Month: April 2016

Teaching Students Good Study Habits, April 2016

Many instructors are breathing a great sigh of relief now that the semester is winding down.  We have done our job—shared information, modeled problem-solving strategies, and provided samples and thought-provoking opportunities for practice.  As we approach finals week, however, we may want to focus on one more teaching responsibility: helping our students prepare for final exams.

In her book A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley recommends “Ten Rules of Good Studying”; why not take a few moments of class time to review these with your students?

  1. Use recall.  After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. An ability to recall—to generate the ideas from inside yourself—is one of the key indicators of good learning.
  2. Test yourself.  On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.
  3. Chunk your problems.  Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Pretend it’s a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind, so the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.
  4. Space your repetition.  Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete. Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your practice.  Never practice too long at any one session using only one problem-solving technique—after a while, you are just mimicking what you did on the previous problem. Mix it up and work on different types of problems. This teaches you both how and when to use a technique. (Books generally are not set up this way, so you’ll need to do this on your own.) After every assignment and test, go over your errors, make sure you understand why you made them, and then rework your solutions. To study most effectively, hand write (don’t type) a problem on one side of a flash card and the solution on the other. (Handwriting builds stronger neural structures in memory than typing.) You might also photograph the card if you want to load it into a study app on your smartphone. Quiz yourself randomly on different types of problems. Another way to do this is to randomly flip through your book, pick out a problem, and see whether you can solve it cold.
  6. Take breaks.  It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts in math or science the first time you encounter them. This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying all at once. When you get frustrated with a math or science problem, take a break so that another part of your mind can take over and work in the background.
  7. Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies.  Whenever you are struggling with a concept, think to yourself, How can I explain this so that a ten-year-old could understand it? Using an analogy really helps, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water. Don’t just think your explanation—say it out loud or put it in writing. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are learning.
  8. Focus.  Turn off all interrupting beeps and alarms on your phone and computer, and then turn on a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus intently for those twenty-five minutes and try to work as diligently as you can. After the timer goes off, give yourself a small, fun reward. A few of these sessions in a day can really move your studies forward. Try to set up times and places where studying—not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you naturally do.
  9. Eat your frogs first.  Do the hardest thing earliest in the day, when you are fresh.
  10. Make a mental contrast.  Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies will take you. Post a picture or words in your work space to remind you of your dream. Look at that when you find your motivation lagging. This work will pay off both for you and those you love!

(Excerpted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), Penguin, July, 2014.)

Find this list, as well as the “Ten Rules of Bad Studying,” on Oakley’s Website.  Perhaps recommend that students read Oakley’s book; it offers excellent techniques and strategies for learning that can be applied to all disciplines.  Even better, suggest that students take her free MOOC (massive open online course), Learning How to Learn.

Designing Summative Tests for Learning, April 2016

When is the last time you thought critically about the way you design and use tests?  Do your tests simply assess your class’s ability to repeat information, or do they offer students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking?  Are they tools that encourage student learning or simply exercises signaling the end of a unit?

Designing Effective Tests—Linda Nilson, author of Teaching at Its Best, recommends that before you write any test, you think seriously about what you are trying to accomplish with it:  Review your learning outcomes (identifying each one’s cognitive level) and ensure that your test assesses them adequately.  There’s no value to a test that assesses students’ ability to memorize hundreds of terms, for example, if the course learning outcomes all focus on the higher-order skills associated with evaluating real-world situations.

Preparing Students for Tests—Nilson suggests that the most effective way to conduct a review session is to insist that students come prepared to ask specific questions on the material and answer any review questions on their own—ask the class for answers before offering your own input.  Perhaps your input could be yet more questions that guide students toward understanding, but students should know that you will not be summarizing the lectures or reading, nor providing any answers.  To prepare students for tests, she proposes that instructors

  • Test early and often
  • Compose test questions immediately after covering the material in class
  • Give detailed written instructions for all tests
  • Start the test with some warmup (easy, low-stress) questions
  • Have another instructor evaluate the test for clarity and content
  • Proofread the test for errors
  • After the test, analyze and revise the test

Encouraging Students to Reflect on their Learning—Even summative assessments can and should provide opportunities for student learning, but students often dismiss graded exams after only a cursory glance.   Why not encourage students to reflect deeply on their learning by teaching them how to analyze their graded tests and evaluate their test preparation?  Educational psychologist Kristen L. Roush, PhD, recommends that although “many students have given little thought to their own role in their study habits and test-taking ability,” through her Test Performance Reflection model, students become aware of their behavior and its consequences, and they take more responsibility for their learning.  Roush’s model helps students recognize

  • The importance of comprehension, not just memorization
  • The possible need to work through a test more slowly
  • The value of paying attention to details
  • The danger of second-guessing
  • The value of asking for help
  • When/which study preparations are and are not working

Learn more about this model in this week’s 20-Minute Mentor video “What Key Factors Influence Test Performance?” (available only through Sunday, April 17th).