In the past, it may have been enough for schools and universities to convey domain-specific knowledge to their students. In today’s world of rapid technological change, this will no longer cut it. Instead, progressive teachers and professors have been blazing a new path by focusing on teaching students how to think critically, see connections, and solve novel problems. Why not turbo-charge such efforts with a dual n-back training program?
Teaching Students How to Think
If you are, say, a science teacher, or a professor of business administration, you may, quite reasonably, assume that your main job is to teach your students about science and business administration, respectively. And, to a large extent, you would, of course, be right. But as a teacher or professor in the 21st century, you have an even more powerful opportunity: that of teaching your students how to think, learn, and problem-solve in general.
Indeed, between the two, the latter might be the more important educational goal. After all, given today’s accelerating pace of change, the jobs your students may take on a few years down the road may not even exist yet! Whereas any given piece of domain knowledge may end up getting rendered obsolete at some point, broad cognitive skills will remain valuable no matter what career path your students will choose to pursue in the future.
Introducing Dual N-Back
Educational psychology offers plenty of insights into how to design instruction in a way that fosters the development of such cognitive skills, and we refer you to the corresponding literature to learn more about these. In this article, we will focus on one specific intervention that, compared to many other innovations in instructional design, requires almost no effort or changes from your part, yet has been shown, in more than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed scientific research, to have a statistically significant effect on students’ working memory, cognitive control, and, most remarkably, (fluid) intelligence. What’s more, the total amount of time it takes to complete a typical dual n-back program is less than 7 hours — not much more than the length of a single school day!
This seemingly miraculous intervention is a tough, but simple, working memory exercise called dual n-back. Students are presented with a sequence of visual and auditory stimuli, and they need to match them against stimuli from n steps earlier in the sequence. As students improve at the game, the factor n gets adjusted automatically to ensure a maximum cognitive load on working memory at every moment.
If you are interested in taking a closer look, check out the N-Back Challenge, available both on iOS and on Android. Our founders, both of them PhDs, took pains to ensure that its design stays true to the scientific studies. This approach maximizes the likelihood that students will, in fact, obtain the cognitive benefits demonstrated in the research. In addition, we framed the app around a “20-Day Challenge,” a design that is meant to engender a meaningful commitment by students to actually finish the entire training program.
How to Raise Completion Rates
In fact, getting students to stick to it and complete all required sessions is arguably the most challenging aspect of weaving dual n-back into your curriculum. After all, by design, the exercise represents a truly exhausting mental workout, and thus requires a great deal of self-discipline. What’s more, it takes a while to get the hang of it, and students may be at risk of dropping out before having fully mastered the game mechanics. There are a few techniques you might want to experiment with in order to enhance your students’ motivation and maximize their completion rates. Note that the below is certainly not a comprehensive list: After a bit of brainstorming, you and your colleagues will probably come up with even better ideas!
Set completion-related incentives. In order to motivate your students to complete the entire program, consider tying some reward to it. The most straightforward way of doing so would be to frame the program as a homework assignment or special project, and to award extra credits for its completion. But there are, of course, myriad other — and more creative — ways of designing a reward scheme. One particularly interesting one might be to tie the reward not to individual program completion but to make it contingent upon completion of the program by the entire class, thus leveraging peer pressure for educational purposes. For example, you could promise to host a certain fun activity if at least X% of your students manage to complete the full program, along with an extra reward for 100% completion.
Track progress and provide encouragement. In addition to thinking about incentives, you should track each student’s progress. Upon noticing that one of your students is not advancing, investigate. It could be that she merely needs a motivational nudge to resume practicing. Indeed, a common mistake among students is to assume that the goal, during n-back training, is to achieve a high n-back level. In fact, this assumption is not just wrong, but counterproductive: Not only might it tempt students to look for mnemonic techniques, which would undermine the effectiveness of the training, but it would also set them up for needless disappointment and frustration. You can help such students by clarifying that there’s only one thing that matters during n-back training: making a maximum mental effort at all times. Indeed, according to research by Carol Dweck and others, what works particularly well with students is to metaphorically frame the brain as a “muscle” which grows stronger with use. A second reason why a student’s progress might stall is that she is struggling to understand the game mechanics. In that case, have her paraphrase her interpretation of what she is supposed to do during each round of dual n-back, then gently correct her understanding. In addition, encourage her to visit the advanced settings and temporarily turn on instant button feedback. It allows students who struggle with the game mechanics to quickly figure them out via trial and error.
Form teams to foster friendly competition. Consider injecting some competitive spirit into the mix by dividing your class into groups, having each come up with a creative team name, and then inviting them to compete against each other during the program. For example, as per the rules you’ll design for this competition, the winner could be whichever team manages to complete the 20-Day Challenge first. Or it could be the team that manages to achieve the highest individual completion rate within 30 calendar days of training. Or the team that simply manages, in aggregate, to complete the most sessions within a certain time frame. Ideally, tie a fun reward to winning the competition. Then publicly track progress across teams to keep stoking the competitive fire.
One final piece of advice: The N-Back Challenge is free for students who stick to the program. Students who delay sessions, however, are asked to contribute a “coffee.” If you anticipate that some students will indeed delay a few sessions, and you would like to keep the program free for them regardless, encourage them to use the Share feature in the Settings view to invite each other, instead of simply going ahead and downloading the app from the app stores right away. That way, both the student who shares the app and the student who accepts the invitation receive a free coffee. If that’s not enough, students can earn additional free coffees by inviting other friends and family. (Note that dual n-back training is also well-suited to fight age-related cognitive decline, so you might anyway want to encourage your students to share the app with their parents and grandparents.)
We hope that, by experimenting with dual n-back in your classroom, you will be able to accelerate your students’ cognitive development and prepare them to succeed in whatever careers they decide to embark upon!