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دوره: ذهنی برای اعداد / درس 18

فصل 17

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test taking

We’ve mentioned it earlier, but it’s worth repeating, in bold letters: Testing is itself an extraordinarily powerful learning experience. This means that the effort you put into test taking, including the preliminary mini-tests of your recall and your ability to problem-solve during your preparation, is of fundamental importance. If you compare how much you learn by spending one hour studying versus one hour taking a test on that same material, you will retain and learn far more as a result of the hour you spent taking a test. Testing, it seems, has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind.

Virtually everything we’ve talked about in this book has been designed to help make the testing process seem straightforward and natural—simply an extension of the normal procedures you use to learn the material. So it’s time now to cut directly to one of the central features of this chapter and the entire book—a checklist you can use to see whether your preparation for test taking is on target.

TEST PREPARATION CHECKLIST

Professor Richard Felder is a legend among engineering educators—he has arguably done as much as or more than any educator in this century to help students worldwide to excel in math and science.1 One of the simplest and perhaps most effective techniques Dr. Felder has used to help students is laid out in a memo he wrote to students who have been disappointed with their test grades.2 “Many of you have told your instructor that you understood the course material much better than your last test grade showed, and some of you asked what you should do to keep the same thing from happening on the next test.

“Let me ask you some questions about how you prepared for the test. Answer them as honestly as you can. If you answer ‘No’ to many of them, your disappointing test grade should not be too surprising. If there are still a lot of ‘Nos’ after the next test, your disappointing grade on that test should be even less surprising. If your answer to most of these questions is ‘Yes’ and you still got a poor grade, something else must be going on. It might be a good idea for you to meet with your instructor or a counselor to see if you can figure out what it is.

“You’ll notice that several of the questions presume that you’re working with classmates on the homework—either comparing solutions you first obtained individually or actually getting together to work out the solutions. Either approach is fine. In fact, if you’ve been working entirely by yourself and your test grades are unsatisfactory, I would strongly encourage you to find one or two homework and study partners to work with before the next test. (Be careful about the second approach, however; if what you’re doing is mainly watching others work out solutions, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.) “The answer to the question ‘How should I prepare for the test?’ becomes clear once you’ve filled out the checklist. You should: Do Whatever It Takes to Be Able to Answer “Yes” to Most of the Questions.

Test Preparation Checklist

Answer “Yes” only if you usually did the things described (as opposed to occasionally or never).

Homework

_Yes _No 1. Did you make a serious effort to understand the text? (Just hunting for relevant worked-out examples doesn’t count.) _Yes _No 2. Did you work with classmates on homework problems, or at least check your solutions with others?

_Yes _No 3. Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution before working with classmates?

Test Preparation

The more “Yes” responses you recorded, the better your preparation for the test. If you recorded two or more “No” responses, think seriously about making some changes in how you prepare for the next test.

_Yes _No 4. Did you participate actively in homework group discussions (contributing ideas, asking questions)?

_Yes _No 5. Did you consult with the instructor or teaching assistants when you were having trouble with something?

_Yes _No 6. Did you understand ALL of your homework problem solutions when they were handed in?

_Yes _No 7. Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren’t clear to you?

_Yes _No 8. If you had a study guide, did you carefully go through it before the test and convince yourself that you could do everything on it?

_Yes _No 9. Did you attempt to outline lots of problem solutions quickly, without spending time on the algebra and calculations?

_Yes _No 10. Did you go over the study guide and problems with classmates and quiz one another?

_Yes _No 11. If there was a review session before the test, did you attend it and ask questions about anything you weren’t sure about?

_Yes _No 12. Did you get a reasonable night’s sleep before the test? (If your answer is no, your answers to 1–11 may not matter.) _Yes _No TOTAL

The Hard-Start–Jump-to-Easy Technique

The classic way students are taught to approach tests in math and science is to tackle the easiest problems first. This is based on the notion that that by the time you’ve finished the relatively simple problems, you’ll be confident in handling the more difficult.

