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Taking Note of Students

Stephen Peverly has helped establish TC as a leader in school psychology. His own research is advancing the field

Stephen Peverly has helped establish TC as a leader in school psychology.
His own research is advancing the field


SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS OPERATE BEHIND THE scenes, but they often make the difference, for students and faculty alike, between a bad day and a good one—and sometimes between a successful life and one gone awry. They craft interventions for kids who need help. They consult with parents and teachers to make sure that classroom strategies are reinforced at home, or that home conditions are taken into account in the classroom. They wrestle with issues of ethics and confidentiality. And they assess problems that run the gamut from reading difficulties to bullying to substance abuse to gang violence.

“The school psychologist’s day always fills up with surprises,” says Stephen Peverly. “We use whatever data about a student we can find—from assessments, classroom observation, conversations with parents and teachers—to determine if there is a problem, the causes of it and what the solution might be. It may not be straightforward to determine the cause, and sometimes figuring out how to fix it can be difficult too.”

Peverly,  Professor of Psychology and Education and Chair of the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, has played a major role in strengthening TC’s school psychology program, which he directed from 1992 to 2010. The program now has two other world-class faculty members: Philip Saigh, who created the Children’s PTSD Inventory to assess those afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder and developed treatments for those with the condition; and Marla Brassard (see the story on page 50), who has focused global attention on the psychological maltreatment of children by teachers, parents and other caregivers.

Peverly’s own research focuses on two seemingly disparate areas: student note-taking and cross-cultural comparisons of factors that affect student performance in mathematics. In the latter work, his close collaborator is a former student, Zheng Zhou, who is now a professor at St. John’s University. The common thread, as in all work by school psychology researchers and practitioners, is “to do what we can to improve a child’s functioning within the context of the schools,” Peverly says.

In one strand of his cross-cultural work, he and Zhou have shown that Chinese children’s understanding of the concepts of time, speed and distance develops much more quickly than that of U.S. students.

Another of his studies explored the differences between East Asians and U.S. students in the study of math, a subject in which students from many Asian countries have consistently outperformed their American counterparts on international exams. Teacher quality, Peverly discovered, could well be one part of the explanation. He tested third-grade teachers in New York City and Beijing on their knowledge of fractions, an important concept in third-grade math. (Quick: How much is one-sixth plus one-half?*) The results stunned him. The Chinese teachers were straight-A students all the way, with an average score of 95 percent. The American instructors performed dismally, with third-grade teachers averaging just 33 percent in terms of subject mastery.

“Math and science are important subjects in East Asian countries, so I wasn’t surprised that the Chinese teachers were as good as they were,” Peverly says. “But I was startled at the difference between the American and the Chinese math teachers.”

But students need more than good teaching. To master material presented in class, they also need to be able to remember it, and that, Peverly has found, is where taking accurate, nuanced notes can make all the difference. Research with college students indicates that the quality of notes is one of the better predictors of test performance.

The importance of this research, he explains, “lies in determining the skills that underlie the ability of students to take good notes so that we can design interventions to help all students.” Good note-taking requires that the mind be engaged on several levels, “comprehending what’s important, maintaining your attention as you continue to comprehend, and writing down what you just understood while you’re still listening to comprehend more.”

In collaboration with what he calls “a cadre of excellent doctoral students,” Peverly has shown that writing speed, strong verbal skills and the ability to sustain attention over a long period all are essential to taking high-quality notes. Most of these findings come from studies of college students, but Peverly is now beginning to do research on the note-taking skills of younger students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. His goal is to design instructional programs in note-taking that reinforce these skills, especially for struggling students in inner-city schools.

“Transcription speed is especially important,” he says. “And for kids in the first few years of school, how fast they write is one of the best predictors of the quality of essays they write in school.”

Yet too much speed can be counterproductive if it’s not accompanied by comprehension, a risk that may increase with note-taking on computers. Peverly and his collaborators are now designing a study that will focus on that particular question.

“With typing, you can go fast, but you have to make sure you pay attention enough to determine what’s important about what you are hearing,” he says. “Good note-taking isn’t simply about trying to take down all the information. It’s also a filtering process, a way of zeroing in on what’s most important.”

Reading issues, too, can interfere with effective note-taking, making it all the more important, Peverly says, for school psychologists to have a strong foundation in reading theory. “Most of the students in special education have learning difficulties, and a significant number have reading problems. If a school psychologist doesn’t know about reading, there will be substantial numbers of students they will be unable to help.”

Peverly says most educators have a good handle on reading difficulties and can choose from an extensive array of techniques in their instructional quiver to address such problems. Nevertheless, the challenges become steeper with students who also have socio-emotional issues. In particular, intervening in problem situations “can play out differently, depending on how old the child is,” says Peverly. “It gets much more complicated with kids who grow up in the inner city, with fewer services and more difficult environments, with higher rates of violence and chronic disease, like asthma. And these problems can be involved in any aspect of a student’s life in schools.”   

Published Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011