Monday, July 13, 2015

6 problems that prevent students from scoring

This article is first published in my tuition site here. I thought it'll be great to share this with the parents and students who sometimes read this site.


In my years of tutoring, I found that there are 6 categories of problems that students faced. I’m going to list out all these potential problems and then we will see how we can reduce or eliminate them.

1. Not knowing the content well
2. Lack of exposure to different types of questions
3. Unable to finish exams in time due to lack of speed in finishing the questions
4. Poor exam skills
5. Stress related issues during exams
6. Carelessness

1) Not knowing the content well

This can be the easiest problem to solve, but can potentially be the hardest too. Lack of knowledge can be caused by a variety of problems that may occur during the transmission of the knowledge by the teacher to the student. It can range from a noisy classroom, teachers who don’t know the content well themselves, unmotivated students, lack of proper note taking etc. It’s not a major problem and most students want to do well in school, so the motivation is somewhat there already if the knowledge can be packaged and structured in such a way to make things easy for the students to grasp. But if the problem comes inherently from a lack of motivation, then this can be a tricky issue.  Students don’t always come into classes all prep up and motivated to learn. They may have a whole baggage of issues that needs to be unraveled in order for them to be ready to learn anything. A lot more counselling with both the parents and the student will be the usual practice in such circumstances.

2) Lack of exposure to different types of questions

The symptoms usually go like this: Student can do all the simpler questions during lessons and when doing homework, but when it comes to exams where the questions are trickier, they crumble and can’t do it at all. This shows a superficial understanding of the content such that when the question is not presented in a standard format, the students are unable to recognize them immediately. Lack of exposure can be reduced by exposing them to harder and more challenging questions. But the trick is not to let them tackle the hardest one immediately. An ascending progression towards more challenging questions of the same topic or theme can be prescribed to slowly ease the student towards tackling the ‘funnier’ sort of questions. Usually other school prelim papers will help a lot in exposing students to non-standard questions.

3) Unable to finish questions in time

Knowing something and able to do a question given unlimited time is quite different from being able to finish it efficiently within the time constraint. In exams, there is always a time limit and students who can do the questions but unable to finish it in time will be severely penalized. This is actually a good problem to be in because it shows that the student can do the questions, but just not fast enough. Not a lot of students will fall under this category. In this case, the remedy is to drill the student.  Constant practice will streamline thought process and develop the necessary muscle memory to do different types of question efficiently within the time constraints. Every question will be a timed practice. Like an athlete preparing for a sprint, timed practice will stress students sufficiently and force them to always keep a watchful lookout to finish the question in time. Such speed drills are different from accuracy drills. The general principle is to expose oneself to different sort of questions so that one can do at least 80 to 90% of the whole exam paper regardless of the time taken. Thereafter, speed drills will force the student to confirm to the time constraints of the exams. Usually speed and accuracy are inversely related, so by doing it faster, accuracy will be lost and there will be more careless mistakes. The student will then learn the right balance of speed and an acceptable loss of accuracy to maximize their marks.

4) Poor exam skills

This is an important component but seldom taught to students. Best practices include knowing how much to write given the marks allocated, definition of keywords in the question so that one is answering the question adequately, techniques in doing MCQ papers, checking of answers, knowing when to cut loss and move on, choosing option questions to maximize marks, time management in handling different sections of the paper etc. A good student with minimal exam skills will be unable to maximize the marks scored.

5) Stress related issues during exams

There is a small percentage of students who behave like a different sort of person when the word ‘exam’ or ‘test’ is mentioned. This group of students can handle everything competently during non-examination time but when it comes to crunch time, they will have a nervous breakdown. The symptoms are: Very good results during non-major exams but just passing or failing when it comes to the major ones, with the heightened possibility of having stress related psychosomatic illnesses like severe headaches, fever and general unwell. This is a very difficult problem to solve and the success rates of the remedy vary widely with individual students. The remedy is to let the student have as many stress practices as possible. Usually this will involve timing them during their practice sessions and giving them lesser time than normal to complete them. Hopefully, and that is all we can do, that they will get used to the elevated stress level and learn to treat major exams as mere practice. Even with many hours of tuition, we cannot really get to the root of this problem easily.

6) Carelessness

This is a spectrum of effects ranging from very careful (less than 5% marks lost) to normal (about 10% marks lost) to the extremely careless (20 to 30% marks lost). This is not easy to root out. Carelessness can be masked as a defense against not knowing how to do. Usually the self is more comforted by the fact that it's a random and unavoidable careless mistake rather than under preparation of the exams and general lack of content etc. Genuine carelessness comes when the students settle on the very first answer that comes to their mind (or had worked out) without the expectation that their answers may be wrong. Even with checking, they can miss out the careless mistakes that are hidden in plain sight because they are not really looking out for errors, since they believed the answers they had given are correct in the first place. Therefore, reducing carelessness is a matter of following a set of procedures that iterates in a loop until the correct answer is found:

(1) Read the question
(2) Find the answer
(3) Check to see if the solution answers the question
(4) Repeat (1) to (3), until (3) is satisfied

Most students will do (1) and stop at (2), without going through the all-important step (3) to reflect and examine the solution to see if it really makes sense. The balance, really, is to do all these steps within the time constraints while maintaining accuracy and speed.

These are not isolated problems and most are actually dependent on each other. If you manage to solve one, you’ll likely reduce other problems as well.

Some students will no doubt ask why they have to learn trigonometry or integration when they have no need of such knowledge in real life situations. The skills needed to perform well in exams are part of this hidden curriculum that is not taught formally. After all, once you had left school and returned all the academic knowledge back to your teachers, what’s left in you are all these skills of success, of determination, of building a proper system of feedback and reflection that will guide you in through the tougher, the crazier and higher staked game of life.