Why We Need Science: Our Intutions About Learning Often Fail Us

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“Slow down. Sound it out.”

This is the mantra for most dyslexic students learning to read, notes Breanna Draxler on the Discover magazine website. But results from a new computer training program suggest that the opposite may be true for dyslexics once they’ve learned to read—going faster could improve reading skills and comprehension:

“Researchers in Israel compared the reading skills of dyslexic and non-dyslexic university students, before and after using a custom computer training program. The program’s premise is this: a sentence appears on the computer screen, which the participant is supposed to read silently.

One by one, the letters disappear off the screen, from left to right, pushing the reader through the sentence. When the entire sentence has been removed from the screen, the user is prompted with a question about the content of the sentence he or she just read. This ensures that the participant did not just read the sentence, but actually understood what it meant.

If the participant gives the correct answer, the computer program raises the stakes a little. The next sentence that appears on the screen will be erased at a slightly faster pace—two milliseconds (the equivalent of one eye blink) less time per letter. The reading and questions continue to alternate, getting a little faster after every right answer, for a total of twenty minutes per session.

So how did the program’s prodding impact dyslexic students’ abilities to read? After two months of training three times a week, participants read faster: the average reading rate dropped from about 135 milliseconds per letter to about 75. Comprehension went up too, and these improved outcomes lasted over time.

Six months after the training sessions ended, participants still enjoyed improved reading skills, according to the results published in Nature Communications on Tuesday. Non-dyslexic participants also showed some improvement in reading speed and comprehension, but not as much as dyslexics.

The researchers aren’t sure exactly why the computer program works, but when they removed the time element, the training proved ineffective. So whatever the mechanism, time is of the essence.” (Read more here.)

Our intuitions about what works in learning are often wrong. That’s why we need science.

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5 Responses to “Why We Need Science: Our Intutions About Learning Often Fail Us”

  1. David Grogan says:

    Is it possible that the constant and immediate quizzing helped them get better, and not just the speed of the erasure?

    • Perry Clark says:

      The researchers compared outcomes in a group receiving the computer-managed acceleration against a group not receiving the electronic “push” provided by progressively faster letter erasure. Both groups were quizzed on content in the same manner. The readers in the computer-pushed group developed faster reading skills and perhaps improved comprehension.

  2. I’m actually not too surprised by this research. I’m low-end dyslexic. I was never picked up by a school professional, but my mother picked up my tendency to write letters and words in reverse. However, I’m an incredibly fast reader with pretty good comprehension, and I think the reason my little bit of dyslexia was never noticed was that I didn’t need to read every word, so the ones I messed up didn’t affect my overall comprehension.

    Also, go science for working this out!

  3. Eric Gates says:

    Annie, I agree with your comments about intuition being misleading!

    Jeff Karpicke at Purdue has published a fascinating paper in (January, 2011) Science showing how student intuition about study strategies in science courses is often wrong: students believe that elaborative studying (with flash cards, or study guides, hints, feedback, etc.) is most helpful, when in fact, good old fashioned practice retrieval (such as taking an exam without access to notes or help of any kind) is what produces the greatest gains for students.

  4. Eric Moyer says:

    This reminds me of a technique that non-dyslexic users use to increase reading speed: rapid serial visual presentation.

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