York psychologist studies the ‘spacing effect’ in teaching

In the late 1800s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus set out to memorize hundreds of nonsense syllables and discovered it was more efficient to space out his study sessions than to try to learn long lists in one sitting [wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 7].

Hundreds of studies carried out since have established the power of what is now known as the “spacing effect” – how people can better remember faces, words and historical facts if they spread out their study time rather than attempting one long cram session.

But most of the experiments have involved adults, said York University psychologist Nicholas Cepeda [Faculty of Health], who has begun to study the spacing effect in Ontario classrooms. He wants to come up with simple recommendations that will help teachers capitalize on the effect to improve how much students learn and retain.

Cepeda’s studies include: What kind of spacing is most effective? Should lessons and subsequent review sessions be a week apart? Or is a gap of several months better? Are cumulative tests an effective teaching tool because they cover material taught earlier in the year as well as the most recent lessons?

Cepeda is probing deeper questions as well. What is it about the brain that makes the spacing effect so powerful? What can it tell us about how memory works? Cepeda was recently awarded a $100,777 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to buy equipment that will allow him to measure the electrical activity in the brains of children when they learn something for the first time, compared to when they study it again several months later.

He expects that re-learning material a second or third time is the result of different, more intense brain activity. “If you have forgotten the material, the brain may think it has to pay more attention.”

Cepeda also wants to assess the value of cumulative tests, which include questions on material students learned earlier in the year and could be a valuable teaching tool.

He said it is frustrating how little research is done to translate the discoveries psychologists and neuroscientists make about memory and learning into effective teaching strategies. In the United States, the Institute of Education Sciences funds this kind of research, but there is no equivalent agency in Canada, said Cepeda, who has applied to the US institute to do more studies in Toronto classrooms.

“As psychologists, we are sometimes scared to tell teachers what to do because we may end up telling them to do something that works in the lab that doesn’t work in the real world. We really do need to be testing these things in the classroom.”

Bringing closure to disclosure

In his final legislative session as premier [of Alberta], [Ed] Stelmach should accept the advice from New Democrat leader Brian Mason calling for a provincial disclosure law governing how political parties raise money in their leadership campaigns [wrote the Edmonton Journal Feb. 5 in an editorial].

Currently, leadership candidates in all of Alberta’s political parties are free to raise as much money as they want from whomever they want without revealing the names of the donors or the amount donated.

It is an unaccountable and murky system, one that has been criticized by Alberta’s former chief electoral officer, Lorne Gibson, and by experts on election financing, such as Robert MacDermid of York University[‘s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies]. “The people who give money to a leadership candidate aren’t just being friendly,” said MacDermid. “I think a lot of people see it as a form of influence buying.”

York Video game study cited in story about new research

So all those hours on the couch annihilating enemies haven’t been a mindless waste? Could all that practice help a gamer find the right career? [asked Toronto Star blog, parentcentral.ca Feb. 4, in a story about new research that says virtual war games can bring out the best in our brains].

“Is he interested in going into robotic surgery or operating the Canadarm on the space shuttle?” asks Lauren Sergio, a neuroscientist at York University[‘s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, in the Faculty of Health].

[Sergio] worked on a study published last fall that showed that gamers used their brains more efficiently, tapping into the executive functions of the frontal lobe as they performed increasingly difficult visual motor tasks.

The mission for researchers now, wrote Parent Central, is to explore how the brain learns from shooter games, then develop less bloody games that confer the same brain gains.

Syria not ready for revolution, says York prof

After 40 years of authoritarian rule under the al-Assads – père et fils – Syrians might be expected to demand change [wrote the Toronto Star Feb. 4]. But large-scale protests seem unlikely in such a strictly controlled country. Besides, the regime taught the world a lesson in oppression in 1982 when the Syrian army bombed the town of Hama to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. “Syria has a powerful army, and it is not dependant on the Americans,” says Saeed Rahnema, professor of political science in York University[‘s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies].

The risk of a long life

Hope for a long life also means preparing for it financially [wrote CBC News online Feb. 4]. “The economic impact of longevity risk is actually larger than the stock market risk,” says Moshe Milevsky, a York University finance professor [in the Schulich School of Business] and the author (with Alexandra Macqueen) of Pensionize Your Nest Egg.

Living longer than you anticipated is good news, to be sure. But it can also be a financial shock if you’re not prepared for it. “We all expect to live into our 80s,” Milevsky says. But he points out that a perusal of the local death notices will quickly show the wide variation in how long people actually live. A few don’t make it to retirement age while some live past 95 or 100.

That’s when you worry: “If I live to 100, I’ll run out money.” Milevsky says the reality isn’t quite that bad. “Running out of money in retirement is a bit of a fallacy,” he says.

Milevsky points out that the Old Age Security pension, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and CPP retirement pensions – all guaranteed and all fully indexed – ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s seniors won’t ever “run out of money.”

Which is not to say that they won’t have to reduce their standard of living in retirement. “What people are really worried about is that the retirement they’ve dreamed of won’t materialize,” he says.