This approach works for some people, mostly because anything works for some people. Unfortunately, however, for most people it’s counterproductive. Tough problems often need lots of time, meaning you’d want to start on them first thing on a test. Difficult problems also scream for the creative powers of the diffuse mode. But to access the diffuse mode, you need to not be focusing on what you want so badly to solve!

What to do? Easy problems first? Or hard?

The answer is to start with the hard problems—but quickly jump to the easy ones. Here’s what I mean.

When the test is handed out to you, first take a quick look to get a sense of what it involves. (You should do this in any case.) Keep your eye out for what appears to be the hardest problem.

Then when you start working problems, start first with what appears to be the hardest one. But steel yourself to pull away within the first minute or two if you get stuck or get a sense that you might not be on the right track.

This does something exceptionally helpful. “Starting hard” loads the first, most difficult problem in mind, and then switches attention away from it. Both these activities can help allow the diffuse mode to begin its work.

If your initial work on the first hard problem has unsettled you, turn next to an easy problem, and complete or do as much as you can. Then move next to another difficult-looking problem and try to make a bit of progress. Again, change to something easier as soon as you feel yourself getting bogged down or stuck.

“With my students, I talk about good worry and bad worry. Good worry helps provide motivation and focus while bad worry simply wastes energy.” —Bob Bradshaw, Professor of Math, Ohlone College

When you return to the more difficult problems, you’ll often be pleased that the next step or steps in the problem will seem more obvious to you. You may not be able to get all the way to the end immediately, but at least you can get further before you switch to something else on which you can make progress.

In some sense, with this approach to test taking, you’re being like an efficient chef. While you’re waiting for a steak to fry, you can swiftly slice the tomato garnish, then turn to season the soup, and then stir the sizzling onions. The hard-start–jump-to-easy technique may make more efficient use of your brain by allowing different parts of the brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts.3 Using the hard-start–jump-to-easy technique on tests guarantees you will have at least a little work done on every problem. It is also a valuable technique for helping you avoid Einstellung—getting stuck in the wrong approach—because you have a chance to look at the problems from differing perspectives at different times. All this is particularly important if your instructor gives you partial credit.

The only challenge with this approach is that you must have the self-discipline to pull yourself off a problem once you find yourself stuck for a minute or two. For most students, it’s easy. For others, it takes discipline and willpower. In any case, by now you are very aware that misplaced persistence can create unnecessary challenges with math and science.

This may be why test takers sometimes find that the solution pops to mind right as they walk out the door. When they gave up, their attention switched, allowing the diffuse mode the tiny bit of traction it needed to go to work and return the solution. Too late, of course.

Sometimes people are concerned that starting a problem and then pulling away from it might cause confusion in an examination. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people; after all, chefs learn to bring various facets of a dinner together. But if you still have worries about whether this strategy might work for you, try it first on homework problems.

Be aware of some occasions when hard-start–jump-to-easy might not be appropriate. If the instructor gives only a few points for a really difficult problem (some instructors like to do this), you may wish to concentrate your efforts elsewhere. Some computerized licensure examinations don’t allow for backtracking, so your best bet when facing a tough question is simply to take a deep breath or two from the belly (make sure to breathe out all the way, also) and do your best. And if you haven’t prepared well for the test, then all bets are off. Take what simple points you can.

DEALING WITH PANIC BEFORE A TEST

“I tell my students to face your fears. Often, your worst fear is not getting the grades you need for your chosen career. How can you handle this? Simple. Have a plan B for an alternative career. Once you have a plan for the worst contingency, you’ll be surprised to see that the fear will begin to subside.

