Exam fear? Cognitive science has answers

Examinations and fear are synonymous for most children. But it is true even for adults. Suppose the trainer at your school’s teacher training workshop tells you that you have a test at the end of it, and you will be rated based on the scores. It is likely to set the heart racing for most in the workshop, including yours.

What if we can turn the tables on exams and make them synonymous with confidence. Can we use evidence-based strategies with which teachers and students can face exams confidently? These strategies go beyond the clichéd exam tips like having a good night’s sleep and making flashcards.

Cognitive science considers that learning is of use only if we can recall our learning at any time. Let us look at three well-researched strategies that strengthen our recall mechanism. These will help improve the confidence to face exams and score better in them. These evidence-based strategies are spaced practice, interleaving and retrieval practice.

Spaced practice

Massed practice or studying a single topic in one sitting is how we learnt our whole lives. Practice and more practice has been the mantra. But, it is well evident that massed practice creates a loop of cram and helps get grades, but is then also forgotten.

In contrast, research in cognitive science shows that ‘spaced practice’ is among the most powerful approaches to learning. To get the full benefits of spaced practice, it is important to start planning early for exams and set aside a little time every day.

One should keep in mind that five hours spread out over two weeks is better than those five hours all at once. If implemented properly, it is possible to also have huge gains in exams through the improved ability to retain and recall whatever has been learned.

Interleaving

In interleaving, we mix or interleave practice on several related skills or concepts together. It forms the pattern “ABCABCABC” in contrast to the usual practice pattern “AAABBBCCC”.

There is an insightful three-month study of teaching seventh graders, slope and graph problems by cognitive psychologist Doug Rohrer and his colleagues at the University of South Florida.

In that study, teachers took weekly lessons at the school which were largely unchanged from standard practice. Weekly homework worksheets, however, had an interleaved or standard practice. When interleaved, both old and new problems of different types were mixed together.

Of the nine participating classes, five were given interleaving for slope problems and standard practice for graph problems; the reverse occurred in the remaining four.

A surprise final test was held one day and one month later. The results were very encouraging. When the test was one day later, scores were 25% better for problems learned with interleaving. When the test was done one month later, the interleaving scores grew to 76%.

As teachers, we usually do a concept A and then do a drill and move onto the next concept B and then concept C. Suppose we interleave concept C with concept A. Then, students will have to practice recalling concept A and this will ensure better retention of it.

Retrieval practice

Memory researchers have found that when information comes to mind easily and feels fluent, it is easy to forget. Instead, if we give time to forget it, and then attempt to recall it, it helps build better retrieval.

Frequent retrieval tests like daily quizzes of previous concepts are proven methods to promote long-term memory. This is a better practice than what most students do for exams — keep reading and re-reading the material. Instead, they should ask themselves more ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions and attempt to retrieve the answers from their understanding.

Through retrieval practice, two things happen: one, our long-term memory for the information retrieved is strengthened and two, we are less likely to forget.

Thus, by adding these three strategies of spaced practice, interleaving and retrieval practice to our classroom practices, we can ensure that children learn and recall longer and better.

These three learning strategies have a lot of evidence from cognitive science supporting their effectiveness. They are key to strengthening the long-term recall muscle of the children which in turn builds their confidence to ace examinations.

(The writer teaches in a primary school and is the co-founder of IMAX Program)

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