How to Build a Better Educational System: Jigsaw Classrooms

The jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements.

In the early 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, educators were faced with a social dilemma that had no obvious solution. All over the country, well-intentioned efforts to desegregate America’s public schools were leading to serious problems. Ethnic minority children, most of whom had previously attended severely under-funded schools, found themselves in classrooms composed predominantly of more privileged White children. This created a situation in which students from affluent backgrounds often shone brilliantly while students from impoverished backgrounds often struggled. Of course, this difficult situation seemed to confirm age-old stereotypes: that Blacks and Latinos are stupid or lazy and that Whites are pushy and overly competitive. The end result was strained relations between children from different ethnic groups and widening gaps in the academic achievement of Whites and minorities.

Drawing on classic psychological research on how to reduce tensions between competing groups (e.g., see Allport, 1954; Sherif, 1958; see also Pettigrew, 1998), Elliot Aronson and colleagues realized that one of the major reasons for this problem was the competitive nature of the typical classroom. In a typical classroom, students work on assignments individually, and teachers often call on students to see who can publicly demonstrate his or her knowledge. Anyone who has ever been called to the board to solve a long division problem – only to get confused about dividends and divisors – knows that public failure can be devastating. The snide remarks that children often make when their peers fail do little to remedy this situation. But what if students could be taught to work together in the classroom – as cooperating members of a cohesive team? Could a cooperative learning environment turn things around for struggling students? When this is done properly, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

In response to real educational dilemmas, Aronson and colleagues developed and implemented the jigsaw classroom technique in Austin, Texas, in 1971. The jigsaw technique is so named because each child in a jigsaw classroom has to become an expert on a single topic that is a crucial part of a larger academic puzzle. For example, if the children in a jigsaw classroom were working on a project about World War II, a classroom of 30 children might be broken down into five diverse groups of six children each. Within each group, a different child would be given the responsibility of researching and learning about a different specific topic: Khanh might learn about Hitler’s rise to power, Tracy might learn about the U.S. entry into the war, Mauricio might learn about the development of the atomic bomb, etc. To be sure that each group member learned his or her material well, the students from different groups who had the same assignment would be instructed to compare notes and share information. Then students would be brought together in their primary groups, and each student would present his or her “piece of the puzzle” to the other group members. Of course, teachers play the important role of keeping the students involved and derailing any tensions that may emerge. For example, suppose Mauricio struggled as he tried to present his information about the atomic bomb. If Tracy were to make fun of him, the teacher would quickly remind Tracy that while it may make her feel good to make fun of her teammate, she is hurting herself and her group – because everyone will be expected to know all about the atomic bomb on the upcoming quiz.
When properly carried out, the jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements (and in which students who were already doing well continue to shine). Students in jigsaw classrooms also come to like each other more, as students begin to form cross-ethnic friendships and discard ethnic and cultural stereotypes. Finally, jigsaw classrooms decrease absenteeism, and they even seem to increase children’s level of empathy (i.e., children’s ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes). The jigsaw technique thus has the potential to improve education dramatically in a multi-cultural world by revolutionizing the way children learn.
Practical Application

Since its demonstration in the 1970s, the jigsaw classroom has been used in hundreds of classrooms settings across the nation, ranging from the elementary schools where it was first developed to high school and college classrooms (e.g., see Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Rosenfield, & Sikes, 1977; Perkins & Saris, 2001; Slavin, 1980). Researchers know that the technique is effective, incidentally, because it has been carefully studied using solid research techniques. For example, in many cases, students in different classrooms who are covering the same material are randomly assigned to receive either traditional instruction (no intervention) or instruction by means of the jigsaw technique. Studies in real classrooms have consistently revealed enhanced academic performance, reductions in stereotypes and prejudice, and improved social relations.