York researchers help Aussies with Pathways to the Podium Research Project

Volleyball Australia has recently partnered with the Pathways to the Podium Research Project in a multi-sport, multi-national study of the development of sport expertise. You are invited to be part of this exciting research project, wrote the Australian Volleyball Association in its online news Feb. 7.

The Pathways to the Podium Research Project is being conducted by a team of sport scientists from Victoria University, the Australian Institute of Sport and York University, Canada. The project aims to gain an understanding of the pathways that athletes follow on their way to achieving their peak performance, and the different sporting experiences they have along the way. This information will be used to create guidelines for sport participation so that more athletes will have the chance to achieve their personal best.

Athletes aged 18 to 35 from all sports and all levels of competition are encouraged to complete an online questionnaire relating to your involvement in sport and physical activity.

Schulich dean talks about plans for a campus in India

As international B-schools test Indian waters to set up their campuses, [the] Schulich Business School, part of Canada-based York University, has already tied up with India’s GMR Group to build a campus in Hyderabad. Dean Dezsö Horvàth took part in a Q&A discussion for India’s Business Standard Feb. 7. Excerpts:

When will your campus be up and running?

Horvàth: We have acquired 25 acres of land in Hyderabad to set up a full-fledged campus for a global MBA program, the same that we offer at our Toronto campus. Around 15 acres of this campus is for school and 10 for recreational activities on campus. We will be operational in September 2012, with a student capacity of 60 which will increase by another 60 in the subsequent two years. So by 2013, we will have 180 students in India. Opportunities offered to students at the Toronto campus will be available here as well. We have partner schools overseas in countries like France, Korea, Thailand and China, but India campus will be the first full-fledged campus abroad.

Does this mark an end to your association with SP Jain Institute?

Horvàth: Yes and no. We have been associated with SP Jain Institute of Management and Research for over three years now. While we will deliver the MBA program through our Hyderabad campus, we may look at carrying on our relationship with SP Jain through other research and exchange programs. They have been a very good partner and we would like to take this partnership forward even if it’s in other ways.

Your program fee at Rs 30 lakh is pretty high. Do you think Indian students will have an appetite for your MBA program?

Horvàth: Yes, we charge a high fee. But our MBA is value for money. It is not about how much you charge, but how much your students generate five years [after] graduation. Schulich is ranked among the highest when it comes to value for money in an MBA program.

In any dimension, we match any best B-school in the world today. Schulich’s MBA program has been rated among the top 10 in the world as per The Economist’s 2010 rankings, and sixth among non-US schools by Forbes. We have had a good response from Indian students as we have taken the second batch of students now. We see the demand for a good management program only increasing.

Foreign universities may have to deposit $10 million as corpus to come to India. Your take on that?

Horvàth: It is not yet clear if this money has to be paid in cash or one just needs to provide a guarantee for the same. While it may frighten away a lot of international universities which wish to come to India, for us it is not a deterrent. Whatever happens, we will be here in India. I am a good fundraiser and I know the Canadian government will support us.

Why is it the ‘Arab street’?

Egypt and Tunisia are in the throes of revolution, as angry citizens move to oust long-serving heads of state and their cronies, wrote the St. Petersburg Times on its news website tampabay.com Feb. 6. The mass protests have renewed talk about the “Arab street”, a handy metaphor to describe popular opinion in the Muslim world. Where does that phrase come from?

The Arabs. In 2009, professors Terry Regier of UC Berkeley and Muhammad Ali Khalidi of York University [Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies] published a paper tracking the origins and usage of the phrase Arab street. They found that Arabic-language newspapers regularly use the street as a stand-in for popular public opinion, and not just in reference to Muslims. Journalists in Arab countries also write stories about the mood on the “British street”, the “American street”, and the “Israeli street”.

That’s not to say the street formulation necessarily comes from Arabic [wrote the Times]. The provenance of the phrase is a bit muddled. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Wyndham Lewis, an English writer and painter, as the first person to refer to popular public opinion as “the street”. In a 1931 book sympathetic to Adolf Hitler, Lewis noted that Democratic politicians couldn’t suppress the fascist leader because of his “Mastery of the Street.” Just like his pro-Hitler sentiment, Wyndham’s turn of phrase didn’t catch on in England or the United States, but the metaphor appeared in Arabic in the 1950s. Lebanese editorialists used the street to represent the oppressed working classes in the Muslim world.

The two academics also identified a difference in tone between Arabic and English use of the phrase. In English, the Arab street is very often associated with volatility and mayhem. It’s liable to “explode” or “erupt” with little notice. Writers in Arabic sometimes use this imagery as well, but they are far more likely to glorify the street, in the same way that US politicians lovingly describe Main Street, USA. Yemen’s Al-Ayyam newspaper has described the Egyptian street as “the heart and conscience of the Arabs.” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has even referred to the Israeli street with approbation.

Aquin carries honour for York

Ontario University Athletics (OUA) is wired to welcome the top female student-athletes from across the province at the Women of Influence Luncheon [wrote the Hamilton Spectator Feb. 5 in a story about the March 2 event at the Metro Convention Centre].

