Why Won’t Teachers Return Tests?

Near the end of the school year, my high school freshman had final exam that would determine his grade in an important class. He was on the fence and needed to knock the ball out of the park in order to get a B in the class. First question I asked him was “Do you have your old tests to study from?” His answer was the same as it always is when I ask this question. “No, the teachers won’t return them. We get to see our grades in class and that’s it.”

Does this seem fair to you? How can a student study and improve if he can’t see his mistakes, correct them, and learn from the problem? On the flip side, teachers worry that they will have to create yet another exam because kids will share their tests with others. Future students will have the test to study from so cheating will be rampant. I’m just not sure if this is a compelling reason to withhold tests.

The Issue is In Washington DC, Northern Virginia, Maryland and Everywhere Else

When I came across Jay Matthews’ article in the Post the other day, I read it with rapt attention. I’m glad to see that this issue keeps surfacing in our area, because it’s an important one that needs discussion across the country. Click here to read Mr. Matthews’ stance on this widespread problem.

Learning Styles: Why They Matter

Have you ever been trying to remember something and found yourself pacing around the room?  Do you click your pen while trying to find the right words to close an email?  Do you tap your foot while watching an instructional video online?  If you relate to any of these items, you might be a kinesthetic learner.   This “fidgeting” is allowing you to better focus on the task at hand and retain the information you are trying to remember.  And while you may not have paid much attention to why you’re circling the table for the fifth time, that movement is helping you remember and retain the information you are learning.

For kinesthetic learners, walking around while reciting notes or using flashcards is a great way to help retain information.  Kinesthetic learners do best with frequent breaks and tend to focus better when they have something to fidget with.  Using a Tangle Jr. or stress ball can be a great way to help sustain focus and keep attention on the task at hand.

What Is Your Learning Style?

Are you someone who needs to “hear” new information in order to grasp it?  Do you prefer listening to audio tapes rather than reading new information?   If you find it best to listen to new information, you may be an auditory learner.  Auditory learners learn best by learning styleshearing.  They learn well in groups where they can talk about new information and hear it as well.  Auditory learners may want to record tapes to play back so they can hear the material they are studying.   Visual learners learn best by seeing.  Most visual learners prefer to study alone and do best in a quiet place.  Rewriting notes is a great tool for visual learners.  Using color to highlight main ideas, making smartcards, and previewing text by scanning the pictures and headings are great strategies for visual learners.

Why Are Learning Styles Important?

So what does it all mean and why is it important?  Most people have a preferred way to learn.  Some learn by listening, some have to observe every step, and others have to do it to learn it.  By finding out how you learn best you can better understand which tips and strategies will allow you to study more efficiently and effectively.  So how do you learn best?   How do your children learn best?  Have you noticed your child constantly fidgets or doodles while practicing spelling words?  Let him play with a stress ball when you’re working together and see if it helps.  Next time you’re trying to retain new information, try out some of these strategies and see if they help you better retain the information at hand.

4 Tips to Help Teens Prepare for Final Exams

It happens year after year, quarter after quarter, week after week. Students prepare for tests and quizzes by spending a day or two or maybe even the week beforehand glossing over notes and study guides. Then when grades come back, they wonder why all of their efforts garnered them a “C.” The reason: they don’t know how to effectively study.

It can be very difficult to instill study skills in teenagers who generally are immune to their parents’ advice. At any rate, here are a few suggestions for how you can help your teen better study for final tests and get ready for the end of the school year.

1. Instead of asking “Have you studied?” ask “Have you studied what you don’t know?”

A typical teenager’s idea of studying is “reading” over notes and study guides. Though, more often than not, this “studying” becomes more of a repetitive eye exercise than active reading and retention. By asking them something novel that cuts out a chunk of work (studying what they already know), they may be more receptive to your suggestion. If not, at least you can plant the seed. Encourage them to go through their study guide, check off what they do know, and circle what they do not know. Then, they can either create practice tests or flashcards on only the material they do not know.

2. Suggest a study group.

Studying with other students and working on assignments together can be very helpful. Students can clarify points they may not understand and help others by explaining the parts they find hard. Teaching others may even help them gain a better understanding of the information as well. Further, working with peers gives many students a boost in motivation.

3. Use technology! There are a lot of great study sites and apps.

Being exposed to information in new ways can help students better understand and learn. Channels on YouTube such as Crash Course! offer visually stimulating, humorous videos that explain in ten minute segments everything from The Cold War to Stoichiometry. Website such as Quizlet and Examtime allow students to create various study aids such as flashcards and mind maps. Apps like iProcrastinate serve as simple task managers to keep students’ study plans on track.

4. Study right before sleep.

It’s not news that sleep is tied to learning. Even a nap can significantly boost brain power during the day. To cement new knowledge in the brain, recent sleep research proves that the first 3-4 hours of deep sleep shortly following studying have a significant impact on one’s ability to retain information. The lead author of the study, Jessica Payne, Ph.D., says it is “a good thing to rehearse any information you need to remember just prior to going to bed. In some sense, you may be ‘telling’ the sleeping brain what to consolidate.” This news is exciting to teens who will heed anything they perceive to be an academic “shortcut.”

