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Back to School Basics

August 30, 2012 | by Mordechai Schmutter

Kids gather around and listen to these pearls of wisdom from a master educator.

It’s back-to-school time again, so pay attention. This is all going to be on the test.

Wait, there’s going to be a test?

Tests are no picnic for teachers either, you know.

My students ask me that every year. They’re in high school, so you’d think they would know this by now. You might forget everything you study after a test, but if there’s one thing that you should actually remember, even after the test, is that there was a test. If you can’t remember that, what are the chances that you’re going to remember the actual material?

To be fair, I’ve been a teacher for seven years now, and I’m still surprised to hear the question.

But tests are stressful, because they can affect your average, which is some magical number that teachers keep holding over your head that you don’t know how to figure out because you also flunked math. Sadly, there’s no “average” button on your calculator.

Of course, tests are no picnic for teachers either. Students have to take one test, but we have to mark all of them, and figure out how to read everyone’s handwriting and why it seems that everyone in certain parts of the room got the same answers wrong. Maybe it’s something in the air over there. And we can’t look away for a moment.

“Why are you looking at inside your desk? Are you cheating?”

“No, I’m eating.”

“Oh. That’s not allowed either.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not my rule. I think because it looks like cheating.”

Like I said, my students are in high school, but somehow the test papers are always stuck together. You’d think they’d use plates.

It also doesn’t help that, as with absolutely everything I teach, they always ask how they need it for life. I’ll tell you how you need this for life: One day you’re going to grow up and get married, and sometimes someone will be talking, usually while you’re trying to eat, and you’ll have no real interest in what they’re saying, but you have to listen anyway, because if you don’t, there will be a reckoning. Well, the test is that reckoning.

So really what you need are some studying tips.

Great. More stuff to read before the test. I’ll totally get on that.

TIP #1: Take notes. You will never read these notes again, but the very act of writing everything down will help you commit it to memory. Especially since you never really learned how to summarize, so you’re basically writing over the entire book, word for word. Sure, there are ways out of taking notes. For instance, you can photocopy someone else’s notes before the test, on the theory that simply owning more notes makes you smarter. But it doesn’t have the same effect, even though you’re doing everything else right -- you have the notes, you’re never looking at them again, etc. But somehow, something’s still missing.

TIP #2: Use a highlighter. Or don’t. When I was growing up, every back-to-school supplies list included some kind of highlighter, or more than one, and I never had any idea what to do with them. Kind of like the reinforcements, which were also on the list every year, even though we never got to the lesson that told us what to do with them. I didn’t find out until years later that I was supposed to be using the highlighters for studying.

But apparently, what you’re supposed to do is you use the highlighter to color in important words in your book, especially if you have to return the textbook at the end of the year. As you can see, the student last year did the same thing, so by the time you’re done with it, there will not be a single word in the entire book that is not highlighted, including page numbers. And apparently, doing this magically helps you absorb information. It’s like a supermarket scanner.

I think that ideally, though, you’re supposed to highlight the important words in your notes, as if most of what you wrote in your notes is not essential. But if half your notes are not essential, why did you write them down? Were you just writing every word your teacher said, like, “And then, in 1765, the colonists signed the--Daniel, stop cooking pasta in class!--Declaration of Independence,” and you wrote all that down, and then you come back, while studying, and you say, “Well, I probably don’t have to highlight the part about the pasta.”

And then, once the important parts are outlined, you know what you have to study, when you actually do. So highlighting isn’t studying, it is, at best, reading absolutely all the material to figure out which of it you don’t have to read.

TIP #3: Study a little bit every night. According to experts, whenever you sit down to study, you really only remember the first and last things that you learn. The first thing, because that’s when you still thought that you were going to absorb everything, and you were like, “Okay one page down, 90 million to go,” and the last thing, because you always remember the last thing that was said, which is why, when you grow up, and your wife asks, “What did I just say?” then even if you were concentrating on eating, you can still repeat the last thing she just said, even without necessarily knowing what it means.

So the key is to study in several really short sessions with really long breaks, so there’s not that much middle stuff. All that middle stuff is going into your extremely short term memory that you pray sticks around until after the test, rather than flying out of your head before the teacher hands out the test papers. This is why, if you are going to cram, you want to do it as close to the test as is humanly possible. You want to stay up all night studying, so that, when you get to the test, you’re definitely going to be the most tired person there. And the guy everyone’s going to want to sit next to, for some reason.


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