Improve gist reasoning to help 8th-graders close achievement gap

Improve gist reasoning to help 8th-graders close achievement gapBrain games to make you smarter are popular with healthy adults who want to sharpen mental performance, victims of traumatic brain injury and seniors at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Now the Center for Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas, Dallas, TX says brain training can help middle schoolers develop “gist reasoning,” the ability to “connect the dots” and generalize meaning from what one is learning.

A new study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reports that as few as 10 hours of cognitive training improved gist reasoning by 8th-graders from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but most notably for students from households below the poverty line, who often lag behind their more affluent peers on this measure. The researchers say their findings offer hope that students from low socioeconomic (SES) households will be able to close the achievement gap with their more fortunate classmates after only a limited amount of cognitive training.

The results are more mixed for 7th graders.  Boys from families living below the poverty line did not benefit from cognitive training, although other 7th-graders did. It may be that poverty has a greater impact on boys’ development of gist reasoning than girls and that boys need more training to obtain benefits or equal benefits, the researchers write. This gender gap was not evident for boys and girls from higher-income households.

“One of the most important findings from this study was that middle school students living in poverty were able to harness cognitive plasticity by showing gains in gist reasoning similar to their more affluent peers,” researchers write.

Adolescence is critical window

Middle school is a critical time for developing gist reasoning. There’s a growing concern among educators that adolescents are not developing gist reasoning in step with the growing demands of grade-level reading, as indicated by the drop in nationalized standardized reading scores from 4th grade to 8th grade.

“Unfortunately, recent studies indicate that many students in middle school focus primarily on learning circumscribed details presented in textbooks without showing an ability to understand issues at a conceptual, in-depth level,” write researchers from the Center for BrainHealth.

“Whether the problem rests in the superficial coverage of vast amounts of information in class or how the students are learning, evidence is mounting that critical gist reasoning (i.e., the ability to derive synthesized meanings by combining facts and applying inferential reasoning) is failing to develop in early adolescence—an age where the brain is at a critical stage to acquire advanced reasoning skills.”

A total of 741 students (48% male, 52% female) from 13 middle schools in the Dallas area participated in cognitive training with Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).  Children with a learning disability, ADHD or diagnosed brain injury (based on parental reports) were excluded from the experimental group. Researchers recruited 357 6th, 7th and 8th-gradders from both rural and urban middle schools to form a comparison group.

The SMART program, developed by researchers at the Center for BrainHealth, trains students in top-down thinking with a hierarchy of cognitive processes. Students practice the processes with pen and paper activities and interactive group exercises. The focus is on the deeper meaning of information before the processing of isolated details. The 7 processes are:

  1. Deliberate inhibition of extraneous information
  2. Chunking and organizing relevant information
  3. Inference
  4. Paraphrasing
  5. Synthesis of important details
  6. Interpretation of take-home messages
  7. Abstraction of deeper meaning and synthesis of all the processes to apply top-down thinking

To evaluate gist reasoning and fact recall ability, the Scale of Advanced Reasoning© was administered to the experimental group during one 45 minute class period preceding and approximately 2 weeks following the cognitive training program.  SOAR measures the ability to abstract and convey deeper meaning from a lengthy text. Students who engaged in cognitive training also had better fact recall, researchers report.

A limitation of the study is that the control group came from different schools than the students participating in cognitive training. The students and families of controls did not provide information about family income and student conditions, but researchers did have access to school information about SES and ethnicity.  While the control group was not precisely matched to the experimental group, the researchers say it is representative of public middle school students.

“Enhancing inferential abilities in adolescence: new hope for students in poverty,” by Jacquelyn Gamino et al., Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, December 2014.  

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