In October 2016, I participated in the workshop Study for Success and Learn to Get Better Grades, which was facilitated by learning skills specialist Terry Small, B. Ed., M.A., who has been offering presentations on the human brain for over 33 years. Terry’s belief is that "Anyone can learn how to learn easier, better, faster, and that learning to learn is the most important skill a person can acquire." He also believes that success is a skill that we can all learn.
At the time this workshop was offered, my son was in grade 6 and we were struggling to help him develop effective study skills and become more focused. I was also starting my path towards becoming a teacher, so I thought it was a great opportunity as a mother and a future educator to find out how learning skills can be improved.
One of the most interesting things I learned during the workshop was how closely connected physical activity and learning are. When the body moves the brain becomes more efficient and learning is accelerated. Pacing is a very good way to help our brains become more successful at developing thoughts and retaining information. With physical activity oxygen is pumped to all our organs, including the brain, which improves our thoughts and our thinking process. I have actually experienced this while helping my son study for a science exam. When I quizzed him to check for knowledge and understanding, he was more focused and answered more questions correctly while he was simultaneously bouncing a basketball than when he was sitting down. Now, does this mean students in a classroom have to be constantly bouncing balls to become successful learners? Not necessarily, but they could be allowed to take frequent brain breaks that involve movement within the classroom to increase brain oxygenation. Older students might also be allowed to walk up and down the hallway while reading or when trying to develop ideas for an assignment.
Another interesting thing I learned was that eating certain foods promotes more effective learning. Neuroscience shows that the consumption of walnuts and prunes, for example, improves the cognitive function. So when studying for an exam, eating a prune or a few walnuts would be a good snack to further contribute to our focus and learning ability.
Research has also proven that listening to music stimulates the brain in many ways, but in order for our thinking engine to reach and remain in the ideal alpha state the music we listen to has to have a specific rate of beats per minute. Baroque music between 55 to 70 beats per minute has just the perfect rate that takes and maintains the brain in that state of flow, which contributes to learning success.
Other learning strategies suggested during this workshop included:
Having good learning skills is crucial to succeed not only in school but in life. If brain science shows that we can all improve our learning skills to become more successful learners why not teach students and our own children these effective techniques to contribute to their academic success. Success in turn will lead to motivation and life-long learning.
Assessment is a crucial element in a teacher’s practice that can be used to gather key information about students’ literacy skills and needs. Assessment should be implemented initially to determine the baseline performance of a student and regularly to monitor their progress. Therefore, students’ assessment of literacy skills is critical to determine instructional needs and planning. Students come to the classroom with various levels of literacy skills and needs. When the teacher is knowledgeable about what her students are ready to learn or the challenges they face she is able to develop lessons that meet the needs of each individual student. Assessments not only serve as a guide for literacy instruction, but they can also be used to monitor student progress, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategies implemented and to identify potential areas for instructional improvement.
When connecting assessment and planning, however, it is important to remember that not every method of assessment will be appropriate for all skill levels, cultures or learning styles. Therefore, using a variety of assessment strategies to collect information on student performance will allow the teacher to make more effective instructional decisions. It is also important to choose an assessment strategy that is relevant and appropriate not only for the task assessed, but also for the student’s needs and skills. Students should have the option to demonstrate learning in ways that are consistent with their learning styles and various intelligences.
Rubrics and checklists provide students with a list of elements or requirements they must meet to complete assignments successfully. The criteria should be clearly detailed and in a language that students can easily understand. For struggling students, however, individual assessment conferences might be more beneficial as they give the teacher an opportunity to discuss directly with the student their progress, needs and future goals for improvement. Teacher-led conferences are an effective strategy to assess strengths, weaknesses and progress for students in general. When completed at the beginning of the year, this assessment tool provides crucial diagnostic information that assists the teacher in making decisions about specific learning strategies based on a student’s baseline performance. A child’s baseline performance and reading level can then be used to select appropriate level content that is difficult enough to challenge the learner, but not so difficult that would result in frustration and discouragement. During these diagnostic conferences the teacher can also use student running records. This very useful tool allows the teacher to determine what a child knows and understands about the reading process as well as the strategies and cueing systems the child is using, giving the teacher a starting point to make instructional decisions.
Portfolios offer an effective way to assess student learning as both teachers and students are able to determine growth in specific areas by collecting and selecting work for the portfolio and reflecting on the selected samples of work. Portfolios can be used as an initial assessment tool or on an ongoing basis to evaluate progress or as a final assessment. Portfolios can include a number of pieces of work such as a cover that allows students to express their creativity, reflections on their work, learning goals and samples of students’ work. A key element of portfolios is the conference which includes the participation of not only the teacher and the student, but also the parents.
Student self-assessment is another effective method to determine a student’s learning and progress. In this case, students reflect on their own learning process and the strategies used and their prior knowledge. Students also evaluate the process they have followed to learn and the quality of the resulting product and they establish their own personal learning goals. Student self-assessment can be implemented in a number of ways including journal reflections at specific times of the year, lesson reflections after a specific lesson or unit has been completed or as project self-evaluations. Self-evaluations are an effective assessment tool because students are actively involved in reflecting on their progress, weaknesses and strengths, making them more likely to engage in their future learning and work towards achieving the goals they have set for themselves.
When planning for instruction, collecting information on student performance through various assessment methods that evaluate learning for different intelligences, learning styles, cultures, and skill levels will provide the teacher with a more comprehensive picture of her students’ skills, needs, interests and performance. While initial assessments provide information about the baseline performance of a classroom, which is necessary to make initial instructional decisions, ongoing assessments may also reveal that the teacher’s instructional plan and assessment criteria requires adjustment to meet students’ weaknesses and strengths as the year progresses. Therefore, it is important to understand that the connection between assessment and instruction is dynamic and requires constant review if the teacher intends to plan lessons that help all her students achieve their learning outcomes and are appropriate to their needs and various skill levels.