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.
I do, sometimes, when I know I’m going to have to teach a topic that lies at the outer boundary of my own expertise.
So, yes, I am feeling anxious right now, because this afternoon I’m going to have to help a student with some pretty sophisticated trigonometry (including those dreaded “ferris wheel” problems). It’s stuff I don’t do every day…and it’s hard!
Here’s how I’m coping:
And for years and years I worked hard to come up with sound explanations for WHY we need algebra, WHY chemistry is important, etc, etc…
Kids would listen and then look dissatisfied.
One day the lightbulb went on for me: I’m answering the wrong question!
Test preparation is big business these days, and I’m part of it.
I’ve been prepping kids for the SAT, ACT, PSAT, SSAT, ISEE and other tests, for decades now.
Is test prep a plus? Or does it do more harm than good?
In my opinion, it depends on how the preparation is done.
Is the goal merely to achieve a higher score? One common approach is to teach tricks and shortcuts, which supposedly produces higher scores quickly. JenBee wrote about how harmful this sort of coaching was for her:
I received this thoughtful response from to my last post about standardized tests and your child’s self-esteem:
I’m 36 years old and I’ve been harboring bitterness about the PSAT since I was 17. We took it in 10th grade and I got a really high score. This made me feel like the bar was set pretty high. Well, when I took it again in 11th grade… I bombed.
For most kids, these scores (and other standardized test scores, such as the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, ACT, etc) hit hard, whether they’re bad or good! And it’s important to give kids the perspective and support they need to turn their results into personal empowerment, and not discouragement.
I’ve spent this week rehearsing the Big SAT Math Ideas with my students. Here’s a list of some of the most important.
Pass these last-minute refreshers along to any high-schooler you know taking the SAT on Saturday, May 1 (tomorrow!)
(And, take a look yourself and see how much you remember)
Many schools use a spiral review approach in their curricula. In the British system, for example, kids get one trimester each of biology, chemistry and physics every year, instead of taking these courses separately over full years.
Math texts always include review of the previous year’s skills before launching into the new work. Homework, summer review packets, mid-terms and finals, are all examples of spiral review.
There are unique challenges when applying a spiral approach to math learning. Math, unlike other subjects, is hierarchical. Concepts build on top of earlier concepts, and if any layer is weak the next layer will be even shakier.
Spiral review in math, therefore, MUST be individualized in order to be effective, and it must dig back to foundational concepts and reinforce these core understandings.
Unfortunately, math curricula which use a spiral approach often befuddle students by touching too lightly on new topics and then flitting away before students can get a handle on them. Students are often left with only vague notions of the new concepts, plus feelings of confusion and distress. No one likes to be taught something new and then left with the feeling that they “didn’t get it.” These kinds of experiences can contribute to math anxiety, disliking of math, and negative self-image.
Here are some ways you can use the spiral review technique to help your student or your own child:
Here in Connecticut it’s midterm (first-semester final) exam season and I’ve been working extra hard with students who are frantically trying to prepare.
I like the underlying philosophy behind midterms and finals, which is that learners should expect to retain what they were taught. Otherwise the focus is only on remembering information just long enough to regurgitate it for one test and then forget all about it. Cumulative exams force students to revisit material and, hopefully, entrench it more permanently in their heads.
But there’s also a lot of unfairness and counter-productivity in this system. I have one student, for example, who works very, very hard but has trouble remembering details. She does well on individual tests and quizzes but cumulative exams overwhelm her with the sheer load of material to be memorized.
We began studying together for her Algebra II midterm well in advance, and we’ve been working steadily ever since, plus she’s been doing tons of practice on her own. We’ve been using every study skills and memory enhancement technique available, and she’s come so far! I’m so proud of her!
Yet…”I wish I could carry a note card into the exam!” she sighed yesterday. I wish she could, too. I truly can’t see why students shouldn’t be able to use their notes (isn’t this what note-taking is for?) to help them remember formulas and procedural details. Making students memorize such things can put tremendous stress on mental recall capacity and clutter the brain’s ability to process.
I wish I could spend my instructional time working on concepts, abstract reasoning and problem-solving. I would much rather explore why a formula works, or how the formula was derived or when to use it in real-life applications. Instead, I spend way too much valuable tutoring time training students on mnemonic techniques.
There is a lot of talk lately on training kids to have “21st-century skills.” Usually this means learning to use and understand computers and other technology.
To my mind, 21st-century skills must include the age-old, basic skills of note-taking, note-using, and fact-seeking. With laptops available to everyone, who needs to memorize facts and figures anymore? Yes, students should be conversant with …