picture. They also help as a way of subsuming a whole bunch of details under a single idea. In both ways, concepts facilitate problem solving. For example, many of us have some kind of social concept that describes the key elements of a social interaction. Subsumed under that concept are examples of social interactions (e.g., good and bad) and the elements that are characteristic of each (e.g., smiling, eye contact, asking questions vs. creeping away from you, scowl on face). This system allows us to focus on the overall interaction rather than the detail, while at the same time allowing us to recognise when something is awry and how we may go about resolving that problem.

Other people find it hard to learn concepts. These people might be described as not being able to “see the trees for the wood”. They focus on detail at the expense of the big picture. They tend to learn detail without understanding how the details are related (i.e., part of a concept). They may also dogmatically apply a rule or concept to situations incorrectly because they don’t truly understand the rule. That is, it affects their reasoning.

For example, Teddy is a 6-year old who has been taught that the sun can burn you and that we should wear a hat and sunscreen when we go outside. He now gets distressed every time he goes outside without sun protection because he might “burn up” – this even if he is to be outside for the briefest of times. Teddy has also covered his west-facing window because he thought it was going to be burned by the afternoon sun.

David is a twelve-year old who has a special interest in zoology. He can talk for hours about wolves; what they look like, what they eat, and unusually, their social habits, and their motives for social behaviour. However, he has little knowledge of how wolves and their social behaviour share similarities to humans; nor in fact does he care much. David will probably be a good candidate for a PhD in zoology on pack animals but may find it more difficult to cope with the generalist demands of High School biology.

Literal vs. Figurative

Individuals with autism interpret language literally. They can have great difficulty with figurative language (e.g., “he was as red as a beetroot”; “the grass was singed to the colour of gold”) and with drawing inferences when reading or listening. Hence, they are oriented towards factual texts that inevitably contain little ‘flowery’ language or need to develop sophisticated inferences.



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January 27th, 2012

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in response to threatening or challenging situations. The anxious response can range from mild physiological symptoms such as rapid breathing and heart rate through to panic attacks. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is chronic and out of proportion to the threat or challenge.

Causes of anxiety

There are likely to be numerous factors involved in causing anxiety. It is also likely that most individuals will experience a different mix of causal factors, which may include genetic factors, unique life experiences, disruption of neurochemicals in the brain, personality, and individual behavioural and thinking styles.

In most cases it is useful to consider that anxiety results from one’s perception of a situation, rather than the situation per se. Imagine yourself in a room with Steve Irwin (the late, great Crocodile Hunter) and a brown snake. Your response may be an initial perception of extreme threat, followed by intense fear and physiological reactions such as increased automatic nervous system responses (e.g., heart rate, breathing, blood rushing from the extremities to the vital organs), followed by a behavioural response such as running from the room. That your physiological and emotional responses diminish once you are safely outside the room reinforces the idea in your mind that snakes are inherently dangerous creatures and that when one sees a snake one needs to run away. In contrast, Steve’s perception of the same situation would most likely have prompted excitement and a strong desire to touch and look more closely at a beautiful animal. His successful behavioural response reinforces his idea that snakes are animals requiring respect but that he is competent to deal with their threat. The same situation, but very different emotion and behaviour. This example shows that it is the perception of the situation that is most important, not the situation itself.

Perhaps a more correct way of putting is that it is the learning experiences one has had in certain situations that are most important. Steve Irwin was born with the inbuilt human trait to fear the unknown. Therefore the first time he saw a snake he would have experienced the same burst of fear as the typical person. However, because of his exposure to the animals and because he learned to handle them competently he also learned not to fear them. In contrast, many people fear snakes despite having never seen one “in the wild”. One could argue that their fear is a ‘failure of learning’ because they have not yet learned that snakes can be avoided or handled competently. Therefore, their default response is the inbuilt human flight mechanism.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can be acute (as in the snake example above) or a pattern of chronic worrying. Physiological and behavioural symptoms include:

  • Sweating, elevated heart and breathing rate, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, trembling or shaking, sweating, chills or hot flushes, and nausea.
  • Sleep disturbance, irritability or anger outbursts, difficulty concentrating, hyper-vigilance, exaggerated startle responses, muscle tension, fatigue.
  • Fears or worries about general or specific events.
  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts or impulses.
  • Compulsive and repetitive behaviours.
  • Recurring and distressing thoughts/images about a traumatic event.
  • Active avoidance of situations seen as threatening.
  • Decrease in academic, social or occupational functioning.

