Exam Countdown

It may sound glaringly obvious but if you haven’t started revising … then there is NO TIME like the present! It is never too late.

S is for Success, S is also for…

START!

It may sound glaringly obvious but if you haven’t started revising … then there is NO TIME like the present! It is never too late. If you don’t know where to start go back to basics. Start with the content of each examinable subject. Ask yourself: What is it I need to know? Your teachers may have already provided you with a form of syllabus. If not, obtain one for each subject. The syllabus will help you frame the content of each subject. What are the units, topics and sub-topics? What is the specific content within the sub-topics that I need to know?

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 10.39.12It may help to map this content. This will give you an overview of the subject and allow you to see where topics fit in and with each other. Syllabus snapshots are available as free downloads on our website: www. amazingbrains.co.uk/syllabus-snapshots

Your next step is to gather together all the class notes, textbooks and materials you need for each subject. If you’re missing something then speak to your teacher about accessing that material. Next, organise your notes into different coloured files. Divide up units and topics using file dividers.

Organising and structuring your notes in this way should help you feel a sense of control.

When preparing your study planner make sure you allow time to cover all content. Check your planner tasks against your syllabus and teacher revision lists.  Then, get cracking – choose your first subject, unit and topic and begin the process of condensing material into bite-sized, memorable notes.

S is for STRIVE

Commit to the process and challenge yourself to be your personal best over the next 8 weeks. A little bit of pressure can be good for performance but too much can spill over and cause stress. Be careful. Set yourself some realistic target grades. These don’t have to be school predicted grades – they can be your own personal targets!! Are you sitting on a ‘C’ for a subject but know that with extra work and focus you could get to a ‘B’? If so set yourself a B grade target for that subject. Be realistic. If you achieved a D grade in one of your mocks three weeks ago, and are just beginning to revise now, then it is unlikely that you will achieve a Grade A. However, you may be able to jump up a grade or maybe even two!

S is for SPACE

By space we mean both physical space – the place you study and psychological space – giving yourself permission to take some downtime.

Physical Space

The ‘place’ you revise is crucial to your ability to concentrate, be relaxed and engaged in the individual sense-making activity that is studying.

That space may involve a desk and chair, a study wall, a bean bag – only you will know what works best. The important thing is that it is a relatively quiet space (particularly if you are engaging in revision of complex concepts) and it has no distractions.

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With the best will in the world, it is near impossible to ignore phone notifications that are ‘pinging’ in the background as you work. For a start you are likely to think “I’d better check, in case it is something important, or in case I am missing out on something!!’ If you want to maximise productivity, then remove the phone from the study space. This requires discipline – but it will be worth it!

A common question we are asked by students is – “should I be listening to music when studying?” There is much contradictory research on this topic. Our advice is this. If you tend to listen to music then test whether or not it is of actual benefit to you as an individual. Try studying with and without the music and, then at a later stage of your revision session, test yourself by recalling what you have learnt. Be honest about the results!

Last thing – if you enjoy studying in your bedroom (and you are being productive) then by all means continue to do so. However, think also about other options for a study space – another room in the house, the local library or school (many schools offer after school study). Your bedroom can then become your sanctuary – somewhere for headspace.

Psychological Space

Relaxation

Speaking of headspace – give yourself permission to breathe and relax. Your body and mind will reward you for it in the long term: provided of course that you aren’t spending 90% of your time relaxing and 10% studying!! Maintaining a balance of work, rest, sleep and exercise is crucial to exam success.

S is for STRATEGY

Stick to the evidence in terms of study strategies.

·      Space out your revision and work in small manageable chunks (30-45 mins at a time).

·      Test yourself as you go and revisit material on 4 or 5 occasions (time permitting).

·      Try to retrieve from memory (on a blank sheet) the material you have been revising.

·      Generate questions from your revision notes and ask a family member to question you.

·      Teach friends or peers what you are learning.

·      Interleave topics – mix them up for more effortful learning.

·      Dual code your revision notes by using words and graphics.