Nineteen exceptional OUA female scholar-athletes, selected by their respective university athletic departments, will be honoured at the luncheon. The individuals selected demonstrated excellence in their specific sport discipline, in the classroom and in the campus community.

Among the OUA honourees is Amber Aquin, an exemplary scholar-athlete at York University. The two-time academic all-Canadian rugby player couldn’t believe she was selected from among all the York female varsity athletes.

“I was working on my internship when Jennifer Myers (York athletic director), came in and sat down and explained the luncheon and the award to me,” said the 23-year-old. “I was so excited because I thought Jennifer was telling me it was being hosted at York, and she wanted me to help run it. She laughed and simply said, ‘No, Amber, we have chosen you as York’s Woman of Influence.’ My jaw dropped. I started to tear up.

“I was so honoured and humbled that of all the female athletes they chose me for such a prestigious award. All I wanted to do while at York was to make a difference.”

Joe Costello, coach of the Lady Lions rugby team, has a ton of respect for Aquin as an athlete, student and person. “What I am most proud of about Amber is all of the stuff she has done (at York). She has done it because she believes it’s the right thing to do, not because she thought it would win her awards or look good on her resume,” said Costello.

Tracking David Foster Wallace

Thanks for Jennifer Howard’s article on the now-burgeoning area of David Foster Wallace studies (“The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace”, The Chronicle Review, Jan. 14) wrote Timothy Jacobs, adjunct instructor in English at York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education Feb. 6.

While it is of moderate interest that there are more doctoral candidates studying Wallace’s work now than when I wrote the first doctoral dissertation (2003) devoted to Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it is hardly surprising, considering that Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and thus can only barely be considered “contemporary” anymore. Scholarship on his work was bound to heat up, like it gradually did for Pynchon, too. It’s more than a little sad, though, that the writer’s suicide was the primary catalyst for the sudden, widespread attention to his work. And now an industry is forming around it.

I would also say that Howard’s article would have been much improved if she had investigated the true early pioneers of Wallace studies. Scholars like the University of Cincinnati’s Tom LeClair, who published the first peer-reviewed article on Infinite Jest, or Frank Cioffi, Mary Holland, N. Katherine Hayles, myself and many others, have been toiling on Wallace’s lavish works for well over a decade now. A modest acknowledgment of the first wave of Wallace-studies pioneers would’ve been a more accurate historical assessment of the discipline.

Chatterbox of the opera

The life of a world-famous opera singer isn’t all that meets the eye. According to pre-eminent Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, perception is everything [wrote the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal Feb. 5, in a story that noted Heppner was awarded an honorary doctor of laws (LLD ’03) by York University].

Brampton author recognized with citizens award

Brampton author Michael Robert Dyet has been selected to receive an Arts Acclaim Award at the Brampton Citizens Award Ceremony taking place May 11, 2011 at the Rose Theatre, Brampton [wrote The Brampton News online in an undated media release].

Dyet is the author of Until Deep Water Stills: An Internet-enhanced novel which was a double winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards 2009. Dyet was named Canada East Region Winner and also captured the Writers in the Sky Award for Best Creative Writing of the Year sponsored by Writers in the Sky Creative Writing Services.

[Dyer has an] honours BA, in Creative Writing [from] York University‘s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies].

Student criticizes TTC route cuts

As a student at York University and a regular user of not one but two of the bus routes currently on the chopping block, I know these proposed changes stand to hurt Toronto’s marginalized populations most [wrote Laura Scrivener in a letter to the Toronto Star, Feb. 6]. Many people take the TTC every day, and for most of those folks, the proposed cuts will be nothing more than a mild inconvenience. But for the poor, disabled, recent immigrants, students and other people without regular car access, these cuts will have a drastic impact on how we go about our daily lives.

I ask that the TTC board take this opportunity to prove to Torontonians that they care about all of their citizens and are especially looking out for those citizens who have learned to love this city for its open-armed support.

Video game soccer would be safest, says irritated coach

York University researchers are absolutely right to suggest that soccer in its current form is very dangerous for children [wrote Cam Battley, an “irritated soccer coach” from Campbellville, in a letter to the National Post Feb. 5, reacting to a story about a new study of injuries and its recommendations]. We should take immediate action to make it safer. While padded goalposts, head protection and safety goggles would be good first steps, we can’t stop there. If even one child is injured playing soccer, it’s too many.

Soccer involves running. Running is known to be a leading cause of exercise, and can cause sore muscles and/or heavy breathing. We must insist that youth soccer players slow down, by implementing a speed limit on the field. In addition, summer soccer is played on grass. Some children are allergic to grass pollen. Therefore, soccer should only be played indoors. Moreover, soccer players sometimes fall to the ground, and studies show that the ground is hard. Playing surfaces should be switched to foam rubber. Soccer balls are pretty risky, too, and only soft Nerf versions should be used.

In fact, since the number one cause of injuries to children is car accidents, it’s too dangerous to transport kids to soccer games in vehicles. It really would be best to confine soccer to online video game competition. Children could play at home, sitting in a comfy chair, eating a cookie.