How to study (for English)

This post explores studying for exams, and the recent approach that I took with my classes to develop their knowledge and skills in studying.

Before the recent Semester 1 examination period, I talked through exam revision with my Year 11 Literature and Year 12 English classes. I pointed out that artfully arranging their notes around them, or reading over or highlighting material, doesn’t work to ensure that they are able to retrieve knowledge on the day of the exam, or to hone the skills needed for the exam. I explained and explicitly taught research-based study strategies such as spaced practice, interleaving practice, retrieval practice and dual coding.

I shared links to study skills resources with students, including the following.

  • Carl Hendrick’s excellent introductory blog post on study skills. He points out that “retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.”
  • Megan Sumeracki’s post on dual coding. She says, “dual coding is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials. There are many ways to visually represent material, such as with infographics, timelines, cartoon strips, diagrams, and graphic organisers. When you have the same information in two formats – words and visuals – it gives you two ways of remembering the information later on. Combining these visuals with words is an effective way to study.”
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s video on dual coding.
  • Joe Kirby’s post on knowledge organisers. He notes that “knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.”

Spending time during our revision week on explicitly teaching and supporting students in their use of study skills resulted in: clear study plans over a period of time (not cramming!), clear individual goals and actions to prepare for the exam, and increasingly productive use of students’ study time.

A flurry of palm cards appeared in class as students embraced retro technologies for revision notes. Some students commented that their normal study habits have been unsuccessful. A number reflected that they were previously often unable to recall content in an exam, and that maybe it was ineffective studying (and the performance or appearance of studying without actually doing the mental work) that was the reason.

Many students felt empowered that they now knew what to do. Previously they had the will, but perhaps not the strategy or skill to make their time spent studying productive. I encouraged them to spend time doing things that were most likely to make a difference.

Students weren’t all working on the same thing, but each was able to articulate to me what they were doing to prepare for the exam, and why. Each realised the importance of memorised knowledge, something they often neglect when preparing for an English exam (“It’s fine! I’ll just go in and write words about stuff.”). They tell me these lessons on studying also influenced their preparation for other exams.

Below I share some example slides from my revision lessons, to give an idea of the kinds of things I covered.

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Choose your own Edventure: Letting genius blossom

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius. ~ Mozart

letting genius blossom

letting genius blossom

Yesterday, first semester ended at my Australian school (ah!). As I settle in for a break, my reflections keep bringing me back to the idea of immersive, meaningful and transformative learning for all: students, educators, academics. This is learning which privileges the intellectual freedom of the individual and trusts in each person’s capacity for self-directed growth.

In a school sense, I have been using variations of Genius Hour (a version of Google’s now-defunct 20% time) in my senior English classrooms. I found that in a high school context when I have four lessons per week, the idea of 20% time didn’t work as well as less-frequent, longer-lasting ‘genius’ projects. So instead I build ‘choose your own way to explore your understandings and inspirations’ time into units of work.

This time isn’t a total free-for-all but uses as its basis an essential question from a unit of work (like ‘Who is responsible for our actions?’ from a Macbeth unit) or a text we are studying. In this way, students use the course content as a springboard from which they can grow their ideas and design their works of genius. While this vies away from students choosing entirely their own passions, it reflects Google’s move to only focus on projects which align with its core mission and purpose. I have found that some focus helps as a starting point and that parameters can push creativity. And it means I can articulate its purpose in my English courses.

my Genius Hour poster

my Genius Hour poster

This Genius Hour work is much like things I’ve done before, with a new name attached. I like the name because it assumes that students are capable of ‘genius’. It says, “I believe you have the capacity for brilliance.” And in giving learners freedom, Genius Hour says, “I know you are capable of independence of learning, thought and creation.” It is this assumption of the awesomeness inside everyone which I like the most.

It reminds me of when I use BloomGard task options like the example below. This approach allows students to have ownership over their learning while encouraging creativity and creation (especially as I only offer the three highest levels of Blooms).

a BloomGard example

a BloomGard example

One of my favourite Genius Hour type moments was in 2004 when I was teaching the rigorous and relentless IB Diploma course. My class had spent three weeks smashing through the 800+ pages of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in analytic fury. At the end of it we had a two and a half hour class (which we always had each fortnight). I brought in paper, art materials, plus iconic Australian biscuits: Tim Tams and Mint Slices. I told my class they had that time to create a visual representation of the novel. What they produced was beyond amazing. A class of heavily science-maths-leaning students was abuzz with collaboration and coloured-pencil creativity. They chose key scenes from the novel and illustrated these in a series of train carriages, with Tolstoy driving the train. The artwork, which spanned the entire length of a classroom wall when it was done, started with a lit candle and ended with a snuffed out candle, symbolising Anna’s journey. The mood was electric and the class protected that work and talked about it for a long time afterwards as a defining moment in their year.

Monet's Nymphéas

Monet’s Nymphéas: painterly genius of floating blossoms

The other school-based experience propelling my reflections on immersive independent learning is my work in coaching some of the early learning teachers at my school. Watching a class of four or five year olds being given extensive reign to develop and interact with their learning environments, choose their own work (often play-based) and collaborate on self-chosen ideas, had me wondering: What does it say when the students at a school with the most ownership over their learning are the youngest ones? What happens as classrooms and curricula trust in students less and less?

I’ve also been thinking about adult learning. As adult learners, we should be following our own passions and directing our own learning. Some of my most transformative learning has been immersive and driven by me, especially my PhD study and the professional learning trip I took to New York last year.

Researching my PhD has allowed me to totally immerse myself in my educational passions, driving my own learning with the support of my supervisors, my school and others. It has thrown me into and through my discomfort zone in the most brain-bending and delicious ways. My trip to New York last year, in which I organised meetings with school leaders, professors and world-renowned edu-experts, allowed me the time and away-from-home-ness to really immerse myself in my learning. This blog was a way to track my experiences and reflections. Andrea Stringer is currently on her own self-directed professional gauntlet, and has been using her blog, Periscope and the Twitter hashtag #EdVentures to track her learning and share it with others. My recent PhD writing retreat was another example of immersive self-directed passion-driven learning, with a blog post reflection allowing me to think more deeply about my writing processes.

Surely our core business as educators is to nurture our students to be innovative, efficacious ever-learners who trust in their own capacities for growth and follow their own dreams? Surely it is the job of school leaders to provide the same opportunities for their staff? We want for students and educators to balance persistence with creativity. To pursue design thinking and moonshot-bluesky-rainbowunicorn thinking.

How else can we promote and enact immersive, choose-your-own-edventure learning? What might be more ways we can trust our students and ourselves to follow passions and drive own learning?

thrive, flourish, grow

thrive, flourish, grow