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Endorsing the Common Core State Standards Initiative

Common Core State StandardsThe Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to provide a nationally consistent framework that will ready American students for success in college and in the global workforce. To date, 44 states have adopted the common core standards approach and numerous public and private business partners, including Scientific Learning, have endorsed this vision of consistence and clarity in our nation’s education system. 

What’s important to recognize is that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is NOT a directive from the federal government.  Each state voluntarily adopts the standards based on timelines and context within their state; this is key.  The role of the federal government will be to support states as they begin to implement this approach by providing flexibility in the use of existing federal funds, accountability metrics and revise or align existing federal education laws with the lessons learned from past initiatives.  The outcome will be a more collaborative state- and federal-level relationship that will focus on employing the best practices and highest evidence-based outcomes from educational research across the country.

The goal of the Common Core is to provide educators with an exocentric understanding of what students are expected to learn, allowing them to identify the most effective strategies and modes of instruction that will help them excel in serving their students’ needs.  Leading the effort are the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center).  Comprised of state leaders in conjunction with parents, teachers, school administrators, business partners and experts from across the country, they have developed a shared set of goals and expectations that will help our students succeed.

To ensure this process is collaborative, inclusive and rigorous, several working groups and committees have been formed to develop, write and validate the approach to implementing these common standards across the country.  By aligning our country’s standards with other high achieving educational models and setting realistic goals, we will be better positioned to meet the real world expectations and prepare our nation’s students for college and career-oriented success beyond the K-12 classroom.

The importance of the Common Core State Standards Initiative continues to be viewed from many angles, although there are areas of uncertainty that have given rise to opposition.  Of course, standards alone cannot improve the quality of our nation’s education system, but they do give educators a clearer vision for setting goals and expectations for their students.  The standards will not prevent different levels of achievement among students, but they will help teachers provide more consistent exposure to curriculum and meaningful instruction through opportunity-based learning and classroom experiences. 

Students will no doubt benefit as our country continues to do the right things in calibrating the education system, promoting more frequent, intense and adaptive instruction to improve the way students learn and strengthen our rank among the top-performing nations in the world.

Related Reading:

How Scientific Learning Products Correlate with Common Core State Standards

Common Core State Standards Initiative: Myths vs. Facts

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Categories: Education Funding, Grants, and Stimulus, Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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AMPing Up Our Teaching to Increase Intrinsic Student Motivation

Student motivation

Think about this discussion on motivation presented in 2009 by Daniel Pink, career analyst, ex-speech writer for Al Gore, and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  He described how modern business management styles once motivated employees—the old “carrot and stick” or reward and punishment approach—actually works in direct conflict with what science has shown about human motivation.

When it comes to optimizing performance on creative tasks, Pink, drawing from the conclusions of numbers psychological studies, tells us that it comes down to three elements:

1)     Autonomy: people have the urge to direct their own lives.

2)     Mastery: people have an innate desire to improve in skills that matter.

3)     Purpose: people want to contribute to something larger than themselves.

Environments that cultivated these three conditions led to faster, better, more creative work.

Now, consider this idea applied to the classroom. We have a great opportunity to make our classrooms into places where students can experience learning based on the three principles above, autonomy, mastery and purpose (AMP). I would argue that we need to “AMP up” our teaching.

When I consider instilling self-motivation in students, Pink’s three elements give us a great framework upon which we can begin to construct our teaching strategies.

Now, giving up the carrot and the stick will be a tough one for many of us to stomach, especially because our educational system is so rooted in such thinking. Certainly, rewards can serve to get a student to finish his homework, clean up her desk or complete a project. But, incentivizing does not cultivate self-motivation, and as Pink describes, the research shows that it actually decreases creative capabilities.

So, what might an AMPed classroom look like?

  • Autonomy: In such a classroom, students have clear goals to reach, but maybe they have the freedom to schedule their own time (within reason) and create their own strategies for how and when they will reach those goals.
  • Mastery: Students need to understand why they are learning what they are learning. They need to understand the context around why these skills are so important. In an AMPed classroom, this information is integrated into instruction and students are encouraged to assimilate the “why” of their lessons just as much as the “what.”
  • Purpose: In AMPed classrooms, lessons and projects are not hypothetical. They are based in the real-world and allow students to truly affect positive change in our classrooms, schools and communities.

