Aditi, a class four student, was regularly absent from school especially when there was a math exam. Aditi has exam anxiety and she is not alone. This is a phenomenon in which students face extreme nervousness before taking a test. This often occurs in the case of math, as it is a subject which cannot be learnt just before an exam. Hence, students get nervous when they are not well-prepared.
What if we could turn the tables on math exams and make them synonymous with confidence? How can schools use evidence-based strategies with which students can face a maths exam confidently?
Apart from regular advice like focusing on basic concepts, following the steps properly and identifying misconceptions, we have some new answers from the field of cognitive science. Cognitive science considers learning to be of use only if we can recall our learning at any time.
Let us look at three well-researched strategies from cognitive science that strengthen our recall mechanism — spaced practice, interleaving and retrieval practice.
Distribute your practice over time
Most students practice the problems of a specific math concept in one sitting. They think they have learnt it but when they review it before the exams, they find themselves struggling with it.
In contrast, research in cognitive science shows that ‘distributed practice’ is among the most powerful approaches to learning. In distributed practice, one does the initial practice and after that, returns to it at regular intervals of time. So if one has practised a key maths concept, then s/he should review it after three days, then five days, then eight days, and so on.
To reap the full benefits of distributed practice, it is important to start planning early for exams and set aside a little time every day to systematically review maths concepts. Remember, spreading out 16 hours over two weeks is better than clumping those 16 hours all at once on the day before the math exam.
Interleave or mix the practice of multiple concepts
Teachers usually teach a concept, ‘A’, then do a drill on it. Once students seem to be doing well, the teachers move onto the next concept, ‘B’. But the maths test has problems from multiple concepts like A, B and C. Students do not do well and the teachers are puzzled as they seem to have done well in the classes on the specific concepts.
This happens because we have not taught students which specific concept to choose and use when faced with problems from multiple concepts. This often happens in math. Students should get more practice in choosing which maths concept to apply when problems are given from different concepts.
Cognitive science encourages us to use the practice of interleaving to build this skill. In interleaving, we mix or interleave practice related to several related concepts together. It forms an unpredictable pattern like “ABCCABBCA” in contrast to the predictable practice pattern of “AAABBBCCC”. When we interleave concept C with concept A, students will have to practice recalling concept C and this will ensure better retention of it.
Frequently practice testing to retrieve what was learnt
Research shows that most information is quickly forgotten. Apparently, when presented with a new concept, we forget 60 per cent of the concept in a day and up to 80 per cent within a week. The way to counter this is to ensure that we do a regular review of the material.
In fact, if we give ourselves time to forget it and then attempt to recall it, it helps build better retrieval. For example, most students keep reading and re-reading the material during the revision period prior to an exam. Rather than this passive reading, students should quiz themselves on the material and do practice tests to recall the concepts.
This act of retrieval—thinking back to bring the concept to mind—improves the memory of that concept. Care should be taken that these practice tests are done in a low-stakes manner to ensure that anxiety doesn’t hurt the performance.
Thus, by adding these three strategies of distributed practice, interleaving and retrieval practice to our practices of teaching Maths, we can ensure that the fundamentals of Maths are really understood and recalled by children. This will, in turn, build their confidence and help them ace any Maths exam.
— The author is a teacher and also the co-founder of ClassKlap