Learning to Learn the Smart Way

A child’s early education shapes his or her learning strategies; but many students require a more specified way to learn than they have experienced in their schooling, and consequently struggle through passing to the next grade with lower test scores and depleted confidence. The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health created a program designed to intercept this issue at the adolescent stage.

Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino, co-creator of Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), said students who have been trained through the program have made significant strides in their learning development.

“We have a lot of students here living in poverty,” Gamino said. “A lot of people tend to think that if there’s no intervention when they’re very young, that there’s really nothing we can do for them. [But] what we’ve found is that we can intervene in middle school and make a difference.”

SMART, at its simplest, teaches students how to learn instead of what to learn. According to the Center for Brain Health website, the program helps students learn to think critically by introducing them to reasoning skills that enhance and improve brain efficiency through organization, synthesis, abstraction, and interpretation of meaning.

“I think kids are overwhelmed by information, there’s just so much out there,” Gamino said. “So we teach them to be very selective, how to select what’s most important and how to think deeply and understand the meaning of the information.”

SMART, which originated as a program to help students with ADHD, proved to be successful for those who struggled academically, Gamino said. When Dallas ISD heard of the program, they asked if SMART could be integrated into their schools on a broader scope in 2009 to see if the program could help students outside of the ADHD spectrum as well.

“We started out with a control group in 2009 that learned information through the SMART program and one that learned through basic memorization,” Gamino said. “We had some significant results for [the SMART] students, not only in our testing, but in standardized testing as well. They kind of blew it out of the water.”

From there, SMART was able to get funding and integrate into schools of varying incomes in Dallas, Plano, Wylie, Coppell, and Richardson ISDs, as well as in many more districts across Texas and the U.S. Initially, a training team went into the schools to implement the program. Now, teachers are taught to take the reins.

“The program has been designed for students, so it’s in student-friendly terms,” Gamino said. “It’s implemented so that students have an understanding of what they’re doing. It’s done without a lot of explanation, but a lot of experience doing the thinking, doing the reasoning. We’re really focused on getting them to practice those reasoning skills.”

Rather than stretch out the program over an entire school year, students learn procedure over 10 sessions in a period of one month. The brain is very adaptable and can change very quickly when any kind of intervention is in place, Gamino said.

Fifty thousand students have participated in the program since its start. A majority of those students have seen an increase in reasoning and thinking skills, often as much as 50 to 80 percent higher than at baseline. “I think schools in general want to make a difference in their students,” Gamino said. “They want to increase their chances of graduating and to become contributing citizens and I think that’s really the impetus behind it all.”

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