The Effect of Music on Studying: What the Research Says

I am a person who hates silence. No matter if I’m driving, cleaning the house, or grocery shopping; chances are I’m listening to music. My resistance to silence has cost me hours upon hours in the library as a student convincing myself that I could write an analytical paper and listen to Third Eye Blind simultaneously. Even as I write this, I’m tempted to pull up Pandora. But plugging in and tuning out always leads to the same thing for me: distraction and lots of wasted time.

The New Research on Music and Studying

For a long time, research suggested that it was possible to listen to music while studying as long as that studying was based in rote memorization and not critical thinking. So when students said things like, “Mom, I can totally study chemistry and listen to Jay-Z at the same time, it’s research proven!” parents believed them. But new research coming out of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom, has proved otherwise.

This study looked at the human ability to memorize and recall information in the presence of different sounds. The participants in the study were tested while listening to different sounds: silence, music they said they enjoyed, music they said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers.

The study found that participants had the hardest time recalling memorized information when they were listening to music, regardless of the genre of music or their preferences towards the music. The participants also struggled to recall information when listening to random numbers. However, participants had the easiest time recalling information when they memorized the information in silence or while listening to the number three on repeat.

While this new study does not dismiss the effect music can play on a person when performing rote tasks such as taking out the trash or washing the dishes, it does argue rote memorization and music may not be the perfect pairing.

But why is it possible for students to listen to the new Drake or Mumford and Sons album when they run a mile or do chores, but not while they study? According to Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, the human brain uses the same part to listen to song lyrics as it uses for word processing, which is being engaged when studying. This means that when a student is listening to their iPod while studying for a history quiz, the brain is trying to multi-task resulting in the student acquiring far less knowledge than they would have if they had studied in silence.

How Music Can Help

While this may be bad news for music lovers, there is a silver lining. There has been some research that listening to classical music for 10 minutes before a test, rather than cramming results in higher test scores. The reason is that the music stimulates the brain and there is a temporary jump in cognitive functioning.

Music has multiple uses in the field of education. Studies have shown that students who play musical instruments beginning at an early age become stronger critical thinkers and enjoy math more than those who do not. Music can be used to help students learn material (think Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill”) and also can be used as a primary source for students who may be struggling with secondary social studies. A study of music can allow students to develop self-discipline and cultural understanding.

What to Do if Music is Interfering with Homework Time

The research has shown that music has a place in education, but it’s not a place that necessarily extends to homework time. Try asking your children to unplug during homework time, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, and see what a difference it makes. If your student is resistant to this suggestion among others, it might be worth considering bringing in a professional tutor who can work with your student to improve his study habits and provide structure. Students are often much more receptive to suggestions that don’t come from mom and dad.

Even in the busiest households, where silence is rare, sometimes nothing can be more crucial to academic success than a little quiet time. So leave the music to cleaning, chores, gym time, and car rides and encourage your students to unplug and tune in during homework time.

iGeneration Learning: What’s Going on In Our Kids’ Brains?

I was lucky enough to attend two of Dr. Rosen’s sessions at the Learning and the Brain Conference this weekend.   In addition to presenting his own research, he also summarized other recent studies.  Here are the questions, answers, and other tidbits I found interesting:

  • Why are “screens” so appealing to humans? And when it comes to reading, what is the neurological reason our kids prefer to search Google than read a book? Dr. Gary Small of UCLA conducted fascinating research studying students’ fMRIs when they were asked to do two separate things: read a hard copy book and search the internet using Google. He found that kids’ brains almost fully lit up (almost all areas were stimulated) when they used Google, but that only a very small portion was activated when reading a book. The internet produces a hyperactivity of the brain; it makes people more engaged and stimulated.
  • The more friends you have on Facebook, the more gray matter (associated with memory) in your brain. Also, those with a large amount of friends were more likely to have a larger amygdala (part of the brain associated with emotion). Here’s a good visual of brain maturation. Although association doesn’t mean causation, most here at the conference believe there is a causative affect.
  • Children who play violent video games have less activity in their brains that regulate emotion and aggression. The effects can last for a week after last playing a game.
  • Furthermore, people who are addicted to video games have disrupted brain connections in the areas of emotion, decision-making, and attention.

When it comes to attention, a recent study by Rosen looking at the habits of 279 middle, high school, and college students found the following when the students were observed studying for 15 minutes:

  • All groups could only attend to the task for 3-5 minutes before losing focus. They were able to refocus at about 6 minutes, but then were highly distracted between 8-10 minutes. They became highly focused at approximately 14 minutes, probably because they realized they had just a short time left before the time was up.
  • The most interesting finding was that the number of windows the student had open, the more off task they were.
  • Off-task behavior was highly correlated with lower grade point average (GPA). On-task behavior was correlated with higher GPAs.

In a nutshell, Rosen found that the following factors in the study predicted good school performance:

  • How much time the student spent on task.
  • If the student had strategies for studying (more on this in my next post).

