So parents try their best to get their children to attend a school with a reputation for turning out solid academic results (even though according to the Ministry of Education, all schools are good schools).
Even if chasing a good-school dream is not one of all parents, good grades are still the goal of most parents (even though we will willingly acknowledge that strengthening children’s social skills and their capacity to understand and manage their emotions are important goals too).
The costs of this exam-oriented culture are papable. A third of children surveyed in a 2001 UNICEF survey expressed their greatest fear to be failure at examinations and tests. Stress responses and burnout among primary school children are well-documented. And parents are not unaware about the amount of stress experienced by their children: Academic stress is the top concern of parents.
But tuition is not the only way to learn.
What can research tell us about the best ways to learn?
1. Take notes by hand
In the good ol’ days, handouts were sparse and everyone took notes by hand. It’s different now: Laptops are everywhere these days.
But there may be a good reason to return to the good ol’ days: A 2014 study found that undergraduates were as good at remembering facts when they wrote their notes as when they typed them out.
But those who took notes by hand were much better at retaining conceptual information. This is likely explains why #2 (see below) reliably produces good retention of study material.
2. Explain it in your words
Researchers recommend elaborative interrogation. That’s a fancy word for saying students learn best by generating an explanation for why a fact or concept is true. We remember facts better when we’re preparing to teach it to someone else. Try it and you’ll find that it works.
3. Throw away the highlighter
Highlighting or underlining key words and phrases in the textbook is a waste of time. So is re-reading the textbook. Don’t copy definitions or textbook explanations verbatim in order to remember them. Instead, rephrase them using your own words (see #2).
4. Keep testing yourself
One way to know if you’ve learnt anything is to review the main concepts using the self-test questions at the end of a chapter. Testing yourself on the same material several times but spread out over an extended period of time (known as distributed practice) is one reliable method to study. It strengthens our memory for concepts and facts already studied.
5. Using imagery and mnemonics to learn
Not all studies show that using imagery and mnemonics to remember concepts help with learning. It may be that these two strategies help students in some contexts, but not others.
6. Study two or three subjects together
Studies show that we’re better at retaining information previously studied if we study and test ourselves using interleaved practice. This means tackling different subtopics or different subjects in a single study session. It also means randomly shuffling questions from different subtopics or subjects into a single quiz.
7. The truth about learning styles
It’s true that we typically have a preferred way to absorb new material. We may prefer to have things illustrated rather than expressed in words. We may prefer hands-on learning via interactions than didactic-style lectures. But there’s little evidence that superior performance results from being taught in our preferred style of learning. Need more convincing? Read this article from Huffington Post.
8. Stay warm
A 2014 study found that test performance was optimized when participants were allowed to solve problems at their preferred temperature. Those who liked it warm did better at 25 deg C., while those who liked it cooler did better at 15 deg C.. Sweaters are exam essentials for those who like to stay warm.
And what about helping your kids manage exam stress?
Tips from HPB for managing exam stress include yoga, deep breathing exercises, eating calming foods, and listening to music. These may be useful to university students. As for learning to say no, we can just see parents letting their kids skip on household chores and family meals now.
Research indicates the following to be effective ways to help children manage exam stress:
- Use words of encouragement
A classic study showed that children whose teachers had low expectations of their academic performance performed more poorly compared to children whose teachers expect great things from them.Use encouragement to motivate your children. Avoid using threats or making predictions that they will fail. Because children will try to live up to your expectations.
- Reward children’s behaviours
A 1998 study found that children were more willing to try a more challenging task if parents praised their children’s efforts rather than praised their children for being clever. This means rewarding your children for their behaviour not for their intelligence.
- Sleep is important
A 2014 JAMA Pediatrics study found that children who got more sleep performed better at school. There’s plenty of evidence that sleep is essential for the brain to consolidate and store what has been learnt in long-term memory.
- Complex carbs for breakfast
Studies show that breakfast is important for classroom learning. But two previous studies — published in 2007 and 2003 — found that a low glycaemic index breakfast (like oats) helped children maintain their attention on cognitive tasks through the morning.
- Don’t forget to express your care and concern
A 2014 study examined the characteristics of the Tiger Mum parenting style. The researchers conclude that American Asian children don’t resent parental pressure because they also experience support from parents. So don’t forget to tell your children that you care about them (not just their grades).