I have mentioned before that learning came suddenly to me at about age 18. Prior to that, I struggled to stay awake in class, never mind getting A’s on tests. Contrast that with my experience in college, where I couldn’t wait until the professor posted the scores so I could see if I finished #1, #2, or #3 in the class. The way I did it will definitely help you out.
First, you have to prepare yourself for some effort. People sometimes imagine that the brain is like a video camera. If we expose ourselves to information, we think, our brains will capture it. We sometimes hear people refer to children as “sponges” because they seem to soak up information. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. It seems better to think about recoding and retrieving information. In other words, we need to actively work with information and make a strategy for accessing it. We will talk about how to do it, but first let’s look at a couple of assumptions about learning and test taking.
Assumption #1: We don’t necessarily get to keep what we learn. I found this post on a message board:
“I’m 4 1/2 years out from medical school, 1 1/2 from residency.
I doubt I’ve retained 10% of what I learned in medical school. It’s probably nowhere near that much. Hell, I doubt I have a quarter of the information in my head that I needed to pass the medical boards in August of 2005. I don’t think I’m that unusual.”
So, an A grade on a test may, sometimes, tell us how well a student prepared to take the test and that the student put in that effort . If the information is not used or reviewed periodically, it will be lost. I had a friend in grad school who was an ER physician. He told me that the doctors he knew had forgotten their chemistry knowledge. Use it or lose it is the idea here, just like muscle strength and size. That is why many professions have continuing education requirements.
Assumption #2: Tests tell us who is “smartest” in the class. This is a philosophical/value oriented issue. I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Einstein, “Know where to find the information and how to use it–that is the secret to success.” Our education system places a high value on test scores and ranks students based on those data. I have spent most of my career doing evaluation and assessment, so I’m certainly not against it. I wouldn’t want to have a major surgery scheduled with a surgeon who never took a test in his training. But, people need to apply knowledge and multiple choice tests do not necessarily prove that the test taker can solve problems creatively or use what he/she knows.
So, we have scratched the surface a bit on the complexity surrounding testing. What you probably want to know is, “How can I help my child get A’s.” Let’s get into that a bit.
Remember, I said that we have to “work” with the information, or “recode/encode” it. Maybe I should say we have to “play around” with the information. First, let’s get the right attitude. Go ahead and make it a game. I tell my 11-year old that the school game is, in fact, a game. But, it is an important game. There are “trick questions” on most tests. I learned to watch for them. What is the purpose of a trick question? To test knowledge? To help make a normal curve? To test logic, not information? It doesn’t matter, for our purposes. You will see them.
How to beat a trick question: There is no formula for it. But, we can increase our chances of scoring a correct answer by a) being ready for the trap and evaluating the logic of the question. For example, the famous “Some months have 30 days and some have 31 days. How many months have 28 days?” Well, forget the set up. Just look at the last part of the question, “How many months have 28 days?” Now it is simple. All of them. b) watch the language with a skeptical eye. If the question begins with, “A rooster laid an egg on a roof pitched at a 45 degree angle…” then you know it is a trick question. Roosters don’t lay eggs. So, a major technique in trick question design is distraction. The aim is to distract the test taker with some “important” sounding facts so to promote a basic thought error.
Study your teacher/professor: I learned early on that if the teacher talks about it in class and I see it in the text-book, I was pretty sure that it would be on a test or quiz. This means that you have to go to class. Go to class. Figure out what your teacher wants you to know.
Read the answers first: Having the answer fresh in your mind before reading the question is a tried and true technique. It can help you rule out the nonsense options and also prime your memory to recognize the correct question stem. This works great on multiple choice tests. Reading the last part of the question, again, helps a lot, too.
Write: Yeah, I know it will take time, but you do want that A, don’t you? Anything that might be on the test, from notes to text books, write (preferably in your own words) and study. I did this religiously and expected to get 100% on most of the tests I used it on.
Reduce the information: There are plenty of resources on the web or at your library that talk about mnemonic strategies (memory strategies). Most of them involve taking a lot of information and reducing and conceptualizing it. Memory is associative. That means that concepts lead to concepts. Songs are usually easier to memorize than poems. That is because the rhythm and melody jogs our memories. Consider spelling the word “rhythm”. I read about one guy who learned to spell it by memorizing the phrase “Red Hot You Two Headed Monster”. The sillier the association, the more likely you are to recall it.
Do the easy ones first: This is a time management strategy. You can come back to the ones you are uncertain of later.
I call it playing the academic game not to belittle it. What I mean is, beating a test can be a fun game. People do better when they are having fun. So, be as creative as you can in developing learning habits. Griffin and I have had a lot of fun coming up with ways to memorize information for a test. You can, too.