Brain Change: Simple Interventions to Dramatically Improve Student Functioning

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by Carol Estrada

scadBruce Haslam, PhD, Director of Research for The NACD Foundation, along with Tamara Knapp-Grosz, PhD, Director of Counseling and Support Services at Savannah College of Art & Design, presented “Brain Change: Simple Interventions to Dramatically Improve Student Functioning” at the 45th Southeast Conference of College Counseling Center Personnel held on November 5-7th in Chattanooga, TN. The presentation provided a glimpse of the preliminary findings of the Simply Smarter™ Software program, as implemented by Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with counseling center students, administrative staff, and interns. Simply Smarter™ Software is the outgrowth of Robert J. Doman Jr.’s thirty-plus years of clinical work and application of a neurodevelopmental approach to cognitive development and function in both typical and atypical child and adult populations.

SCAD initiated the “Jump Start” Program as an elective offering during this current academic year (2008- 2009). This program was designed for incoming freshmen who identified themselves as having a disability impacting their learning ability. The goal of the program was to provide the students with the skills needed for a successful transition into college.

The program was designed specifically for students with any of the following diagnoses:

  • ADD/ADHD
  • A learning disability
  • A psychiatric/psychological disability
  • High functioning Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome
  • A medical disability that might impact learning

Forty students signed up for the program: 23 males and 17 females. Most came in with more than two diagnoses. Their average SAT scores were:

  • Verbal – 507
  • Math – 476
  • Writing – 490

Although the majority of the Jump Start students participated in baseline testing and used the Simply Smarter ™ program a few times, the number of practice sessions (start of Fall 2008 semester to just before the conference in early November) was not enough to create sufficient data. The Counseling Center personnel are now looking into ways to overcome the lack of compliance and follow-through. Robert J. Doman commented, “You cannot expect organized function from a disorganized brain. They will need to have a good structure in place and adequate feedback to achieve the necessary compliance.”

The Counseling Center’s administrative staff and interns also utilized the software, achieving greater compliance than the students, although only averaging 14 sessions during the three-month period. However even this minimal amount of training produced significant improvement in processing and cognitive functioning. Dr. Knapp-Grosz reported:

My staff have expressed many positive outcomes as a result of participation in the Simply Smarter Program. Some of the changes we have noticed have been an increased ability to easily recall student information, like student ID numbers and demographic information, better concentration and attention, and increased confidence in retaining information. We really look forward to seeing how continued participation and regular practice will improve our overall functioning!

As a whole, the Counseling Center staff and interns were composed of the following:

  • 20 total participants: 5 males; 15 females
  • Ages ranging from 25 – 60
  • 7 interns
  • 1 administrative staff
  • 11 professional staff
  • 1 staff member chose not to participate

Each participant practiced four sets of activities. Those who had a qualifying auditory forward score practiced one additional activity, an auditory alphanumeric exercise. The number of practice sessions varied by individual within the 3-month trial period.

The mean pre- and post- scores for each of the exercises were as follows:

Auditory Forward Digit Span
Pre: 7.89
Post: 8.58
Change in Score: Increase of 0.69

Auditory Reverse Digit Span
Pre: 6.93
Post: 7.85
Change in Score: Increase of 0.92

Visual Forward Digit Span
Pre: 7.71
Post: 8.65
Change in Score: Increase of 0.94

Visual Reverse Digit Span
Pre: 6.49
Post: 7.56
Change in Score: Increase of 1.07

Alphanumeric Span (15 had the requisite Auditory Forward scores to participate)
Pre: 6.12
Post: 7.0
Change in Score: Increase of 0.88

In analyzing the available data from each of the trial areas, the t-test resulted in statistical significant values of p<.01, meaning that there was less than 1 chance in 100 of obtaining the improved results by chance alone.

The results of this short trial produced significant results that again confirm Robert J. Doman’s contention that these critical functions can be developed – and developed well past the age of what is typically considered a ceiling for improvement. Cognitive function does not have to decline or remain fixed as one gets older. Instead, with specific, targeted intervention one can continue to develop.

In summary, students with learning and attention issues require structure and feedback to achieve the necessary compliance in order to improve their short term and working memories. However, as evidenced by this short study, even with minimal compliance adults can significantly improve these functions. Further, similar programs utilizing Simply Smarter need to be devised and implemented both for college students and personnel to enhance their overall neurological function and performance.

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 22 No. 1, 2009 ©NACD