Monday, August 11, 2008

Preparing students for exams

We had a great lecturer (now retired) Kevin Casey at uni. He was of the view that learning was basically a factor of time. Given extra time most students could learn the same concepts.

Confidence in exams is a similar concept. Take one student that had extreme exam anxiety - she would frequently throw up before exams, have shakes and rarely display her progress. Some would say that she is a prime candidate for alternate assessment. I would suggest that in many cases this is exactly what not to do. (In life she has proven that she has great coping skills in highly stressful (eg exam like) situations).

In considering her exam phobia I sat her down and looked into what her core issue was. She was a student that had had repetitively reinforced 'I can't do maths because I'm a girl syndrome,' from both parents and past teachers. She also had an almost photographic memory - anything placed in front of her could be instantly recited back.

So I thought to myself let's fix the confidence issue then fix the maths. I considered learning methods I was familiar with and selected mastery based learning as the key tool. Mastery based learning is a great way to attack confidence issues as students repeat activities to the point of automaticity - the point where they don't have to think. This was important as she was brain freezing in exams, thrashing and stressing to the point of uselessness. Mastery based learning is not the most fun way to learn all the time - but it is a great way of showing to a student that they have ability.

Next we did a lot of boring repetitious stuff until she hated me, maths and statistics. But.. she (for the first time since year 7) not only passed but managed to get 80% on her test... and this was the pattern thereafter in not only maths but in other subjects.

We also went through the main steps when attacking an exam:
  • Don't panic
  • Determine the time per question/mark and monitor regularly
  • Read the whole paper before answering anything
  • Order questions from easiest to hardest - do the easiest first and build confidence
  • Don't get stuck - move on..
  • Don't write comments about how hard it is to the marker or doodle on the page
  • Don't rub out working / show all working
  • Go back over the exam at the end - ensure that each question is attempted
  • Take note of when the teacher/lecturer says 'this is in the exam' - put a star next to it.
  • Prepare your notes 1 week before the exam and add to them throughout the remaining week
  • Don't panic
  • Pick your study buddy carefully
  • If revision sheets or trial/past exam papers are available... do them
  • Complete assignments to the best of your ability - this will lower exam pressure later on.
  • Avoid friendship based group assignments
  • Complete as much as you can in class - keep an eye on what the 'top' students are doing
  • Try and guess the types of questions in the exam - make sure you have attempted the questions at the end of exercises and chapters
  • Ask your teacher or lecturer for direction (they can only say no)
  • Don't panic

Students that do well in mathematics have well practiced skills before they attempt to apply them (in assessment or practical applications) and before they are able to choose between multiple skills to determine an optimal solution.

Practice makes perfect.

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