A Snow Day
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?
It seems like every year my students use their textbooks less and less.
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 …
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.
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!
Fall is the time when first-quarter grades come out, and many students would like to improve.
When I teach my SAT class, I begin by administering to my new students two sections of a practice test out of the Official SAT Guide.
Invariably, some student informs me, “I’ve done this test already.” Many kids come to my class having already purchased the SAT Guide and done some practice on their own.
“Do it again,” I tell them, and I find that, not only do these kids NOT score perfectly the second time around, their scores are indistinguishable from those of the rest of the class; if they hadn’t told me they had done these sections before, nothing in their scores would have tipped me off.
I’ve been a test-prep coach for decades, tutoring students for the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, and ACT, and of course I’m very comfortable with the material by now.
Last month, my own daughter was getting ready to take the LSAT (the law school entrance exam), so I tried a few practice LSAT sections myself…and, guess what?
I found them stunningly, amazingly difficult! And, I made TONS of mistakes!
For example, on my first reading passage, I answered the eight questions, and got SIX of them wrong!!!
This was an excellent experience for me, because I felt something I’ve lost touch with: I felt a sinking, dizzying fear of this difficult material.
As a tutor, the most exciting, emerging area of my work is parent involvement. More and more parents are reaching out to me for information, skills and tools they can use in supporting their children’s learning. And, I am always encouraging parents sit in on tutoring sessions so they can refresh on the subject matter and learn new strategies.
All learning, including tutoring, is most effective when it’s backed up with daily, active involvement from parents and/or other caring adults.