Aronson is not the only researcher to explore the merits of cooperative learning techniques. Shortly after Aronson and colleagues began to document the power of the jigsaw classroom, Robert Slavin, Elizabeth Cohen and others began to document the power of other kinds of cooperative learning programs (see Cohen & Lotan, 1995; Slavin, 1980; Slavin, Hurley, & Chamberlain, 2003). As of this writing, some kind of systematic cooperative learning technique had been applied in about 1500 schools across the country, and the technique appears to be picking up steam. Perhaps the only big question that remains about cooperative learning techniques such as the jigsaw classroom is why these techniques have not been implemented even more broadly than they already have.

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Have Your Children Had Their Anti-Smoking Shots?


In the early 1960s, social psychologist William McGuire published some classic papers showing that it is surprisingly easy to change people’s attitudes about things that we all wholeheartedly accept as true. For example, for speakers armed with a little knowledge of persuasion, it is remarkably easy to convince almost anyone that brushing one’s teeth is not such a great idea. McGuire’s insight into this curious phenomenon was that it is easy to change people’s minds about things that they have always taken for granted precisely because most people have little if any practice resisting attacks on attitudes that no one ever questions.

Taking this logic a little further, McGuire asked if it might be possible to train people to resist attacks on their beliefs by giving them practice at resisting arguments that they could easily refute. Specifically, McGuire drew an analogy between biological resistance to disease and psychological resistance to persuasion. Biological inoculation works by exposing people to a weakened version of an attacking agent such as a virus. People’s bodies produce antibodies that make them immune to the attacking agent, and when a full-blown version of the agent hits later in life, people win the biological battle against the full-blown disease. Would giving people a little practice fending off a weak attack on their attitudes make it easier for people to resist stronger attacks on their attitudes that come along later? The answer turns out to be yes. McGuire coined the phrase attitude inoculation to refer to the process of resisting strong persuasive arguments by getting practice fighting off weaker versions of the same arguments.

Once attitude inoculation had been demonstrated consistently in the laboratory, researchers decided to see if attitude inoculation could be used to help parents, teachers, and social service agents deal with a pressing social problem that kills about 440,000 people in the U.S. every year: cigarette smoking. Smoking seemed like an ideal problem to study because children below the age of 10 or 12 almost always report negative attitudes about smoking. However, in the face of peer pressure to be cool, many of these same children become smokers during middle to late adolescence.
Practical Application

Adolescents change their attitudes about smoking (and become smokers) because of the power of peer pressure. Researchers quickly realized that if they could inoculate children against pro-smoking arguments (by teaching them to resist pressure from their peers who believed that smoking is “cool”), they might be able to reduce the chances that children would become smokers. A series of field studies of attitude inoculation, conducted in junior high schools and high schools throughout the country, demonstrated that brief interventions using attitude inoculation dramatically reduced rates of teenage smoking. For instance, in an early study by Cheryl Perry and colleagues (1980), high school students inoculated junior high schools students against smoking by having the younger kids role-play the kind of situations they might actually face with a peer who pressured them to try a cigarette. For example, when a role-playing peer called a student “chicken” for not being willing to try an imaginary cigarette, the student practiced answers such as “I’d be a real chicken if I smoked just to impress you.” The kids who were inoculated in this way were about half as likely to become smokers as were kids in a very similar school who did not receive this special intervention.

Public service advertising campaigns have also made use of attitude inoculation theory by encouraging parents to help their children devise strategies for saying no when peers encourage them to smoke. Programs that have made whole or partial use of attitude inoculation programs have repeatedly documented the effectiveness of attitude inoculation to prevent teenage smoking, to curb illicit drug use, and to reduce teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In comparison with old-fashioned interventions such as simple education about the risks of smoking or teenage pregnancy, attitude inoculation frequently reduces risky behaviors by 30-70% (see Botvin et al., 1995; Ellickson & Bell, 1990; Perry et al., 1980). As psychologist David Myers put it in his popular social psychology textbook, “Today any school district or teacher wishing to use the social psychological approach to smoking prevention can do so easily, inexpensively, and with the hope of significant reductions in future smoking rates and health costs.” So the next time you think about inoculating kids to keep them healthy, make sure you remember that one of the most important kinds of inoculation any kid can get is a psychological inoculation against tobacco.