In the end, if we look at these three ways of looking at motivation, we are simply shifting the motivators from external ones to internal ones. We are connecting our lessons directly to what is important to each individual student at a personal level. Through providing a way for the student to insert themselves into the material through the creative process and their own solution development, the learning becomes directly relevant to their lives and priorities.

Edward Deci, a premier researcher on motivation, wrote: “The proper question is not, 'how can people motivate others?' but rather, "how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?"[i] Ultimately, our success as educators must lie in taking the long view of our students’ lives—beyond their lives as students to when they will put their educations to use as professionals. And with that long view, the future adult who is a self-motivated individual will certainly be more successful than the person who stands by waiting for others to move them.

Watch Daniel Pink’s 19-minute TED talk on the surprising science of motivation.

[i] Ferlazzo, Larry. “Helping Students Motivate Themselves.” Education Week Teacher, April 22, 2011. 

For further reading:

Self-Determination Theory: An Approach to Human Motivation and Personality, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Problems, Larry Ferlazzo, 2011

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Related Reading:

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn, and Grow

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Categories: Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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Grammar Skill Improvement with Fast ForWord Software

This study was part of Dr. Beth Rogowsky’s doctoral research and was published in her dissertation in 2010.  At the time of this study, Dr. Rogowsky was an experienced educator.  Returning for her doctorate at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Dr. Rogowsky was interested in data-driven decisions, and wanted to know whether the Fast ForWord products would improve the grammatical skills of a group of typical middle school students.  The middle school in which Dr. Rogowsky taught had four marking periods each year.  During each marking period, students took two elective courses. 

During the 2009-2010 school year, the sixth graders were randomly assigned to use Fast ForWord during one of their electives; one-fourth of the students during each marking period.  The students who used Fast ForWord during the 3rd marking period formed the experimental group in Dr. Rogowsky’s study while the students who were scheduled to use Fast ForWord later formed the comparison group.  Students’ grammar skills were evaluated at the beginning and end of the 3rd marking period.

Study participants were 81 sixth graders.  Group 1 consisted of 40 students who used Fast ForWord during the third marking period.  Group 2 consisted of 41 students who did not use Fast ForWord until after the study was over.  Students were assessed at the beginning and end of the study (January and April).

Using the 40-Minute protocols that require students to use the products 40 minutes a day, five days a week, the students first used Fast ForWord Literacy.  After they finished Fast ForWord Literacy, students used Fast ForWord Reading Level 2.  Students were evaluated at the start of the study, and again at the end, with the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales, also known as the OWLS.  The written section evaluates students’ knowledge of convention and content.  Convention covers a variety of areas including spelling, capitalization and punctuation, linguistics, modifiers, phrases, verb form while content includes details, coherence, unity, and the presence of supporting ideas.  Students are scored on a scale where 100 is average, and the standard deviation is 15.

At the start of the study, there was not a statistically significant difference between the scores of the students in the two groups.  On average, students in both groups were a bit above the 50th percentile which corresponds to a score of 100. However, after the experimental group used the Fast ForWord products, there was a statistically significant difference between the scores of the two groups, and there were statistically significant increases in the scores of the group that had used Fast ForWord products. The results of this study led Dr. Rogowsky to conclude that the Fast ForWord products can improve students’ grammar skills and the improvements are evident in a classwide implementation.

Rogowsky, B. (2010). The Impact of Fast ForWord® on Sixth Grade Students’ Use of Standard Edited American English. Doctor of Education dissertation, Wilkes University. 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Scientific Learning Research

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A Gymnast, a Cursor and a Monkey Named Aurora

Technology in education

Consider for a moment an athlete’s body, let’s say, a gymnast’s form. Not only does she have a highly trained musculature, but maybe more importantly, through her years of training, she has developed a greater ability to coordinate her physical movements. In the same way that her muscles have become stronger through physical training, her nervous system—via brain plasticity and the ability of the brain to grow and adapt based on stimuli—has likewise become more able to efficiently respond to the demands she is placing upon her mind and body.

For years, researchers have been investigating how the brain interfaces with the body in an effort to decipher the electrical language of mind. Research like that of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University Medical Center has demonstrated that this language can be understood and harnessed to do things like power robotic prosthetics.