And the following factors predicted poor school performance:

  • Switched from task to task often (multi-tasking).
  • High amount of daily media consumption.
  • And most amazingly, whether the student checked Facebook just ONCE during the 15 minutes. This is the factor that was most correlated with lower GPA.

The question isn’t whether technology is good or bad, it’s about how kids can use it wisely. Part of that includes something called “meta-cognition” which is a fancy way of saying “thinking about thinking”. In order for students to regulate their own online habits they must know how they learn and pay attention best. More on the latest on meta-cognition in my next post.


Questions or comments? Please post them below!

Ann Dolin, M.Ed. — President — EC Tutoring


iGeneration Learning: How Technology Rewires Brains and Teaching Strategies

For the last three days, I’ve been attending the Learning and the Brain Conference sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.  Almost one thousand individuals in education-related fields from all over the country have come to Crystal City to learn about the latest brain research from the world’s leading neuroscientists and psychologists.  This year’s conference title, “Web-Connected Minds: How Technology Transforms Brains, Teaching and Attention”, is of tremendous interest to me as an educator and more so as a parent.  I have questions like:

“Are our kids’ brains different because of their attachment to technology?”

“What are the long-term effects of technology on our kids?”

“Is technology causing our kids to have shorter attention spans?”

The bottom line is that neuroscientists have just begun to study the long-term effects of iPads, iPods, texting, Facebook, YouTube, video games and basically anything with a screen.  Through my next few blog postings, I hope to consolidate some of the newest research from this conference.

The first keynote I attended on Friday was given by Larry Rosen, PhD, from California State University.  Here are some of the basic take-aways from his talk:

  • Although our brain only weighs two pounds, it uses 25% of our energy.  It’s a myth that we use only 10% of our brain.
  • Functional MRIs (performing a task during an MRI) have found that thinking about something actually activates more (and different) parts of the brain than hearing, speaking, and seeing.
  • Our kids are thinking all day long…about technology.
  • There are two types of distractors during learning: internal and external.
  • Thinking is an internal distraction.  Kids may be contemplating, “I wonder if anyone “liked” the photo of me water skiing.”  A common internal distractor is Facebook.  In fact, every one out of five page views on the internet is of Facebook.  More on external distractors later.
  • Rosen says our kids are suffering from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  When they don’t have their phone in hand, they are panicked that they’re missing out on something important.  Yet when we take their technology away, it actually creates more anxiety.  When kids are in FOMO mode, they are not fully available for learning.
  • Solution?  Tech breaks.  Allow your child to have his or her phone during homework.  It can be on the table, just turned over (out of sight, out of mind does not apply to this generation when it comes their phones).  Students should work for 15 minutes, and then take a one-minute tech break.  This one-minute break greatly relieves anxiety and kids are better able to focus.
  • There is no such thing as multi-tasking.  The brain actually quickly shifts from one task to another.  When kids are doing many things at once such as texting, looking at Facebook on their laptop, and reading a text book, they are not doing any one thing accurately.
  • When they are working on many things at once, including homework, they prolong the amount of time they must spend on their assignments.
  • This makes sense to us as adults, but studies show kids think they can work just as efficiently in this manner.  A good solution is a tech break.

In addition, Dr. Rosen described characteristics of the iGeneration (born 1990-1999).  They:

  • Are more liberal.
  • Are more idealistic.
  • Are more socially connected.  Their #1 vehicle is Facebook.
  • Think have a strong desire to be entrepreneurs and believe they can succeed.
  • Have a strong work ethic when they can focus.  The problem is that they cannot focus well because of so many distractors inherent in their environment.

More on technology’s impact on focus and attention in my next blog from the Learning and the Brain Conference.


I’d love to hear your comments or questions!  Please post below.

Ann Dolin, M.Ed. — President — EC Tutoring


Can Skype Help with Studying?

Just the other day, my fourteen year old son, Will, announced that he was going to Skype (is this word now a verb?) with his friend Kelly in order to study for an upcoming test.  I was instantly skeptical.  After all, it’s unlikely that any real studying can involve social media…right?  I was wrong.

That evening I decided to walk ever so slowly by Will’s room to see if he was really studying or merely chatting with his friend.  I was surprised to hear that they were quizzing each other for an upcoming test based on a study guide they were reviewing together.  I heard questions like, “Do you think she’s going to ask about the causes of the revolution on the test?  How did you create your venn diagram showing cause and effect?  This is how I did mine (holding up paper).”

So, in the end, I do think Skype is the way to go for many of our tech-savvy kids.  Here are some things to think about:

  • Research shows that students remember far more of what they discuss than what they read or hear.   Small study groups are ideal, but when that’s not possible, consider Skype.
  • Be sure your child has guidelines so that the time spent studying doesn’t turn into social hour.  Kids should establish with their peer how long the study session will last and what they need to accomplish.  All worksheets and study guides should be emailed ahead of time.
  • Skype can help your child with a sense of accountability.  Some students just can’t muster enough energy to study alone, but they often can when they have an established study session with a friend.

And your tween or teen will surely be impressed when you encourage Skype as a study tool!

Ann Dolin, M.Ed.
President – Educational Connections, Inc.