Category Archives: Learning Skills

A Successful Assessment pt 1: how to know what will be on the test (or identifying teacher expectations)

Successful Testing from the A+ ClubFor successful testing, students need to know what will be on the test. Sounds obvious, but parents don’t want to hear from their teens that there were “surprises” on a test or that they studied for the wrong thing.

This edition of the Successful Assessment will review how to help your teenage student identify what will be on a test.

As outlined in the introductory post, How to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), at the A+ Club, we help middle, high school and college students succeed on formal assessments, what we usually call “quizzes” and “tests.”  Our quick measure of a successful assessment means:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

No surprises!

“No Surprises” on a test means the student knew what to expect, knew what to study, and was familiar with every part or aspect of the test. Continue reading

A Successful Assessment: how to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?)

We often hear from parents that “my child doesn’t test well.”

Teens have lots of excuses for their grades, and blaming it on the test is one that parents fall for all the time.

In the A+ Club, we measure middle, high school and college student success on a test or major assessment in terms of 1) identifying teacher expectations; 2) student preparation;  and 3) successful execution on the test day. Continue reading

For math success: guided and independent practice empowered by effective feedback

Help for students struggling with math: “guided” v “independent” practice

At the A+ Club we often hear from parents that their child is struggling in math.

Sometimes it’s, “she never does well in math” or “he does his math homework but scores poorly on quizzes and tests.”

Why students struggle in math: guided v independent practice empowered by feedback from The A+ Club on Vimeo.

Guided practice” is when the teacher shows or “teaches” a new topic or skill.

Independent practice” is when the student engages it by him or herself.

Effective teaching develops learning through a deliberate combination of guided and independent practice, where each builds upon the other. However, if the two are disconnected b an absence of effective and direct teacher to student feedback, then learning doesn’t happen.

This is why kids often say, “I get it when my teacher explains it, but I can’t do it on my own.” When your child complains that he or she “doesn’t test well,” it’s because your child is not receiving effective feedback to empower the independent practice required for learning.

This process is the same for all courses and subjects, but it more frequently manifests in math classes because math learning is not as easily processed through “guided practice” as other subjects.

In our A+ Club academic program, we engage students in effective learning techniques and provide guidance and direct math tutoring and in all subjects for overall academic success.

– Michael

What do grades measure, anyway? How to make sense of grades and student learning

Student-Performance_Process-flow-chart_noheaderParents! If schools were meant for learning, why do we have grades?

In other words, if learning were the goal, wouldn’t every student have to get an A+ before moving on to the next level?

If, when a student gets a D, and it indicates the student met 64% of expectations, is there learning going on at that school? Wouldn’t a 100% grade represent true learning?

As long as there are grades less than an A, the point of schools, then, is not learning.

Worse, not all grades are equal. Does an A in PE represent learning as much as an A in math? They both count the same towards your GPA and both are required. Clearly, learning is not the only thing being measured here.

Grades as thresholds of… of something

So, the student got a B- or a C+, or an F. What does that mean, anyway? The F might be a zero –no work was done at all, or maybe it was 59% and just shy of a D. That’s quite a leap, but that F is still an F.

Or, maybe that C+ was because, even though the student aced the tests, he didn’t do any homework and got nailed for it on the overall grade.

Ask my son, as that was his strategy for high school. He learned everything asked of him, but he only showed it on tests. He learned, but that’s not what school is about.

Well… It worked for him, as he’s a successful musician who dedicates himself to perfecting his craft and learning everything he possibly can about it.

What’s going on here is that grades measure lots of things, just not always – or even mostly – learning.

School is about process

A student like my son learned everything required of the test but skipped on the rest of the process required by the teachers.

Here are some of the things students get measured on that have nothing to do with the generic “Learning”  but everything to do with “grades” and doing what’s asked of them. Some of the things by which students are measured include:

  • showing up
  • writing name on papers
  • sitting down for long periods of time.
  • lifting one’s arm in the air before speaking
  • remembering locker combinations

Okay, so sometimes students are measured on figuring out math formulas or reading literature. But it seems to me that a student could get a much higher grade in high school doing all the other things than strict “learning” that my son did, by actually learning, and never proving it on tests.

