Category Archives: Anxiety

Being Open-Minded to University Bias

Jonah Lehrer has another excellent piece at Wired on some recent work by psychologists at the University of Michigan, University of Toronto and Harvard University on the inabilities of some students to focus and a surprising correlation this inability has with creativity and achievement.

The University of Michigan study is more of a survey and finds that U of M students who have been labeled with ADHD are more likely to have won awards at science fairs or juried art shows. That is pretty cool to read, especially since so many of my own students have been labeled with ADHD.

Then there is another study by the University of Toronto and Harvard University which Lehrer cites, and it is even more good news for the easily distracted. They find that students who struggle to ignore irrelevant distractions, such as air conditioners and other noises, are seven times more likely to be rated as “creative achievers.”

Lehrer writes:

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

As someone who teaches students who would never leave their homes without their cell-phones and iPods and laptops, this sounds like great news. My highly distracted students seem to be award winners with enormous creative potential. I cannot wait to tell them. Hopefully they will show up to class on Monday.

As usual, my students are not in these studies nor are they anywhere near the vast majority of studies that come out of universities. When these universities run studies on their students, they are working with students who have adapted very well to the demands of their surrounding even when they are easily distracted. In fact, the students who are easily distracted might even have higher I.Q.s than the average university students they are being compared to.

Lehrer is quite clear about the shortcomings of this research and its selection process, and he points this out in parentheses at the bottom of the article:

(It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

And that is the problem. But it is a far bigger problem than I think Lehrer is aware of.

Lehrer is more attuned to the issue of bias in the studies than most, but even he gives little more than a parenthetical remark on this significant problem with so much research coming out of universities. Far, far too often universities study their own students and spend little effort considering how different these students are from the average students coming out of high school and struggling through college.

The kids with ADHD who fail to be graduated are not the exception to be dismissed and ignored but very well might be the majority. To take them out of the study is wrong, very wrong. In fact, the study is not just dealing with the kids who were graduated from high school but those who passed highly selective entrance requirements to get into these competitive universities. For U of M and Harvard to tell us how creative distracted students are is like Cindy Crawford telling us how lovely moles are, especially when they are on your face.

In one sense, this is no big deal. I could just ignore these studies and show up on Monday no worse for wear. But that is not how it works.

These studies are frequently covered in the news or are disseminated though graduate schools and other places where educators are educated. They are written about at numerous blogs and make their ways into e-books that are read on iPads and Kindles by the well-washed masses on their way to UCs and Ivy League schools. In short, these studies and their flawed conclusions become the common knowledge that people with power and influence know, but they end up having little to do with the common college student who never won an art show or a science fair and is instead struggling to get off academic probation and wondering if he should have stayed at the pizza delivery job.

This problem with selection bias in these university studies reminds me of the early dyslexia research that showed how intelligent people with dyslexia really are. There were some initial studies showing that people with dyslexia had higher I.Q.s than average folks. This research was cut down when more comprehensive research showed I.Q. really was not a factor either way, but this misconception about the high intelligence of dyslexics has remained and has been promoted by books such as The Gift of Dyslexia. This book and its conclusions are still being promoted by a select group of people who have been quite successful with their dyslexia.

In both cases, the majority of students are being left to look at themselves as being stupid for not being able to keep up, let alone win the art contests and science fairs. These students do not just lack the abilities to make it at the University of Michigan or Harvard University, but carry with them a good deal of emotional baggage from years of struggling and failing.

Maybe, just maybe, some of those highly creative graduates of these highly competitive universities could start paying attention to people outside of their highly successful circles.

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Anxiety Envy

My college offers classes that help students deal with math anxiety, and I imagine many other colleges offer similar classes for their students. I have taught math to basic skills students and know these classes are necessary. I have, however, never seen any classes offered for grammar anxiety.

Oddly enough this makes sense. Even though students come to the college with grammar skills in just as poor shape as their math skills, I have not seen students demonstrate the same levels of apprehension with English grammar as they have with math. It seems this situation is related to how the different subjects are perceived by the students.

Math is more intimidating and often seen as something of a foreign language that students cannot comprehend without careful study, while English grammar strikes students as being more familiar and is perceived as being a series of isolated rules.  A college course in English grammar should cover those rules that we all covered in high school, right?

Most students know that a partial understanding of a certain concept in mathematics can get you into a good deal of trouble since you get no credit for  a close but incorrect answer. There might be different approaches to factoring a polynomial or solving for y, but there is only one correct answer at the end of the problem. This idea that you need to learn it all before you can do the problem correctly is what makes some students anxious. In most cases, the anxiety can be alleviated by helping students learn how to break the problems down into workable segments that they can handle. There is no magic to this approach.

My sense is that students are not inherently more capable with English grammar than with mathematics. Students use English more often in daily conversations and in text messaging than they use basic math skills to pay bills or balance checkbooks, but these forms of English usage only act to reinforce simple grammatical structures and make learning grammar at a more sophisticated level more difficult. Chatting with your friends online or sending a few dozen text messages prepares students for understanding English grammar about as well as operating a cash register prepares students for college algebra.

Most students I work with come to a grammar class thinking they already know the English language because they have been using it for as long as they can remember. There really is no issue with anxiety since the students do not realize how little they know about the workings of their mother tongue and how wrong many of the “rules” they were taught in high school really are.

And that is why I am somewhat jealous of the math teachers who often confront a room with many students who are anxious about what they are about to learn. The students know that they do not understand math on the first day. They know learning math is more than memorizing a series of petty rules. And they know it is going to take practice to learn the material.

The students I work with often bring simple rules to the class regarding where to put commas or apostrophes, and these rules must be thrown out before the students can learn how the language actually works. Often these “rules” need to be thrown out again and again. If they do not master the new materials, they fall right back on the old useless “rules” they learned from a teacher who never bothered to show them how simple questions can often have more involved answers and require a more developed understanding.

And so I envy the math anxiety that many math teachers encounter on the first day. Anxiety is, at least, a sign that the students know learning the language is not such a simple matter and is going to require some effort.