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Early Intervention Can Improve Low-Income Children’s Cognitive Skills and Academic Achievement

National Head Start program conceptualized while psychologists were beginning to study preventive intervention for young children living in poverty.
As a group, children who live in poverty tend to perform worse in school than do children from more privileged backgrounds. For the first half of the 20th century, researchers attributed this difference to inherent cognitive deficits. At the time, the prevailing belief was that the course of child development was dictated by biology and maturation. By the early 1960s, this position gave way to the notion popularized by psychologists such as J. McVicker Hunt and Benjamin Bloom that intelligence could rather easily be shaped by the environment. There was very little research at the time to support these speculations but a few psychologists had begun to study whether environmental manipulation could prevent poor cognitive outcomes. Results of studies by psychologists Susan Gray and Rupert Klaus (1965), Martin Deutsch (1965) and Bettye Caldwell and former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond (1968) supported the notion that early attention to physical and psychological development could improve cognitive ability.

These preliminary results caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, President Lyndon Johnson’s chief strategist in implementing an arsenal of antipoverty programs as part of the War on Poverty. His idea for a school readiness program for children of the poor focused on breaking the cycle of poverty. Shriver reasoned that if poor children could begin school on an equal footing with wealthier classmates, they would have a better of chance of succeeding in school and avoiding poverty in adulthood. He appointed a planning committee of 13 professionals in physical and mental health, early education, social work, and developmental psychology. Their work helped shape what is now known as the federal Head Start program.

The three developmental psychologists in the group were Urie Bronfenbrenner, Mamie Clark, and Edward Zigler. Bronfenbrenner convinced the other members that intervention would be most effective if it involved not just the child but the family and community that comprise the child-rearing environment. Parent involvement in school operations and administration were unheard of at the time, but it became a cornerstone of Head Start and proved to be a major contributor to its success. Zigler had been trained as a scientist and was distressed that the new program was not going to be field-tested before its nationwide launch. Arguing that it was not wise to base such a massive, innovative program on good ideas and concepts but little empirical evidence, he insisted that research and evaluation be part of Head Start. When he later became the federal official responsible for administering the program, Zigler (often referred to as the “father of Head Start”) worked to cast Head Start as a national laboratory for the design of effective early childhood services.

Although it is difficult to summarize the hundreds of empirical studies of Head Start outcomes, Head Start does seem to produce a variety of benefits for most children who participate. Although some studies have suggested that the intellectual advantages gained from participation in Head Start gradually disappear as children progress through elementary school, some of these same studies have shown more lasting benefits in the areas of school achievement and adjustment.
Practical Application

Head Start began as a great experiment that over the years has yielded prolific results. Some 20 million children and families have participated in Head Start since the summer of 1965; current enrollment approaches one million annually, including those in the new Early Head Start that serves families with children from birth to age 3. Psychological research on early intervention has proliferated, creating an expansive literature and sound knowledge base. Many research ideas designed and tested in the Head Start laboratory have been adapted in a variety of service delivery programs. These include family support services, home visiting, a credentialing process for early childhood workers, and education for parenthood. Head Start’s efforts in preschool education spotlighted the value of school readiness and helped spur today’s movement toward universal preschool.

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Family-Like Environment Better for Troubled Children and Teens

The Teaching-Family Model changes bad behavior through straight talk and loving relationships.

In the late 1960′s, psychologists Elaine Phillips, Elery Phillips, Dean Fixsen, and Montrose Wolf developed an empirically tested treatment program to help troubled children and juvenile offenders who had been assigned to residential group homes. These researchers combined the successful components of their studies into the Teaching-Family Model, which offers a structured treatment regimen in a family-like environment. The model is built around a married couple (teaching-parents) that lives with children in a group home and teaches them essential interpersonal and living skills. Not only have teaching parents’ behaviors and techniques been assessed for their effectiveness, but they have also been empirically tested for whether children like them. Teaching-parents also work with the children’s parents, teachers, employers, and peers to ensure support for the children’s positive changes. Although more research is needed, preliminary results suggest that, compared to children in other residential treatment programs, children in Teaching-Family Model centers have fewer contacts with police and courts, lower dropout rates, and improved school grades and attendance.