School is about figuring out what’s expected and then getting it done, learning or not. My advice to parents, however, is not to get to worked up over a student’s ability to follow process. It doesn’t measure worth, it measures… process.

Of course we want our kids to get good grades, the best grades, and the best way to get there is to follow teacher and school processes. So let’s understand “studying” as not just learning but also following all the little steps that students are being graded upon in addition to “learning.”

See what inspires your child, encourage it, and then encourage her to engage in grade-accumulation as well as learning.

The Secret Life of a teacher gradebook

At the A+ Club, we often hear from parents and students that the student got a B-, or whatever, and can’t say why. The teacher didn’t explain it, the student doesn’t understand it, and the parent is helpless to figure out why.

I just had a conversation with a very bright student who was disappointed in a B+, as her goal was an A. She says that her grade dropped because of a single quiz — which is possible. I suspect, though, that there was something else that knocked her off, and it was very likely manipulated by the teacher. I’m guessing that as a brilliant thinker, quick learner, and full of impatience with process, that quiz grade was the excuse the teacher needed to reflect an overall B+ — smart, got it down but didn’t do everything I asked.

That’s a guess, but I know it happens all the time, especially as an excuse to lift grades — “Oh, well, he did all his homework, so I’ll just pass him even though he failed all his quizzes.”

I’m hearing disgust from all the high-minded teachers out there who believe that standards are standards and the grade book speaks for itself. I’m sorry, but that’s impossible. You will always, necessarily, judge kids holistically, no matter how hard you try to be objective.

Let’s say a student has an A in homework, which is 25% of the grade, an F on tests, which is another 20% of the grade and a D in quizzes (with corrections)  and an A+ in classwork, each 20% of the grade. That adds up to a 77%, or a C+. (Try it here: Mercer Univ Weighted Average Grade Calculator).

Now, the teacher also has a 15% “participation” grade, and whatever the teacher assigns here will decide that overall, final grade:

  • a C in participation will yield 76%, or a C
  • a B in participation will yield  78%, or a C+
  • an A+ in participation will yield an 80% or a B

Assuming there’s no real metric for “participation,” the teacher is justified in assigning this grade based upon pure observation, which will then impact the overall outcome of a C, C+ or a B.

Teachers can do the same by tweaking different grades, such as dropping the lowest grade in each category, or whatever.

From the grades profile we have created, this student is following teacher process, such as in doing homework, but is not learning what is required of the test. Many teachers would be sympathetic to the process and reward a high participation grade simply because the student ostensibly did what was asked, whether or not any learning was involved.

I’m not judging this process. I just want parents and students to be aware of it.

So what do your child’s grades actually measure?

Tests necessarily contain some learning measurement, whether or not it was taught or if it was an explicit part of the content (multiple choice measures reading and logic as much or more than content knowledge). So test scores are usually a primary indicator of your child’s learning. (It is not an indicator of a presence or absence of effective teaching!)

Other assessments such as research projects and essays yield measurable learning, although, like homework and participation grades, these are process-heavy assessments and do not necessarily reflect learning achievement (“mastery” the educators like to call it).

Look over the grade book, speak to the teacher, and discover what, really, is being measured. An A in homework does not mean learning is happening, especially in classes in which the teacher grades for compliance and not accuracy (check it off for having something written on the page — yes, this goes on every day).

Hopefully the various categories of student measurement align, such as B in Homework, B on classwork, and B on tests. I have to say that a part from A- students, that kind of overall consistency in grade results are rare.

Above all, insist upon strong feedback from your child’s teachers. Only the teacher can say what the teacher is measuring, and a good teacher will align grades with thoughtful feedback on actual student production.

Grades measure a lot of things. Make sure you and your child understand what, exactly, is going on with your child’s grades.

– Michael

What’s your student’s emotional IQ? Maturity, Emotional Intelligence & Salesmanship

So your child is that smart, a high-riding, high IQ, straight A’s academic cowboy!

Cool that, but how’s that maturity thing going?

The peak age for absorbing new information is age 18. The peak age for assessing the emotional state of others is 40.

It makes sense, as our developmental years are for learning, testing, and expanding our bodies and mind and testing how they interact with the outer world. Our adult years are for organizing and evaluating ourselves within the larger world.  (Here for How Intelligence Shifts With Age)

So perhaps we can measure our children a bit differently from ourselves?