Anxiety Disorders

When symptoms reach a level of frequency and intensity that interferes with daily functioning (i.e., it creates impairment in job, school or interpersonal functioning) the patient may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or which there are several, including:

  • Panic Attacks
  • Agoraphobia
  • Specific Phobias
  • Social Phobia
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder


Evidence-based treatment tends to differ between the different anxiety disorders. However, all good clinicians will use a combination of some of the following:

  • Education about the nature of anxiety; particularly about management of the fight or flight response and the circular role of the physiological symptoms such as shortness of breath.
  • Relaxation methods.
  • Structured problem-solving.
  • Gradual exposure to disturbing situations or things.
  • Cognitive therapy designed to help the patient understand that anxiety is a normal part of the human condition and to help them develop resilience that allows them to tolerate emotional distress when it arises.
  • Lifestyle change (e.g., reducing reliance on sleep medication and alcohol, and increasing relaxing activity).
  • Cognitive therapy which involves helping the patient identify unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns and replace them with more positive and helpful ways of thinking. The behavioural component of CBT involves assisting the patient to change behavioural responses, such as restlessness, avoidance, or engaging in compulsions.
  • Medication.


A psychotherapist or a GP who specialises in mental health is usually necessary to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders. Still, there are many things that the patient can do to help themselves.

  • Anxiety produces a response in the brain that leads to secretion of the neurochemical adrenaline. Adrenaline causes the fight or flight response (the body getting ready to run from a stressor or fight it by increasing heart rate and pumping blood from the extremities to the vital organs, increasing breathing, and so on). While the fight or flight response was very adaptive thousands of years ago, in our current society stressful events are often recurring and chronic (e.g., the work situation you can’t get away from).
  • One way we can reduce secretion of adrenaline is to reduce other activities and substances that produce the same neurochemical. These include risky activities and drinking caffeine. Anxious patients should therefore reduce their caffeine intake and try to engage in relaxing recreational pursuits (e.g., do yoga or go for a brisk walk rather than doing a series of sprints or rock climbing).
  • Some people may worry about putting on weight as a result of reducing their exercise level. This may in fact not be the case due to a second neurochemical called cortisol. While adrenaline is the acute (short-term) stress hormone, cortisol is the chronic stress hormone that is produced after prolonged anxiety or ongoing exposure to a challenging event (think rats in a trap). As a survival mechanism, cortisol slows down metabolic rate and it can also create a sugar craving (the quickest way to avoid expiration being to ingest sugar). Continuing to engage in strenuous exercise may therefore be counter-productive. The patient may be better off eating more (but healthier food) and exercising more gently.
  • Be wary of ‘avoidance’ behaviour. Avoiding an anxiety provoking situation is often very successful in the short-term. In the long-term, it tends to reinforce the anxiety. Take social anxiety as an example. A patient who typically was anxious in social situations in which he had to meet new people attended a wedding of his wife’s friend. The gentlemen of the party were to play golf the day before the ceremony; something the patient was quite anxious about. As his wife drove him to the course he became increasingly anxious. He sat in the carpark for a while before deciding not to play golf. His anxiety immediately disappeared (i.e., it was successful in the short-term). However, he missed out on an opportunity to gather evidence that he could cope in such a situation (i.e., it did not help the anxiety in the long-term). Luckily, the patient’s wife remembered his therapy lessons and told him that if he avoided golf he had to talk to five new people at dinner that night, a feat he accomplished with her help. This second feat at least did something to help with his social phobia.
  • The lesson for all anxious patients should be: (1) don’t avoid things if you can help it, and, (2) if you really can’t do something, bargain with yourself and come up with an alternative activity that is not as anxiety provoking but that at least does something for the therapeutic goals.
  • Make lifestyle changes:

Take part in a pleasant activity every day.

Increase gentle exercise.

Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.

Improve time-management skills.

Rather than pressuring yourself to finish jobs, set a time limit on your work and try to be satisfied with doing a good job within that period.



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The influence of emotional factors on learning

January 27th, 2012

Scores on tests of cognitive abilities, including IQ scores, account for only 45-50% of the variance in academic performance. So half or more of the individual variation in academic skills is accounted for by other factors. Other factors that seem to be important for learning are emotional states, the way one thinks in a particular situation and one’s prior learning experiences within a particular situation or with a particular task.

