Why teaching is the best job in the world

I wrote this originally in Dutch, but Sara Hjelm asked me again and again to translate it to English. So I tried. As the original text used quite a lot of typical Dutch expressions, translating the text was pretty hard. Do send possible corrections if you spot a mistake.

Being a teacher is the best job in the world. The teachers who read this will agree with me, others will probably disagree, but they’re wrong.

Teachers are the lucky ones who can teach kids the miracle of reading. Suddenly they enter the world of written language after hours, days, weeks, months of hard labour. But there are also the discussions you have with your teenagers who test their and your thinking and possibilities … too many to mention.

It is a job where the whole world can enter your classroom. Think of all the good and all the evil that happens in society, and now a teacher can and will experience it in your classroom, from every war to each new sibling being born. From their first infatuations to their first loss.

It is a job with a huge responsibility, that’s right. We get the children on loan from their parents and we need to prepare these kids for our society. The parents and the society also often point us at those responsibilities. Whenever something goes wrong, they ask education to take it on.

But we are responsible people. We feel responsible. That’s why we talk about our children, our students. Ok, sometimes we also will talk about our little rascals, but still full of love.

It’s also why you can recognize a teacher in this picture:

It is also the reason why some people who do not understand the teacher profession, will advocate something like merit pay. Paying teachers more if their students perform better. They think it is teacher like to be having a great lesson in their file drawer but that they are only waiting for more money to teach the best class they ever did. A real teacher only wants the best for his or her class. A real teacher actually will walk the extra mile by definition. This is also the reason why the teachers will keep on going even if the workload keeps increasing and increasing…

It is also why teaching can become too much. No, it isn’t the hormones, the many meetings, the many demands, … No, it is constantly performing for an audience, for your children. But we have one big luck, if we ever fail a class, there is usually a next chance straight away. And another, and another…

As a teacher you’ll receive ‘thank you’s’ sometimes in the strangest of ways. Most of the time not immediately, sometimes you’ll never get one of a pupil, but sometimes it happens very unexpected when you meet a former pupil or student. Or, for example, what e to me last Tuesday. There was a student in my class who indicated that he would quit his studies. My first thought was “shit, again a teacher lost for education”. But than  told me he still wanted to come to my classes because he learned so much from me. I’m still smiling.

I told you, it’s the best job in the world.


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Funny on Sunday: what’s the matter with these – multitasking – morons?

Via Larry Cuban who collected more cartoons on technology past month.

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A study about Learning Styles in the UK


  • The amount of academics in UK higher education who belief in Learning Styles is getting smaller it seems, but 58% still does.
  • Most of those believers actually never use them.
  • 32% stated that they would continue to use Learning Styles despite being presented with the lack of an evidence base to support them.

While the original authors claim that ‘debunking’ learning styles doesn’t work, I actually think it does – surprise – as the numbers of ‘believers’ seem to going down in comparison to other studies. I do agree with them that promoting evidence-based approaches to education is also needed.

I only have one extra question: how can you be an academic and continue despite being presented with the lack of any evidence?

From the press release:

What is the best way for teachers to teach so students will really learn? That’s an age-old question.

Since the 1970s, one theory that has been popular among schoolteachers and pervasive in education research literature in the United Kingdom and the United States is the idea of “Learning Styles,” the notion that people can be categorized into one or more ‘styles’ of learning (e.g., Visual, Auditory, Converger) and that teachers can and should tailor their curriculum to suit individual students. The idea is that students will learn more if they are exposed to material through approaches that specifically match their Learning Style.

But in recent years, many academicians have criticized Learning Styles saying there is no evidence it improves student understanding.

Now comes a newly published study of 114 academics in higher education in the United Kingdom, led by education researchers Philip M. Newton, Ph.D., and Mahallad Miah, both of the Swansea University Medical School in Swansea, UK. Their study “Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?” was published March 27, 2017, in Frontiers in Psychology.

Their findings are very interesting. Newton and Miah found while 58% of the academics surveyed believe Learning Styles to be beneficial – only 33% actually used the pedagogical tool.

