I was delighted to arrive home from my spring break and find good SAT results from my students who had taken the test for the second time in March. In every case, their consistent hard work between the two testings had produced significant gains of 50, 100 or more points!
Students are always exhilarated to see their efforts pay off, and I am also always thrilled, because it drives home to them this critically important life lesson: Hard work is what makes improvement happen.
Here in the US, we arguably don’t teach this lesson very well. Our culture is very talent-focused;
I get a kick out of the recent Volkswagen commercial in which two guys pile into their Passat for a road trip, and then the passenger is appalled when his driver pal announces that instead of listening to music they’re going to learn a language.
Thirteen hours later, the buddies climb out of the car at a rest stop; the friend is still highly annoyed, and he rants and fumes at his companion…in fluent Spanish:
My own kids passed a good chunk of their childhoods in the car; I’ve always been an eager and ambitious traveler, so we spent virtually every school break driving somewhere. And we made those hours pass by listening to books on tape.
I’ve so often wondered why so many students haaaate writing down their math steps, insisting instead on trying to do the work in their heads or on their calculators. Perhaps they feel as if writing is slowing them down, or maybe they dislike the scratchy feel of pencil on paper. (Whenever I’ve asked, kids invariably say “I don’t know).
Meanwhile, kids who don’t write out their math steps, skip copying down formulas and refuse to draw and label diagrams, make a lot more mistakes and also tend to be way more confused. They’ll stare at a problem and then give up, without ever making a mark on paper.
It’s a snow day here, and I crave nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book. But so many of my students don’t feel the same way; they don’t “choose to read,” as parents often despair.
Although it is true that some kids learn to read more easily than do others, love of reading itself is not an inherent personality characteristic but is instead an acquired taste.
One day, I was reviewing with a high school student for a final exam in history. It was rough going; the material was detailed and complex and this young man’s grasp of both the facts and the concepts was poor.
We plowed on for two solid hours, and then he turned to me and floored me with this question: “OK, now, do you think I know this stuff?”
Truly, isn’t that a remarkable thing to ask? This young man couldn’t tell for himself whether or not the hard mental work he had just done had resulted in “knowing.”
But what, indeed, does “knowing” feel like? How do any of us know whether or not we know?
Teachers still hand out textbooks in September but then so many (I’m tempted to say MOST) teachers rarely assign readings or homework from them, instead supplying students with hand-outs, worksheets and powerpoints.
Commonly, students claim that their texts are “up in my bedroom somewhere,” never to be opened!
Yet textbooks can be wonderful tools for learning and for exam review.
Here in my school district, mid-year exams are on the horizon, but still far enough in the distance so that there’s plenty of time for students to prepare thoroughly and well.
This is a golden opportunity for kids to learn how to make an action plan so that daily review happens.
I always start by asking students to come up with a list of what they’ll need to do in order to be well-prepared for their exams, and most kids are pretty good at this part. Here’s a real-life, anonymous sample:
For chemistry I’m going to make flash cards based on the test study guides and my notes/worksheets. For history I will review my hand-outs and practicing writing some essays. For English I’ll have to refresh my knowledge on the books we read and their themes. In math I’m going to look over any old tests and quizzes as well as do the activities my teacher has on his website. For Spanish I’ll look at old quizzes and review the vocabulary and conjugations.
I hope you will agree that this student clearly knows what he’s got to do, and is off to a great start.
But now here comes the hard part: Notice how vague and unspecified this list is? It’s full of phrases like “review,” and “look over,” (what, exactly, does he have in mind to do? What, for example, does he mean by “look over”?) and it doesn’t specify WHEN he will do these things, HOW MANY flashcards he will create per day, and so on.
This list now needs to be converted into a daily action plan, including specific, quantified activities that will be completed each day.
Here’s my own hypothetical example of an action plan for this student:
I love science, especially psychology. Nothing fascinates me more than to discover yet another fact about how the human mind works. I’ve found that the more I learn about my own mind, the more at peace I feel about who I am and what my life is all about.
This year I’ve selected another twelve excellent TED talks, each one exploring some surprising, counter-intuitive aspect of our human minds and natures. Our amazing brains often wind up being too clever for our own good, creating illusions and misconceptions that make life a lot harder than it has to be.
I was a psychology major in college, and I love finding out everything about how our minds work. Of course I study education and learning, but I also read all I can get my hands on about human behavior and emotions. Why do we do what we do?…and how can we do better and be happier?
Lots of people figure that psychology isn’t a “real” science, or that it’s just “common sense.” But, within the past few decades psychology has joined forces with fields including neuroscience, medicine and economics to produce tons of data-based, factual information, much of which is extremely helpful, even life-changing, not to mention counter-intuitive and even wacky.
Last week I wrote about the demonstrably positive effects of longer-term studying. Kids who begin studying several days before a test and who study consistently and to the point of mastery get high grades.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? So why don’t more kids do it?
One reason is that fear and anxiety hamper people’s ability to think straight and organize themselves. (We talk a lot about executive function issues in kids, but these are problems all people of all ages experience)
As part of his research with couples, John Gottman attached heart monitors to his subjects, and he discovered that when people become emotionally agitated, their systems “flood” with adrenaline and their heart rates elevate. A heart rate above 95 beats per minute signals that a person’s listening, planning and reasoning skills have broken down.