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Need to remember something important? Breaking news!

Sunday, November 28th, 2010


Do you need to remember a crucial math concept? Pretend that you’re a news anchor delivering a breaking “math story.”

I stumbled on this strategy totally by accident. I was working with a sixth grade student who told me she missed the “field trips” we used to take to my kitchen to practice unit conversion and act out word problems.

But how could we practice the algebraic order of operations in the kitchen? Looking for another way to take a “field trip,” I asked her to use my whiteboard to do a “mathcast” of what she’d just learned.

We pretended that she was the news anchor of a “mathcast” and that I was her student or producer. I made up a theme song to start the program and also signal “commercial breaks.”

While she taught the material back to me as a news broadcast, I was struck by her confidence and enthusiasm. I’d never seen her do a presentation before, and here she was gleefully holding forth about the order of operations.

It also turned out to be a really clear, fun way to evaluate what she understood. The stuff she was confident about she would declare in a loud voice, and the concepts that she wasn’t sure about she would whisper questions to me about. Sometimes when she needed to remember something, I held up her math class handout and pretended it was a teleprompter.

Once I realized what my student was confused about (because she’d whisper questions to me about it), I asked her to recite the part she didn’t understand to me over and over. She even spontaneously made up a little dance to help herself remember the material.

Without giving her a test or written assessment, I’d stumbled on a way to figure out exactly what I need to clarify and reinforce.

Why does this matter?

To quote a great NYT article by Benedict Carey, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits:

“…cognitive scientists see testing itself—or practice tests and quizzes—as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

For example, an experiment found that when college students did two study sessions back to back, they did well on a test soon afterwards but had already begun to forget the material a week later. However, students who did one initial study session and then took a practice test during the second session could remember the material a week later.

The psychologist who conducted this experiment, Dr. Henry L. Roediger III, remarks, “Testing has such a bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test. Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.

Doing mathcasts can be a way to do just that, giving students a chance to practice recalling something under pressure—while taking a field trip and sharing their knowledge.

Related posts:
How to help your kids with their math homework
Gallon man to the rescue!
Mind meld is real!
Math study skills quiz

7 Comments on “Need to remember something important? Breaking news!”

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carrie Schneider, School Money. School Money said: Rebecca Zook – Math Tutoring Online » Need to remember something … […]

  • Terry VanNoy on November 29th 11:21 am

    Rebecca, again, another fantastic post about ways we can get our students to remember and learn things. We don’t just stuff their heads with knowledge and expect that they can pull it out of their heads when needed for a test. We have to enable them to find ways of retrieving the information and concepts their own way. I remember having students in class who needed to make up a rhyme or sing a jingle, or make a drawing in order to help them remember. Whne they retrieve things from their short-term memory, they can more easily find it in their longer-term memory. They just have to practice their retrieval skills. Terry VanNoy

  • Rebecca Zook on November 29th 2:14 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Terry! The fun part of having kids who make up rhymes, jingles, or need to draw is that sometimes they come up with something that helps other students too! Good point about how we can’t just stuff a kid’s head with knowledge — in the article “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” that inspired this post, they use a similar analogy and talk about how learning is like packing a suitcase, and if you try to stuff too much stuff in at the last minute, it won’t work. 🙂

  • Laura on November 29th 8:41 pm

    What a great way to help a child process what they understand while showing what they still need to master. I’m sharing this, as I’ve done with some of your other posts, on my FRL Facebook page.

  • Rebecca Zook on November 30th 1:20 pm

    Laura, I’m glad to see you here! I didn’t realize you’ve been sharing some of my other posts on your FRL facebook page. That is so sweet and I feel totally flattered!! 🙂

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