In other words, there is something about the idea of individualized education that appeals, but actually administering a Learning Styles questionnaire to students and then tailoring the class curriculum to suit individual students’ personal learning styles is only done by a handful of faculty.

“There is a mismatch between the empirical evidence and the belief in Learning Styles,” said Newton. “Among those who participated in our study far more reported using a number of techniques that are demonstrably evidence-based.”

These techniques include: assigning formative assessments (i.e., practice tests), peer teaching (i.e., having students teach each other), working problems and examples aloud, and microteaching (i.e., taking video footage of teachers in training so they can reflect on and adjust how they explain material and interact with students).

Furthermore, 90% of the faculty surveyed said that Learning Styles as an approach is fundamentally flawed.

“Learning Styles does not account for the complexity of ‘understanding,'” said Newton. “It is not possible to teach complex concepts such as mathematics or languages by presenting these subjects in only one style. This would be like trying to teach medical students to recognize different heart sounds using visual methods, or teaching them how to recognize different skin rashes using auditory methods.”

Newton and Miah say those faculty who use Learning Styles may in fact represent certain disciplines or subject areas and that to truly evaluate the usefulness of this teaching method would require demographic studies of faculty. But that may not be worth the investment, they say.

Part of the issue seems to lie in the fact that many respondents embrace a “looser definition” of Learning Styles, preferring to think of it as an overarching theme or general trend rather than a pedagogical tool. In other words: they operate from the standpoint that individual students have different ‘styles of learning’ — lowercase — but don’t formally change their teaching techniques. This philosophical leaning may also explain why some dedicated faculty continue to ‘believe in’ Learning Styles even when presented with the evidence that it doesn’t work.

It appears Learning Styles has become more a point of awareness or point of view rather than a teaching tool. Thus, say Newton and Miah, rather than debunking Learning Styles — capital letters — a far better focus for education research would be to promote those evidence-based techniques that survey participants indicated they actually use and that are demonstrably effective.

Abstract of the study:

The basic idea behind the use of ‘Learning Styles’ is that learners can be categorized into one or more ‘styles’ (e.g., Visual, Auditory, Converger) and that teaching students according to their style will result in improved learning. This idea has been repeatedly tested and there is currently no evidence to support it. Despite this, belief in the use of Learning Styles appears to be widespread amongst schoolteachers and persists in the research literature. This mismatch between evidence and practice has provoked controversy, and some have labeled Learning Styles a ‘myth.’ In this study, we used a survey of academics in UK Higher Education (n = 114) to try and go beyond the controversy by quantifying belief and, crucially, actual use of Learning Styles. We also attempted to understand how academics view the potential harms associated with the use of Learning Styles. We found that general belief in the use of Learning Styles was high (58%), but lower than in similar previous studies, continuing an overall downward trend in recent years. Critically the percentage of respondents who reported actually using Learning Styles (33%) was much lower than those who reported believing in their use. Far more reported using a number of techniques that are demonstrably evidence-based. Academics agreed with all the posited weaknesses and harms of Learning Styles theory, agreeing most strongly that the basic theory of Learning Styles is conceptually flawed. However, a substantial number of participants (32%) stated that they would continue to use Learning Styles despite being presented with the lack of an evidence base to support them, suggesting that ‘debunking’ Learning Styles may not be effective. We argue that the interests of all may be better served by promoting evidence-based approaches to Higher Education.

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Again: the lasting effects of bullying

We’ve been here before. I know this. You know this. But there is a new study showing it again. And it’s worth repeating. So here it goes: A new study led by the University of Delaware found that kids who are bullied in fifth grade are more likely to suffer from depression in seventh grade; and have a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade.

From the press release:

“Students who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade were more likely to have greater symptoms of depression in seventh grade, and a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade,” said the study’s leader, Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor in UD’s College of Education and Human Development.

The study involved researchers from universities and hospitals in six states, who analyzed data collected between 2004 and 2011 from 4,297 students on their journey from fifth through tenth grade. The findings were published online in the medical journal Pediatrics.

The students were from Birmingham, Alabama; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles County, California. Forty-four percent were Latino, 29 percent were African American and 22 percent were white.

Although peer victimization is common during late childhood and early adolescence and appears to be associated with increased substance use, few studies have examined these associations longitudinally — meaning that data is gathered from the same subjects repeatedly over several years — or point to the psychological processes whereby peer victimization leads to substance use.

“We show that peer victimization in fifth grade has lasting effects on substance use five years later. We also show that depressive symptoms help to explain why peer victimization is associated with substance use, suggesting that youth may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions,” Earnshaw said.

Impacts and interventions

Peer victimization leads to substance use, and substance use can harm adolescent development with implications for health throughout the lifespan, Earnshaw said. Alcohol and marijuana use may interfere with brain development and can lead to injuries. Tobacco use may lead to respiratory illness, cancer and early death.

“Youth who develop substance use disorders are at risk of many mental and physical illnesses throughout life,” Earnshaw said. “So, the substance use that results from peer victimization can affect young people throughout their lives.”

Among the study’s findings, boys, sexual minority youth and youth living with chronic illness reported more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade. Age, obesity, race/ethnicity, household educational achievement and family income were not related to more frequent peer victimization.

Twenty-four percent of tenth graders in the study reported recent alcohol use, 15.2 percent reported marijuana use, and 11.7 percent reported tobacco use. Sexual minority status was more strongly related to alcohol use among girls than boys; it was also related to marijuana and tobacco use among girls but not boys.

Earnshaw used structural equation modeling — a form of statistical analysis — to examine the multiple variables across time and to test if there were relationships among them. She started working with the data in summer 2015 and finalized the model in fall 2016 in her office in UD’s Alison Hall.

An expert in stigma research, Earnshaw wants to understand why people treat other people poorly and how this poor treatment leads to poor health, including through substance use behaviors. She hopes this latest study will enlighten pediatricians, teachers, parents — anyone in a position to help students facing peer aggression.

“We urge pediatricians to screen youth for peer victimization, symptoms of depression and substance use,” says Earnshaw. “These doctors can offer counsel to youth and recommendations to parents and youth for approaching teachers and school staff for support. Moreover, youth experiencing depressive symptoms and substance use should be offered treatment when needed.”

The research team’s messages also extend to teachers.

“Peer victimization really matters, and we need to take it seriously — this echoes the messages educators already have been receiving,” Earnshaw says. “This study gives some additional evidence as to why it’s important to intervene. It also may give teachers insight into why students are depressed or using substances in middle and high school.”

Abstract of the study:

BACKGROUND: Peer victimization is common among youth and associated with substance use. Yet, few studies have examined these associations longitudinally or the psychological processes whereby peer victimization leads to substance use. The current study examined whether peer victimization in early adolescence is associated with alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use in mid- to late adolescence, as well as the role of depressive symptoms in these associations.

METHODS: Longitudinal data were collected between 2004 and 2011 from 4297 youth in Birmingham, Alabama; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles County, California. Data were analyzed by using structural equation modeling.

RESULTS: The hypothesized model fit the data well (Root Mean Square Error of Approximation [RMSEA] = 0.02; Comparative Fit Index [CFI] = 0.95). More frequent experiences of peer victimization in the fifth grade were associated with greater depressive symptoms in the seventh grade (B[SE] = 0.03[0.01]; P < .001), which, in turn, were associated with a greater likelihood of alcohol use (B[SE] = 0.03[0.01]; P = .003), marijuana use (B[SE] = 0.05[0.01]; P < .001), and tobacco use (B[SE] = 0.05[0.01]; P < .001) in the tenth grade. Moreover, fifth-grade peer victimization was indirectly associated with tenth-grade substance use via the mediator of seventh-grade depressive symptoms, including alcohol use (B[SE] = 0.01[0.01]; P = .006), marijuana use (B[SE] = 0.01[0.01]; P < .001), and tobacco use (B[SE] = 0.02[0.01]; P < .001).

