Four learning strategies that are vital for every student stepping inside the classroom after lockdown

While we are battling with a worldwide pandemic which is weakening us day by day, schools in UK are preparing to welcome students back in to the classrooms from September. I struggle to make up my mind whether we are being stubborn by ignoring the facts and trying to keep our tenacious grip to keep things as normal as they can be, or are we showing resilience against the biggest challenge that we have faced so far. Whichever the case may be, it is certain that students starting school in September would be stepping into a pool of new challenges that would require a well planned, intentional and strategic approach. Through this blog I intend to ignite a thought process in all the young learners that may guide them to see what their biggest challenge would be and how they can use simple learning strategies to overcome that challenge.

Prior to the lockdown, if I asked a student what is your biggest challenge in studies, the most common answer I used to get was ‘closing the learning gap’. Learning gap is the most common factor that leads to anxiety, mental stress and even more devastating habits such as procrastination. Let’s say you have missed a day at school for health reasons. When you walk in the classroom next day, you are listening to a lecture that links to the prior knowledge blocks which are missing in your brain. You can not engage with the new information until you bridge the initial gap. When students undermine this issue of learning gaps in their knowledge and subject content, it perpetually grows bigger and wider. Amit, a Year 13 student faced this issue first hand when he had to miss school because of ill health. Passed his GCSEs with flying colours and selected three of the most challenging A levels, Amit found himself facing hurdles that he has never faced before as his learning gaps were growing day by day. Already struggling with his health, he was getting buried under the burden of these growing gaps which started to feel like heap of stone slabs getting heavier and heavier. Hence, leading to stress, anxiety and hindering his prospects for achievement. I remember in a conversation him telling me that it’s like all of a sudden he has stepped into a quicksand where more he fights to overcome this challenge deeper he goes. I will be sharing with you what eventually helped him and how he successfully went off to complete his A levels to find a place on his dream course at the end of that year.

The challenge that Amit and many other students were facing under normal circumstance is going to be further entrenched by the time schools re-open after lockdown. Learning gaps would be bigger than ever. Where for Amit the challenge was to recover the content and information from a month ago, for you in the current situation that period is now more than 6 months. You will be required to recall the information that was taught from Sept 2019 – March 2020. To do this you must dedicate yourself by understanding the magnitude of the challenge that you are facing. Walking inside the classroom in September without realising the severity of this problem, can exacerbate the existing gaps leading to even worse circumstances. Now the question is what can be done to close these learning gaps. These four learning strategies breathed a new life in many students and helped them to see the positive impacts in their studies.

Retrieval Practice

“It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later.” 

― Peter C. Brown

We forget 70% of the information within 24 hours of hearing or reading it. Rest of the 30% falls away slowly. Those students who figure out the way to interrupt this ‘forgetting’ are the ones who pursue success as a knight the Holy Grail. Students will be relying on their notes, teacher PPTs or classroom handouts in order to recall things you were taught. There are number of studies that prove the fact that re-reading has no value in retention of information. Instead if you read or study a content and within 24 hours test yourself by writing an exam question based on that content, not only it will help you to retain the information for longer period of time but it will also help you to interrupt the ‘forgetting’. Imagine the information that you are studying is like beads and your brain is a thread. You would need a knot at the end of the thread to keep the beads in-tacked. Testing yourself after every studying session is like tying a knot. There is no doubt that testing interrupts forgetting.

Testing is not the only way of retrieving the information. Students form study groups to discuss the content after every lecture which again helps them to recall the contents of attended lessons. Some students mentor their peers or teach a content to their classmates; by so doing they get even more confident and stronger in that subject area. Students who adapt these strategies of retrieval practice such as testing, quizzing, mentoring and group studying, have much better grasp of their learning and progress than those who just reread the material. Testing, however is the most effective as it also helps you to spot the gaps and work on them eventually.

Spacing

“If learning is building up skills and knowledge, then forgetting is losing some of what was gained. It seems like the enemy of learning. It’s not. The truth is nearly the opposite.”