Couples are selected to be teaching-parents based on their ability to provide individualized and affirming care. Teaching-parents then undergo an intensive year-long training process. In order to maintain their certification, teaching-parents and Teaching-Family Model organizations are evaluated every year, and must meet the rigorous standards set by the Teaching-Family Association.
The Teaching-Family Model is one of the few evidence-based residential treatment programs for troubled children. In the past, many treatment programs viewed delinquency as an illness, and therefore placed children in institutions for medical treatment. The Teaching-Family Model, in contrast, views children’s behavior problems as stemming from their lack of essential interpersonal relationships and skills. Accordingly, the Teaching-Family Model provides children with these relationships and teaches them these skills, using empirically validated methods. With its novel view of problem behavior and its carefully tested and disseminated treatment program, the Teaching-Family Model has helped to transform the treatment of behavioral problems from impersonal interventions at large institutions to caring relationships in home and community settings. The Teaching-Family Model has also demonstrated how well-researched treatment programs can be implemented on a large scale. Most importantly, the Teaching-Family Model has given hope that young people with even the most difficult problems or behaviors can improve the quality of their lives and make contributions to society.
Practical Application
In recent years, the Teaching-Family Model has been expanded to include foster care facilities, home treatment settings, and even schools. The Teaching-Family Model has also been adapted to accommodate the needs of physically, emotionally, and sexually abused children; emotionally disturbed and autistic children and adults; medically fragile children; and adults with disabilities. Successful centers that have been active for over 30 years include the Bringing it All Back Home Study Center in North Carolina, the Houston Achievement Place in Texas, and the Girls and Boys Town in Nebraska. Other Teaching-Family Model organizations are in Alberta (Canada), Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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Believing You Can Get Smarter Makes You Smarter

Thinking about intelligence as changeable and malleable, rather than stable and fixed, results in greater academic achievement, especially for people whose groups bear the burden of negative stereotypes about their intelligence.

Can people get smarter? Are some racial or social groups smarter than others? Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, many people believe that intelligence is fixed, and, moreover, that some racial and social groups are inherently smarter than others. Merely evoking these stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of these groups (such as women and Blacks) is enough to harm the academic perfomance of members of these groups. Social psychologist Claude Steele and his collaborators (2002) have called this phenomenon “stereotype threat.”

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.

This research showed a relatively easy way to narrow the Black-White academic achievement gap. Realizing that one’s intelligence may be improved may actually improve one’s intelligence, especially for those whose groups are targets of stereotypes alleging limited intelligence (e.g., Blacks, Latinos, and women in math domains.)
Practical Application

Blackwell, Dweck, and Trzesniewski (2002) recently replicated and applied this research with seventh-grade students in New York City. During the first eight weeks of the spring term, these students learned about the malleability of intelligence by reading and discussing a science-based article that described how intelligence develops. A control group of seventh-grade students did not learn about intelligence’s changeability, and instead learned about memory and mnemonic strategies. As compared to the control group, students who learned about intelligence’s malleability had higher academic motivation, better academic behavior, and better grades in mathematics. Indeed, students who were members of vulnerable groups (e.g., those who previously thought that intelligence cannot change, those who had low prior mathematics achievement, and female students) had higher mathematics grades following the intelligence-is-malleable intervention, while the grades of similar students in the control group declined. In fact, girls who received the intervention matched and even slightly exceeded the boys in math grades, whereas girls in the control group performed well below the boys.