CONCLUSIONS: Youth who experienced more frequent peer victimization in the fifth grade were more likely to use substances in the tenth grade, showing that experiences of peer victimization in early adolescence may have a lasting impact by affecting substance use behaviors during mid- to late adolescence. Interventions are needed to reduce peer victimization among youth and to support youth who have experienced victimization.

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Oops… No evidence that enrichment activities encourage pupils to study STEM A-levels

It’s a theme in many countries: how can we get more pupils to choose for STEM-subjects in education. This new study from the University of Exeter shows that there is no evidence to suggest enrichment activities run to interest pupils in science, technology, engineering and maths results in significantly higher numbers of teenagers studying these subjects at A-level: “While these enrichment and engagement activities may have been enjoyable and memorable for children, there is no evidence they encouraged them to keep on studying STEM subjects. There is also no evidence that these activities increased the numbers of children from poorer homes or from ethnic minority backgrounds studying technology, engineering, science or maths.”

My own kids did like it, and I know a lot of people involved in these kinds of activities. I wouldn’t quit them yet, as the authors suggest there are maybe other benefits, but this result can be a kind of a depressing shocker for many. On the other hand: maybe it’s a bit naive to think that small time investments – from the look of the participants – could have a big impact?

From the press release:

There is no evidence to suggest enrichment activities run to interest pupils in science, technology, engineering and maths results in significantly higher numbers of teenagers studying these subjects at A-level.

Research shows there is nothing to show offering trips to laboratories or special practical lessons alone helps increase participation in science, technology or mathematics qualifications after 16.

A new study shows that, despite these activities being embraced by individual schools and the Government and being enjoyable and providing opportunities, they have not had a direct impact on the numbers choosing to study AS or A-levels in these subjects.

The enrichment activities, which also include the work of STEM centres, support by higher education institutions and visits to schools by inspirational role models, are run to tackle a skills shortage in the UK and to improve understanding and enjoyment of these subjects.

Dr Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, from theGraduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, tracked the educational progress of children in Key Stage 3, when they are aged 11 or 12, in 2007 until they reached the end of Key Stage 5, when they are 18, using information from the official National Pupil Database. She was able to single out pupils who had participated in STEM enrichment activities thanks to data given to her by activity providers, and then see the A-level subjects they ended up choosing. Dr Banerjee did not find a clear link between subject choice and STEM A-level participation.

Dr Banerjee examined data from around 600,000 teenagers for the study – all those in Year 7 in 2007 in English state secondary schools. She was able to divide them into five groups – those who had taken part in STEM enrichment activities from the age of 11 to 16; those who had only taken part when aged 11 to 14; those who had only taken part from 14 to 16; those who took part irregularly, and those for which this information was not known. Dr Banerjee was then able to track if these students had taken STEM subjects when aged 16 to 18 by looking at the National Pupil Database.

A total of 8.7 per cent of all those who had taken part in STEM activities during school went on to take biology A-level, 7.5 per cent for chemistry, 5 per cent for physics and 12 per cent for maths. The number of students who went on to study STEM A-levels having not taken part in STEM enrichment activities were very similar – 7.3 per cent for biology, 6.1 per cent for chemistry, 4.3 per cent for physics and 10 per cent for mathematics.

Students who only took part in STEM enrichment activities during only Key Stage 4, when aged 14 to 16,had the lowest STEM participation rates. Those who participated in interventions only during KS3, but never in KS4, were found to be slightly more likely to opt to take STEM subjects.

Students who qualified for free school meals, irrespective of their participation in STEM activities were the least likely to keep studying STEM subjects.

Dr Banerjee said: “While these enrichment and engagement activities may have been enjoyable and memorable for children, there is no evidence they encouraged them to keep on studying STEM subjects. There is also no evidence that these activities increased the numbers of children from poorer homes or from ethnic minority backgrounds studying technology, engineering, science or maths.