However controversial you might consider his work, Dr. Nicolelis’s discoveries are nothing short of—pardon the phrase—mind-bending, and are directly relevant to our talk about brain plasticity. In brief, Dr. Nicolelis’s recent research has focused on working with a rhesus monkey named Aurora. In short, through implants in her skull, Nicolelis was able to record Aurora’s motor nerve signals as she used a joystick to play a simple video game. He then used a computer algorithm to convert those signals into code to power a robotic arm. This led to two results.

First, as Aurora observed her own motions mimicked in the movements of the robotic arm, she began to be able to control the movements of the robot with her thoughts, and was able to use it to successfully manipulate the robotic arm to play the video game. What’s more, she figured out that she could control the robotic arm with her thoughts alone and without having to move her own arm and began to do so spontaneously. (See this article from Scientific American for detail, or read an excerpt about Aurora from Nicolelis’s book, Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines and How it Will Change Our Lives.)


Likewise, this same ability has been documented in humans. Researchers at the University of Washington mapped signals from the surface of human subjects’ brains and harnessed them to control the movement of a computer cursor on a screen. With only ten minutes of training, subjects were able to figure out how to move the cursor using their minds alone. Maybe more importantly, “brain signals from imagined movement became significantly stronger than when actually performing the physical motion.”[i] According to Rajesh Rao, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering, “the rapid augmentation of activity during this type of learning bears testimony to the remarkable plasticity of the brain as it learns to control a non-biological device.”[ii]

Because of brain plasticity and the ability of the mind to quickly adapt to such situations and deliver stronger signals through such training, robotic prosthetics that directly respond to thought are almost in humanity’s grasp; we’re beyond the phase of discovery and are now into the fine tuning to make the innovation truly useful. While such developments may not allow a paraplegic to jump out of a wheelchair and turn summersaults next week like our gymnast, the simple ability that so many of us take for granted, such as walking across a room, might be available within our lifetime.

[i] Brain-Controlled Cursor Doubles as a Neural Workout. ScienceDaily. February 16, 2010.

[ii] Ibid.

For further reading:

Related Reading:

Dr. Martha Burns on Brain Plasticity

3 Fun Brain Activities for Kids

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68% of Students Improve MEPA Proficiency Significantly after Fast ForWord®

This study looked at 118 English Language Learner students who used Fast ForWord® products in the 2009-2010 school year from Everett Public Schools in Everett, MA.  A small minority of the students also used the Fast ForWord products in the previous 2008-2009 school year.

These students were tested in both 2009 and 2010 with the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment, or the “MEPA” for short.  The impact of Fast ForWord products was dramatic and positive.  Following Fast ForWord participation, students averaged about 15 and a half scaled score points of improvement between 2009 and 2010.  

In addition, no student scored at proficiency level 1 (the lowest proficiency level) after using Fast ForWord products.  On the other end of the spectrum, the number of students in the top two proficiency levels (levels 4 and 5) more than doubled, from 33 to 74 students. 

Finally, 68% of participants improved one or more proficiency levels; 26% maintained the same proficiency level they had in 2009; while only 6% dropped a level.  This shift is statistically significant.

Related Reading:

Unlocking the Potential of English Language Learners

Scientific Learning Around the World

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Categories: English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Scientific Learning Research

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Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow

Engaged student

We educators talk a lot about student engagement. We understand that engagement is the magic key that drives the student and creates the moment when they become self-motivated. Engagement must be at the core of our goals as educators, for an engaged student finds wonder in their learning, and they not only find meaning in their studies, but they grow personally, for a lifetime, as a result of that learning.

But what do we really mean when we talk about the engaged student? What does it look like in the brain when a student is truly inspired? In the 2008 article, Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning, the authors cite research from LeDoux, Eden and Schacter whose studies found connections between learning and 1) connections with emotions and memories, 2) relationships to real-life experiences, and 3) “activation of both the auditory and visual areas of the brain to create meaning.”[i]In short, they are talking about what has become known as “brain-based learning,” which consists of teaching strategies that encourage the brain to make associations and “create synaptic connections and anchor learning through contextual experience.”[ii]

In many ways, the research has confirmed what humanity’s greatest thinkers discovered long ago. How many years has it been since you slowed down and went back to meditate for a moment on some of the great axioms about learning and education? They hold wonderful hints and secrets that not only still apply, but have been proven by even the most modern research.

  • Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” (Malcolm Forbes, 1919-1990) To engage our students, we need to teach them not only to develop answers, but also learn to ask questions. We need to engage their judgment, creativity and reason, not just their memories.
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939) Clearly for students to be inspired to not just succeed but also to exceed, we educators must engage their passions and, as stated above, their emotions. Our challenge is to seek out those things that are of direct personal interest to our students, and then show them how to find the connections to these passions and what we’re focusing on in the classroom.
  • There is nothing training cannot do. Nothing is above its reach. It can turn bad morals to good; it can destroy bad principles and recreate good ones; it can lift men to angelship.” (Mark Twain, 1835-1910) These words are beautiful at so many levels, but at the purely practical one, Twain reminds us of something that we need to bring to our students attention every day. We can help them develop an awareness that they are learning so much more than facts and processes; they are learning the skills that will allow them to contribute to solving the problems of humanity. In short, we need to show them how they are developing the power to change the world.

What? Who has time to instill passion, emotion and caring? Many teachers are doing this every day, but we need more! Quite often, educators are pressed more to ensure that students are able to do their multiplication tables, find the capital of North Carolina on a map of the United States and recite the chemical formula for water. 

And yet, our greatest challenge remains inextricably linked to our greatest hope for the future. We must do all we can to light those fires of inspiration and help our students find those deep personal connections to their learning. If we can do that, not only will they learn more successfully, but it will be our students who grab the reins, take charge of their learning, and maybe—just maybe—find their way toward Twain’s angelship.

[i] Kaufman, E. Robinson, S. Bellah, K. Akers, C. Haase-Wittler, P. Martindale, L. Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning. ACTE Online. September 2008.

[ii]Ibid.

For further reading:

Pychyl , Timothy A. Don't Delay: Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals. Psychology Today Blogs. May 10, 2008.

Haenke, Rod. Using Brain Research to Engage Students. Engage Learner. October 3, 2008. 

Related Reading:

Using the Human Element to Make Science Fun and Approachable

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom

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Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 2): 5 Ways to Pull the Plug on Learning Loss

Summer brain drain antidotes

Last month Terri Zezula doled out tips for math skills practice over the summer.  But what about keeping up in reading and “staying in shape” for learning? 

Here are 5 more ways you can help your child stay sharp over the summer:

  1. Read, Read, Read…and Understand

    If your child is working on basic reading skills such as phonics and decoding, provide plenty of opportunities to read silently and aloud.  Generate excitement about reading by helping your child create a reading list at the beginning of the summer.  Ask for recommendations from your child’s teacher and friends and from the children’s librarian at your local library.  If reading is a struggle for your child, take turns reading a story to each other.  Talk about the story.  Ask your child questions—what might happen next, and why?  What does your child think about what has happened so far? 

    If your child is good at decoding, broadening her exposure to life may be the key to improving reading comprehension[i].  Find creative ways to associate new experiences with reading—such as pairing a field trip with a book.  After a trip to an art museum during which your teenager is taken by Matisse, visit the library for a book about Paris in the 20’s.  Or visit an observatory and follow up by reading about the constellations; then, take your child out into the dark night and see if you can identify the constellations yourselves.

  2. Take Up a Musical Instrument

    Decades ago, families gathered in the evening to play music together.  Revive the tradition!  However poorly you might play, you’ll have fun together and stimulate your child’s brain to develop in beneficial ways.

    Research has shown that actively playing a musical instrument has positive effects on the brain.  In one study, six months of formal musical training resulted in positive changes for participants, such as improved perception of pitch in spoken language and improved processing of speech. The study authors concluded that a relatively short period of brain training—just 6 months—can have a significant, positive impact on the organization of children’s brains.

  3. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

    Regardless of your child’s ability, the right attitude is essential in fostering risk-taking behavior and perseverance in learning. Research has shown that learners with a “growth mindset” who believe that their ability is fluid and that life is filled with opportunity thrive on new and challenging experiences, while those who believe their ability is fixed and unchanging are more likely to balk at challenges.

