Education Opinion

Understanding the Cognitive Demands of Poverty on our Students

By Sam Chaltain — November 15, 2013 3 min read
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Guest post by Zac Chase

New Jersey shoppers and Indian sugarcane farmers might have something to teach us about poverty and cognitive load. An article in the August issue of the magazine Science examined the possibilities of a causal effect between considerations of poverty and study participants’ abilities to perform cognitively-demanding tasks.

The authors set out to examine the common belief that poverty reduces cognitive capacity and “suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.”

Being poor, in other words, results in worrying about being poor, and that leads to folks not having as much room to worry or think about other things.

The researchers approached the study from two different perspectives. First, they asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to consider two different financial situations. The first “hard” situation included asking participants what they would do faced with a $1,500 expense for a car repair. The second “easy” situation centered around a $150 car repair.

When triggered to consider a “hard” situation and then complete two different cognitive tests, poor participants performed significantly worse than their richer counterparts. In the face of the easy, $150 scenario, there was no significant difference between the results of rich and poor participants.

For teachers, this could have interesting implications. Students who are living with persistent poverty or experiencing temporary poverty could exhibit similar results when asked to complete academic work.

In some situations, it’s been suggested that students be offered financial incentives in return for improved performance. The researchers’ results, however, suggest that incentivizing results will not improve performance, or that any gains that do occur will eliminate the breach between rich and poor students.

Again, when study participants completed the cognitive tests while considering the “easy” scenario, there was no significant difference based on income. Put another way, neither the poor nor the rich participants were inherently better or worse at the tasks, but it was consideration of monetary hardships that appeared to sap their cognitive abilities.

Taking things out of the lab, the researchers turned to sugarcane farmers in India, and asked them to perform similar cognitive tasks prior to and following their annual harvests. Traditionally, during the pre-harvest period, farmers must take out loans, pawn their belongings, and take other measures to make ends meet. Post-harvest, though, they experience a substantial influx of cash that eliminates the need for these larger measures.

Not surprisingly, when farmers didn’t need to worry about their economic state, their response times and errors in the researchers’ cognitive tests dropped significantly while their accuracy in answering rose significantly.

Not having to worry about money, it seems, means an increased ability to handle a larger cognitive load.

Assuming these variables create a similar effect when applied to students in the classroom who are also living in poverty, this study raises some important questions for educators.

How might we change our practices with this knowledge? What actions might we take to acknowledge the importance of financial security for the families we serve?

Perhaps extending the school day for poor students who struggle academically might not be as helpful a measure as coordinating a financial advisor, local career coach, and continuing education opportunities for parents so that they might better secure the financial outlook of our students.

In the meantime, the study’s researchers point out, “Filling out long forms, preparing for a lengthy interview, deciphering new rules, or responding to complex incentives all consume cognitive resources.” Perhaps we could start by being more mindful of how often we ask our students to complete similar tasks and realize there is a better way.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.