Executive Function

Learning to Learn

Our primary goal at Smarten Up is to help students become learners. We want them to learn how to read and do math, to learn about the history of our world and the science behind it, and to learn about themselves. To do this, we empower them with a robust set of tools and strategies that they can use to tackle the wide range of challenges they are likely to face in their academic careers and beyond. The key to making this happen is teaching students the difference between “knowing” and “understanding.”

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and classroom discussions are tools that teachers use to evaluate how effectively students have learned the material. As we know, assessments range from multiple choice and short answer questions to word problems and essays. The former evaluate a student’s rote knowledge—how well she can recall a definition or perform arithmetic; the latter gauge children’s ability to use information in order to answer a question or solve a problem. 

Genuine learning occurs when students can build their understanding of a given concept from the ground up, from knowledge through evaluation. It is the difference between cramming for an assessment by memorizing a collection of vocabulary terms, and learning those words in context, with the support of graphic organizers, outlines, mnemonic devices, and other memory aids. While the latter may take more time and effort before the test, that energy will pay off when it’s time to study for a midterm or final exam. Even if a child doesn’t remember everything, she will have an efficient set of familiar, useful resources to fill in the gaps. By taking the time to learn and understand the information the first time around, students can avoid the chaos and anxiety that comes with last-minute scrambles or disorganized efforts (or both).

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This is where it becomes most important for us to teach our students about themselves as learners. We need students to understand the difference between working smart and working hard (or not so hard in some cases).  They’ve been told to create outlines before they begin writing an essay, though they often don’t do it. Teachers ask them to annotate as they read, but their books often show either pristinely clean pages or ones that are so filled with highlighted text and underlined sections that they are impossible to navigate. They have to study for a test or quiz, and often they simply reread the relevant information and declare themselves “prepared.” They are told to create a plan of attack for short-term and long-term assignments, and they simply open up their portal to look at what is due the next day. 

A large part of this disconnect is due to a lack of understanding. Students know what they should do, but they don’t always understand why or how to make those extra steps meaningful. The goal of Smarten Up’s March blog posts will be to share our favorite tips, tricks, and strategies for helping students learn how to become learners. 

Studying to Understand

For many students, quizzes and exams are a source of anxiety and, sometimes, disappointment. But with care, planning, and sustained effort, it is possible to prepare with confidence. What is the best way to study for a test? 

1. Treat every assignment and reading as a part of your preparation

The most important element of test preparation comes in the weeks (and sometimes months) before a test, as a student remains actively engaged with lectures and homework assignments, moving from knowing to understanding as they learn so that, when it comes time to study, they are already beginning from a place of confidence, rather than starting from scratch.  The test is not a separate, stress-charged event in this model, but the natural culmination of weeks of learning. In concrete terms, this means that students should be taking clear notes and creating study materials as they learn the content, keeping up with readings and assignments, and independently reviewing at the end of every shorter unit.

2. Distributed Practice: spread out your studying

Studies have shown that if you believe a test will require four hours of studying in the week of the exam, it is much more effective to split up this time into smaller chunks, spread out over multiple days, than to cram all four hours on the night before the exam. So…

3. Make a study plan

It isn’t always easy for students to manage the many tasks that are thrust upon them - to use time wisely, set up a study plan well in advance of the test, with a schedule for studying that splits up the content over multiple days and a specific plan for which study strategies to employ. 

4. Mix it up: use a variety of strategies

Different types of content (and different types of tests) will require different strategies - and students should also consider what strategies work best for their specific learning strengths. The more that you can approach a subject from different angles — with flashcards written in your own words, illustrated histories, timelines, online video resources, practice problems, poetic adaptations, mnemonics and memory aides, etc — the more you’ll move from knowing to understanding. Your goal should be to absorb new information with context, thinking about it as a story, rather than memorizing in isolation, by rote. Use a timer to focus for specific periods, and switch between strategies. Take active breaks, drink water, and eat healthy snacks!

5. Get a good night’s sleep

It is tempting to believe that staying up late to cram will help you conquer the test - but the truth is, giving your brain the rest it needs is more important. This is another reason why it’s important to distribute your studying across multiple days!

6. After the test, reflect!

Your job isn’t over when the test is done - take a well-deserved break, of course, but then take time to reflect on the study process and the test itself. Think about what worked, so that you can use it again next time. What areas can you identify for improvement next time?

This Smarten Up study strategies planning sheet is a great resource to create this sort of structure for students!

Executive Function and Learning 101

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While learning seems like a fairly automatic process, it is actually a pretty complicated one.  That’s because in order for a piece of information to really stick in the brain, and stay stuck, we have to make sure that it gets to the right “place.”  That way, when we need it to answer a question on a test, connect a string of ideas in an essay, or find our way from school back home, our mind knows where to find that piece of data in order to help us solve the problem at hand.  So the question is, how to we make knowledge more sticky?

You can think of your brain like a giant closet, and yourself like a shopaholic.  All of the items you see in the store are like the data coming into your sensory memory.  You will purchase what looks good, and pass on the rest.  Then, your working memory will kick in to either decide if you want to return an item you are not so hot on, or if it is appealing enough to place in a pile with other similar articles or objects.  Last, once you have sorted through your purchases and identified “the keepers,” it is time for you to put everything away some place safe where you will be able to find it again.  This is like your long-term memory building schema.  Whether you sort your items by color, use, size, or shape doesn’t matter, so long as there is an organized system that you can rely on to track them down whenever necessary.  The stronger and more thoughtful that organizational strategy is the better.

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When we learn, our brains are constantly working through this process.  Whether in a classroom, or sitting at home, we tune out distractions and extraneous information, focus on identifying the main ideas and supporting details or explanations, and create a strategy for building that information into a sticky schema.

For the brainiacs this happens fairly automatically; their minds are like a giant gob of super glue - everything just sticks.  The process isn’t quite so simple for those hard-working A students; instead, this group knows how to use subject-appropriate mnemonic devices, graphic organizers, and other processing tools to sort their knowledge into well-defined, easily accessible chunks. Lacking an organized system for schema development, the last group of students, will try really hard to remember everything, but lose most of it in the process.  Some bits of knowledge will be passed over by the sensory memory as unimportant, other ideas won’t make it past the confines of working memory, and the parts that stick in long-term memory just won’t be enough to build a useful schema come test time.

That's why it is so important for instructors and parents to teacher their child how to learn.  Any successful person has developed a repertoire of organizational and study skills over the years. Some are super efficient, others are less useful.  But, the point is to have a "toolbox" full of strategies, and to understand when, where, and how to apply each one.