Sleep and memory: more evidence

From the BBC:

The mechanism by which a good night’s sleep improves learning and memory has been discovered by scientists.

The team in China and the US used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells – synapses – forming during sleep.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed even intense training could not make up for lost sleep.

Experts said it was an elegant and significant study, which uncovered the mechanisms of memory.

It is well known that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. But what actually happens inside the brain has been a source of considerable debate.

Read the full article here: .

“They don’t take notes!”

Today a colleague began talking about his Grade 11 students. “They don’t take notes,” he said in exasperation. “Not a single one of them.”

Another colleague, overhearing us, joined in. “Isn’t that their problem?” he said. “By Grade 11 they should have figured this stuff out. We shouldn’t have to tell them to take notes and use their homework diaries.”

I wrote Good Habits, Good Students primarily for students. Teachers, for a variety of reasons, rarely teach the habits needed to succeed in school. Students are left on their own to “figure it out.” Unfortunately a huge number don’t figure it out, and they usually blame themselves for their academic disappointments: I’m lazy, I’m no good, I’m stupid. I wrote the book to help students acquire the good habits they need, and to convince them that they can be successful.

But I also wrote the book hoping that teachers and schools would realize that they should be teaching habits. If they did, students would achieve much better results on the “material” taught in school, and would believe in their ability to learn, and would be equipped to go on learning on their own when they are out of school. Grade 11, of course, is a bit late to begin.

Imagine what my colleagues would be saying, though, if their students had been learning and practicing good habits for years. It’s a dream, but it would not be particularly difficult or expensive to make it come true.

Getting boys organized

He had not understood that in seventh grade he was responsible for handing in his homework, instead of waiting to be asked.

The New York Times has an article, “Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success”, that echoes much of the advice you’ll find here: learn to file your papers, use a homework diary, find a quiet place to study, etc. The article quotes a Grade 12 boy who, with the help of an organization tutor, raised his grade average from B- to B+:

“I was really happy about that,” he said. “I always thought I could do it, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I just needed that backing, that structure.”

All of us—not just students, and not just boys—can benefit from the support of others as we try to improve our habits. A parent, a tutor, a friend—find someone who will help motivate you and keep you on track.

Practice good exam-taking strategies [book excerpt]

It’s that time: end-of-year exams have either started already or will shortly. This excerpt from Good Habits, Good Students may help.

Getting Started
Read the instructions and skim all the questions of the whole exam before answering any questions. Be sure no pages are missing from the exam booklet. Be sure whether you should write your answers on the question sheet or on a separate answer sheet. Should you write in pen or pencil? Put your name on the exam booklet and on every one of the answer sheets. Use a highlighting pen to mark important information in the instructions or questions. If a question is unclear, write a note to the teacher explaining how you have interpreted it.

Comprehension Questions
Read the questions first and then the passage they’re based on. That way, you know what to look for when you read the passage.

Multiple-Choice Questions
If you aren’t sure, test researchers say your first hunch is more likely to be correct.

Know how much each question or section is worth, and spend most of your time on the most valuable questions.

Don’t get stuck on a difficult question. Skip it, answer the questions you know, and then come back to the difficult ones at the end if you have time.

Before you begin writing, brainstorm your ideas (web diagrams or mind-maps are excellent) and then plan out the structure of your essay.

State your thesis in the first paragraph.

Be sure that each body paragraph consists of one assertion plus all the evidence and argument needed to support it. Lead your reader smoothly from one paragraph to the next with transitions or linking phrases that reinforce the meaning of your argument.

In the conclusion, try to do more than simply re-state what you’ve already said. Take your ideas “one step further”  by discussing the wider implications or adding your personal judgments.

If you have time, catch your reader’s interest by opening the essay with a startling statement, a quotation, or a brief anecdote. Then in your conclusion you can close nicely with a da capo (“from the top”) ending that returns to your opening by commenting on it, completing it, or adding to it.

Mathematics and Science Tests
Show all your work. Be sure your reasoning is clearly explained, as this is often just as important as the final answer. Never delete or cancel a solution until you have discovered a better one. We learn a great deal from our mistakes, and teachers will be able to help you make improvements if they can see your mistakes and understand where you’re making a wrong turn.

If you finish the test or exam early . . .
There are three possibilities: a) the test was too easy for you; b) the test was too hard for you; or c) your answers have been too hasty and careless. First, re-read the entire exam—questions and answers—making any needed changes or additions. Second, re-read it again, starting with the last question and working your way back to the beginning. Why? Reading it backward may help you catch a mistake you missed before. Finally, read through your answers to check for spelling and grammatical mistakes.

