Cognitive Approach to Addressing the Impact of Covid-19 on Students
By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark
Schools are exploring new ways to address the impact that Covid-19 has had and continues to have on students. As leadership teams around the country consider the most effective options to help close the learning gap for their students, it is helpful to recognize that, as the Kennedy Forum, has stated:
“Neuroscience research now proves what parents have known all along. Even the best teaching and curricula have surprisingly little effect when a child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn is not addressed.”
Innovative schools are adopting a program that directly targets each child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn. It does this by using a nationally normed, scientifically valid and reliable cognitive assessment to help teachers and students understand each student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and by providing cognitive training to the students using the most researched, comprehensive, integrated cognitive training tool available. The cognitive training incorporates techniques developed over more than 40 years of multi-disciplinary clinical collaboration and is now delivered in a video-game format.
The cognitive assessment provides deep insights into how each student learns and enables teachers to more effectively support student learning with differentiated and personalized, evidence-based learning strategies. Cognitive training develops the mental processes that are needed for efficient and effective learning, accelerating the acquisition of academic knowledge and skills, so that those skills are simply there to use and support them in learning. That is the purpose of cognitive training, also referred to as brain training. Cognitive training has been around for decades, taking the form of one-on-one therapeutic activities designed to strengthen various cognitive processes. Fields such as Speech and Language and Vision Development, Occupational Therapy and many other disciplines offer training to improve areas of cognitive functioning. Historically, each discipline has operated separately from the others and focused on a subset of cognitive skills.
In fact, cognitive skills can be developed to a far greater degree than people may think, but it hasn’t typically happened in classrooms, where the need is great.
Teachers generally focus on reading, math and other subject areas – these are what they have been taught to teach. They have not generally been educated in the therapeutic techniques that develop a student’s attention or memory or visual-spatial processing skills. As Tom Hughes, principal of Middle Crest STEM Middle School in Kokomo, IN says, “As an educator I don’t know how to teach those skills. I don’t know how to teach a kid to “see faster,” like that that wasn’t ‘a thing.’ You know, I went through all the literacy and all the fluency training. I’ve got a reading specialist tag on my license. Never once did we talk about a kid’s innate ability to see. Every one of my English teachers has been trained to be an English teacher but they were never taught how to teach the skills one step before the skills they’re trying to teach. If they are trying to teach author’s purpose or summarization or reading comprehension, they are steps and skills and processes to come up with those, but if a kid’s inability to read fluently is the result of their vision not being right or their working memory not working the way it needs to, being able to specifically target that deficit is something that teachers haven’t been trained to do.”
Cognitive skills cannot be explained and learned the way typical classroom instruction happens. A teacher can’t explain to students how to hold more information in their minds (increase working memory capacity) or how to visually process more information at a glance (visual span). Nor do teachers generally have the time to work one-on-one with individual students in the ways trained therapists do.
This is where technology comes in. Today, computer-based cognitive training is opening up the opportunity for dramatic improvement in learning capacity to virtually any student. Bear in mind that all computer-based brain training is not created equal. To be truly effective, the training program must be comprehensive in the range of skills developed, it must integrate skills as they are developed so that they work together (like cross-training), and it must be engaging, among other factors. Programs that don’t incorporate these characteristics are likely to be limited in effectiveness and in the ability of the skills being developed to transfer to improved academic performance and other aspects of everyday life.How much can learning capacity actually be increased? The short answer: Enough to make a real difference for struggling students within weeks.
For example, research with cognitive training software was conducted with students with specific learning disabilities (SLD). A diagnosis of SLD means, of course, that these students had deficits in cognitive skills that were impairing their ability to make adequate academic progress. The study used the Woodcock-Johnson Cognitive Battery and Tests of Achievement to assess cognitive and academic development before and after 12 weeks of cognitive training, done 3 to 5 times per week in 30-to-45-minute sessions. On pre-test the students performed at a proficiency level of 63-64 percent proficiency, where 90 percent would be expected of a student with normal cognitive development. 12 weeks later, the group of students who participated in cognitive training scored at an average of 89 percent proficiency – almost closing the gap to normally developing. The control group’s scores were unchanged.
In addition to improving cognitive skills and academic results and helping students rapidly close the learning gap which has resulted from Covid-19’s impact, teachers and parents typically observe improvements in students’ perseverance, confidence in their learning ability, willingness to take on challenging work, relationships with others, and other characteristics of capable, confident learners. In other words, cognitive training addresses both childrens’ cognitive and emotional readiness to learn – just what neuroscience (and parent intuition) tell us are essential to close the learning gaps from COVID-19.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari