2014 Applied Maths paper: ‘disgraceful’ or simply ‘testing’?

Update: A number of students have taken the time to write a considered responses in the ‘Comments’ section below, so please take the time to read it to get a student’s perspective.

You might also want to look at the relevant page on the boards.ie site where there is an ongoing debate about the fairness of the exam.

The leaving cert Applied Maths syllabus is just one page long. For each topic it’s not at all clear how to prepare students properly other than by looking at past questions. Therefore when a paper comes out that varies considerably from the usual format, it’s not surprising that students end up struggling to deal with it.

This is exactly what happened in June 2013. And again in June 2014.

But maybe Applied Maths isn’t meant to be a subject where students rely on past papers as a guide. Perhaps it should an ‘anything is fair game to appear on the paper’ approach. If that’s the case the only people it will suit will be the elite students. In which case it completely goes against the DES promotion of STEM subjects in recent years.

The real killer punch here is that this is the second year in a row where the Exams Commission has produced a nasty paper. Once is (just about) understandable; twice is a disgrace.

Giving feedback on these papers is difficult.
First impressions can be quite deceptive; it’s only when you sit down to do out the questions that you get a feel for their true level of difficulty. It doesn’t help that Applied Maths is the last exam on the Leaving Cert and many teachers will no longer be in the school to meet the students in person to get immediate feedback. I personally didn’t realise how bad last year’s paper was until I gave it out as revision to this year’s sixth years after Christmas. It was a bit late then to make any complaints. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.
Apparently there is a new person setting the paper and perhaps he wishes to ‘put his own stamp’ on the paper. That would be understandable, but if only if it was done very gradually. The change in the Applied Maths paper over the past two years has been anything but gradual.

It is not outside the bounds of possibility that one person has the power to kill this subject completely. The numbers taking the subject have always been quite low; many teachers are teaching it outside normal school hours to no more than two or three students. Others who are teaching it in a school timetable have perhaps ten students and while a school could allow for this ‘luxury’ in the past, the insidious increase in the pupil-teacher ratio over the last few years has resulted in schools being forced to withdraw the subject from the normal timetable.
My own numbers are normally between ten and fifteen. In the last couple of years I have made a big effort to promote the subject including running ‘taster classes’ during lunchtime and coming in to their normal maths classes. This year 24 students have signed up to take the subject in fifth year. I’m now going to speak to all of them in the first week and ask them to think very carefully about going ahead with the subject. From a personal point of view it’s nice to say that I have a full class of students, but I’m not going to play with their futures just to massage my ego. In the past I have told interested students that they don’t need to be a genius at Maths to do Applied Maths; I’m now going to have to roll back on that one also.

Over the past two years the paper has been referred to as ‘challenging for the brighter students’. This is surely a euphemism. If the top students found it difficult then the C/B students would find it nothing short of a disaster. And as a colleague reminded me recently, when reviewing these papers there’s no point looking at it from the perspective of the A student – chances are they’ll still come out with an A regardless. But for the average student the consequences are likely to be much worse. For example two of my students (one a C student, the other a B student) simply gave up half way through. It was their seventh subject and they realised that it was going to end up as their worst result by a long shot. I could never condone a student leaving an exam early, and certainly not the Leaving Cert exam, but these are both conscientious students and I understand completely their frustration. I have contact details for each student and their parents and have sent them all an email apologising for the paper. While I didn’t set the paper, and nobody would ever think of blaming me, I do somehow feel responsible; should I have seen this coming? Should I have warned them in advance? Should I have discussed worse-case scenario with them? I certainly will do all this next year – it’s just unfortunate that it will have been a year too late for this year’s cohort.

I will also need to speak to my sixth years at the beginning of the year. Many of them do eight subjects in fifth year and drop one at the beginning of sixth year. I’d love to tell them that this year’s exam was ridiculously difficult and that the Exam Commission would never make the mistake of doing this twice. The fact of course is that they just have done it twice. And it has coincided with a new guy setting the paper. And there’s no indication that it will be any different next year. And then I’ll get them to review the evidence for themselves. At this stage we would have 5 questions covered to Leaving Cert Higher Level standard. The students simply need to look at the questions over the past ten years and see how the questions in 2013 and 2014 compare. I may be wrong, but my guess is that it won’t be pretty.
Again, it would be very dishonest to try and keep them in my class just to play the numbers game. I’ve no doubt I’ll lose some of them as a result. I can only hope that the number of students who jump ship won’t be too great.

A few years ago we set up a discussion forum to help the many Applied Maths teachers who were working in almost complete isolation.
These are comments from three of those teachers (included with their permission):

Luckily I didn’t have a class doing the Applied Maths exam this year but this paper was an awful advertisement for students to do such a specialist subject. How many students would have got one full question correct or would have thought they got one correct?. Could the answers have been more uninspiring?

It was my first year teaching a highly motivated student applied maths in one year (repeat lc student). A massive effort was put in to preparing for the exam and my student is very diligent and hardworking. How is it then that she can get no reward when faced with a paper like that? In my opinion I thought it was a disgrace and my student came out visibly upset at the thought that her work throughout the year has gone to waste. Whilst the applied maths book is great it has no resemblance to 70 per cent of the questions asked in the 2014 paper. I’m raging to say the least.

I agree fully with the comments below. This was my first applied maths exam class and what a baptism of fire! I am very disappointed with the paper and my students were very upset with it. This negative reaction will filter through and our numbers will be adversely affected by this paper.

This was the report from The Irish Times:

Unfortunately for applied maths students, who were also sitting a morning paper, they were presented with a real challenge. “Strong students were really tested,” said Hilary Dorgan of the Institute of Education. “Students expecting a C grade may have left the exam thinking they had done very badly.”
The exam required a great deal of knowledge, aptitude, calmness and an ability to get through large amounts of data, according to Dorgan. The length of the paper may not have given students a chance to think about how to approach questions.

I don’t know Hilary Dorgan but his comments repeat what I alluded to earlier; if the strong students were really tested, how must the C grade students feel?

In contrast, this was the report in The Irish Examiner:

[The] subject spokesperson for the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), said the higher level exam had some new features but the style and content were all welcome, with the opening question on linear motion featuring no underlying problems.

He said students might have been unnerved by the appearance of the more challenging elements in the first, rather than the second parts of questions on projectiles, particle dynamics and differential equations.

He said a question on collisions was set out in a way not seen before but students should have progressed well on it, and most should have been familiar with issues in a relative velocity question that looked very long at first.

I don’t know the ASTI spokesman either but it’s not likely that we’re going  to meet up anytime soon; we appear to inhabit different planets. Either that or he was guilty of the same offense as me – a quick browse through the paper giving the impression that it wasn’t too bad, whereas a more detailed analyses would reveal that it was anything but.

 

Due an upgrade? Speak to the ‘loyalty team’

This is a copy of my conversation this afternoon. Think I’ll be looking for the ‘loyalty team’ from now on.

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027Update
That was on the Wednesday.
On Friday I went to collect said iPhone.
The conversation went something like this:

Saleswoman: Sorry, but we have no record here of any of that. We can only offer you the €35 contract and it will still cost you €160
Me: But I just had the conversation two days ago and they assured me that they would update my contract details accordingly.
Saleswoman: I’m sorry, they mustn’t have updated your account yet – perhaps if you call back in a few days.
Me: Do you have the doubleyadoubleyadoubleya system on your computer?
Saleswoman: Excuse me?
Me: Would you mind opening up thinkforyourself.ie and just browsing through the last post there?
Saleswoman: Pause
Saleswoman: Just bear with me one minute please while I make a phonecall

Act Two

Saleswoman: It seems we were able to confirm your updated contracted. And we can now offer you the phone for €69 instead of €119, on an 18 month contract instead of the 24 month contract, and still keep your €20 a month price plan.
Me: Seriously?
Saleswoman: Seriously.
Pause.
Saleswoman: Just enter your pin there. Would you like to take out insurance with that?
Me: Most definitely not

You’ve messed up one of your exams. What happens now?

You’ve sat the exam. You’ve messed it up.
What happens next?

Contrary to what you feel at the time, messing up in one or two questions isn’t going to make much, if any, difference to your overall set of results. How you respond to the setback will however say a lot about your approach to overcoming adversity, not just now but in life in general.

What you’ve got to remember is that almost nobody is going to excel in every exam. So your ‘competition’ is the other students (the fact that we can use the words competition and education in the same context is an absolutely terrible indictment on what we do, but for now it is what it is). And they’re going to make mistakes too.

If you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes then it is going to adversely affect your ability to concentrate for later exams. You’ve simply got to put it behind you.
I like to use sporting analogies.
If you’re a footballer and you miss a penalty in a crucial game then you want nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow you.
But that’s not an option.

So you pick yourself up, hold your head up high and get on with the game – no matter how difficult that seems at the time.

You see nobody goes a whole match without making mistakes – it’s how you respond that determines whether or not you are a success.

So try to avoid the post-mortems, particularly if you’re not an optimist to begin with.

For what it’s worth, this also applies on a large scale. Reading about the anniversary of the Normandy Landings, a comment from one of the veterans resonated with me. In war, the side that wins is usually the side that makes the fewer mistakes.
So don’t compound one by making another.

Welcome to life.

 

 

Why do we remove Wonder from Science Education?

If it’s possible to dedicate blogposts to individuals then I choose to dedicate this to my aunt; Sr Cathy. Like many religious folk I know, her passion for Science may well surpass her passion for her religion. Or maybe she’s just passionate about everything. Either way, I’m looking forward to meeting up with her over the Easter break as part of a big extended family celebration.

Wonder is a theme we return to again in again in this blog. More specifically the theme is one of frustration that we have deliberately removed all reference in our science textbooks and syllabi to concepts that evoke a sense of wonder. And it doesn’t help that it seems to bother so few other people. Which is why every time I come across somebody else expressing the same frustration I move to wrap the up in cotton wool and store in away in s0 that I can return to it anytime I need reassurance that it’s not just me. And where better to store it than here?

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.
It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

The speaker, David Bolinsky, is famous for having created an incredible animation on the private life of cells. I have watched that video many, many times (it’s a beauty in it’s own right) but it was only when I watched its Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I zoned in on his quote above.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

That was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

That was courtesy of well known columnist George Monbiot

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it again and again until all the wonder has been removed! We are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

That one’s mine.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Anyway, the reason for this particular post is that it’s time to add the opinion of the author of what is for me the greatest book ever written in the Popular Science genre; Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I’ll paste in the short quote first, but to understand the context it deserves to be read in its entirety so I’ll follow with that (and anyway, reading Bryson could hardly be termed a chore).

It was as if he [a science textbook author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

Here is the full context:

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in  honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’
I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and ¬ privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a ¬ miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before ¬ dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the ¬ middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?
But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying – universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the  children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a  section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.

 

Why should a teacher care about Mindsets?

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage betterteaching.ie/mindsets and is also the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?
Students of low academic ability often have a low opinion of themselves and believe that they will remain academically weak no matter how hard they try. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To counter this, students need to develop a Growth rather than a Fixed Mindset. But it is important for students of all abilities. Developing a Growth Mindset is only likely to happen if teachers are aware of the issue and are prepared to work to encourage change.

Nobody rises to low expectations
Calvin Lloyd

One of the more generous things we can do for another person: believe in their capacity to change.
@alaindebotton

Teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.
John Hattie

Recent scientific evidence demonstrates both the incredible potential of the brain to grow and change and the powerful impact of growth mindset messages upon students’ attainment. Schooling practices, however, particularly in England, are based upon notions of fixed ability thinking which limits students’ attainment and increases inequality.
Link

 

What is a Fixed Mindset?
People with a Fixed Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character are all carved in stone; potential is determined at birth.

What is a Growth Mindset?
People (including students and teachers) who have a Growth Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character can be developed and that a person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable.
Those with a Fixed Mindset tend to allow failure (or success) to dictate who they are, while those with a Growth Mindset tend to see setbacks as opportunities to grow and improve themselves. These people fully appreciate that to reach their potential takes practice and perseverance.
We have a choice as to which view we adopt for ourselves and it’s never too late to change.

As teachers we are constantly communicating messages to students about their ability and learning, whether we realise it or not. If we (consciously or subconsciously) subscribe to the Fixed Mindset view then we are imparting a message to our students that they are limited in what they can achieve and how much they can improve. If however we believe in a Growth Mindset we are much more likely to push our students and they in turn may be more likely to respond positively.

Put simply, if you focus on praising the student for an impressive result rather than instead praising the effort put in, you are – bizarre though it may seem – encouraging a Fixed Mindset. And that’s not good.

 

How to go from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset
There is a lot of online information on Fixed versus Growth mindsets but not so much on how to go from one to the other. The following pointers are worth bearing in mind if you do want to go down this road:

1. A Growth Mindset is not something you can develop overnight; it is an attitude you cultivate over an extended period of time.

2. The first step in changing is to recognise that you have a fixed mindset

3. You then need to accept that it is possible to change; you do have a choice

4. Finally, ask yourself how would someone with a growth mindset respond to the challenge at hand.

Much of the research on Mindset Theory comes from Carol Dweck; here is her advice on how a whole school approach might work

First, the students learn about the brain and all the wonderful things it does. How it’s involved in everything they do and everything they care about. Then they learn that they can grow their brains. Every time they stretch out of their comfort zone, do hard things, stick to hard things, their brains form stronger and stronger connections and over time their abilities can grow. And then we show them how they can apply it to their schoolwork.
Link

Implications for STEM subjects
The Fixed Mindset view seems to be more of a challenge to girls than boys. It’s not that girls necessarily subscribe to it more than boys; but boys with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they are naturally good at these subjects while girls with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they’re not. The end result is that girls are more likely to avoid these subjects when it comes time to making a choice. I wonder if all those organisations who want to promote girls doing STEM subjects are aware of this, and if not how would it shape their programs?

Implications for Teachers as professionals
This post focuses on recognising Fixed or Growth Mindsets in our students, and encouraging them to go from one to the other.
But what about if we have a Fixed Mindset in relation to our own teaching ability? How could we recognise it, what consequences might it have and how could we change?
For another day perhaps, but if you’re interested in finding our more about it now I suggest you read some of the related blogposts on the Mindsets page of betterteaching.ie

Alternatively check out this YouTube link to a keynote lecture given by Carol Dweck in 2012. It’s 46 minutes long but it may just change how you interact with your students from now on. Unless, of course, you subscribe to a Fixed Mindset in relation to your own teaching. But if that was the case you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

Posts related to this are
Fail Better
Praise the effort, not the student (still in draft form)

Finally, below is a link to a Word document I put together to help students identify what mindset they subscribe to. It may or may not be fit for purpose, but if nothing else it will hopefully help to raise awareness of the issue with the students themselves.
Link

Keeping parents in the loop

The following is a (slightly edited) email I sent out to parents recently. I include it here because it might prompt you to do something similar. I have posted previously (see link here) about the importance of keeping parents in the loop (and it is ALWAYS appreciated by parents). Feel free to copy and edit this to suit.

Dear parent,
Thank you for taking the time to come in and see me at the recent parent-teacher meeting. I am following up to maintain contact and to give you the opportunity to ask me anything that wasn’t covered in the meeting itself.

The idea that we are to communicate only once a year is crazy and as a parent it must be difficult trying to remember the comments from ten or more teachers, so hopefully this will help you keep track of the situation in relation to Science class.

During the meeting I jotted down various points that I wanted to expand upon.
They include the following:

Textbook
We don’t use a textbook. I have found in the past that they contain a lot of extra information which isn’t necessary and for a young student it’s not always obvious which material is necessary and which isn’t. Instead they get a photocopy of notes for each chapter; these contain only the information that they will need to know. These notes also contain a copy of all exam questions that have appeared on that topic in the past (both at Ordinary Level and Higher Level) so they can become familiar with the detail required in their answers for Junior Cert itself.

Having said that, some students like to use the textbook for background reading.

Notes
I have asked the students to check that they have a copy of the notes on each of the chapters we covered this year.
If they are missing any they can ask me or they can download them themselves from thephysicsteacher.ie (click on the relevant chapter from Junior Cert Biology, Chemistry or Physics).

Each chapter should be kept in a separate polypocket.

Students should also have a ‘Chapter Checklist’ which helps them monitor what chapters are covered and which we have yet to do throughout the year. This can be downloaded from here

It should be obvious how to read it but just in case; the chapters covered in Second Year are in column 2. For the Summer exams we also include the chapters from First Year that were covered between Christmas and Summer. These are in the second half of each (Physics/Chemistry/Biology) section.

We will have all the topics covered by the end of next week. After that it’s all revision plus hopefully enough ‘fun’ science to keep everyone interested during the final term.

Experiment Book
Students are expected to keep a record of all the mandatory experiments which they carry out over the three years. Some teachers give them books which they can purchase (or which may have come with the textbook). I prefer to give them out a booklet which I made out and which has been tailored for the specific experiments which we do in class. They don’t need to put in a detailed procedure (I have this done for them). They do however need to put in a diagram and results (where appropriate). I then include a series of questions which tries to tease out whether they really understand the experiment or are just going through the motions. I find this approach leads to more effective learning, with (much)  less heartache all round, while still satisfying the requirements of the Department. They usually fill these in during the class when they have finished the experiment so there’s less likelihood of them loosing the booklets by taking them home. I can also check very quickly that all experiments are up to date.

This is worth 10 % of their final mark. The mark is not dependent on the quality of the write-up or the quality of the results, they merely need to have a record of having done the experiment and I then sign off to this effect so that they can get full marks.

Investigations
In Third Year the students carry out two investigations (the titles of which will be issued to them towards the end of the first term) and these are worth 25 % of their total mark. The marks are awarded on the basis of their write-up. We don’t need to worry about this until next year. The whole concept is a shambles, but we don’t get to make the rules so we just play ball.
See an old blogpost on this here

Tests
They should have a copy of the tests they did on each topic; this allows them to know what they got wrong and this therefore should be what they concentrate on when they go to revise. They were instructed to keep these in the same polypocket as the notes. However it may be that this system only becomes manageable as they become more organised.

Homework
You will sometimes receive advice as to how much time a student should be spending on homework on a given night. I tend to read advice like this with an impending sense of doom. When it comes to homework, it’s quality not quantity that counts. And most students just don’t know how to study properly. That’s not their fault; it’s ours for not showing them. If it was up to me I would have a separate subject on the school curriculum called simply ‘Study Skills’. But it’s not up to me. This is probably a good thing.

Revision / Study Skills / What can you do
We will shortly be revising all topics in advance of the exam. Either ask the student what topics are being revised on a given night or alternatively check what we did in class here
You can help be asking them the questions from the end of the notes (answers are also provided, in case your own Science knowledge isn’t quite up to scratch).

Why is Johnny doing great on short class tests but then performing dismally on end-of-term exams?
Doing well on short tests gives a misleading picture and quite often doesn’t translate into doing well on end-of-term exams. In fact it can often be counter-productive.

This ties in directly with what one of you mentioned that your son had said in relation to studying for exams (it had to be a boy). He claimed that “there’s no point learning a week in advance – it will be forgotten before the test”. He is spot on if all he wants to do is do well on that specific test. Cramming the night before does work (in fact it works too well for many students). The problem is that by only visiting the material once, it resides in short term memory only and is all long forgotten before the Summer exams come around.

No problem – we can just cram for everything the night before the Summer exam also – right?

Sadly no; the short term memory (working memory) has only a limited capacity so it’s not going to be able to store a year’s worth of material at short notice.

So the material needs to be in long term memory.
How do we do that?
Answer: Constant (effective)  revision

Which brings us back to Study Skills
In summary:

Don’t

·         Study for the sake of studying

·         Spend all your time reading notes

·         Spend all your time ‘doing’ the questions (if this merely involves transcribing the information from the textbook to the copy)

·         Waste time writing out the notes

·         Waste time highlighting

Do

·         Set a target

·         Study the material to ensure you ensure you understand it

·         Test yourself

·         Check your answers

·         Learn what went wrong

·         Repeat the test after a short period (say an hour)

·         Repeat again as desired

In short, learning is about retrieval of information from long-term memory.

Rather than writing any more about Homework and Study Skills here I will simply point you to two recent blogposts I penned on the subject. It’s then up to you to read or not as you see fit.
Homework – how effective is it (answer: not much)
Study Skills – how to study hard and still fail

I do try to incorporate these ideas into my own teaching, so with Second Years I give very little homework, and we try to do all our learning in class.

Why do students go through eight years of primary education and six years of secondary education (and quite possibly four or more years of third level education) without ever learning how to learn?
Beats me.
Answers on a postcard please . . .

Student Feedback
Interestingly a number of you mentioned that your son/daughter was reluctant to speak up in class. I have a couple of techniques which I use to counter that – some more successful than others.

One is the use of Coloured Cups; each student gets three cups (red, orange and green). Red means that they don’t understand what the heck I’m on about, Orange means they kinda get it but aren’t too confident. Green means that that get it and are confident that they could explain it to a colleague if asked to do so. They keep cups stacked in front of them with the appropriate cup on top. It means that I can ascertain how the class is going with a quick scan, and as I’m walking around I can stop and take time with an individual where necessary. Tied to that is the use of MiniWhiteBoards (“ShowMe” boards) – students are often happy to write an answer on these in contrast to putting up their hand so it’s another useful weapon to have in the armory. I would however ask that you purchase a couple of whiteboard markers for this purpose. I asked the students to get these themselves but I’m still waiting . . .

In order to make the learning more effective I try to make sure that the students are engaging with their learning. This means getting them to solve problems, make predictions or answer questions in advance of doing an experiment or showing them a demonstration.
Some students are reluctant to make a prediction or take on a challenge because they associate making mistakes (or not getting the right answer) with failure. And they see failure as being Bad. I try to dissuade them of this notion – that failure is a necessary part of the learning process -  but sometimes feel I’m trying to hold back the tide. Therefore it was nice to see that The Science Gallery are currently holding an exhibition on Failure entitled Fail Better. If you get a chance you should head in there with your son/daughter and hopefully they will come away with (as Johnny Cash says) a different point of view. And – you’ve guessed it – I have written about this in more detail here

Academically exceptional students
For some of you, your son/daughter is in the academically exceptional category. You will no doubt have noticed that this can be a mixed blessing in school because, as a rule, teachers just don’t know how to accommodate these students. There are a number of support organisations out there but the one I would recommend most highly is the one with the greatest personal touch; giftedireland.ie
Tell Catherine I sent you.

Gifted Ireland is a meeting point for parents, teachers and adults interested in supporting and exploring the needs of gifted children and adults in Ireland

If I can help you in any other way please don’t hesitate to give me a shout by email or via a quick text08.

Study Skills: Engagement and Retrieval

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage betterteaching.ie/studyskills and is also the first link on that page.
It also complements a previous post on the same topic: Misconceptions about how students learn  – otherwise known as How to Study Hard and Still Fail.

Why might this post help make me be a better teacher?

  • Teaching students how to study more effectively at home should be a normal part of every teacher’s job description (but isn’t). The benefit of developing a student’s study skills is self-evident.
  • Many of the these skills also relate to how a student learns best in the classroom and so should form an intrinsic part of your teaching methodology.

Key Points

  1. Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them – and even if they have attended a study seminar, chances are that it didn’t make much difference because we teachers don’t follow up it with them.
  2. This is due in no small part to the fact that we don’t know what constitutes effective study.
  3. All study techniques are not equal
    One half hour of effective studying is much more beneficial than two or three hours of ineffective study.


Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them. Only we – their teachers – can help in this regard. Our first step is to familiarise ourselves with the knowledge. Knowing how students learn should dramatically alter our approach to our classroom teaching.

The fact that students don’t know how to study may come as a shock, but when you think about it it shouldn’t. After all, nobody has ever taken the time to show them what techniques are effective and just as importantly what techniques are ineffective.

So what constitutes ineffective study?

  1. Highlighting material
  2. Writing out notes from a textbook or copying from teachers’ notes
  3. Reading over material covered in class
  4. Looking at mindmaps
  5. Cramming the night before the exam
  6. Making flashcards

Whaaaaaat?
These are not completely ineffective (and some are slightly more beneficial than others) but by in large they should be avoided. Of the six techniques outlined above, writing out notes is the greatest scoundrel in that it takes an inordinate amount of time, whereas highlighting, though equally ineffective, at least doesn’t waste that much time. It doesn’t help that the student may well believe that he has a good grasp of the material after writing it out; the point is that he is much less likely to remember the material long term using this technique.

Having said that, if you are highlighting or writing out material as a first step in the learning process (i.e. with a view of going back over the material using the effective learning techniques outlined below) then that’s a different story.

So what constitutes effective study?
Answer: anything which involves engagement and/or retrieval

  1. Testing yourself (and following up in an appropriate manner)
  2. Teaching others
  3. And you need to have set specific targets (both short and long-term

The ideal way to go about testing yourself is to first read over the material to confirm that you understand it. Then answer as many questions as you can on the topic, whether they be from the book or from exam papers.

Now you have to go back and check the answers.

The purpose of the test is two-fold; it acts to highlight what you don’t know but also – and this is the key point – it is in the act of retrieving the information that it becomes more securely stored in the long term memory. In short, it’s all about retrieval.

Aside – how your brain stores information
Your brain is not an empty vessel into which you can pour and store information. In so far as it can be considered to be a vessel of any type it should be seen as being a leaky one. You could also make comparisons to the memory in a computer; it seems to store information in either its hard drive (long term memory) or RAM (short term memory). In both cases there is one critical difference between the computer’s memory and yours; yours is leaky. The challenge for students is to ensure that the information is stored as securely as possible in their long-term memory. So how can they do this? Two words: Engagement and Retrieval.

