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Test-Taking Predictors: Janus-Faced Studies

May 24, 2007

Within the last twenty-four hours I’ve seen reports on perhaps some of the best and worst education studies – EVER. My capitalization here is no juvenile hyperbole. The studies amazed me in polar opposite ways.

Both studies address test-taking predictors. The worst report appeared yesterday in the Guardian Unlimited, and the best today in the Chicago Tribune. Of course the reports are no reflection on the quality of either publication. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see either study in either paper.

The Guardian‘s piece focused on a study that may forever discredit social science research. Well, since phrenology didn’t do that, maybe not – and the second part of this post shows the good of social science research as well.

Anyway, here are some excerpts – shocking excerpts – from the Guardian article by James Meikle with interlinear comments (bolds mine):

– “The length of children’s fingers could point the way to their future school tests and exam results, researchers said yesterday. Those with a relatively long fourth, or ring, finger are likely to be better at maths than English, a difference particularly striking in boys. But girls whose ring fingers are smaller in relation to their index finger are likely to be stronger in literacy.”

TL: Yes, you read that right the first time. So, girls with stubby fingers like reading books?

As an aside, and if I were taking this seriously (which I’m not): if calculators are allowed in British math classes, isn’t it a proven fact that those with longer fingers are better at operating finger machines? I’m fairly positive that this – along with cutting labor costs – was part the rationale behind executives turning over the clerical profession to women around the turn of the century. See Sharon Strom’s Beyond the Typewriter for more on this.

– “The findings, from a study of 75 six and seven-year-olds sitting primary school Sats, add to growing evidence that differences in finger length might help predict traits or abilities such as sporting prowess, vulnerability to disease, aggression, fertility and sexual orientation.”

TL: Why six and seven-year olds? . . . Finger lengths and aggression?! Sexual orientation?!

– “Scientists believe finger length reflects levels of hormones to which babies are exposed in the womb, although recent research has suggested genetics plays a strong part. Women’s index fingers are typically longer than their ring fingers or are the same length, while in men the index finger is usually shorter.”

TL: I checked just now and they’re totally telling the truth: my ring finger is longer than my index finger.

– “Mark Brosnan, head of the psychology department at Bath University, said: ‘Testosterone has been argued to promote development of the area of the brain which are often associated with spatial and mathematical skills. Oestrogen is thought to do the same in the areas of the brain which are often associated with verbal ability. These hormones are also thought to have a say in the relative lengths of our index and ring fingers.’ “

TL: I bolded the names of Professor Brosnan and Bath University because I want to forever remember from where this myopic research project originated.

– “The researchers, whose study is due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology, made photocopies of the hands of 33 boys and 42 girls and measured the finger lengths with calipers accurate to a hundredth of a millimetre.”

TL: Did I read that correctly – photocopies? They didn’t even work in three dimensions? What if one’s index finger is fatter than one’s ring finger? What if a person’s fingers are double-jointed? . . . I’m being facetious, of course – except about the photocopies.

– “The differences between Sats results depending on the relative lengths of their fingers were small but significant. ‘We are not suggesting that finger length measurements could replace Sat tests,’ said Dr Brosnan, ‘It won’t directly predict grades. But if you had a girl with a very long fourth finger relative to her second, it might be that she was more oriented towards science and maths.’ “

TL: It would save a lot of money and time if we could just use calipers on six and seven-year olds to determine how many literature, math, and vocational programs we might need in high schools.

– “Social factors and commitment obviously played a part too. For instance, girls going to single-sex schools were more likely to choose maths and science subjects than at co-educational schools, he added. . . . The team is also looking at how such “digit ratios” relate to other behavioural issues, such as technophobia, career paths and developmental disorders such as dyslexia.”

TL: Finger length and technophobia?! And how do you like the passing reference, at least in the article, about “social factors and commitment” also “obviously play[ing] a part”?


The article made no mention of control groups. Why does that matter? Well, I wondered, for instance, about the study group’s diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and sex? The omission of control information irritates me to no end in popular presentations of scientific studies. Do they think that we don’t understand the comparative aspects of scientific study? [By the way, I wonder if this study will lend new meaning to the notion of “giving someone the finger”?]

But now on to the Chicago Tribune‘s GOOD news. Here I have to completely shed my sneer and mocking tone.