Remember re-reading is only effective if it is used in conjunction with retrieval practice. Re-reading can give us a false sense of security. We recognise the information and so think we know it. This is fine if you are sitting a series of multiple choice tests! However, the acid test of whether or not we really know something is being able to recall it from memory without the aid of notes or textbooks.

S is for SUPPORT

Exam time can be stressful for some students so it’s really important to try to keep a sense of perspective. You can only do your best and no one expects more than that. You may feel lonely at times but remember you are never alone. There are teachers, friends and family members there to support you. Don’t be afraid to share your concerns.

Parent with Male Student

Whatever happens on results day – it’s not the end of the world, it is just one moment in time, one part of your education journey! GOOD LUCK!

 

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Study Strategy: Spaced Practice

We’ve all done it in the run up to exams… in fact when most of us were at school there didn’t seem to be an alternative option. That thing was of course CRAMMING!

Everything you had learnt in the previous 3, 6 or 9 months was crammed into your head, over a finite period of time, in the hope that it all remained in short term memory until the exam paper was set out in front of you – then bingo – it would all come flowing out majestically!

In those days we didn’t know an awful lot about the science of learning, about the importance of consistently reviewing information in order to transfer it to long-term memory or about the difference between recognising material and being able to recall it. We just got used to the cram mentality – I even remember a friend of mine taking caffeine drugs to keep them awake for an ‘all night’ study session.

 The Science Bit

Thankfully the science has progressed and we now have concrete evidence of the benefits spacing out revision over time has over cramming. In the science of learning we call this debate ‘spaced practice v massed practice.’ Although, really there isn’t much of a debate. The evidence is conclusive – spaced practice (or the spacing effect) improves recall in almost all circumstances.

The concept of spacing has its roots in the late 1800s psychology and in the work of Ebbinghaus.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted, at the time, what was landmark research – he found that there is an exponential loss in the ability to recall information over time unless it is consistently reviewed. In other words, if we don’t review material we will forget it. Even though this might sound like common sense to most of us, for some reason we don’t always seem to help our young people apply this principle to their learning – and in particular to preparation for exams.

The forgetting curve appears simplistic but the principle behind it has, since the Ebbinghaus era, been well established in the literature.

We begin to forget almost immediately after the learning of new material. The more we review (at spaced intervals) the higher our chance of being able to recall the same information.

Spaced Practice in practice

When working with students I sometimes use the analogy of sport when talking about concepts like spaced practice.

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For example, let’s say your child learns a new turn in football – the Cruyff turn. They learn the skill at training and plan to use it in the cup final in 3 months

Would they:

  1. Learn the turn, practice it that night, forget about it until the night before the final and then stay up through the night trying to remember how to do it (whilst getting very little sleep).
  2. Learn the turn, consistently practice it and by the time the final comes be proficient in how to do it.

Imagine these two scenarios – how do you think your child would perform on cup final day?

Now take that to a learning scenario – they are learning new concepts every day and often not revisiting them until it comes to the cup final – otherwise known as the exams!!

The reason spaced practice is so effective as a technique is that it provides us with a framework for ensuring material is transferred from short to long-term memory. When it’s in long-term memory we can dip in and retrieve it whenever we need – in this case, that time is during exams.

Ideally, spaced practice shouldn’t just begin when students approach exam time. To benefit fully from the spacing effect students should develop a ‘spaced planner’ immediately after learning, planning out, revisiting/reviewing/practicing the same topics at spaced intervals.

However, not all students will do this and to be fair many may not even know how effective this strategy actually is, never mind how to practically apply it.

As long as they begin the revision process early then there can still be enough time to ensure a number of reviews of the same material – thus enabling the transfer of knowledge and understanding to long-term memory. Of course there is a last resort – if your child has not completed any revision in the lead up to the exams then by all means tell them to cram!! Something is better than nothing.

Teenage Girl Happy With Good Exam Results

The reality is – cramming causes exam stress and a feeling of ‘loss of control.’ Spacing creates calm and a feeling of being in control. Think back to you last set of exams – which of those feelings would you have preferred?

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

 

Study Strategy: Retrieval Practice

Having worked with 250,000 students over a 10-year period we are well versed in their needs and demands when preparing for exams.

We are particularly aware of the fundamental mistakes that can be made when it comes to learning and revision. As an interested parent, it will probably not come as a surprise to you to learn that two of the most common study strategies claimed by students to be effective for them, are in fact, according to evidence, the most ineffective. Those strategies are of course the comfort blankets of: re-reading notes and highlighting.

When students simply read and re-read their notes they are quite often fooling themselves: believing they know the material when in fact they often just recognise it. In the science of memory recognition is a fundamentally different concept to recall.

When students recognise material, it often gives them a false sense of security … “I’ve seen this information before, I get it, therefore I know it”. Recognition might work for the odd multiple-choice test but we should never rely on it! The acid test of whether a student really knows and understands material lies in their ability to be able to recall (or retrieve) the information from memory, essentially what cognitive scientists call retrieval practice.

The Evidence Base

There is now conclusive evidence from the world of the science of learning that retrieval practice (bringing information to mind) is extremely beneficial as a study strategy and, luckily, it is a very simple and equally powerful technique.

Fortunately, much of this plethora of research  is also very accessible to lay people (non41Xea-9egML._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_-1-academics)! For example, in his research, Roediger, (one of the authors of the excellent book – ‘Make it Stick’) found that retrieval practice helps with future retention; it enables students to identify gaps in knowledge quite quickly and produces better organization of knowledge.

Among others, Cranney et al (2009) and McDermott et al (2014) have also written on the benefits and effectiveness of retrieval practice as a strategy for learning and retention.

Practical Application

Retrieval practice can take a number of forms:

1. Quizzing (Individual or Peer)

Students should try self-generating questions on flashcards and, without looking at material, quiz themselves on it. Or better still – they could get together with a classmate or family member and do this. It’s imperative that they try to explain their thinking and elaborate on answers where possible.

2. Past Paper Questions

Test DayThey should take as many practice tests as possible. Past papers are easily found on exam body websites (one example: CCEA Past Papers ). It’s best if they set themselves up at home as if in an actual exam to become familiar with test conditions.

Make sure they review their answers to find out what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know and need to re-learn or review again.

3. Recall on a Blank Sheet

They should put away all class materials, textbooks etc and recall from memory (e.g write or sketch) everything they know about a selected topic. It works best to do this as a pre-test (at the beginning of a study session) or after a break.

Retrieval practice is best used with spaced practice (spacing out study over time). In other words, test and retest to ensure key information is being remembered. We shall return to spaced practice in more detail in next week’s blog. If you’re interested in our Study System, it is based on the principles of spaced and retrieval practice. We will also be reviewing the evidence around the use of highlighters in a later blog! Stay tuned.

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

Study Strategy: Dual Coding

When you think back to your own learning and studying patterns in school, what jumps to mind? Is it the lengthy paragraphs in your subject textbook or is it your own handwritten notes, images and visual cues? Maybe it’s the teacher talking, telling a story, and engaging your emotions or perhaps more a mix of some or all of the above formats.

When we were at school much less thought was put into the impact of multiple delivery formats on student engagement and motivation, and perhaps even less time was targeted at what the evidence said about what helps make information ‘stick’.

The Science Bit

According to the Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, the Dual Coding theory of cognition was proposed first by Allan Paivio in 1971 in order to explain the significant effects of imagery on recall.

The core concept of Dual coding is quite simple – the “human mind operates with two distinct classes of mental representation (or “codes”), verbal representations and mental images, and … human memory thus comprises two functionally independent (although interacting) systems or stores, verbal memory and image memory.” Imagery aids the recall of verbal material because when a word evokes a related image (either spontaneously, or through deliberate effort), two separate but linked memory traces are laid down, one in each of the two memory stores. The chances of retention and retrieval are much greater when stored in two (rather than one) distinct functional locations.

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The Practical Application

Put simply, Dual Coding is the process of combining visual and verbal material. By using both formats your memory has a much better chance of retaining information. Why? Because information is processed through two separate but linked channels.

Most of us have undoubtedly used ‘dual coding’ when we were studying but didn’t necessarily have the scientific name for it. More than likely we did so based on an intuitive hunch of what might work! What’s exciting in the present day (and particularly so for students) is that there is now concrete evidence from cognitive psychology that, if used correctly, the technique is highly effective for studying.

In practical terms, students might decide to use a range of visual formats for the purpose of studying e.g. sketchnotes, mind maps, infographics, diagrams, photos or even videos. The format might also vary depending on the subject. Diagrams, for example, might work best for biology or geography and sketchnotes for history.

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A Picture Speaks 1,000 Words: Sketchnotes

Sketchnoting is becoming increasingly popular with students. Sketchnotes are essentially visual summaries of text that include both handwritten notes and drawings/images. If we really think about it, the whole point of notetaking is to capture ideas for future reference. Unsurprisingly then, combining graphics and words during note-taking will make the information more memorable. Added to this is emerging evidence that sketchnotes make notes more interesting and may help engage students more thoroughly with the material.

A short word of caution on dual coding however. Keep it simple, keep all images relevant (otherwise they become a distraction), study in small manageable chunks and avoid using too many formats for the one concept. You want to avoid cognitive overload (having too much information to process). Tune in to future blogs for more on cognitive overload and other learning concepts.

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

Study Strategy: Deliberate Practice

Practice doesn’t always make perfect despite the popularity of this saying. However, deliberate practice (a term coined by Anders Ericsson) does lead to improvement and, ultimately, success.  According to Ericsson that means practicing activities that lead to maximizing improvement through development towards expert performance. This sounds complex and a little highbrow. Put more simply, it means the identification of strategies that work and practicing these in an efficient and effective way.

If you have read our first two blogs on mindset and neuroplasticity then you will appreciate the importance of understanding the amazing capacity of the human brain. More importantly, you will know that any innate talents (perceived or otherwise) are simply the starting point – not only can we learn new things, but we can become smarter. In fact, with the right guidance, support and coaching (or teaching), we can achieve more than is often thought possible.

Application to School

Does your child work really hard, put the effort in and yet doesn’t seem to ‘get anywhere’? Is s/he re-reading notes, highlighting information, spending hours studying and not making progress? If this is your child, s/he should be congratulated firstly, for having the motivation and determination to study. But, secondly, it is worth exploring with them why the hard work isn’t paying off. With study in particular there isn’t always a correlation between the quantity (number of hours) devoted to it and the quality of the end result. Deliberate practice plays a central role in a quality outcome.

Applied to schooling, deliberate practice involves the act of studying in a very strategic way, using evidence of what works. It is well-defined, specific, goal-directed and consists of repeated stretch and challenge. On this journey, progress is the goal. Deliberate practice therefore involves critical learning opportunities, especially in times of ‘failure’ or under-performance. In our culture, failure is typically associated with negative feelings, including shame and embarrassment. Elsewhere, in East Asia for instance, failure is embraced as a positive opportunity to learn.

What might deliberate practice actually look like for your child’s study patterns?

  1. It will involve a maximum 45-minute study session at any one time, followed by a 10-minute break and 5-minute review.
  2. It will involve interleaving, that is, changing the order in which topics are studied to guarantee more effortful learning. Homework practices would also benefit from this mixed ordering.
  3. It will involve the organization of study sessions that guide your child to recall knowledge and demonstrate his/her understanding, without the aid of study/text/notes.
  4. It will involve a spaced revision schedule, that is, the revision of new material on up to four occasions in order to create and strengthen new neural pathways, and then commit this to longer-term memory.

As a parent, you can be directly involved in these deliberate practices. Quiz your child about what they are learning. Quizzes can be fun! Challenge them to answer a past paper question. Encourage them to take a blank sheet of paper and to retrieve from memory, without the aid of study notes, something they have learned in class or have revised that day.

Studying should always involve specific goals rather than working towards a broad and general outcome. Not only will smaller more manageable chunks help with setting goals but this also helps your child to move from basic to more sophisticated goals.

Tune in to future blogs to hear more about our Ultimate Study System (built on evidence of what works, including deliberate practice), about the differences between recognition and recall, and how to design study sessions to maximize your child’s learning. Until next time …

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.