Closing the gap – learning from answers

Close-the-Gap

The single most important piece of advice for anyone sitting an exam is to practice questions, and where possible, past exam questions. It has been a consistent message for over 20 years, and although we have evidence to show its effectiveness it also has a common-sense logic. Would you for example go on a driving test having only read about driving in a book but never practiced in a car beforehand?

Although the process of practising questions provides insight not just about the exam but also how well you perform under timed conditions, there is another important and valuable lesson. What does comparing your answer to the model answer tell you about how well you understand the subject and what you need to do to get it right next time, effectively to close the gap?

Closing the gap
Checking if your answer is right or wrong is important for obvious reasons but there is a rich seam of learning to be found by looking at the detail in the answer and comparing it with yours. For numerical questions consider reworking the calculations, noting each iteration to help gain a better understanding of the answer. Although this will help should a similar question be asked again, that’s not the main objective. Focusing on one subject, one topic and a specific question helps direct your efforts to a problem that needs to be solved, and the brain loves to solve problems. It also adds context and purpose to what you have been learning.

Written answers are far more difficult to review as there is often a degree of interpretation. However, when you find a statement or section of narrative that is different to yours or perhaps didn’t appear in your answer, ask, why didn’t I put that? Was it that you knew what to say but didn’t think it relevant, was your answer similar but not as clearly expressed, has it exposed your level of knowledge or lack of it? It’s this process of reflection together with the guidance as to what you need to do to “close the gap” that makes doing it so worthwhile.

Different types of exam
There are different types of exam so in order to offer more specific advice, let’s look at two extremes.

Objective tests – these types of questions are the easiest to review because they are relatively short, but even if you passed don’t be satisfied, look at the questions you failed and learn from the answers. You may of course find your knowledge lacking, but going back to the textbook with a specific problem in mind is a very efficient way to learn. Also remember to add some comments to your notes as to what you have now learned, this will help you avoid making the same mistake again. And if you didn’t pass you obviously have even more work to do.

Case Study – looking at past questions for case studies is a very different learning experience. If the case study requires you to demonstrate application of knowledge, which is a common objective, reviewing the answer can provide excellent guidance as to how this can be done. Application is something many students find difficult, largely because their head is full of rules and not how those rules could be used in the context of a real-world problem.

In addition, you will get a feel for the required standard and how the right headings, phrases and structure can help give order to the random thoughts that will come to mind when in the exam. Equally don’t be afraid to effectively steal some of the set phrases or tricks of good writing, for example notice when making a series of points, firstly, secondly, thirdly can help the answer feel structured and yet not repetitive.

Reviewing past exam questions is learning from someone who has got the answer right, which sounds terribly logical when you think of it like that.

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What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset

failure-sucess

Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.

Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

The Paradox of on demand exams

paradox-of-choice-1

But which one is best when there is so much choice?

It is more blessed to give than receive, so it says in the bible, and Christmas is a time when you get to do this in abundance. What better feeling can there be when you find exactly the right present for that special person. You can even imagine the smile on their face when on Christmas day they rip open the paper to reveal the gift they either never new they wanted but did, or in their wildest dreams believed they could have or own.paradox-wonderful-christmas-time-1

BUT…….its not as easy as it used to be. Deciding on what you want to buy is one thing, finding the “best” or most suitable gift is another.

Paradox of choice

Although Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote his book called The Paradox of Choice over 12 years ago, most if not all of what he said is more relevant today with the explosion of choice created by the internet and advances in technology. He argued that choice rather than being good, and by the way the basis for freedom, was not necessarily bad, but did not always result in the best decisions being made or to be precise, the feeling that the best decisions had been made.

There were two reasons for this, firstly, too much choice creates paralysis, a delay in the decision-making process (see also Buridan’s ass) that can result in no decision being made at all, and secondly if you do decide, ultimately you will become less satisfied with your choice for a variety of reasons e.g. regret, opportunity cost and the escalation of expectation.

But what has this all got to do with examinations?

On demand exams result in their own paradox

In the world of professional examinations for many years’ students and employers have been asking for more choice as to when the exam can be sat. Its only tradition and inflexible systems that have created a need for testing to take place at specific times of the year. But with technology comes flexibility and that flexibility now means that some examinations can be sat when you want, not when the professional body or university decides. Driving tests have long followed the concept of, “on-demand” testing.

This choice is however resulting in a paradox. Students are taking longer to pass their exams but despite having more time results are not improving. You would expect that having additional time to study would improve exam success not reduce it.