These findings are especially important because the actual instruction time for the intervention totaled just three hours. Therefore, this is a very cost-effective method for improving students’ academic motivation and achievement.
Cited Research

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1-13.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002), Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In Mark P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 34, pp. 379-440. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.
Additional Sources

Blackwell, L., Dweck, C., & Trzesniewski, K. (2002). Achievement across the adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Manuscript in preparation.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

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Film vs Digital – Don’t Be Too Quick to Jump Ship

As a photographer, people are often surprised to see me shooting film. ‘I thought all you guys shot digital now’, is a statement I regularly hear. I have also been called a ‘rare breed’ because of the same misconception. Truth is, while digital is a great option for many applications, it’s certainly not the be all to end all and many photographers see no reason to change.For a lot of commercial work, I do shoot digital. But for most of my work, especially where longevity of the image or quality is concerned, I stay with film.I recently spent a month in Uganda, Kenya and Cambodia on a photojournalism assignment. There was no way I was going to risk shooting digitally. I packed my two trusty Nikons, 45 rolls of film (25 black and white, 20 colour) and jumped on a plane – one of many as it turned out.The reason was simple: the only cameras that have stopped working on me were digital, the only lenses that have ever seized up on me were auto focus (more on this later) and in 17 years as a photographer, I’ve never lost a roll of film or had a lab mess one up. I have, however, lost all my images when a compact flash card went bad and have also had problems transferring images from my camera to a computer. The risk, as far as I was concerned, was too great and I stuck with film.The rise and rise of digital is based primarily on one factor – convenience. Contrary to popular belief, digital images are not higher quality than those taken on film. The misconception seems to be that because it’s digital, it must be better.Not so. The information held in a negative or transparency far outweighs that of a digital image. The tonal variation is also greater on film, beautifully evident when using medium and large format. The thing is, all that information and beautiful tone and texture, often isn’t needed; on a screen or in newsprint for instance. In these cases, the convenience of digital outweighs the quality of film and that’s fair enough.This is all well and good up to a point, and that point is reproduction. Having photographed for magazines for many years, there is one thing I have definitely noticed: magazines don’t look as good any more. Why? Digital images.
The top magazines still look great but they make much greater use of medium and even large format film. It’s the run of the mill consumer style magazines that are suffering.Compared to film, digital has less workable range than film, meaning that instead of a nice smooth transition from dark to light tones and across the colour palate, the highlights burn out and the colours get ‘blocked’. This is especially evident with reds that often appear overly saturated while other colours aren’t, resulting in an unnatural looking image.Because of less tonality, the images, when reproduced, flatten out. There is a distinct lack of depth to the images that just don’t grab a reader’s attention any more. So much used to be made of the psychology of colour and the importance of well-defined images that a reader would respond to. This all seems to have fallen by the wayside.Most editors I’ve spoken to agree: they all prefer film, think their magazines don’t look as good as they used to and would much rather work with film but digital is more convenient and many photographers in that market use digital.With that in mind, I choose film for as many jobs as I can as I believe it increases my chances of a cover, a full page or the use of as many images as possible. When freelancing, you usually get paid by the word and by the picture. You also get a lot less for a picture taking up 1/8 page than you do for a 1/2 page for example. I’m looking at the bigger picture – literally.If an editor is happy to accept film then I will shoot and submit film. And not just 35mm but 6×7 medium format wherever I can. An editor or art director will be very happy to see some medium format trannies as they know they can easily go full page, even with extensive cropping, and still retain amazing detail. Even 35mm will go full page A4 without any trouble.Obviously, the shots themselves have to be great and to help with that I also prefer manual focus, fixed focal length (prime) lenses. Prime lenses are sharper than zooms, are faster (have bigger apertures), are lighter and just plain simple to use.Interestingly, the evolution of lenses is like a macro example of where photography is at now: zooms came in and were more ‘convenient’ because one lens could cover the same focal lengths of two or three prime lenses. There was a loss in quality and speed but for general applications this wasn’t a problem. Zooms became the rage and it was forgotten that prime lenses were actually sharper. The same misconception existed: it’s older technology, therefore, not as good.I should point out that the film verses digital debate isn’t usually waged between professionals. Even though many have switched over or, like me, use digital for some jobs and film for others, most professionals will tell you that film is better. It all comes down to individual workflow and what the job requirements are.Where the problem lies is R&D. Most camera manufacturers don’t make their money from the pro market; rather the professional market is subsidised by the consumer market. In other words, for every pro camera sold a few hundred consumer models are sold.The days where very little difference existed between professional and consumer camera models are gone and manufacturers aren’t going to pour R&D money into a camera series that makes up a tiny percentage of their market. Better for them to make professional digital as good as it can be and take advantage of the flow down effect.Film is still the choice of many professionals especially in the studio, for architecture (where adjustable view cameras are needed), portraiture, fashion, weddings, advertising, photojournalism and art.Don’t forget, film can always be scanned, combining the beauty of film and the convenience of digital. It’s not always a cheap option, especially when drum scanning transparencies, but more and more options are becoming available.One option is having the whole roll processed and burned straight to disk. This seems to work best with negative film and my experience with it has been fantastic, especially when a professional neg film is used and a professional lab is handling it. The price is comparable to what getting a roll of film processed costs.The good news is that by sticking with film, you can stand out from the crowd. With so many low-resolution and overly colour corrected images making their way to editors these days, a nice crisp, beautifully exposed roll of film might just give you the edge – and the cover.