“Study hard up until the day of the test, and then let it go. Tell yourself, ‘Oh, well, let me just see how many questions I can get right. I can always pursue my other career choice.’ That helps release stress so you actually do better and get closer to your first career choice.” —Tracey Magrann, Professor of Biological Sciences, Saddleback College

Why Anxiety Can Arise on Tests and How to Deal with It

If you’re a stressed-out test taker, keep in mind that the body puts out chemicals, such as cortisol, when it is under stress. This can cause sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a knot in the pit of your stomach. But interestingly, research finds that it’s how you interpret those symptoms—the story you tell yourself about why you are stressed—that makes all the difference. If you shift your thinking from “this test has made me afraid” to “this test has got me excited to do my best!” it can make a significant improvement in your performance.4 Another good tip for panicky test takers is to momentarily turn your attention to your breathing. Relax your stomach, place your hand on it, and slowly draw a deep breath. Your hand should move out, even as your whole chest is moving outward like an expanding barrel.

By doing this type of deep breathing, you are sending oxygen to critical areas of your brain. This signals that all is well and helps calm you down. But don’t just start this breathing on the day of the test. If you have practiced this breathing technique in the weeks before—just a minute or two here and there is all it takes—you will slide more easily into the breathing pattern during the test. (Remember, practice makes permanent!) It’s particularly helpful to move into the deeper breathing pattern in those final anxious moments before a test is handed out. (And yes, if you’re interested, there are dozens of apps to help you.) Another technique involves mindfulness.5 In this technique, you learn to distinguish between a naturally arising thought (I have a big test next week) and an emotional projection that can tag along after that initial thought (If I flunk the test, I will wash out of the program, and I’m not sure what I’ll do then!). These tagalong thoughts, it seems, are projections that arise as glimmers from the diffuse mode. Even a few weeks of simple practice in learning to reframe these thoughts and feelings as simple mental tagalong projections seems to help ease and quiet the mind. Reframing your reaction to such intrusive thoughts works much better than simply trying to suppress them. Students who spent a few weeks practicing with the mindfulness approach performed better on their tests, experiencing fewer distracting thoughts.

Now you can see why waiting until the end of the test to work on the hardest questions can lead to problems. Just when you are increasingly stressed out because you are running out of time, you are also suddenly facing the toughest problems! As your stress levels soar, you concentrate intently, thinking that focused attention will solve your problems, but of course, your focus instead prevents the diffuse mode from being able to go to work.

The result? “Paralysis by analysis.”6 The “hard-start–jump-to-easy technique helps prevent this.

MULTIPLE “GUESS” AND PRACTICE TESTS . . . A FEW TIPS

“When I give multiple-choice tests, I sometimes find that students fail to fully grasp what the question is asking before they barge ahead, reading the answer options. I advise them to cover up the answers and to try to recall the information so they can answer the question on their own first.

“When my students complain that the practice test was waaaaay easier than the real one, I ask: What are the confounding variables that make the two situations different? When you took the practice test, were you at home relaxing with tunes on? Taking it with a fellow student? No time limit? Answer key and class materials at hand? These circumstances are not exactly like a crowded classroom with a clock ticking away. I actually encourage those with test anxiety to bring their practice test to another class (big classes where one can slip right in and sit at the back unnoticed) and try taking it there.” —Susan Sajna Hebert, Professor of Psychology, Lakehead University

Final Thoughts on Testing

The day before a test (or tests), have a quick look over the materials to brush up on them. You’ll need both your focused-mode and diffuse mode “muscles” the next day, so you don’t want to push your brain too hard. (You wouldn’t run a ten-mile race the day before running a marathon.) Don’t feel guilty if you can’t seem to get yourself to work too hard the day before a big examination. If you’ve prepared properly, this is a natural reaction: You are subconsciously pulling back to conserve mental energy.

While taking a test, you should also remember how your mind can trick you into thinking what you’ve done is correct, even if it isn’t. This means that, whenever possible, you should blink, shift your attention, and then double-check your answers using a big-picture perspective, asking yourself, “Does this really make sense?” There is often more than one way to solve a problem, and checking your answers from a different perspective provides a golden opportunity for verifying what you’ve done.

If there’s no other way to check except to step back through your logic, keep in mind that simple issues like missed minus signs, incorrectly added numbers, and “dropped atoms” have tripped up even the most advanced mathematics, science, and engineering students. Just do your best to catch them. In science classes, having your units of measurement match on each side of the equation can provide an important clue about whether you’ve done the problem correctly.

