Why “Done” is NOT the Finish Line!

exams long term retrieval mastery overwhelm stress Jan 01, 2020

It is the end of the year. One of my favorite times to reflect and assess. In both my personal and professional life, I take time to reread my notes and reflect on my experiences. Was there something I could have done better? What were my major challenges? frustrations? Is there something I can do to mitigate these situations in the future. 

Without fail, exam time brings stress, overload and almost unbearable fatigue. Students are required to be at their very best in ALL of their classes. I can’t think of a time in my adult life when I needed to be at my best on all fronts. Combine that with the timing of winter exams. It is holiday time. There are recitals, school plays, parties, family obligations and OH YES! students have to take exams in ALL of their subjects that will significantly affect their final grades. It is definitely a recipe for stress. 

While there is nothing that can be done about the calendar or the cultural aspects of the timing, there is something that can be done that will SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the stress. Over 75% of my students arrive with the exam review guides and SWEAR they have never seen at least half of the material. I go back through my summaries of their sessions and show them that in fact, yes, they have seen this material before and in the majority of cases, they had mastered the skills. Where did that knowledge go???? 

There is a pervasive belief that once you have filled in all the blanks or answered all the questions assigned, you are DONE with your homework. That could not be further from the truth. Homework is not assigned (or at least it shouldn’t be assigned) to fill time. It is assigned to give students a chance to practice what they have learned, to assess that they do in fact understand the material and to allow them to fill in any gaps that may exist in their knowledge. Answering the questions, or completing the assignment, is only the beginning. Students need to review the material over a period of time to place that knowledge into their long term memory banks. This keeps them from looking at their exam reviews as if they were written in Greek. 

Studies show that students forget 50% of what they read within 24 hours and 80% after 14 days. The retention for verbal material is even worse. Students forget 90% of what they hear in 14 days. Given that most semesters are 90 days long, you can see why students often struggle with material from the beginning of the term. 

So, now that we have identified the problem, what do we do about it. This is why “done” is not the finish line. Students need to set aside time, 15 to 30 minutes, in each study session to review material from prior lessons. This can be attempting math problems that gave them trouble, going over vocabulary words from science or foreign language classes, or drawing timelines or concept maps for social science or science classes. Remember that students forget 50% of what they read in the first 24 hours, so merely rereading the material is not an effective tool. Students need to engage with the information to have significant impact. 

I am sure at this point you are thinking, “Exactly how to I fit that into my already overfull day.” My next post, Habits are Easy, Discipline is Hard will address that exact concern. I hope that this post gives you a new perspective and some useful tools to help your student’s time be effectively spent both in the short and more importantly the long term. 

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