Friday, October 15, 2010

Test Prep

Disclaimer Applies

Everyone likes to talk about how to raise student test scores.  It's the big news, and the media is all over how important it is for us to get better scores out of our students.  With the internet there's no lack of articles with advice, notes on what principals can do to help, even books on the subject.  Intrestingly, just doing a Google search on "How to raise test scores" three of top 5 results were not how to raise scores but on how teacher bonuses would not raise them.  As the kids say, "Go fig".

That all said I'd like to share a bit about how I prepared for an exam.

First there was the traditional stuff.  I studied.  I made flash cards for vocab.  I wrote outlines for the example essay questions.  I would re-read the chapter, highlighter in hand.  While students can't write in their books now (unless they buy their own copy of a novel), I found it invaluable in my humanities.  The act of reading something, then re-reading it while highlighting it, really helped me remember the idea, the phrase, or the quote.  When it came time to write an essay later I then had an easier time finding the passages I needed. 

I also studied in two different places.  First I'd work in my comfort zone:  in my dorm room, radio on, feet up, snack on hand.  But I would also make myself spend about an hour studying in the dorm quiet room, where I sat at a table or desk, in silence, just as I would for the exam.  There is evidence that memory is aided by environment, so studying in the same situation as you will be tested is a good plan.

I just hated the silence so I didn't do it all the time.

On the day of a test I would make sure I had time to eat something.  Not a huge breakfast, and no 4 cups of coffee.  The last thing you need is to have to make a potty break in the middle of a test.  But the time spent eating gave me time to study some more, and mulitple sources have linked a solid breakfast with success on testing.

Now I would be remise not to point out that these are Correlation studies.  They looked at kids who had breakfast, and those who did not, and how they did on tests.  To my knowledge there have been no Causation studies, where they actually control the variables and establish that the ~only~ deciding factor was a good breakfast.

And there was one more final component to my test taking plan:  The suit.

Since I'm talking about my college days here, I would usually have a block of time before an exam free, since I rarely had two classes back to back.  I would use this hour to go back to my room, and take a shower.  I'd take my time brushing my teeth, shaving and combing my hair.  I'd pull on a nice shirt, find a tie that matched, and top it with a sport coat.  If I had the time I'd even put a bit of polish on my dress shoes and brush them clean.  I'd take about 45 minutes or so to do nothing but pamper myself.

Then I'd have a leisurely walk to the test.

The point of all of this was to get into a mindset of confidence.  I had time to make myself feel good, and to clear my head of concerns or fear.  I stumbled on to why this works while reading up on how to have the Happiest Toddler on the Block, by Dr. H Karp.  Here's what he says about the brain:

The left half of your brain is where you do logical reasonsing, deep thinking, and language application.  The right is for the emotional and creative side.  In a toddler, both are developing which is why a calm, collected 3 year old can reason that if they give a toy to another kid, they can have it back later.

But when that toddler is upset, or angry or disappointed, the right side starts to shout out over the left, drowning out the logical "You can play with it later" with the emotional response of "MINEMINE NOW MINE!"  In short the little guy's logical reasoning side is unable to speak up over the right side.

I don't think this ever really changes.

When we get angry or scared we tend to be more impulsive.  We react quickly and strongly, and it can take a few moments to get our emotions under control, get a few deep breaths in, and then start to reason things out.  This really isn't a bad thing.  When our fore-fathers were out hunting, and came across a large predator, it was a ~good~ thing that they just turned and ran rather than standing around considering their options.  Being able to act quickly when terrified was something that helped us survive long enough to develop tools, a civiliation and advanced financial products which would in their own way try to return us to the days of the caveman.

So now let's fast forward to the modern highschool.  A student is sitting and thinking about this test, which in Math is 50% of their overall grade.  They know if they don't get at least a C they can't play basketball.  He starts to think about basketball.  He's going to miss basketball.  Must get at least a C.  Oh no, he can't remember number 4.  That's okay.  He'll get 5 right.  Oh no, that doesn't look familiar.  No basketball.  Oh crud.  Need to focus.  Can't fail.  Must not fail.  He is ~so~ grounded if he fails. 

And slowly and steadily the left side shuts down as the right side shouts more and more about how much trouble he'll be in for not getting a good grade.

So my personal piece of advice is to relax.  Clear your mind.  Come into the test a little pampered and free of other distractions.  Give your right brain a chance to relax a bit, and let the left brain drive for a while.  I hate it when students will put their hand up during a test to ask "how many can I miss and still get a B?" because most of the time it's from a student who is starting to let panic take over and has moved from trying to show what she can do on the test, and into the mindset of how much trouble she's going to be in.

Will dressing up cause you to get a better grade?  I doubt it.  But the calming ritual might make it easier to come into the test and do exactly what you know how to do.

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