The exam period started. As every year, in families with children who take exams, the focus is on maximising the chances of getting the best possible grade. The question on how we help children prepare for exams is important, but another much more important question is: what are the learning and revision strategies that contribute to a successful journey beyond the present? What does the child take with him in life, after the exam has passed and what does he leave behind, what does he forget?
Educational practice and theories are increasingly based on scientific research, following a process similar to that of medical practice. In recent years, studies of how our brains learn are increasingly used in curriculum decisions. Although this approach is still controversial, there are some universally accepted principles. With them in mind, teachers and parents can help children learn more effectively.
Emotions affect memory and learning
What is the message we send to our child?
Any of the exams they will have this summer is not an end point – the exams are part of a trajectory, a journey they have, a path where our students become expert learners.
The exams, although summative in nature, can be seen as experiences from which to learn. This paradigm shift will ease the stress of the exam and at the same time help the child to find motivation and make sense of the exam recap process.
Let’s not forget that the students went through a pandemic that affected the chemistry of their groups of friends and, implicitly, their emotional stability. During adolescence, they are caught up in the tumult of discovering their own identity, developing their personality. Children are very concerned about their entourage, their position in the group of friends, how they are seen by others. Some teenagers are more or less affected than others, but they all go through these processes that cannot be ignored. All these emotions influence the child’s reaction to the stress of the exam and how they prepare for it.
– Talk to your children about exams as experiences and learning opportunities and not just as endpoints for a school stage.
– Create an environment where children feel protected and understood.
Some learning and revision methods are more effective than others
Psychologist Daniel Willingham defined learning as “a residue of thinking.” It is very difficult to define what “thinking” means, but it is clear to all of us that in order to learn, we need to process what we read.
I present below some of the efficient processing strategies, specific to the revision. The list is not exhaustive, the strategies being selected based on the types of mistakes which occur very often.
a) spaced repetition technique
The principle that spaced repetition is more effective than cramming before the exam is known but difficult to apply. Many hours of study before a test does not help to remember the information as well as the same number of hours but distributed over a longer period of time. In 1885, the German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus created a mathematical formula graphed below that represents the process of forgetting newly learned information. Although this graph differs from person to person, the scientific community agrees that the slope of the decline is steep, especially after the first hour. Spaced revision / repetition can slow down this rate of decline according to the graph in which vertical lines represent revision moments.
b) memory retrieval practice
Rereading notes or a lesson from the book is less effective than retrieving stored information from memory. The brain is plastic and every time information is retrieved and stored again, new neural networks are formed. Retrieving information from memory requires higher cognitive processes, more difficult, but with more efficient results.
How does a student know he understood? Only when he can demonstrate this understanding. How do you prove the understanding?
- Explaining a concept to a colleague.
- Applying this concept in an unfamiliar situation.
- Synthesizing and creating a mental map of the connections of concepts in a learning unit.
To do this, the student retrieves the information from memory and uses it, creating new synapses.
Memory retrieval is a strategy that most students do not like because their cognitive demand is significant. One option may be to create a mental map of the unit (mindmaps), which the student has in front of him when he revises and gradually removes it, until he gives it up. There are web applications for creating mind maps, which can make the process more enjoyable for our children, born in the digital age. Some of these applications allow collaborative work, bringing new dimensions to this process.
c) the method of alternating the concepts
Solving many problems of the same type is less efficient than alternating the problems in several chapters or alternating the revision in Romanian with that in Mathematics. At the same subject, the teacher can guide the revision so that concepts that are connected are studied together, and the student is helped to create connections.
d) visual representation of the information initially studied as text
This strategy is part of the same category as the previous ones, inviting the student to process the information, to transform it and represent it through his own filter. In this way, misunderstandings and gaps are easier to spot and the student creates his own learning resources.
– Ask your child if he or she has uses a variety of revision strategies at school and if so, what does he find most effective? What does he think is the most demanding from a cognitive point of view?
– Create a recap schedule with your child. Consider the spaced repetition strategy.
Learning is the only transferable skill
At first glance, the British curriculum does not seem to be complicated in Middle School. Instead, it is complex – the skills required are carefully chosen to help the student form an understanding of the complexity of each area of knowledge and give the teacher time to create intra and transdisciplinary connections. In this way, learning is deep. The child is prepared to access high levels of complexity in High School when they study concepts sometimes taught in college.
Unfortunately, the Romanian programme is very busy and unnecessarily complicated. Teachers do not have time to create learning experiences in which the student can apply and transfer what he has learned. The transition from Middle School to High School or from High School to College is very difficult for children following the national programme. The focus is on acquiring new knowledge, because there is no time to provide opportunities for connected learning. The lack of horizontal and sometimes vertical alignment of programmes is confusing in children’s minds.
In addition to the knowledge and skills that we want our students to assimilate and apply in exams, there is a higher purpose – to teach them how to learn. Renowned researchers in the education sciences suggest that “learning how to learn” is the only transferable skill. I can be creative in Math, but I’m not creative in Romanian, I can think critically about history, but I can’t think critically about science. Some skills are applicable in one area of knowledge because they depend very much on a deep understanding of that area.
The ability to learn is transferable.
– Does my child know the difference between memorizing and understanding?
– What is his learning model? Is he aware of the effectiveness of his learning model?
The efficiency of past papers
Maybe at this point you’re wondering “Does my child need to do past papers?“. Definitely yes, solving past papers is useful, but only after a deep learning process and only a few weeks before the exam. The learning process is different from the revision process, which in turn is different from the exam training tests. Solving tests that have a similar structure to the exam helps the student to become familiar with the format of the exam, the terminology, the types of questions, helping him to navigate faster during the exam.
Unfortunately, very often we see students who rely on observing patterns, similarities between versions of training tests or exams from previous years and consider that repeating these patterns is the same as learning. Very often our national exams assess subject-specific skills in contexts that are familiar. Unfortunately, this narrow type of assessment leads to misconceptions about what it means to learn and how we demonstrate what we understand.
“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts” (Einstein) – I invite you to approach the exam preparation as a time when children will be better prepared not only to get a higher grade now, but will develop skills and abilities that they will use for the rest of their lives. Only then will the exam preparation period be used effectively.
I invite you not to just look at what your child is learning now or what he or she will learn in the next school year when choosing, with him, the schooling system that suits him best. Look at the final goal of that system. What is the profile of the student at the graduation point, what kind of adult is he becoming?
One such example is the Avenor Learner Profile that can be found HERE.
Brown, Guest Author Daniel. “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.” EdApp Microlearning Blog, 14 Dec. 2018, www.edapp.com/blog/ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve/#:~:text=This%20is%20the%20basis%20of.
Hermann Ebbinghaus. Memory a Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Bristol Thoemmes Press Tokyo Maruzen, 1998.
Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School? : A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, Ca, Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Dr. Daniela Vasile, Director of Learning at Avenor College and at the same time professor of mathematics, made this informative material for Spotmedia in which she talks about how children can be helped to learn effectively for exams. The full material can be read HERE.