Teaching to Minimum Yields Results

I’ve been teaching to the test, and teaching my history students how to study for a test with minimal preparation time. The results so far are instructive. Half of the class made massive improvements in their grades just by developing chapter outlines. By taking 3 minutes from their nightly homework prep time to do an outline of the chapter headers and sub-headers, and then filling in that outline as they read, about half of my seventh graders moved from doing ok but not amazingly on a chapter test set for grade level or a little below, to doing honors-level work on a test calibrated to above grade level.

The other half … Well, it’s hard to say. The rule for this test was that kids didn’t have to turn in their test if they were unhappy with the results. That was my strategy for getting them to give up their old methods long enough to try this. Yet, about half the students didn’t turn in the test. So I’ve been investigating one-on-one like a detective, trying to absorb what’s going on. And from what I can tell, about two-thirds were disappointed with the result. They didn’t do badly; most of them got in the 70s to high 80s, actually! They just didn’t do as well as they wanted. Ambition and expectations are in the way of their success, I think. Something to teach and reteach in the new year.

The last group did worse, relative to their over-prepared but haphazard study method they were using before. They were spending four hours studying for tests and getting better grades — but trying to know everything. What’s the real point of quality control if you study for hours, but in an unsystematic way that doesn’t guarantee results?

In any case, the data supports three ideas:

  • studying not at all gives poor results
  • overstudying (for too much time) gives good but inconsistent results.
  • studying with a plan in mind conveys a solid B+: better than the average grade, C.

and the plan we’ve been working on is this:

  • study for no more than the allotted time (here, about 25 minutes)
  • begin studying a chapter with the chapter test in mind
  • collect and retain all chapter-related materials in an organized way — quizzes, in-class notes, homework, reading outlines, etc.
  • work during homework time to a plan:
    • create a “major themes” outline of the reading in 3 minutes
    • leave room for extra details
    • read for 10-15 minutes; as you read the text, fill in details in your outline
    • answer assigned questions by referencing first the outline, then the textbook
    • take no more than 10 minutes to answer questions.
  • before the test:
    • study the section outlines and questions for 10-15 minutes each
    • re-tell the chapter narrative to yourself as you review materials
    • get a good night’s sleep beforehand

The results showed that the methodology mostly worked for 50% of the students, still needs some tweaks for 30% more, and 20% may need a much different system. I need to close that gap at the end, and find some ways to tweak both the method, and my teaching methods.

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