Lessons for teachers

Bouquets at Peirce Reservoir

Lessons about how to motivate our students to learn are lessons for all of us. Not just for teachers. These are lessons which apply to supervisors and managers who coach their team and staff. They apply to mentors, team leaders, and workshop trainers. And they apply to parents coaching their kids to be the best they can be. Basically, everyone.

So, what’s the recipe for success?

1. Stop saying the word “fail”
Telling students that they’re going to fail in their exams isn’t the best way to motivate students. It just makes it more likely for them to do so. A 2014 study has data to support this idea. In this study, students who were frequently reminded about failure by their teachers were not only less motivated to study, they scored worse in exams than students whose teachers did not use fear messages with their students. So parents, don’t threaten your kids about failing the exam. Instead, set realistic and specific goals for them. And reward and affirm their achievements to build self-confidence in them.

2. Have high expectations
That teachers’ prejudices have a profound effect on students and their performance is not new. It’s a robust effect. Known as the Pygmalion effect in a study by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968, the study showed that when teachers place high expectations on students, students are likely to perform to those expectations. But a new study also finds that teachers’ opinions about their students’ abilities (or perception of their lack of abilities) adversely affects the exam performance of these students years later. Teachers’ biases matter. Be careful what you wish for.

3. Encourage active participation
A 2014 study showed that students’ test performance improved with teaching methods which encouraged active learning. Pre-class assignments and small group discussions helped students retain information about key concepts about calculus. But it’s not just for calculus, physics or engineering. Here are some ideas and resources for incorporating active learning into the classroom. Like this lesson plan for learning about nutrients and this one on chemistry.

4. Explain in your own words and do it again soon
We’re most likely to remember something we’ve learnt if we get the opportunity to remember it on more than one occasion, and if we receive feedback about our mistakes earlier. These methods yield better exam performance, according to a recent study on undergraduate students. And we remember it better if we generate explanations in our own words. A 2014 study shows that this works with kids too. Here’s a summary of the best practices for learning.

5. Less distractions are better
A 2014 study showed that young children performed better on test questions and were better at attending to the lesson when their classroom was more sparsely decorated. But this applies to us adults, not just children. Think about the last time you were at a workshop, lecture, or seminar: How much information were you absorbing while you were replying Whatsapp, checking Facebook, and flicking through Instagram? It may surprise you but we’re much more effective at retaining information when we had to take notes by hand (for a recap why, read our earlier post).

6. Natural lighting boosts learning
A 2015 study on classrooms in UK found that learning was influenced by factors such as natural light, temperature, air quality, and the colour of classrooms. And in comparison, the layout of the school such as play areas did not contribute to children’s learning as much as the layout of the classroom. So sunlight doesn’t just help to regulate our sleep routines and help with the production of vitamin D. It’s for learning too!

Happy Teachers’ Day!


Tips and tricks for parents to get through the exams


The local schooling culture can be pretty punishing on children. The emphasis tends to be on results, specifically academic ones. Parents have high expectations for their children.

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?

Local resources like Focus on the Family suggest helping children make a study plan. The National Library of Singapore has recommended reading for parents.

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).



Things to do in the June holidays

We’re a tuition nation. It’s no secret. We know the truth — in order to succeed in life, we need tuition. We’re not Finland after all.

Boy Photographing Man

It can’t be, of course, that life lessons need to be learnt through failure (don’t believe what you read in this article or this Harvard Business Review blog entry). That our ability to stand knocks and all the falling down we’re going to do later in life, is partly determined by our exposure to failure earlier in life. That resilience comes from experiencing difficulties. That the road to resilience is paved with stones and potholes left there to trip us up (and hopefully help us get up again).

Certainly not. Which is why this school holiday, it’s important for our children to get their pocket money worth of tuition and enrichment classes. And definitely not spend their holiday time going to any of the following places. Although there’s no doubt that there’s no good learning to be had here (never mind what you’re told at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, 30 May to 4 June 2014):

1. Social emotional learning lessons can be sourced pretty much (surprisingly) everywhere, from the dinner table to the shopping mall. Interactions with family members should provide invaluable lessons on social skills and interpersonal interactions. But ambitious parents may want to aim higher by taking their brood to the cinema for the likes of Rio 2, MuppetsMost Wanted and Frozen. Domesticated types can stay home with the DVD version of Croods, Shrek 3, Toy Story 3, and Despicable Me 2 (for a lesson plan, look here).

2. Lessons on business management come at a fairly reasonable fee. Young (social or otherwise) entrepreneurs can aim to clear up their wardrobe clutter in favour of accumulating wealth at local flea markets such as For Flea Sake and Zouk Flea & Easy. Creative sorts can hawk their wares at more creative arenas like Maad and Public Garden (see also Handmade Movement SG).

3. A holistic approach to language enrichment through interactive games, plays, movie screenings for children and their families can be found at Children’s Season (2014) organised by the Museum Roundtable (including the Old Ford Factory, Reflections at Bukit Chandu, and Singapore Philatelic Museum).

4. Creative brains will delight at the Ace! Festival and SAM, through art at Sungei Buloh, and classical concerts at the Symphony Lake, Singapore Botanic Gardens.

5. The Night and River Safari at the Singapore Zoo, the Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, Hort Park, the butterfly park at Alexandra Hospital, and the butterfly and cactus garden at Changi Airport all offer enrichment programmes for a solid introduction to biology.

6. The Kranji Countryside Association (including Bollywood Veggies) offers geography enrichment classes, providing children with the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge and insight into the eco-tourism industry.

7. The Singapore Science Centre offers further biology enrichment classes on Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) an explorer who conducted field expeditions in the Malay Archipelago. And no lesson will be complete without the uphill task of following the Wallace trail at Dairy Farm, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

8. The Singapore Science Centre also promises chemistry and physics lessons for young minds. But free cooking demonstrations at Tangs can double as basic chemistry classes.

9. Asian and local history enrichment lessons come at affordable prices at the National Museum, Asian Civilisation Museum, the Museum of Toys.

10. Useful information for children’s new hobbies (up to the ages of 85 years and older) can be found at the Library. The self-help approach to language enrichment can be attained here and here.


All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sleep is key to doing well in school

Sleep is important for examination and academic performance

We think of being exam smart, having the right study techniques, studying for longer hours and more frequently as being the key to academic success. But one of the ways to boost school performance is rooted in doing the opposite: nothing. More exactly, sleeping.

A study on medical students in 2012 showed that those experiencing more stress and poorer sleep before exams, performed more poorly than their peers, while a 2010 meta- analysis of 17 studies found that children and teenagers who reported feeling sleepy were those with poorer academic performance. In short, inadequate sleep either from not sleeping adequate durations or having interrupted sleep can spell trouble for maintaining learning performance at school.

And sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting adequate dream sleep (also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep) maintains our mood, mental wellbeing and problem solving abilities. These websites offer a detailed explanation of how sleep is crucial to our cognitive functioning: NIH, Harvard Medical School, American Psychological Association (APA), WebMD, Harvard Business Review, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Mayo Clinic.

In keeping with the existing literature on the importance of sleep, as this article explains, recent studies show this to be true. Sleep research published in last year demonstrated that sleep is critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle – specifically, not having adequate sleep impacts us both physically and mentally (Science Daily, 15 Oct 2013).

A recent Swedish study found that missing just one night of sleep is associated with signs of brain tissue loss (Science Daily, 31 Dec 2013) – a conclusion shared by other researchers. A literature review published this year explains that sleep allows the the brain to strengthen neural connections (“SHY hypothesis explains that sleep is the price we pay for learning”, Science Daily, 9 Jan 2013).

In short, not having enough sleep impairs our ability to make decisions, remember things, and learn new things. And school’s about learning new things and remembering them.

Here’s a few things you can do:

1. Cultivate good sleeping habits

Discovery Health has 10 useful tips. Not every tip may be appropriate or useful to everyone but we need to start somewhere. And a dark room can help: here’s why. And here are few more ideas for boosting your sleep efficiency.

2. Read about sleeping

Try the book Why We Sleep: The Functions of Sleep in Humans and Other Mammals. You might find yourself soon extolling the virtues of sleep to other busy bees.

3. Sleep the sleep

Children will do as they see. Parents who don’t practice good sleeping habits or play an enabling role for their children to have poor sleeping habits, probably aren’t going to have children who get enough rest (to do their bestest at school)!