The order in which you work tests is also important. Students generally work tests from front to back. When you are checking your work, if you start more toward the back and work toward the front, it sometimes seems to give your brain a fresher perspective that can allow you to more easily catch errors.

Nothing is ever certain. Occasionally you can study hard and the test gods simply don’t cooperate. But if you prepare well by practicing and by building a strong mental library of problem-solving techniques, and approach test taking wisely, you will find that luck will increasingly be on your side.

SUMMING IT UP

Not getting enough sleep the night before a test can negate any other preparation you’ve done.

Taking a test is serious business. Just as fighter pilots and doctors go through checklists, going through your own test preparation checklist can vastly improve your chances of success.

Counterintuitive strategies such as the hard-start–jump-to-easy technique can give your brain a chance to reflect on harder challenges even as you’re focusing on other, more straightforward problems.

The body puts out chemicals when it is under stress. How you interpret your body’s reaction to these chemicals makes all the difference. If you shift your thinking from “This test has made me afraid” to “This test has got me excited to do my best!” it helps improve your performance.

If you are panicked on a test, momentarily turn your attention to your breathing. Relax your stomach, place your hand on it, and slowly draw a deep breath. Your hand should move outward, and your whole chest should expand like a barrel.

Your mind can trick you into thinking that what you’ve done is correct, even if it isn’t. This means that, whenever possible, you should blink, shift your attention, and then double-check your answers using a big-picture perspective, asking yourself, “Does this really make sense?” PAUSE AND RECALL

Close the book and look away. What were the main ideas of this chapter? What new ideas will be particularly important for you to try related to testing?

ENHANCE YOUR LEARNING

  1. What is the one extraordinarily important preparation step for taking a test? (Hint: If you don’t take this step, nothing else you do to prepare for the test matters.) 2. Explain how you would determine whether it is time to pull yourself off a difficult problem on a test when you are using the hard-start–jump-to-easy technique.

  2. A deep-breathing technique was suggested to help with feelings of panic. Why do you think the discussion emphasized breathing so that the belly rises, rather than just the upper chest?

  3. Why would you want to try to shift your attention momentarily before rechecking your answers on a test?

PSYCHOLOGIST SIAN BEILOCK ON HOW TO PREVENT THE DREADED “CHOKE”

Sian Beilock is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. She is one of the world’s leading experts on how to reduce feelings of panic under high-stakes conditions, and is the author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To.7 “High-stakes learning and performance situations can put you under a lot of stress. However, there is a growing body of research showing that fairly simple psychological interventions can lower your anxiety about tests and boost what you learn in the classroom. These interventions don’t teach academic content; they target your attitudes.

“My research team has found that if you write about your thoughts and feelings about an upcoming test immediately before you take the test, it can lessen the negative impact of pressure on performance. We think that writing helps to release negative thoughts from mind, making them less likely to pop up and distract you in the heat of the moment.

“The minor stress of many self-tests as you master the material can also prepare you for the more intense stress of real tests. As you’ve learned in this book, testing yourself while you are learning is a great way to commit information to mind, making it easier to fish out in the heat of a high-stakes exam.

“It’s also true that negative self-talk—that is, negative thoughts arising from your own mind—can really hurt your performance, so make sure that what you say and think about yourself as you are preparing for tests is always upbeat. Cut yourself off in midthought if need be to prevent negativity, even if you feel the dragons of doom await you. If you flub a problem, or even many problems, keep your spirits up and turn your focus to the next problem.

“Finally, one reason students sometimes choke on a test is that they frantically dive right in to solving a problem before they’ve really thought about what they are facing. Learning to pause for a few seconds before you start solving a problem or when you hit a roadblock can help you see the best solution path—this can help prevent the ultimate choking feeling when you suddenly realize you’ve spent a lot of time pursuing a dead end.

“You can definitely learn to keep your stress within bounds. Surprisingly, you wouldn’t want to eliminate stress altogether, because a little stress can help you perform at your best when it matters most.

“Good luck!”

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