“Of course there are many factors which can affect the decisions young people make about the subjects they choose to continue studying at age 16, but it is hard to say STEM enrichment activities have a direct impact. They are one aspect which can help.

“It is essential for policymakers to consider ifwhether, if these schemes are not working, perhaps the money could be spent elsewhere. Giventhe range of schemes being run it is also crucial to understand if any workbetter than others. Knowing the answer to this could help ensure money is spent on only the highest quality activities.

“It would also be useful to measure or investigate the other benefits – apart from continuation to AS and A-level study – of the STEM enrichment activities.”

Abstract of the study:

This paper summarises research findings from a longitudinal national evaluation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) ‘enrichment and enhancement activities’. The activities included science practical lessons, supported by ambassador visits, trips to laboratories, STEM centres and higher education institutions. The common theme for these activities was their aim to improve understanding and enjoyment of science in the short term and encourage STEM participation in the long term. The 2007 cohort across all state maintained secondary schools in England was followed up from the beginning of key stage 3 to the end of key stage 5 making use of school and pupil level datasets from the national pupil database. The study investigated whether engaging in these STEM programmes, run for 11–16 year olds, in secondary school is likely to affect subject choices during post-compulsory education? Do young people sparsely represented in STEM courses such as those from a lower socio-economic class and black ethnic minority engage better with STEM subjects because of actively participating in these activities? A direct noticeable impact of these activities was not seen on STEM take-up. The analysis presented here concludes there is no evidence to suggest continued engagement in these activities is manifested in terms of increasing or widening STEM participation.

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Educational apps for kids? Interactivity can either help or hinder learning.

It’s funny how I received a question today from someone in the audience and in the way back home I discover a new study on the same topic. This new study looks at the influence of touchscreens for learning, more specific for toddlers. And it’s a bit more complicated than iPads are good or bad. This study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that Educational apps for kids can be valuable learning tools, but there’s still a lot left to understand about how to best design them.

From the press release:

“Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” says Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study and who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that, even in lower-income households, 90% of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of 2. Eighty percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children–especially toddlers and preschoolers. But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question, how well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?

“Children interact with touch screens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” says Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices–on a more basic level–by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”

Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as 2 could use the app to learn new words such as the fictional names of a variety of newly-introduced toys (designed specifically for the study). Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age 4 to 5) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age 2 to 3) and they were also able to follow directions better–such as only tapping when instructed to do so.

The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. As in this study, self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them–after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.

To complement this first study (which included 77 children), Russo-Johnson and her colleagues designed a second app to see which interactions–tapping, dragging, or simply watching–were better for learning new words.

Somewhat surprisingly, across this next group of 170 2- to 4-year olds, no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best. But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, whereas dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.

These results complement the growing body of research on identifying effective interactive features, as well as providing insight into how apps might be tailored to fit the learning needs of different children.

“I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” says Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits, and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”

This study is part of a broader Frontiers collection of articles on the influence of touch screen tablets on children’s lives.

Abstract of the report:

Touchscreen devices differ from passive screen media in promoting physical interaction with events on the screen. Two studies examined how young children’s screen-directed actions related to self-regulation (Study 1) and word learning (Study 2). In Study 1, 30 2-year-old children’s tapping behaviors during game play were related to their self-regulation, measured using Carlson’s snack task: girls and children with high self-regulation tapped significantly less during instruction portions of an app (including object labeling events) than did boys and children with low self-regulation. Older preschoolers (N = 47, aged 4–6 years) tapped significantly less during instruction than 2-year-olds did. Study 2 explored whether the particular way in which 170 children (2–4 years of age) interacted with a touchscreen app affected their learning of novel object labels. Conditions in which children tapped or dragged a named object to move it across the screen required different amounts of effort and focus, compared to a non-interactive (watching) condition. Age by sex interactions revealed a particular benefit of dragging (a motorically challenging behavior) for preschool girls’ learning compared to that of boys, especially for girls older than age 2. Boys benefited more from watching than dragging. Children from low socioeconomic status families learned more object names when dragging objects versus tapping them, possibly because tapping is a prepotent response that does not require thoughtful attention. Parents and industry experts should consider age, sex, self-regulation, and the physical requirements of children’s engagement with touchscreens when designing and using educational content.