One of the reasons for taking longer to pass is because it is now within the student’s power to change the exam date if they so wish. There are a number of good reasons for doing this, for example, work pressure, not feeling ready for the exam or that you dont know enough. Logical reasons but are they “good” reasons?

That all depends of course on the objective, but if the objective is to pass the exam quickly, then the answer is no.

The best of both worlds

Schwartz never concluded that having a choice was bad, just that it was not the end game. Ultimate choice is not the objective. He did say that we should perhaps stop thinking in terms of maximising choice but set some standards that can be used to help navigate the choices available.  In fact, this is borne out by some initial research into this area which shows that students increase their chances of passing if they set an exam date, (the choice) enable sufficient time to study but don’t change the exam date later (the standard). The choice when to pass can be set but neither the length of study nor the exam date should change.

Alternatively:

Consult an expert – What do people do when they are faced with such a wide range of options they cannot decide, how about asking an expert? In this instance the expert would be the educational establishment or the examining body, what do they recommend?

Follow the norm – Data is now more readily available than ever before, many technologies make use of historical trends to make predictions or to offer advice when there are lots of choices. Everyone will be familiar with the web sites that suggest books or other items you should buy based on past behaviours. What worked best for you in the past, what did you do before that was successful or what do the most successful people do?

Now that we have cleared up how to make better decisions in a world of endless choices – I need to begin thinking about my New Year’s resolutions, oh dear if only there were not so many choices.

Happy new Year to you all

Click to watch Barry Schwartz TED lecture.

 

 

For example – how to get higher marks in written questions

MORE-EXAMPLES

It’s great to be knowledgeable, but to pass an exam knowing the answer is often not enough. Questions set by examiners seek to do far more than identify people who “know stuff,” they want the student to prove understanding and that they can use the knowledge, not simply reproduce it.

The knowing doing gap

There is sometimes a disconnect between what you know and what you can explain. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know what I want to say but can’t find the words” or “what more can I say, I feel like I am just repeating the same point”. This may be the result of a lack of understanding and simply requires more study (see Eureka I understand understanding) or it might be that you just need a better way to think about what you’re trying to do.

Analyse, Explain – clarify – Example e.g.e.g.e.g.

Imagine you’re faced with a question, it asks that you, provide a possible  explanation as to why we have seen a fall in stock market prices in recent weeks and what impact this might have on  economic growth in the UK . Often the first problem is knowing where to start, below are a few ideas that might help.

You will need a few headings to help give structure, these can often be found in the question, here for example we could use, Why stock markets might fall and Impact on the UK. Then under each heading think about analysing, explaining, clarifying and giving examples. These are not headings; they are to help expand on what you have been asked to do and give a perspective from which to think.

  1. First you analyse – If you analyse something you break it up into smaller parts so as to gain a better understanding. For example going back to the question, perhaps we should identify exactly by how much the stock market has fallen, over what period, what other events were happening at the same time, do we have any theories that could help or theoretical models we could apply etc. By examining what you have found, something new and obvious may become clear.
  1. Then you explain – an explanation is an attempt to make clear what you mean. One way of doing this is by making a series of statements. So for example, if you noticed that during the period in which we had the fall in the stock market, China’s economy also slowed and oil prices fell to unprecedented levels. This might lead you to make the statement – one of the reasons for the fall in stock market prices would appear to be the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the fall in demand for oil.

A subset of explanation is clarification. Definitions are a great way to clarify exactly what something means and in what context it is being used. Here for example we might want to include a definition of economic growth.

  1. And finally the example itself, possibly one of the very best ways of explaining and a very powerful technique to demonstrate understanding.

Example “Metaphor’s forgotten sibling”. John Lyons

It may be a reference to a real world example. In the question we have to address the impact on the growth in the UK economy. If you gave an example of the last time oil prices were so low and what happened as a result you will not only be demonstrating breadth of knowledge but also moving the debate forward, suggesting perhaps that the same will happen again?

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking.

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with their own prior knowledge and real-world experiences. Piaget et al

An example may also be a construct, something that you talk through to illustrate a point. For example, let us imagine the impact of falling oil prices on an engineering company in the West Midlands. A reduction in oil prices would result in lower transportation costs that could be passed onto customers in the form of lower prices, in turn this should increase demand.

“Examples are indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and they appertain to the domain of intuition”. Kant

Although this blog has covered an approach to structuring written answers, it is the use of examples that for me is the most important. And if it was not obvious enough, look how many times I used examples to explain what I was trying to say …….