    To help your child develop a growth mindset:

    • Explain that the brain develops new neural connections in response to challenging learning experiences.
    • Give your child a challenge, and provide support by praising effort and progress rather than intelligence.
    • Model a growth mindset for your child – take on a challenging learning opportunity of your own and be up front when you encounter difficulties.  Talk with your child about how you plan to overcome obstacles that you encounter, and then follow through.
  4. Give Your Child Stronger “Learning Muscles”

    All learning takes place on a foundation of critical cognitive skills, including memory, attention, processing, and sequencing.  A child must be able to hold information in working memory in order to complete all the steps in a multi-step task, and to stay focused on the task long enough to complete it.  A child’s brain must be able to process information rapidly enough to keep up with new incoming information, and to put all the elements in the right order to comprehend and use that information.

    Fun, web-enabled learning programs like BrainPro® software with consulting (for learners who are below grade level and need some extra help) can help strengthen your child’s cognitive skills to accelerate learning.  Learners using these programs typically improve up to 2 years in reading level in just 12 weeks and often see improvements in other subjects that rely on reading as well, such as math and social studies.

  5. Unstructured Play

    While it’s easy to write off summer vacation as downtime from learning, it’s important to remember the importance of unstructured play in a child’s development.  Summertime can provide your child the freedom and opportunity to grow and explore in ways not possible during the busy, and often over-scheduled, academic year.

    Your child uses play to develop a host of important characteristics such as self-confidence and creativity, as well as social skills like negotiation and working in groups.  Opportunities for active, physical play set the groundwork for lifelong healthy habits and promote physical well-being.  Physical activity is an effective way for the body to rid itself of the stress hormones[ii] that build up during the challenges of daily life.  Make time for play.

  6. [i] Strauss, Valerie. Active Summer, Active Minds: Educators Seek Ways to Prevent Learning Losses During Vacation. Monday, June 15, 2009.

    [ii] Cotman CW, Berchtold NC. Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends in Neurosciences.  2002; 25(6):295-301. doi:10.1016/S0166-2236(02)02143-4

    Related Reading:

    5 Reasons You Should Limit Screen Time

    Fit Bodies Make Fit Brains: Physical Exercise and Brain Cells

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Bilingual Babies: Language Delay or Learning Advantage?

Bilingual babies

Over the years, many people have speculated about the advantages and disadvantages of exposing an infant to a second language.  On one hand, it sounds great to think that children could be proficient in two languages by the time they go to school but, on the other hand, there is the concern that adding a second language could cause confusion and even delay language development in very young children. 

Fortunately, Janet Werker, a psychologist at Vancouver's University of British Columbia, and her colleagues discovered that learning two languages simultaneously does not cause confusion and, in fact, can give young children cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers.  It now appears that bilingual children develop enhanced visual sensitivity to language as well as the auditory sensitivity that we would expect.

Most people in other countries speak multiple languages and researchers have not found real evidence of language confusion in children who learn more than one language at a time.  Of course, infants and toddlers who grow up in bilingual homes often will mix the two languages and that ‘mixing’ even has a name: code-switching.  By the time these babies are three years of age, they will move back and forth between the languages but they also naturally learn to follow rules that govern that movement. For example, if one parent is not bilingual, they stick to the dominant language for that parent but will code-switch with the bilingual parent. 

The study[i] also tested visual-language discrimination with four, six and eight month-olds and found that at the two earlier ages, infants can distinguish between two spoken languages when looking at a video of a person speaking with the sound muted, even if they are only familiar with one of the languages.  By eight months of age, the babies’ brains can even discriminate between two unfamiliar languages simply by watching someone speak. Further studies will determine how long this ability is maintained in childhood but it does appear that there is a lasting influence from early exposure to additional languages. 

Research also indicates that babies growing up in a bilingual environment are better able to attend to perceptual cues such as a change in voice tone or facial expression, in both languages and can apply this ability to distinguish things in the world as well.  Additional research [ii] suggests that bilingual children also could have more flexibility in learning.  

So, if you speak two languages fluently, share them with your babies from day one.  Expanding infancy with a second language could provide stronger cognitive skills, more perceptive social skills and better learning in general.  Don’t worry about videos, flash cards or other fancy options for teaching babies a second language - just talk and read together!

Related Reading:

What Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby’s Developing Brain (Part 1)

Engaging Children in the World with Words

[i] Moskowitz, Clara. What Bilingual Babies Reveal About the Brain: Q&A with Psychologist Janet Werker. March 01, 2011.

[ii] Hsu, Jeremy. Bilingual Babies Get an Early Edge. April 13, 2009.

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Categories: Brain Research, Education Trends, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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