The Homework Workout: exercise your mind and your body

“The experts” say you should take a short break every 20-30 minutes when doing homework. They also say you should exercise regularly. Teachers say the assignment is due tomorrow and if you don’t hand it in . . . .

What to do?

Enter the Homework Workout.

Set the timer for 20-30 minutes and start in on the homework. When the timer goes off, do a set of pushups, say, and a set of squats. Don’t forget to stretch. Reset the timer, and go back to the books. When the timer goes off again, do another set of each exercise. Don’t forget to stretch.

The Homework Workout will keep your mind fresh and alert, your muscles toned, and your homework assignments up to date.

You can do lots of exercises right in your bedroom or study: pushups, squats, ab crunches . . . try some isometrics, too. If you do yoga, try a few sun salutations. If you have weights, do some curls or overhead lifts.

You’ll end up in great shape, and so will your grades.

(Don’t forget to stretch.)

How to save time and learn more: the daily review (book excerpt)

Take five minutes to review every lesson you’ve had each day. Put your notes in order, jot down any questions you have about the lesson, etc. This will really pay off.

Remember that fable about the ant and the grasshopper? The ant spends the warm months collecting food for the winter and preparing his lodgings while the grasshopper eats when he’s hungry and plays the rest of the time. When winter comes the ant is warm and snug, with a good supply of food, but the grasshopper is freezing and starving.

Fables are not really about animals or insects, of course. They’re about you and me.

You probably know students—you may be one of them—who do little studying until the days just before a test. The night before the test, these students may stay up late cramming. Sometimes, they do fine. As you move up from grade to grade, however, the tests get harder, and the amount of material they cover grows. It becomes very difficult to wait until the last minute, cram, and still do well. When you reach the big examinations at the end of Grade 12, it’s impossible.

If you still have the habit of cramming for tests in Grade 12, it will be very hard to break it and replace it with better habits. The time to form good study habits is now, when tests aren’t so difficult—or so important to your future—as they will be later on.

The habit of reviewing every day for five minutes is easy to practice. Once you have established it as a routine, you’ll find that cramming for tests has become unnecessary. Here’s how you do it.

Let’s say you have four academic classes on Wednesday. On Wednesday night, you start your homework session with four five-minute review sessions. For each class, you have your textbook, your notes, and any handouts from the teacher. Using your notes, think back over that day’s lesson. What topics were covered? What were you supposed to learn? Did you understand everything? Do you have any questions about the day’s lesson? Write down any questions you have in a section of your notes, clearly labeled with the date and the topic. If any of the five minutes remains, go through your notes, handouts, or textbook and search for the answers to your questions. Any questions not cleared up during the review or the homework should be asked in class during the next lesson.

Do this for each of the classes you had that day, whether or not you have homework in those subjects. When you’ve finished, or every 20 to 30 minutes, take a five-minute break to stretch, walk around, have a snack, etc. Just be sure the break is no longer than five minutes. Then go back to work, this time doing whatever homework assignments you have.

The mini review
Here’s an even quicker way to review. Every afternoon or evening, answer three questions, in writing, about each class you had that day:

What is one thing you learned in the lesson?

What is one question you have about the lesson?

What is one thing covered in the lesson that you’d like to know more about?

If you can answer these questions, you were certainly paying attention in class and thinking about the lesson! Next day in class, ask the questions you still have about each lesson.

Daily reviews have several purposes:

They help you to store in long-term memory what you have learned in class each day. Scientists studying how the brain works have established that without regular reviews like this, whatever you have “learned” never moves from short-term memory into long-term memory, and before long it disappears! Then when test time approaches, the memory bank is empty, and you’re back to cramming. If you review regularly, you store the important ideas and information in your long-term memory, where they will remain safe and secure until you need them—on a test, for example.

They help you to identify the questions you have. Just a few minutes’ review will bring to mind questions you would otherwise forget about. Good students ask questions, and the key to getting the right answers is asking the right questions. The more you think of questions and ask them, the more you will learn.

They help prepare you to do any homework assignments that are based on that day’s lesson. Homework often aims to review and reinforce material that has been introduced in class. At other times, homework is designed to introduce a new topic. Since one lesson often leads to the next one, the best preparation for doing homework is to review what you did in class that day.

No study technique or work habit is more important to your success in school than daily review. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it makes homework and tests easier, too!