Feb 23, 2009

How to Take Standardized Tests

Like death and taxes, standardized testing is simply a fact of life that we all must deal with eventually. Supposedly, these are the tests that help administrators in admissions departments determine where best to place students, and obviously, a better score could mean the difference between a first pick and a safety school. To help maximize your potential with these tests, here are some quick tips.

Standardized testing is designed so that each test can be graded quickly and objectively, without much room for subjectivity. This usually means a multiple-choice format. Thankfully, test takers can use this format to their advantage. Multiple choice means that the correct answer is definitely given. If you are unsure about what bubble to fill in, start by narrowing down the answers. Usually, each answer list will include at least one glaringly false choice. Start by scratching out answers that you know are wrong and increase your odds for picking the right one. For math problems, try plugging answers back into the equation. Finally, research ahead of time how the test is scored. If you are not deducted any points for wrong answers, make sure to answer every question. If you are deducted, try to narrow down the choice to 2 answers, giving yourself a 50% chance of guessing correctly.

Pacing can be the key to a standardized test, so make sure to time your answer-rate with the amount of time given. If you find yourself stuck on a particular question for more than the allotted amount of time, skip it and come back to it later when you are finished. Keep checking the clock as you go to make sure you aren’t falling behind.

There are many books and even entire courses tailored to each individual standardized test. These usually include practice questions and pertinent subject matter, and can help even the most experienced test-taker. Use these to your advantage.

Of course, normal test-taking tips apply. Make sure to eat breakfast, bring water and snacks, and carry plenty of pencils. Bring a calculator if it is allowed. Usually, standardized tests can be taken multiple times, so if you think your first time out didn’t go that well, don’t worry--take it again, and learn from your mistakes.

Feb 16, 2009

Memory Enhancing Activities

The human mind is a very powerful tool, but it doesn’t always work perfectly. Think about it--remembering the lyrics to a song that was in the Top 100 charts a decade ago can be a snap, but remembering the answer to a history quiz question that you studied for can be a challenge. In the modern age of daily informational tsunamis, it’s easy to lapse into passive brain data collection. To help combat this, try out the following brain techniques.

There are several different types of memory, such as long vs. short term, or auditory vs. visual. Try different “flash” exercises, such as having a friend enumerate ten different things (like sports, cars, or movies) and then try to repeat them back. Gradually increase the number of items until it becomes a challenge. Either repeat the items immediately (thus exercising short-term auditory memory) or after several minutes (thus exercising long-term auditory memory). The same can be done for things you see (visual memory). Several variations on this type of activity could be used, depending on what interests you or what type of memory you are trying to enhance.

Memories are never isolated. They are always connected, in one way or another, to something else in your brain. Perhaps the smell of fresh bread reminds you of your grandparent’s house, or the image of a dog running on the beach reminds you of a childhood friend. These are “cues”--the pathways of memory. Consciously attaching cues to things you want to remember can help enormously. Perhaps a particular history lesson is recalled by looking at a painting or picture. Another method of doing this is called a mnemonic device. Essentially, one easy to remember phrase or sentence is used to list important information. For example, the phrase “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” can be used to remember the order in which colors show in the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).

One of the most important (and obvious) ways of remembering large amounts of information is to break it down into more easily digestible chunks. Group together related information so that one piece connects with the others, giving cues to each following piece.

Unfortunately, increasing memory is like increasing muscle strength--there is no easy on/off switch. Keep on practicing and hone your memory until nothing gets by!

Feb 9, 2009

How Environment Affects Learning

One of the most interesting aspects of abstract art is how two people can take away extremely different impressions from the same piece. In some ways, a comparison can be drawn to learning--no two people will necessarily take away the same knowledge from the same lesson. This is due to a myriad of differences among learners including culture, student ability, preconceptions, and other variations in the learning process. Teachers have often applied an overarching uniformity in order to combat this, such as teaching to a standardized test. However, these measures are not necessarily effective in conveying knowledge to the student.

Still, there are some ideologies that have proven helpful to learning. The setting in which the learning takes place is one often-overlooked aspect that can help students absorb information and ideas. This includes several aspects, from the physical to the purely metaphysical.

The approach a teacher takes should be grounded on four basic principles. These are essentially considerations to make when laying out lesson plans and material. They include: Learner Centered, Knowledge Centered, Assessment Centered, and Community Centered. The first consideration focuses on what the student brings to the table--what has the student learned about the subject previously? How will their preconceptions shape the way in which they absorb the information? The Knowledge Centered principle is an understanding of the application of the knowledge gained in answering questions and solving problems. The Assessment Centered principle is an acknowledgment of the ways in which the teacher critiques the student, such as how the student has progressed, where they are strong, and where they need improvement. Finally, the Community Centered principle is a focus on how the environment creates a sense of belonging. It is up to the teacher to consider each of these aspects in order to maximize learning effectiveness.

Physical space should also be considered. Something as simple as the way in which furniture is arranged can drastically change the way that students learn. For example, without space for movement, students might feel restricted in interpersonal interaction, hindering any exchange of ideas that the teacher may attempt to promote. Additionally, access to resources (such as texts, maps, and most importantly, the Internet) is of paramount importance, so the physical space should be designed so these tools are quickly and readily available to each student.

But what about learning that takes place online? Is there a difference in the effectiveness of a lesson if there is no actual physical space in which it is taught? Surprisingly, the answer is no. One study performed at the Harvard Medical School Center for Palliative Care has shown that there is no discernable difference in the effectiveness of a lesson taught online when compared to a traditional classroom setting.

There have been many studies conducted about the learning process and how to best create an effective environment for the student. The traditional model of rote memorization and drilling has been scrutinized and deemed as ineffective when compared to new insights into Pedagogical Theory. Unfortunately, the uniqueness of each brain is often ignored in an effort to instill exactly the same knowledge in each student. Instead, teachers should apply their lessons with special consideration for the individual.

Feb 2, 2009

The Benefits of Learning a Second Language

In tough times, it is not uncommon for schools to take out foreign language programs first in a bid to balance an unforgiving budget. But in a world where the immediacy of modern technology and the global market challenges all traditional barriers of culture and communication, the ability to speak multiple languages continues to grow in demand.

The benefits of speaking a native tongue in business and world travel are obvious, but there is an abundance of other benefits in learning another language. Just as proper exercise and a healthy diet help increase the plasticity of one’s brain, so too does the process of learning a new language. When you learn another way of communicating, your brain essentially re-wires itself so that inputs (such as the recognition of everyday objects and their associated nouns) are recognized through several different “paths”. Essentially, the brain becomes more effective at learning.

Brain plasticity is at its highest when we are first born and our mind is just starting to get structured. The brain of an infant is far more malleable than the brain of an adult, as it is not yet wired as specifically as the more experienced adult brain. Concurrently, babies are able to learn languages more quickly.

This, of course, includes all languages, even those that are non-vocal. At Ohio State’s A. Sophie Rogers Infant-Toddler Laboratory School, children as young as nine-months are learning American Sign Language as a viable alternative to crying. When their vocal agility fails, they can communicate their wants and needs to teachers and parents through their hands, signing words like “eat”, “stop”, and “share”.

Bilingualism also helps the elderly by slowing the destructive effects of Alzheimer’s. New studies have shown that those who could speak several languages were more likely to have higher cognitive abilities than their monolingual counter-parts later in life.

While English may be spoken all over the world, learning another language can help the individual in many ways beyond simple communication. It sharpens the mind and opens up new paths of learning, no matter if you are 8 months old or 80 years old.