Continue reading

Learning for the long term: actual content retention versus cramming for the test

Your brain is a web. Cramming is just a strand. Learning is the entire web.

Cramming is compartmentalized memorization, while learning is a series of connected memories.

Here’s an extreme example:

Recently a highly conscientious student joined the A+ Club, troubled over her difficulties in math and science. Turns out the student was memorizing solutions to practice problems before tests, and when those questions didn’t show up on the test, she failed them. (Talk about teacher dysfunction: how could you not notice this??) Continue reading

“I don’t test well” — or do you just not prepare enough?

Testing issues?

You understand it in class, but not when you have to do it on the test?

You do all your homework, but then the teacher pops a question you never saw before?

Actually, you test precisely as well as you learn.

Nice try, though.

We hear this from parents as much as from students:

“My daughter does all her homework but she just doesn’t test well.”

And then

“I think she has test anxiety.”

It’s almost comforting to know that your child doesn’t test well. One would want to sympathize with that, because it would seem to explain things. But it’s just not true.

Here are the components of “testing well”:

  1. Identify teacher expectations

  2. Internalize them through repetitive practice.

“Testing” is demonstration of learning in what we call a “formal assessment.” Certainly there are additional pressures and conditions to render a formal assessment more difficult than homework or classwork. There’s the time limit, there’s the formality of the situation, and the discomfort a teacher getting serious all of a sudden. But that doesn’t change the fact that none of those additional challenges do anything but emphasize preparedness — or lack thereof.

Guided v. Independent Practice

For students who simply do not engage the workflow that teachers expect, they will not “test well” unless they are exceptionally bright and can learn on the fly without studying. Their grades will still suffer, because middle and high school grades are usually no more than 30 or 40 percent from formal assessments.

So acing every test without doing any homework starts you off on a B or C, and maintaining even those grades requires 100% on tests and quizzes. Good luck with that.

For students who follow in the classroom, who understand teacher expectations, and who do the homework and studying that’s required of them — and still do not “test well,” it’s not a “testing” issue. It’s the learning.

A couple of things may be going on:

1. Compliance without learning:

What we call “overly compliant” students are more concerned with fulfilling the form of teacher (or parent) expectations without actually engaging its substance. When this happens, homework and studying happen without real learning. It shows up as high  homework (process) and low test (learning) grades.

2. Lack of lesson internalization:

Whether or not the student engages the expected workflow, if test scores are low, then the student is simply not studying enough. Experts will tell you how it takes 30 distinct acts of learning/practicing something to fully internalize, i.e., to full know it.

With school work, those 30 or whatever acts of learning start with the teacher’s first lesson, then continue through the “guided practice,” in which the teacher shows and leads the students in the lesson (setting expectations, engaging students, building relevancy and breaking it down for understanding — you know, all those things a good teacher does…) and on to enough “independent” practice through which the student has applied the teacher’s learning her or himself.

A quick way to measure “internalization” is to try to teach it to someone else. If you can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t already know it, then you don’t really know it. This is how a parent can engage a child in studying topics that the parent doesn’t know about: “explain it to me.” If the student can’t, then the student needs more learning, be it guided or independent practice or both.

But here’s the crutch: is it important enough to the student to apply him or herself to it fully?

Relevancy

So let’s add an additional component to “testing well”:

3. Making it important enough to study and practice enough (relevancy and commitment)

Overly compliant students do not engage lessons meaningfully, as do other sorts of underperformers who may procrastinate, lack  executive function and other secretarial skills and do not process and practice enough independently.

Just as we would ask the internally-motivated student who learns only topics of interest, the overly compliant, externally-motivated student must adopt that curiosity and drive to learn of the intrinsic learner in order to get past “I don’t test well.”

Both sets must apply themselves with adequate  preparation, practice, and purpose in order to raise those test grades, even in an unenjoyable class.

Heh, it’s only a grade — which actually matters.

So quit making excuses about “testing issues” and get to work really learning it so that when you do have to spit it back out on a test amidst formal, “sit-down and shut-up,” nerve-wracking settings, it’s actually easy — because you already and truly know it.

– Michael

Chicken bones & concientiousness: worrying about what you need to do for better grades

Got conscientiousness?