27 Million People per day can’t be wrong – Gamification

League of LegendsThe statistics are astonishing, as of January 2014, over 67 million people play League of Legends per month, 27 million per day, and over 7.5 million concurrently during peak hours. And if your good at it the prize money for winning the world championship might get you to question your chosen profession, it was $2.3m in 2014 and 2015. Playing an on-line game is part of daily life for many people.

This blog is “of course” not about League of Legends. In fact I have to admit I had never heard of it, just shows how far out of touch you can become with popular culture. It’s not even about the gaming industry which is said to be worth £3.9 bn to the UK economy, it’s about a growing and fascinating area of learning called gamification.

Gamification is the use of game mechanics (rules, design and tools) in a non game context to better engage and motivate learners to achieve a desired objective. There are two types, structured, where you are looking to propel a learner through content and reward them for the desired behaviours and content driven where the game is the content i.e. the learner is a character in the game and is required to undertake tasks that are in turn rewarded.

Gamification techniques – Game mechanics

Games are not of course all the same but they do have similar characteristics, these “techniques” can then be used in a non game context i.e. a learning context. The idea being that if they engage and motivate the gamer, they will do the same for the student.  Games need some form of measurement to assess performance and a reward to act as an incentive.  Below is a note of some of the measurements and rewards used in gaming but could be adapted for learning.

  • Points – Used to keep score
  • Badges – visual stamps that are awarded to users on certain achievements and are normally displayed in their header and profile page
  • Levels – shows ranking and progress
  • Leader boards – a high score that is displayed for all to see
  • Rewards – not a badge but something tangible e.g. money….

Personal gamification

You don’t need to spend millions developing a game to get the benefits from gamification, and its not all about beating others, here are a few tips.

  • Set up a points system – identify the activities that will help you achieve your goal e.g. spend 2 hours each evening studying, 10 points. Answer 2 questions each evening, 20 points. Attempt the mock exam, 40 points. Score 50%, 80 points etc. Keep a running total of your points in a place that you can see when you study
  • Levels – Only move onto the next chapter or session when you have the desired points
  • Leader board – Keep a note of your highest score from the other subjects
  • Rewards – The best part. Set up a series of rewards e.g. a night off, go for a run, have a glass of wine, bar of chocolate etc. Increase the rewards as gaining the points becomes more difficult. If you beat your leader board score, then your rewards can be even greater, maybe a day out shopping/at the football etc. Why not ask others to contribute to the reward, if I get to the top of my leader board how about you buy me dinner. You will be surprised how many people, friends and family will effectively sponsor you.Other brands are available....

And finally tell your friends what you have done, “just eating a massive bar of chocolate which was my reward for scoring 80 points on my study game.”

Of course you might get fat doing this, but don’t worry there is another game that can help – it’s called weight watchers…..

Technology can help

As ever technology can help, check out this app HabitRPG – Click 

Staying the course – commitment

Mo-Farah-EthiopiaYesterday Brendan Foster described Mo Farah as the greatest sportsman Britain has ever had. You may of course disagree, it’s probably one of those conversations best left to have in the pub, I am sure there are many worthy contenders. Farah responded modestly by saying that because we have so many great sportsman simply being put in the “great” category was amazing. He nominated his greats, David Beckham, Sir Alex Fergusson and Sir Steve Redgrave.

Watch Mo win the 5,000 meter gold at the world athletics championship 2015.

I have to confess to knowing little about sport or in fact having much interest, but what has always impressed and inspired me is the level of commitment successful sportsmen and women have. I have written in the past about Sir Steve Redgrave who won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics. How do you do that, how do you get up every morning and work towards a goal that is four years away, every day for 25 years?

Mandy Monday – procrastination

Start MondayMandy is a weight watcher character who promises to start her diet on Monday, in the interest of gender equality I am sure there is a male equivalent let’s call him Marty. Of course Monday never comes and so although Mandy sort of commits to Monday she constantly puts it off, choosing to do “other things” in preference. Initially this seems like you are delaying the pain in favour of the pleasure but I am not sure delaying something that is in your best interest is pleasurable? Pleasure implies satisfaction and I don’t think you feel satisfaction, probably more like relief.

Exams – you need to commit

It can be like this with studying and exams. Very few students want to sit an exam, its hard work, stressful and you might fail. So if you were given a choice when to sit the exam when would it be, Monday?

In fact delaying an exam can feel perfectly logical and rational. This is how the internal conversation might sound. “I have to sit this exam and it’s not going to be easy, to pass you need to know everything. There is no point sitting the exam if I am not 100% ready, an athlete wouldn’t enter a race if they weren’t 100% fit, it’s like that for me. The best thing to do is sit the exam in another month, another month is all I need, then I will be ready.

