Friday, January 14, 2011

The Drama Of Mid-Year Exams: A Hopeful Strategy

For many high schools, Monday begins the dreaded mid-year exam period. This exam period is dreaded by parents and teens alike. For many teens, this weekend will be a time for cramming. Oh I remember when I was in high school, that weekend before exams when I would sit on my bed and start to read chapter after chapter in some boring United States History textbook,  attempt to memorize random french vocabulary, buy and read every available cliff notes on the books I was supposed to have read for English, memorize that table in Chemistry of all the elements, and then basically thrown the towel in on Geometry theorems, knowing that was just a lost cause. It makes me anxious just writing all that down, and makes me supremely grateful to be a grown-up, and free from memorizing anything.

For parents, the dread of mid-years comes from knowing what this weekend will be like for you. You are gearing up to play multiple roles as a motivational speaker, prison guard, therapist, and tutor. You go from saying:" You can do it, you're a bright kid," to "shut off that damn phone, get off facebook, how do you expect to get anything accomplished, you have a lot to do," to "honey, I know your anxious, exams can be scary," to   lets go over this together, I'll quiz you.  Your teen both needs you and hates you. So be prepared for a Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde experience.

Just as I am overwhelmed thinking back to those years, your teen is overwhelmed just thinking of all that has to be studied. Of course, knowing what we know now as adults, that if they had only kept up all along with their work, this mid-year exam thing would just be a matter of reviewing not learning material for the first time. But we only know that because we have had 30 or 40 years to reflect on it. So first of all, lecturing on what they should have done has no place in this weekend's festivities. Lets start from where they are. Your teen will need some help in finding the forest through the trees. Everything he/she has to study begins to look like one huge amount of material, a mountain to big to even climb, their own personal Mount Everest. So, first things first. Help them to divide and conquer. Help them to come up with a structure and time frame for each subject, working in breaks for food, facebook and texting time. I implore you to bribe them in any way you can to give you their phones for short bursts of time to concentrate fully. The research on teens and multi-tasking is conclusive, though they can manage physically to text, facebook and read simultaneously, their brain cannot. I would recommend 45 minute work segments, with a 15 minute break.

Use your 'I get it" moments to get this process started. 'I get this will be a tough weekend for you. I know  how overwhelming it must feel to prepare for all these different subjects, lets come up with a kind of schedule to break it down so it won't feel so overwhelming."The research shows that it is better to study a subject for a shorter period, let it sit, and then come back to it, rather than giving each subject several hours, and then moving on. So the schedule of study should reflect this. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and repeat.

For kids in 9th and 10th grade, this whole idea of mid-years is new and scary. They feel anxious about their own expectations,  they are anxious about your expectations, and they are anxious about how they will measure up as compared to their friends. Thats a lot of worry. In today's Boston Globe there was an interesting article that your kids might find helpful. The headline reads:"Writing exercise said to prevent test anxiety." The article describes a recent study in the journal of science where prior to an exam they had high school and college students write for 10 minutes prior to the test "about their thoughts feelings and worries" respective to the aforementioned test. The premise being that "test anxiety can lead to poorer grades and lower scores." Their findings are pretty powerful, they found that kids who were prone to test anxiety improved nearly one full grade if they were given 10 minutes before an exam to write down their feelings." The researchers believe that "worrying competes for computing power in the brain's working memory" Simply put, if the brain is working on the worrying, than it can't also work on retrieving information needed for the test. The writing exercise literally empties the brain so it can give its full power to the test. it sounds good to me!

You are all in survival mode. You are the helicopter that brings in life saving food and water. Keep it positive, and keep it calm. The bottom line, there isn't that much you can do. You can lead your teen to water, but you can't make em drink!!

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