Benedict Carey

The other study shows that if a student requires a greater effort to recall a certain information, it solidifies the memory and hence strengthens the retention. Spacing is a learning strategy that is opposite to cramming or massed studying. You probably have heard the expression practice, practice, practice. Practice makes it ‘permanent’ (perfection is an excuse for quitters). What most students don’t realise is that massed practice or practice that is crammed in a short time has no value in long term retention of information. I have witnessed students doing well in mocks by cramming in short period of time but then struggle at the time of end of year exams as they didn’t revisit the content in a long period and have completely forgotten the relative information. This is because practice is important, but even more important is to have spaced practice. Outstanding students consistently revisit the secure contents after three weeks or a month which strengthens their retention even more. Longer delays would mean that you would require greater effort to recall the information, which is result in better efficacy and much more positive outcomes.

Amit, facing the challenges in his studies showed ingenuity by adapting a strategic approach of creating a calendar with the names of the units and subject areas tagged on each day of a month. This helped him to use his private study time effectively and get rid of the anxiety and stress that were weakening his prospects of winning. According to Amit, when practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting and requiring greater effort to recall between the tests, it leads to strong and long term retention.

Interleaving

“It’s not what and when you practice, it’s all about how you practice.”

This is another practice opposite to massed learning. Imagine that you are teaching a 7 year old a long division method where they have to divide a four digit number by a two digit number. This would include three different calculations: multiplication, subtraction and eventually learning a new skill of division. Learning a new content is always based on our prior knowledge. Interleaving practice is when you link everything new that you are learning with a previous skill or knowledge that helps you to revisit the old content and learn the new one simultaneously. Interleaving practice can be applied in Maths, Science and effectively in every subject area by linking two more topics together. Learning from interleaved practice may seem slower than massed learning but number of studies have shown that it is much more effective for retrieving the information and has long term advantages.

It is proven fact that students who are able to link between the topics and subject areas are much better at problem solving. They gain higher abilities to assess the conditions and respond accordingly. Interleaving also helps students to go beyond retrieval by applying the knowledge gained in a subject area. For example, a class of students is learning about WWII in History. Interleaving their learning with areas such as Atomic Bomb History, Japanese Imperialism, Suffragette Movement, Rise of Nazi Party in Germany and/or Auschwitz would push every student towards academic mastery. It would unequivocally lead to more broader, deeper and durable learning.

Metacognition

“An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.”

Anatole France

Monitoring your own thinking is what psychologists call metacognition. Observing your own learning and progress helps you to make good decisions and keep track of your goals. For Amit and many other students who found themselves overstretched in the middle of nowhere, metacognition strategies opened a new doorway to their success. I had meetings with Amit to set his weekly goals that he would decide after discussions with his tutors. It gave him full control over his learning. There was no pressure of meeting goals every week but it was an opportunity for him to see what is realistic and what is not. Failing didn’t scare or demotivate him, but it gave him a chance to innovate and discover new ways of learning that work.

After few initial fails, Amit was able to crack the code for this difficult challenge and started to move up hand over hand like a champion. He was much more aware of his abilities and his learning techniques. He knew what would work for him under right circumstances and how he can account for things that may go wrong. After few weeks of success he didn’t even need me in this process and kept his pace independently. Some people unfortunately lack the skill to improve because they are unaware of their gaps and they cannot distinguish between their ability and inability. Metacognition helps you distinguish between the two. It helps you to gain awareness of your learning and the process of accomplish higher learning. Setting weekly goals and revising them at the end of the week would require discipline which comes from motivation if you believe in your ability. If you know how learning works it would give you great advantage in life.

“Watch your thoughts, they become words.

Watch your words; they become actions.

Watch your actions; they become habits.

Watch your habits; they become character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Frank Outlaw

This is your opportunity to adapt and change. We must be flexible enough to adapt to the changes; already happened and coming ahead. These four learning strategies are the most effective ways that would lead students to mastery under any circumstances but they would prove even more beneficial under the current situation. We don’t know what schools would be like in September, how teaching would be done, or when things would be normal again. We do know that it will never be same. It is the time now for you to show that you are determined and committed towards your learning and willingly adapt to these strategies from day one or even today. It won’t matter then, whether you are in classroom or attending a zoom session with your tutor, you will find yourself in full control and closing your knowledge gaps would be as easy as riding down a smoothly paved road.

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