Why are some techniques ineffective?
The six ineffective techniques outlined above all fail simply because there is little if any engagement with the material. While this is obviously context dependent, writing out notes can often (but not always!) consist of simply transferring material from one page to another with very little thinking going on in the process. The same goes for most of the other techniques in this category.

Consider the following:
Think of how difficult it is to remember the names of a group of people you’ve just been introduced to in some social scene.
If it was just one new name (one item of information) then there’s a good chance that you might remember, but if the number is closer to ten then you have no chance. Why not?
Because the information has passed over you without you having any chance to engage with it.

Think of it from another perspective. Your brain can remember an incredible amount of information, but not an infinite amount. So it needs some signal to determine whether information it is currently exposed to (notation for Boyle’s Law or hair-colour of a passing student) needs to be remembered or not. What signal does it use?
Answer: Engagement.
The more you engage with the material the more the brain realises that this is not just some random factoid than should be discarded as quickly as possible. But what does the word ‘engagement’ mean? I think of it as anything that causes the brain to come out of its ‘Sleep Mode’. Hence testing yourself and teaching (or even better arguing) with others.

So this helps the brain store the information in the first place. But bearing in mind that the memory is a leaky vessel, how do we keep the information there?
Answer: Retrieval.
To go back to the analogy used above, if you’re at the party and were introduced to just one man then you may or may not be able to recall his name one minute later. If however you have  no subsequent dealings with him then you’re much less likely to remember the information a week later. Why not? Because the brain works on the (reasonable) assumption that if you haven’t recalled the information over a relatively long period of time then it’s probably not important. So how do you ensure that the brain keeps the information? By retrieving it every so often (revision tests are therefore ideal). If you’re retrieving it then you’re ‘telling’ your brain that this information is worth hanging on to.

When is the best time to retrieve the information?
The research seems to be still out on this one, but one strong possibility is that the best time for retrieval is when the information is just on the point of being lost (the old ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ feeling). Of course there’s no way of knowing when a student is at this point, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb to go by.

This explains why cramming is not an effective learning technique. It may well get you past the short chapter test which you have the following day, but because there was no engagement and no regular retrieval going on, the information isn’t likely to remain in the memory for long.

This of course can serve to open up a bigger debate: from a student’s perspective doing well on a short test without ever understanding the material is still a perfectly valid objective. The challenge is for us as teachers to persuade students of the futility of this. The phenomenon is most easily identified when you look at a student who averages 80% or 90% in class tests at Junior Cert level, but then bombs an end of year exam. Now you (and hopefully they) can understand why.

It’s worth noting that most of this relates to studying factual information. Studying a language or a practical skill does of course rely on lots of practice. But even here you could fall foul of some misconceptions. Practicing without engaging (or without getting feedback) is of limited use. So for example if you want to improve your typing speed, practice by itself will bring your speed up to a certain level but it will then plateau. To increase it further you need to engage with what you’re learning and this is where a typing program comes in.

Spacing and Interleaving
Two other important concepts when studying are Spacing and Interleaving.

Spacing
When learning new material or new skills, spacing the learning episodes over large periods of time will improve the long-term retention.

Interleaving
If studying 3 subjects over one night, it’s much more effective to interleave them rather than studying subject 1 then subject 2 then subject 3 (which is the default but also ‘lazy’ way).

For more information on spacing and interleaving click on the links that I uploaded to the following webpage: http://www.betterteaching.ie/studyskills.html

So how do I use this information in the classroom?
If your subject is fact-based then testing should be a regular feature of your classes. But you need to stress that the function of the test is not to come up with a percentage at the end (in fact this is actually likely to be counterproductive); it is to identify what is and is not known or understood, and also (possibly more importantly) the act of retrieval serves to store the self-same information more securely for the future. So rather than spending the first ten minutes of your class checking and correcting homework (see this link for my post on the dubious benefits of setting homework), and a better policy may be using this time to run a short quiz covering important points from the previous class or classes. Only you can ascertain the best way of doing this, but don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t expect to get it write first time or every time.

Once I became aware of the importance of engagement  in student learning (otherwise known as ‘deep processing’) it changed how I try and teach every single lesson of every single day.

I give a version of this post to students but include a series of questions at the end (it helps them to engage).
:)

Ask and you shall receive