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Buying a New Laptop – What to Know, and What to Look For

It’s that time of year again. The summer is winding to a close and that means colder weather, leaves changing their color and schools everywhere are about to open their doors. One thing that a lot of parents (and students) are dreading is that school’s are beginning to require their students own laptops to use in their classes. But fear not, for I have compiled a guide that will make buying the right laptop much easier for you. And if you’re not going to school this fall, this guide should still assist you in your quest for a business or personal laptop for yourself or someone in need this holiday season.Why are you buying a new Laptop?Maybe you’re one of the parents looking to find a laptop for their child to take to school this year, or perhaps you’re looking for a system that will give you a new edge at the office. The reason you are buying your laptop is going to determine what you’re going to need out of the new system. If your laptop is going to be using Computer Animated Design software for example, you’re going to want a more powerful processor than if you’re merely using it for Word Processing or Internet based research. Are you a hardcore gamer? Do you like editing photos or creating videos? Are you a musician looking to get some better exposure? It may be best for you to jot down every possible scenario you could see yourself using the laptop before you read the next section of the guide, to be sure you’re getting everything you need out of the system.Laptops come in all shapes and sizes.Size does matter.This is a feature that a lot of people overlook when buying a laptop, but the size and physical features of the laptop are arguably one of the most important. Where the processor, amount of ram, and hard drive can be upgraded and replaced as needed, features like the size of the laptop, the placement of its various input/output ports and it’s weight are all things that you’re realistically going to be stuck with after your purchase it. Some things to ask yourself are:How large of a screen am I going to need?
Am I going to be carrying this laptop around a lot?
How many peripherals are going to be attached to the laptop?
Am I going to miss not having the NUMPAD on my keyboard?The size of the screen is going to directly affect the size of the laptop, so this question is important. If you are buying this laptop to edit photos, create videos, play games or watch movies and television then you’ll likely want a large screen. Keep in mind that large screen laptops are heavier, and therefor if you’re going to be crossing a large campus on a daily basis you’ll need to consider that as well. The number of peripherals you’ll be attaching to the laptop also helps narrow down what you’ll be using it for. The most important consideration is the number of USB ports you’ll have, as most accessories and devices connect to a laptop using these ports. A printer that isn’t wireless, a drawing tablet, a wired or wireless mouse and a USB storage drive are all examples of devices that connect via USB. If you intend on connecting your laptop up to a monitor at any given time you’ll want to consider the Output connection on the laptop as well. Finally, one of the most overlooked features of a laptop is the presence or absence of the NUMPAD on the keyboard. The NUMPAD is the 16 button portion beside your arrow keys that sort of resembles a telephone. Though, it is possible to purchase a USB powered external NUMPAD for a laptop, if you’re used to having one, it’s best to have it attached to the laptop itself.What makes a good Laptop?Now that you have an idea about what you want your laptop to look like on the outside, it’s time to consider what you’d like to see on the inside. If you’re buying this laptop merely to use programs like Microsoft Office, an internet browser and iTunes then you’re not going to need a whole lot of power from your system. Laptops on the retail market these days come equipped with Windows 7 as an operating system, and unlike their Vista counterparts a couple years back will come designed to handle running the operating system smoothly. That being said, a good benchmark to set for your system will be 4GB of RAM; preferably DDR3, A quality dual core processor (avoid the Intel Celeron series for example), and then a hard drive based off how much you plan to store on your computer. Typically hard drives from 250 – 500GB are the most commonly found on lower to mid ranged laptops, and that should be more than sufficient storage space.If your plan is to use more intensive programs, such as Graphic Design software, Music editing software, or anything else that will create an intensive load on your system you’ll want to take a closer look at your Processor. A processor that boasts dynamic performance