Written by Jeremy Manier and unjustly titled “Whatever you do, please don’t choke,” the Tribune report addresses a deceptively simple classroom issues: confidence and optimism. The only way to do justice to the research is to generously excerpt from the article (bolds and italics mine – with no interspersed comments):

– “Psychologists have long known that stereotypes about intelligence can be self-fulfilling, leading women, minorities and even white male students to perform poorly if others expect it of them.”
– “Exactly why that happens is a mystery that Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago may have helped crack in a new study that suggests worrying about a stereotype leaves less brainpower for the task at hand.”
– “Beilock and two colleagues gave female students a set of math problems after telling them that men consistently do better than women at standardized math tests. As expected, those women did worse than others who were not reminded about math stereotypes. Stranger yet, the women also did worse at a non-mathematical chore requiring them to remember which letters were shown on a screen.”
– “The reason may be that the stereotype didn’t simply scale down the students’ expectations for themselves. Beilock believes that worrying about the stereotype actually took up processing resources in the brain that otherwise would be used to solve the math problems and other tasks that rely on so-called ‘working memory.’
– ” ‘This can have important implications for high-stakes testing, which is what we’re all about in education these days,” said Mark Ashcraft, an expert on math-testing anxiety and chair of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.”
– “Knowing how stereotypes can affect test results may help students overcome such distractions. Previous studies have suggested that students trained to think of their intellect as something they can improve, rather than a fixed trait, are less vulnerable to the effects of stereotypes.”
– “In Beilock’s study, the people who did best were allowed to practice the problems beforehand and had less need to do computations in real time. That reduced the overall strain on working memory, offsetting the strain that the stereotype reminder apparently caused.”
– “Even reading about why stereotypes make people perform below their abilities appears to help some students ease their test anxiety, said Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of psychology at New York University. ‘You can teach students how to take a less negative attitude about their difficulties,’ Aronson said. ‘If they remind themselves that this is just something people go through, and it can go away if they relax, they can do beautifully well.’ “
– “Beilock[‘s] . . . new study is slated for Thursday’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.”
– “For math calculations, working memory is key — it’s what allows someone to keep track of the borrowing and carrying of numbers in a complex problem. When a good student feels too much pressure, that reduces the store of working memory and increases the risk of choking.”
– “That’s exactly what happened to the female students in Beilock’s study, which she co-authored with colleagues from Miami University in Ohio and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The students were reminded of the gender gap on math tests and told their performance would be compared to that of students across the country. ‘We asked the women afterward what they were thinking about during the test, and they were worrying,’ Beilock said. ‘If women are worrying about screwing up, that uses their working memory resources.’ “
– “The women also did worse at a test of non-mathematical working memory, suggesting that the strain on working memory caused by math stereotypes can spill over into unrelated subjects.”
– ” ‘This is lovely science,’ said Jeremy Gray, a psychology professor at Yale University.”
– “Men are just as vulnerable to such effects in the right situation, studies have found. Aronson of NYU published a study in which white men who normally excelled on math tests were told they were part of an effort to uncover the secret behind Asian superiority in math. The men subjected to that stereotype slid dramatically in their performance, missing an average of three more questions out of an 18-question test than men who were not reminded of the stereotype. ‘These are guys who had a 750 SAT score [out of a possible 800] at a minimum,’ Aronson said. ‘But when you walk them in the shoes of a typical minority or woman math student, they choke. It really is something anyone can experience.’ “
– “In one study, Aronson found that simply reminding women that they were students at a selective liberal arts college wiped out the performance difference between genders.”

This is amazing stuff. It might warrent Sian Beilock’s inclusion in my personal education hall of fame – one that already includes Jon Oberg. Professor Brosnan might be my first entry to an education hall of shame. [As an aside, did you know that several education “hall of fames” already exist around the country? Check out this one, this one, and this one. I also learned of one for teachers in Dodge City, KS, last summer!]

On a more serious note, I see Beilock and her group’s study as underscoring all educational thought that tends toward optimism. The study shows that optimism is not simply pollyannaish. With that in mind, I’ve admired for years the positive philosophical underpinnings of Mortimer J. Adler’s Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. A key Paideia assumption was that “there are no uneducable children.” Period.

That maxim caused a lot of unmerited scorn to be heaped on the Paideia Group. Even fellow education professionals couldn’t get behind the groups ‘unrealistic’ assumption. I believe, with Adler, that this principle is the only sound starting place for educating citizens in a democracy. It’s a maxim that might succeed in creating a democratic culture.

Sian Beilock’s work seems to support that that belief: there’s no way that professor Brosnan’s can. That’s why I think these, in their own way, represent some of the best and worst studies ever in education research. – TL


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One Comment
  1. my mother told me about the finger thing yesterday. Just to blow it all up, I'm a man with a longer ring finger who performed better on the verbal than the math on my SAT.


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