Affective factors refer to emotional states and those aspects of thinking that are devoted to perceptions or thoughts about yourself and how you think other people perceive you. Affective factors that seem to be important for learning include:

  • How competent you feel at a particular task. For example, if you see yourself as a competent reader you are more likely to approach a reading task with an expectation of success. Low perceptions of competence, in contrast, tend to lead to practise of task avoidance. While these strategies are usually successful in the short-term, because success is not achieved your sense of ‘reading’ competence will remain the same or perhaps worsen.
  • How much you value the task. Effort expended for a particular task is at least partly determined by how highly you value the task or the outcome achieved. It is hard to imagine an Australian Aborigine living in an isolated community expending much energy on learning complicated equations given that Aboriginal languages do not even have words to represent number. In contrast, a child from a family of fishmongers that makes its living by buying and selling may see high value in learning how to quickly add, subtract, and multiply digits.
  • The type of attributions the student makes. Attributions in a psychological sense refer to the way we attribute meaning or cause to a situation. There are typically two types: internal, where we attribute success or failure to ourselves, and external, where we attribute success or failure to something or someone external to ourselves. It is normal for a human to attribute positive outcomes to our own prowess (even if it was just dumb luck) and to attribute failures to external factors (how many times have we heard sports stars complain about the umpiring – a good example of an external attribution).
  • When students make accurate attributions they can see that active learning strategies and effort (i.e., studying or working with a tutor) have positive benefits; which in turn makes the process of expending effort rewarding and likely to occur again. In contrast, students with learning difficulties often make inaccurate attributions. For example, when they have been unable to achieve success on a task that was too hard for them they tend not to consider that it may have been the nature of the task or the person who gave the task that was primarily responsible for the failure. Instead, they are likely to attribute causation to them being “dumb”. Similarly, when they do achieve success, they often do not link that success to their own effort. Instead, they may see it as a result of “luck”.
  • The student’s frame of reference and competence motivation. “Frame of reference” refers to the reference against which the student compares his/her own performance on a task or existing skill level. “Competence motivation” refers to how motivated the student is to developing competence or mastery in a task versus how inclined they are towards peer comparison (“I’m better than you”) or grades (“my grade was bigger than yours”). It is much better for learning and for mental health status to view learning tasks as a challenge and as an opportunity for developing mastery, and to focus more on self-development rather than peer comparisons.

How to help

  1. Help students develop self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, of tasks that will create difficulty, and a menu of strategies/resources that have worked previously or may be of potential assistance.
  2. Enhance teaching quality
  3. Teach explicitly and teach to mastery
  4. Focus on mastery and individual growth rather than on peer compairosn
  5. Communictae your belief in the stuent’s ability and capacity (even if you don’t believe it). Fake it until they make it!
  6. Enhance accuracy of attributions in combination with skill/strategy training
  7. Provide strategy/skill
  8. Present a task that is challenging but not impossible
  9. Assure child that you believe they have the ability to perform the task
  10. Focus attention on the skills/strategies to be used to solve problem
  11. Provide accurate feedback on why success/failure occurred
  12. Reflect on how behaviour might transfer to other tasks/situations or how it reflects on core beliefs
  13. Focus on the process, not outcomes
  14. Discuss and praise process in the classroom
  15. Use areas of strength to highlight process factors
  16. Transfer to ‘problem’ areas
  17. Revisit attributions and core beliefs
  18. Focus attention on controllable factors
  19. Help the student recognise that some things are not under their control, but that effort, persistence, and strategy use are
  20. Help them see that failures are not due to uncontrollables such as ‘ability’ or ‘teachers’ but to factors within control.
  21. Provide accurate feedback that focuses on the process of learning
  22. Don’t protect them from failure by overlooking errors or by offering rewards or praise for incorrect or inadequate work. Neither is useful for developing accurate self-perceptions and resilience. The task is either too hard (our fault), the student hasn’t been taught a strategy (our fault), or they aren’t using effective behaviours.
  23. Audit tasks and break into subtasks
  24. Minimise negative reinforcement
  25. Help students understand the real purpose of school is to learn how to learn.
  26. Recognise that avoidance is compensatory rather than a sign of laziness or lack of motivation. Avoidance is not a sign that students need to be “more motivated” (as if they can pull in and fill up their petrol tank) but a sign that they lack skills, strategies, and a sense of competence and control.
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