enhancement, such as the Multithreading feature offered in the Intel i series of processors are a good choice for this. The cores of the i3-i7 processors are designed to divide tasks up into threads within each processing core, allowing your system to think it has more cores to work with, the end result being that it can force a little extra power out of your system in a pinch. Another handy feature to watch for is the size of your L2 and L3 cache. The larger the cache, the more your system is able to do without slowing itself down to access more distant memory sources, and that means quicker response times to whatever you need to access.If you’re buying this system specifically for gaming, or for High Definition multimedia or 3D modeling, you’ll want to consider the Graphics Card your system will come with. For the most part, a 1GB of video memory in the graphics card should be more than powerful enough to handle whatever your needs are, but it would be wise to check the specific requirements of the game or software you’re installing, and be sure that the features you need are included in the design of the card.Finally, the battery life of the laptop could be important as well. If you plan on using the laptop in a lot of places where there are no power sources, you’ll want a laptop with a longer than average battery life. And considering the average battery life of a laptop varies from 2-4 hours, this can be a very important decision for the commuting over-achiever or social butterfly.The Hard Drive of a Laptop stores all your data.Where to go from here?So you’ve finally decided on a laptop that fits all your needs. It’s the right size, has the NUMPAD on the side, doesn’t weight too much and it’s a sweet shade of charcoal gray. Now that you’re ready to dish out on the system, it’s time to consider everything else you’re going to need to work at maximum efficiency.For software, consider again what you’ll be doing with your laptop. If you’re ever planning to take it online by any capacity (and who isn’t, these days) then you’re going to want a reputable Antivirus program. One of the best right now is from a company called Kaspersky. As of this writing, it has been found to locate and quarantine/remove the largest library of malicious software of any Antivirus in the retail market. The internet security package also includes metrics to protect your personal identity online from online phishers. This can be important if you access your bank information or log into sensitive company assets over the internet.Another must have for business and school is the Microsoft Office suite. Microsoft Office comes in many packages, and the one that is right for you depends on what you need for work. Most users will find the Home and Student offering to be enough, featuring Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. This allows you to create professional documents and resume’s, organize slide show presentations, and create powerful spreadsheets. Other popular programs included in other Office suites are Outlook, a program used to organize e-mail in ways most internet services can not, and Access, a program that can create Databases for organizing and storing information on anything from sales records to your Elvis Presley collectibles. Make sure when you’re purchasing a copy of Microsoft Office that it has every program you need to be successful.Graphic designers or photography buffs will want to get their hands on photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. A music producer will need a program to allow them to record, edit and store music. Gamers will need to shell out for their latest digital fix, and Web Designers will likely want to purchase a license for Macromedia Flash or Adobe Dreamweaver.What about Accessories?So now you have a laptop and software to go with it. What else could you possibly need? Well for starters, what do you plan on carrying it in? Laptop bags come in several varieties. Slipcases for storing your system in a backpack or briefcase, messenger bags for carrying your laptop and a couple needed accessories, and larger briefcase style bags to carry your laptop along with work materials. They come in all sizes to accommodate a laptop of any size, so be sure the bag you’re buying will hold the 17″ wide screen your purchased.Another accessory to add to your list is a wireless mouse. Most people (myself included) do not like the touch pad that comes with your laptop, so by plugging in a receiver into a USB port of your laptop you can replace that dodgy pad with a traditional mouse, AND you don’t have to untangle 4 feet of wire first, either. Other input peripherals include a NUMPAD if your laptop keyboard doesn’t have one, or a Tablet for sketching or signing documents.If you plan on listening to a lot of music, voice chatting, or even just taking verbal notes for your to do list, you may