Executive function

Students of the Digital Age

In a world of supposed ‘digital natives,’ we’ve forgotten that certain computer literacy skills still need to be taught. Although it’s true that kids growing up in a world of omnipresent gadgetry have a natural ease with certain aspects of the digital world that might escape their parents, this does not translate into automatic mastery of the essentials, such as organizing materials, evaluating the reliability of sources, safeguarding privacy, and even typing. Guiding students toward best practices in these areas is a vital part of teaching them to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

For a certain generation of students--those raised on instant messaging in a world of desktop computers--typing practice was a natural part of growing up, and a bit of guidance toward proper technique made all the difference. Nowadays, since most students learn to type in their free time on phones and iPads, touch-typing on a more traditional keyboard is a much neglected skill. As students enter middle and high school, a growing proportion of their work is typed, rather than handwritten -- but for many, this is a laborious process, one that hampers the transmission of thought from mind to page. A few daily minutes of practice with free online resources, including the appropriately named www.typing.com, can quickly improve a student’s approach, saving hours of time in the long run.

Anyone who uses a computer regularly -- which is to say, nearly everyone -- knows the importance of keeping an organized desktop, file system, and inbox. Computers serve as a portal to increasingly vast realms of information, and an important repository for personal data. Without some level of structure, this mix can quickly become chaotic. Parents and teachers can help by explicitly guiding students through the process of building nested folders by school year and subject, on the desktop and in cloud-based systems such as Google Drive. A long term research project might deserve a folder of its own, where source material, drafts, and notes can be stored together. 

Digital time management tools can also be of help to many students; iCal and Google Keep provide electronic alternatives to supplement traditional paper planners and to-do lists, with programmable reminders, color-coding, and the ability to share appointments and tasks. Many schools now have their own version of an online portal for students and parents, where teachers post assignments, grades, and course materials. This should be a resource for students that is checked daily and then processed and recorded in their own planners. 

Finally, students benefit from a clear explanation of the guidelines for evaluating the reliability of different sources online, and for keeping their own information safe from potential hackers or other unwanted eyes. In an online world without clear editorial standards, students need to understand how biases function and be guided toward reputable sources, learning to be wary of taking what they read at face value. Parents should also have a plan for discussing how to choose and manage passwords around the internet, what information to share and what to keep private, and how to deal with the dangers of operating in the public forum of the internet, while feeling like you’re in private. 

New Beginnings

Summer is winding to a close, and that means it’s time to head back to school. As with any fresh start, the new school year brings with it new opportunities, along with new pitfalls. How can you set your student up for success in the new year? 

At Smarten Up, we place a real emphasis on executive function skills — the skills that help students work smarter to meet deadlines and learn most effectively. If students can start the year on the right foot with regards to the organizational of their materials, task management, and engagement with their class materials, they will be in a better position to learn and thrive this year. Likewise, if students begin by procrastinating on readings and test review, lose track of their materials, or miss an odd homework assignment, they’ll quickly start to slide down a path that will only get more difficult as they fall further behind. 

Practically, this means insuring that students have a plan for managing their work with some sort of physical or digital planner, that they have all of the organizational infrastructure they’ll need to keep work and notes from different classes in order, and that they are held accountable to the systems they plan on using. The first few weeks will involve proactively figuring out where and when homework is posted for each class, navigating the rhythm of a new class schedule and the internal schedule of quizzes and assignments for each course, and getting to know the standards and requirements of each individual teacher.

Students should also be reminded of the importance of relationships with these teachers; behavior in the first few weeks of school can form impressions that last for the whole year. If students can demonstrate a willingness to work diligently, ask interesting questions, and support their classmates’ learning, they’ll earn a relationship that can pay off when they need a bit of extra help or flexibility with a deadline. For high school students, these relationships are also key for college applications as recommendation letter season rolls around. 

As part of building a positive relationship with their teachers, students should establish a channel of communication that is respectful and direct, without intruding unnecessarily on the teacher’s time. It can be very useful for students to be in touch with teachers over email when they need to ask a clarifying question about a major assignment or upcoming test, but given the informality of most digital communications, students will often need some coaching to understand the requirements of a more ‘professional’ email, with correct grammar and punctuation. As a young classroom teacher, I regularly received emails with no capitalization or punctuation from students—and while I was more forgiving than many of my older colleagues, in the worst case these emails risk being perceived as rude or lazy. Parents can help guide these emails with younger students, while supporting a movement toward self-advocacy that will serve them in high school and college.

The new year should be an opportunity for a fresh start for students—part of our role as parents and educators is ensuring that this fresh start includes an awareness of the extra work—not explicitly assigned or explained—of forming good habits and relationships. These executive function skills are central to being a strong student, and we often assume that students understand what it means to be “organized” or “prepared.” Now is a great time to begin to have that dialogue with your child, and should he or she be resistant to help from a parent, our amazing team of Smarten Up coaches are always here to help!

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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.