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Funny on Sunday: school is obsolete

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What does the research say about arts education?

I picked a second study from Best Evidence in Brief but this is too interesting not to share, although e.g. an earlier OECD-report on the same theme was a bit more nuanced on the last element mentioned.

Child Trends has released a new research brief that identifies “five ways the arts are good for kids.” The author, David Murphey, presents existing research on the topic from several sources such as the University of Pennsylvania, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as several published articles. The conclusions are as follows:
  • Arts participation is associated with numerous positive academic and personal outcomes. According to the brief, these outcomes include higher grades and test scores, enrollment in post-secondary education, attainment of a bachelor’s degree, and higher levels of literacy and civic engagement.
  • The benefits of arts participation may be greatest for children who are economically disadvantaged. For example, the research shows that young people from poor communities tend to benefit from having one or more projects that strengthen their sense of self and connect them with peers who share their interests.
  • Arts organizations can positively influence children’s neighborhoods. According to the brief, there is some evidence that the presence of arts organizations (including performance facilities, galleries, and artists’ workspaces) helps reduce a neighborhood’s concentrated poverty and attract other creative and high-tech enterprises.
  • Children’s arts participation varies by age, gender, and educational status. For example, the research shows that students are more likely to participate in school arts activities if their parents have attained higher degrees, and if they plan to attend a 4-year college themselves.
  • Music, in particular, may give children a brain boost. According to the brief, young people who have had music training demonstrate higher cognitive skills across disciplines

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Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching

Again a great post by Carl!


1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.

While there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement and we tend to think of it in that order, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round (Guay, Marsh and Boivin, 2003.) It may well be the case that using time and resources to improve student academic achievement directly may well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds (2011) note that:

At the end of the day, the research reviewed shows that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.

Despite this, a lot of interventions in education seem to have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time and may well give students a deluded notion of…

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Most students think they’re getting more sleep than they are… and this can hurt creativity

…and that may hurt their creativity. Nothing more important than a good night sleep. We’ve known this for quite a while now, but new research adds extra insights to this knowledge. Alternating skimpy sleep with sleep marathons can hurt the attention and creativity in young adults. The study was using a quite specific group of students: interior design students, hence the creativity but as you will read below: there is another reason. And although the n is rather low (28 participants), some of the insights are in line with previous research.

From the press release:

Skimping on sleep, followed by “catch-up” days with long snoozes, is tied to worse cognition — both in attention and creativity — in young adults, in particular those tackling major projects, Baylor University researchers have found.

“The more variability they showed in their night-to-night sleep, the worse their cognition declined across the week,” said study co-author Michael Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“When completing term projects, students restrict sleep, then rebound on sleep, then repeat,” he said. “Major projects which call for numerous tasks and deadlines — more so than for tests — seem to contribute to sleep variability.”

The study of interior design students is published online in the Journal of Interior Design. It also has implications for art, architecture, graphic design and other disciplines that use a model of design studio-based instruction, researchers said.

Interior design is “a strange culture, one where sleep deprivation is almost a badge of honor,” said lead author Elise King, assistant professor of interior design in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.

Staying up late to work on a project is not seen as procrastination but considered by some students and faculty members to be a tradition and a normal part of studio-based curricula to prepare them for their careers, she said.

“Since the general public still doesn’t understand the profession of interior design, and mistakenly thinks we’re the same as decorators, there is a sense that you want to work harder and prove them wrong,” King said. “But recently, we’ve seen the consequences of that type of thinking: anxiety, depression and other mental health issues — and also the dangers of driving while sleep deprived.”

The study challenges a common myth — that “the best design ideas only come in the middle of the night,” King said. But researchers found the opposite — that “consistent habits are at least as important as total length of sleep,” Scullin said.