want to consider purchasing a USB Headphone/Microphone combination. If you want to add video conferencing, or creating video blogs to that list you’ll want to purchase a web camera as well. (keep in mind that many laptops come with a camera and/or mic built into the screen). If you’re storing a large amount of data, or storing sensitive data you can’t afford to lose, invest in an external hard drive. They store at least as much data as your laptop and can even back up your entire system on a scheduled basis. Plus, they’re simple to install and can even be portable, to take with you wherever you go.If you’re going to be printing a lot and working in different areas of the house, a wireless printer is a good addition to any laptop purchase. They’re no longer more expensive than their wired counterparts, and the added range and flexibility more than make up for the money spent. Make sure you weigh the cost of the printer with the cost and yield of it’s ink cartridges. Typically the cheaper the printer, the costlier the ink to sustain it.Finally, if you’re not yet wireless at your home, there’s no better time than now. Your laptop will come with a wireless adapter built right into it, so all you’ll need to pick up is a Wireless Router. For the cost of technology, spend the extra $10 or so dollars and opt for a Wireless N system. It has a faster wireless download speed and a much larger signal range, allowing you to update your Facebook status from the bedroom, or destroy your best friends Town Hall from the comfort of your lawn chair. Keep in mind that just about any wireless router you purchase comes with at least 4 Ethernet ports so your wired desktop and/or gaming consoles can still be connected to the network as well.Most of your accessories will connect to your laptop using a USB connection.The Router Goes Where?So now you’ve finally made your big shopping list of everything you’re going to need to get back to school in style this year, and looking at the list you’re starting to wonder how you’re going to get it all installed, set up and be ready in time for the start of your classes. It’s time for you to consider the last step of buying a new system…Any retailers worth their salt can offer you assistance in setting up a new laptop. They’ll power it on, install your hardware titles, install your printer’s drivers and in some cases they can even go as far as driving to your home and setting up your wireless network. If the idea of configuring your home computer, new laptop, Xbox 360 and Ipod Touch to a single network frightens you, it may save you hours of frustration to pay and have it all professional installed and configured.One last thing to consider as well is protecting your investment. If you’re starting from scratch, you’re likely spending close to a thousand dollars on your new set up, and in some cases even more than that. And though the idea of adding another expense to the already daunting list you’re prepared to shell out may seem like a bad idea, the next consideration can literally save your butt in a pinch. What I’m talking about is the dreaded Extended Service Plan. Unfortunately I think that used car salesman and and commission based Electronic stores have given ESP’s a bad rap. The Extended Service Plan actually exists to protect your investment from the limited warranty provided from the major electronic manufacturers.The One Year Limited Warranty provided from companies like HP or Dell cover manufacturer’s defects only. Meaning that unless the issue can be traced directly to being a flaw in the manufacturing of the product, HP or Dell will deny you any assistance or monetary compensation for the system. And believe me, they will do anything to convince you that they didn’t mess up. What does that mean for you? Well, without assistance from an Extended Warranty, odds are good that you’re stuck with that laptop with the dead hard drive and faulty screen.The extended warranty however, will protect your Laptop against any and all damages and defects incurred during the life of the warranty, typically between 2-4 years. This means that if a year and a half down the road the cheap hard drive that HP placed in your laptop dies out, you can call the company that you purchased your warranty from and either get your laptop repaired, get it replaced, or get your money back (less the money spent purchasing the warranty). And in most cases, the cost of the warranty is less than even the cost of buying the replacement part, let alone the cost to have it replaced.I hope this guide has been helpful in assisting you in purchasing not only a new laptop, but everything that you’ll need to go with it. I spent a lot of time writing this from first hand knowledge, and any feedback you can provide will be most appreciated. Happy hunting, and I’ll see you online!

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