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.
Students typically wait until the last minute to begin studying for tests, and many parents support this practice, fearing that their kid will forget the material if they review it too early. But decades of tutoring as well as personal experience has taught me otherwise: Consistent, deliberate practice over time is the way to master material.
I have 30 tutoring students, and bunches of them go to the same schools and are in the same classes. This means that I often have multiple students taking the same test on the same day.
Recently, I was working with a number of students who were all getting ready for the same Monday algebra test (the test was being given by more than one teacher at the same school). My weekend schedule was so hectic that, in order to find enough time for everyone, I met with some students after school on the Friday before the test (my least popular time slot as you can likely imagine). The rest of the kids reviewed with me on Sunday.
This arrangement accidentally created a nice mini-experiment, with interesting results!
Khan is a powerful, free resource for help in math, science, history, and SAT prep. Please do go to www.KhanAcademy.org and familiarize yourself with all Khan has to offer (including topics of interest to parents such as medicine, banking and art history), and then make sure your child knows how to navigate the site.
Here are some Khan Academy highlights:
Math homework is necessary for the same reason practicing the piano is necessary: it’s one thing to “get” what the teacher taught during the lesson, but it’s another thing to be able to perform that same skill independently and fluently.
Yet, all too many students practice math incorrectly, and they therefore gain little benefit, or even worse, they solidify misunderstandings and bad habits.
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but enough practice does make permanent, which is why guitar teachers, ski instructors, and golf pros are all such sticklers for proper form; they know how hard it is to unlearn errors that have become ingrained.
Many students will do a whole page of math and never check their answers. How do they know they were doing the right procedures? (Answer: They don’t.)
Or, students check their answers after completing the entire assignment, and only then discover that their answers don’t match up with those in the back of the book. In both such cases students tend to declare: Oh, well, the teacher will go over it in class tomorrow.
But in each of these scenarios, the student has now thoroughly practiced BEING WRONG.
Here’s the right way to do math (or math-related) homework:
When I was in my doctoral program, I was amazed at some of the research coming out on kids’ understanding of math concepts. We assume that children all learn pretty much the same math at roughly the same ages, and that they learn these concepts in math class.
In fact, there’s a wide natural variation, and not necessarily a lot of correlation between the math kids are taught in school and the math they actually know.
Last week I said that I see value in having kids (and all learners) memorize a certain amount of factual information.
I also said that I’m not a fan of rote memorization of multiplication “facts.” Kids should also be learning when and how to apply all of the four operations to various situations.
I’m so impressed with the Khan Academy videos, and I’ve been experimenting with ways to use them with my students….and with myself!
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:
The problem calls for a -3, and the kid copies down a 3. Or they calculate an answer of -14 but they only write down the 14.
I expect to see this when kids are first learning algebra; I attribute it to the heightened demands on their attention that all those new algebra rules impose. The negative signs are like cell phones or car keys; little but important things that get left behind in the shuffle.
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: