Lose that yellow highlighter

The most common study techniques — marking up the textbook with yellow highlighter, rereading and cramming at the last minute — are the least effective, writes John Dunlosky,  Kent State psychology professor, on the AFT blog. Taking practice tests and spreading out studying over time is much more likely to help students learn and remember, researchers have found.

Table 1: Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed

 Other study techniques are “promising” but unproven:

Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.

Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text, highlighting and underlining, summarizing, using mnemonics and “attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.”

Test-crazy China seeks innovators

China’s education system turns out students who are great at memorizing but not at thinking, writes Helen Gao, who moved from China to the U.S. for her senior year of high school.

In 2010, an international standardized test found that junior high school students in Shanghai had outperformed their peers in rest of the world in math, science, and reading, beating the U.S. averages by a wide margin. . . . (The) nine-year compulsory education system, installed in 1986, has boosted the country’s literacy rate to around 92 percent (it was 67 percent as of 1980) and prepared millions of eligible young people for the rapidly expanding workforce. Now, however, as the economy shows signs of cooling, Chinese leaders are trying to engender more domestic innovation.

They hope to see an educated workforce, rather than toiling on factory floors or sitting in the cubicles of Western companies’ Chinese branches, found their own businesses or brands that will sell to domestic as well as international buyers. They want domestic moviegoers to stop purchasing bootleg DVDs of Western blockbusters, and for foreign viewers to start raving about Chinese films. But the nation’s education system, instead of channeling the youthful energy of China’s next generation, seems to be blocking it.

The gao kao, the college admissions test, determines students’ futures. It’s all multiple choice, Gao writes.
Chinese students spend years cramming for the big test, reports the New York Times.

. . .  new research by the workplace manager Regus shows that Chinese employers are now favoring graduates with internship experience, winning personalities and foreign language skills. Just 9 percent of employers, especially at large companies, now put educational background as the top priority in hiring.

That probably means acing the gao kao, getting into a prestigious university and offering experience, personality and language skills.

Cramming to the top

Chinese students spend years cramming for the two-day college entrance exam that will determine their future. The gaokao “robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood,” concludes Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Peking University High School, in The Diplomat. But the killer exam is the fairest way to provide social mobility for bright and diligent students in a poor country that can’t afford to educate everyone.

China needs a system that can “resist the pull and power of the well-connected and wealthy,” Xuequin argues. That means it needs a national test.

If we were to test writing and thinking ability, then that would mean an automatic bias towards the children of well-educated parents who have from an early age discuss books, current affairs, and travel plans with their child over the dinner table. Moreover, to teach thinking and writing (or any soft skills such as creativity and collaboration) would require highly specialised and highly professional teachers who would naturally congregate in expensive private schools or prestigious public schools in Beijing and Shanghai. And if this were the case, China would just be like the United States, where education is monopolised by the self-perpetuating and self-interested educated elite, and social mobility through education becomes a distant dream for everyone else.

But China has 800 million peasants who depend on schooling as their child’s only chance out of the rice fields. Rural children don’t have access to the libraries, well-trained teachers, and intellectual spaces that wealthy cities can offer — all they have is their willingness to work hard to improve themselves. If Chinese believe in fairness and social mobility, then tests must be more about the student’s ability to memorise the textbooks he has access to, rather than about his ability to think critically, which is the result of making the most of a special set of resources available only to society’s elite.

What do you get? The gaokao. Chinese students will take the test June 7 and 8.

I don’t think social mobility through education is a “distant dream” in the U.S.  But it’s interesting to see the land of opportunity through other people’s eyes.

Japan goes ‘back to basics’

Worried about competition from South Korea and Hong Kong, Japanese schools are  going “back to basics,” reports AP.

In a move that has divided educators and experts, Japan is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in “pressure-free education,” which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

. . . Japan’s near-the-top rank on international standardized tests has fallen, stunning this nation where education has long been a source of pride.

The Education Ministry is fattening up textbooks and raising expectations as part of the back-to-basics drive.

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared to earlier this decade. Among new concepts: Fifth-graders will learn how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and sixth-graders will learn about electricity.

An hour or two of school will be added each week, depending on the grade, and English will be introduced in fifth grade instead of seventh. Middle and high school students can expect similar changes in subsequent years.

Traditionally, Japanese students have crammed to pass university entrance examinations, then coasted through college.

Getting into the right university goes a long way toward determining one’s job, income level and place in society — a system that many Japanese agree needs to change.

“Pressure-free education” tried to shift emphasis from memorization to applying knowledge. Students were encouraged to think creatively and express their own views.

Curricular requirements were reduced, Saturday half-day classes were phased out, and teachers were told to take three hours each week to engage in learning driven by students’ questions, such as “Why doesn’t a sleeping bird fall from its perch on a branch?”

On the international PISA exam, Japan’s rank dropped sharply in math, science and reading, despite PISA’s stress on applying knowledge to real-life situations.

Japanese students dropped slightly in math and stayed in third place in science on TIMSS, which is more geared toward knowledge.

The current system has been a “huge failure,” said Eiichi Kajita, president of International Pacific University, who helped craft the new curriculum guidelines. Education has become too child-centered, he argued.

“Teachers were told students should be supported, not taught,” Kajita said. “We need to revive a respect for knowledge. We also need more discipline.”

Teachers didn’t get enough training to make the new method work, says Mutsuko Takahashi, vice president of the Japan Teachers’ Union. The union is pushing for smaller class sizes — teachers have up to 40 students — to make it easier to teach new material.

Japan continues to outperform the U.S. in math and science on TIMSS and PISA.

How to study effectively

What everyone knows about learning ain’t necessarily so, reports the New York Times.

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Much advice on study habits is wrong, researchers say. For example, studying in the same place every day is less effective than studying the same material in different environments. “Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work.

Cramming can help students pass a test, but students remember much more when they space their study periods.

It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

Testing is a “tool of learning” cognitive scientists say. Retrieving an idea “seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.” Students who study the material once and take a practice test remember much more than students who studied the material in two sessions.

If the test is stressful, that’s all the better.  “The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”