Targeted Cognitive Intervention: Changing Students' Learning Capacity

Margaret Sheehan and Steve Wilkins

Through its Targeted Cognitive Intervention (TCI) program, Carroll is building students’ cognitive capacities and harnessing data to dramatically improve student outcomes. We have become more convinced than ever that cognitive development is a valuable ingredient in a program dedicated to closing academic gaps in children with language-based learning difficulties. Here is a brief history of the program, recent research results, and where TCI is heading.

Ten Years of Cognitive Interventions

We have improved our practices significantly during the last decade. Using various products that were available on the market, initial cognitive interventions were not targeted to a child’s specific learning profile. Every student received the same intervention. While these were reasonable products, we saw gains only if a student had a weakness in the area that the commercial intervention was meant to address. 

In 2011 Carroll created Targeted Cognitive Intervention (TCI), an individualized, computer-based training program designed to strengthen specific cognitive skills and their underlying pathways in the brain. We assessed all Carroll students to identify their cognitive weaknesses and then targeted the area of greatest need. Careful data analysis of student progress revealed a strong relationship between cognitive growth and academic progress. Today every Carroll student in grades 4-9 receives TCI. Younger students receive Foundational Cognitive Intervention, which is activity based.

The Targeted Cognitive Intervention (TCI) Platform

Four years ago Carroll’s Board of Trustees approved the development of a software platform to deliver TCI and improve internal scalability of the program. Support from donors was critical to the building of this platform that allows us to:

  • Assess and define each student’s learning profile
  • Assign an intervention to address the weakest cognitive skills
  • Deliver curriculum around the intervention
  • Monitor student progress daily
  • Build a database of student performance

The TCI database of student performance contributes to a rich data environment that has grown exponentially in the last two years. Carroll students have their own profile consisting of data collected from three sources:

  1. Tracking of academic progress in the classroom, 
  2. Readiness-to-learn reports from teachers, and
  3. TCI.

Shared with parents and used by teachers to inform individual education programs, the data profile has transformed how Carroll designs a student’s educational program.

Research with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Recognizing the cognitive program’s early success, we knew it was imperative to have external research to validate the efficacy of TCI and inform our practices.

Since 2014 Carroll has partnered with John Gabrieli, professor of brain and cognitive sciences and investigator of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Now in our third year of a crossover study where half of our students receive TCI in the fall and the other half in the spring, we’ve collected data that indicates improved reading fluency. Specifically we’ve learned that when a Carroll student does the targeted intervention of Reaction Time Training over several months, single-word reading efficiency improves, as the chart below demonstrates. The results of the Carroll-MIT crossover study are powerful and Eric Falke, Carroll’s staff neuroscientist, and John Gabrieli are publishing their research in a peer-reviewed journal.

Average Annual Gain in Increased Sight-Word Efficiency for Targeted Cognitive Intervention

While we are thrilled with improvements in reaction time -- the most common of deficits for Carroll students -- this is only the first chapter of an incredibly promising new approach to remediation. The generous investment from donors has put us in the forefront of further researching how TCI addresses weaknesses in other cognitive domains, including executive function, working memory and shifting attention. We look forward to learning more about the relationship between cognitive gains and academic growth which so far has been astounding.

Moving Forward - TCI Consortium

Last year we began delivering TCI outside of Carroll and successfully deployed TCI in two pilots: Greenwood School in Vermont and Andover (MA) Public Schools. Data collected from both pilots show gains in student’s cognitive skills and both are continuing this year.

After exploring a range of business models for exporting TCI more broadly, Carroll’s Board of Trustees decided that a consortium of schools is the best way to evolve our practice and share TCI with a large number of students with language-based learning difficulties. Carroll’s Board is committed to the consortium model where five partner schools financially support development and delivery of our product. Thus far, Schenck School in Atlanta has agreed to become a founding member of the TCI consortium and four other schools are actively considering joining the consortium. 

The remarkable progress that Carroll children are making in both cognitive domains and academic outcomes is compelling to our potential consortium partners. The data environment at Carroll allows us to demonstrate that our students are closing the academic gap and improving their cognitive skills. A most recent analysis from our 4th grade in the fall of 2018 reveals that even in their first cognitive intervention period, students displayed significant growth. The chart below provides a pre-intervention and post-intervention analysis in which each 4th grade homeroom (48 students in total) made gains in Reaction Time Training.

TCI - Mean Reaction Time Scores by Grade 4 Homeroom


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