Irregular sleep is a negative for “executive attention” — intense focus for planning, making decisions, correcting errors and dealing with novelty. Erratic sleep also has a negative effect on creativity, the study found.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that young adults have seven to nine hours of sleep each day. But for the 28 interior design students in the Baylor study, sleep was short and fragmented. Only one participant slept seven hours or more nightly; 79 percent slept fewer than seven hours at least three nights during the week.

“Most students think they’re getting about four more hours of sleep each week than they actually are,” Scullin said.

“Projects are often lengthy, with final due dates looming weeks or months in the future,” King said. “The stress of juggling several projects, each with multiple deadlines, is likely to contribute to students’ tendency to cycle between several days of poor sleep leading up to a project due date, followed by a catch-up day with 10 or more sleep hours.”

Researchers measured sleep patterns through actigraphy, with students wearing wristbands to track movement. Students also kept daily diaries on the quantity and quality of their sleep.

“The wristband is somewhat similar to Fitbit devices, but much more reliable in detection, including the many brief awakenings during sleep that affect sleep quality,” Scullin said.

All participants completed two cognitive testing sessions for creativity and executive attention — each about an hour long and in a laboratory. The sessions were done on the first and last day of the study at the same time of day.

“What we call ‘creativity’ is often people’s ability to see the link between things that at first glance seem unrelated, and one of the tests taps into that ability,” Scullin said.

An example: participants are given three words that are loosely connected — such as “sore,”‘ “shoulder” and “sweat” — and asked to figure out a fourth word that would connect them all.

“What first comes to mind are words related to exercise, but in this case, no single exercise word really works. Instead, the ‘creative’ and correct answer is ‘cold,'” Scullin said.

Meanwhile, executive attention — “working” memory — enables people to hold memories for a short time while doing a separate task. In the study, participants completed a task in which they saw a grid with black and white squares.

“They had to decide very quickly whether that grid was symmetrical or not. Symmetry decisions by themselves are easy,” Scullin said. “But after each decision, participants were shown a grid with one square highlighted in red. Then they made another symmetry decision, followed by a different square highlighted in red. They repeat that cycle up to five times before being asked to recall all the square locations in the correct order. It’s very challenging to cycle between those two tasks and keep the square locations in mind.”

Further investigation with a greater range of students across multiple studio-based majors and multiple universities would be valuable, researchers said.

“Interior design programs are changing,” King said. “People are open to the conversation and willing to discuss ways to reduce that pressure on our students and encourage them to be healthier.”

Abstract of the study:

Good sleep quality is important to cognition, physical health, mental well-being, and creativity—factors critical to academic and professional success. But, undergraduate students often report engaging in short, irregular, and poor-quality sleep. Anecdotal and questionnaire data suggest that poor sleep habits might be prevalent in students who are in studio- or project-based majors that implicitly encourage consecutive nights of disrupted sleep to complete projects. We investigated sleep quantity and quality using both objective measures (wristband actigraphy monitoring) and subjective measures (sleep diary) in 28 interior design undergraduate students for a 7-day period. Our primary aim was to measure sleep quantity (total sleep time) and quality (e.g., nighttime awakenings) and to compare whether undergraduate interior design students’ objective measures of sleep (actigraphy) differed from their subjective measures (sleep diary). The secondary aim was to investigate detrimental outcomes of poor sleep habits on laboratory-based measures of cognitive function (symmetry span, prospective memory, Raven’s progressive matrices, remote associates task) that were administered pre- and poststudy. We found that the interior design students in our study overestimated their total sleep time by 36 minutes, that 79% of students slept for fewer than 7 hours at least three nights per week, and that many students cycled between nights of restricted/short sleep and recovery/long sleep. Importantly, students who maintained short sleep durations, highly variable night-to-night sleep durations, or had fragmented sleep (i.e., waking after sleep onset) demonstrated pre- to poststudy declines on the laboratory measure of creativity (remote associates task). These findings suggest the need for further investigations, which may lead to a broader discussion of studio culture and the role of the “all-nighter,” both in professional practice and in design education.


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