Artemis, Stella, and Puck on the lookout for your garbage

Artemis, Stella, and Puck on the lookout for garbage

Had a nasty walk with the dogs the other night. Let’s say that I’d like to live my life without my dogs finding half-eaten food tossed on the ground. If it weren’t for the dogs, I’d never notice. But they’re dogs, and dogs, you know, see EVERTYTHING. Especially chicken bones.

It’s not a regular problem in my life, but when I have to pull someone else’s greasy dinner out of my dogs’ throats, that’s a problem. And it makes me want to curse the fools who think it okay that someone else has to clean up after them. Continue reading

What’s a hat worth? Why customer service has no price

With customer service , it’s the little things.

Left my hat at the restaurant the other. I left it because I broke routine (not good): I usually hang my hat on my chair in a restaurant, but this time too many people kept bumping and knocking it on the floor, so my wife grabbed it and set it by her against the wall. Of course we both forgot it. Back home, of course, “Where’s my hat!”

So I called the restaurant. “Can’t hear you, too much noise,” the guy said. So, I repeated, louder, “I left my hat. In the back right room, against the wall. Ask our waiter. He knows. “Two seconds later, “Sorry, no hat here.” Click.

So I called back. Same guy. “I need my hat. Please ask the waiter where our table was, and it’ll be right there.”  Nope, he’s done with me: “Call back after two O’clock, and maybe the cleaning crew will find it.”  Click.

Ten minutes later, I walk into the restaurant straight to our table, and the guy sitting by the wall kindly reaches down and finds my hat.

Mr. Restaurant Manager, you just lost a client.

My thoughts for the manager include:

  • If you don’t care about my hat, do you care about the quality of my food? Or the accuracy of the check?
  • You have no idea why that hat is important to me. You didn’t need to ask, but you ought to have assumed it since I took the time to call you.
  • Since you asked, here’s why: rushing and discombobulated (and breaking habits) I left my favorite hat in a cab at the airport. (Won’t use that cab service again: they just kept my hat). My wife knows I love that hat. Without asking me about it, she bought me another one and carefully packed and brought it back to me onboard another flight. That hat is her expression of love.
  • I want my hat back.

The Little Things Matter

So, Mr. Restaurant Manager, that hat is more important to me than that okay meal I had at your place. Nice place, enjoyed it. Very busy, must be popular. Hope you stay that way, but you’ll have to stay that way without me.

If you think I’m petty over my hat, perhaps, but here’s a thought about “a little thing” from a member of an organization that truly needs the little things done right or lives will be lost:

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Viet Nam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task–mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs–but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

From commencement address to graduates at his alma mater, University of Texas at Austin by former SEAL, Admiral William H. McRaven.

Our Students, Our Service

I hope that at The A+ Club, we are getting the little things, as well as the big things, done right. I hope so, and if we’re not I should hope to hear from our clients. We can’t nor do we want to do everything, as our service has a specific scope, purpose, and price. But…

We sure want to do the things we do– right. Especially the little things, because I know that they can matter the most.

I hope our students take this to heart, as well. Think over Admiral McRaven’s advice: big success starts small.

Did you make your bed today?

– Michael

PS Here for my hat from National Geographic store. I love my hat! (And my wife.)

Distractions & procrastination: can you pass the marshmallow test?

Would you take the one marshmallow now or wait for two later?


Don’t let the marshmallow be a distraction!

Procrastination is all about putting off for later something you don’t want to do in exchange for feeling better now.

In the classic Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Professor Walter Mischel offered young children a sort of opposite problem: feeling stress now by putting off something you want in order to get more of it later.

He gave children a marshmallow and then told them that if they didn’t eat it now, in fifteen minutes they’d get another one. But if they ate the first one, they wouldn’t get another one at all. (Here for How to give the marshmallow test.)

Seems kinda cruel to me, and if I were a kid in the experiment, I’d have eaten the 1st marshmallow then held the researcher for ransom for five more — and now.

Impulse control v instant gratification

The point is, however, that the ability to withhold the impulse for instant gratification is a powerful life skill. Children in the experiment who were able to hold off for two marshmallows were found, ten and twelve years later, to be “significantly more competent” than other adolescents and scored higher on SAT tests.

Continue reading