The million dollar question is do you ever feel ready?

On demand exams – Set the date and stick to it

If the exam was once every four years my guess would be that most students would not put the exam off, can you imagine waiting another four years? But when an exam is on demand and its left to the individual when you have to take the exam, you never have to commit. At the back of your mind you know that you can always delay. This means you never made the commitment in the first place.

But how to commit – Take a calendar and pick the date you want to finish all of your exams, when you want to qualify, write it down. Then list out all the exams you have to pass to get there, set dates for these and write them down as well. Put them on a wall chart, electronic calendar, even post them on Facebook, they cannot change. These dates are no longer in your control; you have passed that to someone else and in so doing have made the commitment to yourself. Go on do it now!

And finally an antidote to exams

Not anti school, but pro education – If you have not seen any of these spoken word videos – watch this one. Why I hate school but love education, you will not be disappointed.

Ps if you like the no add video check out quite tube.

Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse

Releasing PressureI have long been interested in the way knowledge from one domain can help inform another and have had two very good examples of this recently, both leading in the same direction.

 

 

The first came from an engineering friend of mine who started a conversation about the meaning of stress and pressure in his world. He described stress and pressure as essentially the same except being applied in different forms. Pressure is applied on the external surface of a body, while stress is the internal resistive force per unit area of that body, which resists its elongation or compression.

Alternatively – Stress is generated within the material whereas pressure is the applied force.

The second example came from a stress management seminar* I recently attended, not so abstract you might say but it wasDont let the bridge collapse the analogy the presenter used that was interesting. He asked that we thought of a bridge, the cars going over the bridge created pressure on the bridge and as a result the bridge would experience stress.

No matter how strong the bridge, there was a point that if too many cars were on at any one time it would collapse.

How does this help?

Analogies can be very helpful where it’s difficult to conceptualise or understand complex ideas. For example the bridge will show signs of stress before it collapses. This is no different for people; signs of stress will be present well before the stress levels are high enough to cause problems e.g. short temper, lack of sleep, headaches etc.  Also if we carry on with the analogy, there are two ways in which you can make sure the bridge doesn’t collapse. One, don’t have so many cars on the bridge and two, support the bridge so that it can take more cars. This translates into reducing the number of external pressures you are under (less cars) and having coping strategies to help when you are under pressure (some support).

Pressures when studying

A lot of pressures when studying are time related, for example taking on too many subjects or having to study as well as holding down a responsible job.  But some pressure might be created by the way you feel about yourself, not being capable or clever enough. Also people often put themselves under pressure – interesting term “putting yourself under pressure” by having very high expectations or maybe those expectations are put upon them by others.

The simple answer – take some of the cars off the bridge, reduce the number of subjects your studying, lower your expectations etc. This is not to say that having high expectations is not good, but if it is affecting your performance in a negative way, then you have to do something. And I know it may not be easy to do this in all circumstances; do you step down from that responsible job, how practical is that?  Yet if you do nothing, the bridge will collapse and that has to be avoided at all costs.

The alternative to taking cars off the bridge is to add in extra support.

Strategies to cope

Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 suggested that stress is the result of an “imbalance between demands and resources” or results when “pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”. They came up with two types of coping responses.

Emotion-focused – These techniques work very well when the stress is or at least appears to be outside the individual’s control.

  • Keep yourself busy to take your mind off the issue – just keep working through the course
  • Let off steam to other students/partners, anyone who will listen in fact
  • Pray for guidance and strength – and why not
  • Ignore the problem in the hope it will go away – not always ideal but the problem may sort itself
  • Distract yourself – go for a run
  • Build yourself up to expect the worse – “I will probably fail anyway”

Problem-focused – These techniques aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stress.  These are similar to taking cars off the bridge.

  • Take control – being out of control is often the cause of much stress. Revaluate what the problem is, and ask is it worth it!
  • Information seeking, perhaps the most rational action. Find out what is causing the problem and look to solve it e.g. why do you have such high expectations, does it help?
  • Make a list, evaluate the pros and cons and put in order of importance.

Studying can be stressful and this can result in feeling under pressure but this is not altogether a bad thing stress and pressure are key motivational forces, so don’t think of stress as the enemy but watch out for any cracks that might appear in the bridge.

Watch this TED – Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend.

Related posts – Exam stress – or is it your stress and Exam stress Mindfulness and the “7/11”

* The course was delivered by the stress management societyclick here for their website.