Half way through the year, before mid-year exams – independent learning

6 Oct

Holidays are over, it’s as cold as it ever gets where you are and your children are back at school feeling like their holiday was too short, the’ve forgotten everything they learned last term and they are already behind in their work. Have I got it right? They probably had course work to do over the holiday break that they didn’t get finished, they’ve got mid-year or ‘mock’ exams coming up soon and they are expected to start thinking about their finals already!!

It is no wonder this is the season of maximum depression. What your children need most at this time is to ease as gently as possible back into the routines of homework and study with as much support from you as possible. If you have been to any of my presentations you will know that I am not a fan of parents pressuring children but I am a fan of good organisation. Remember that the solution to depression is action. What can they do to get on top of things, what actions can they take – with your help?

Strategies for the (slightly) de-motivated child


1) Focus on purpose – why are you at school?

This is the most critical question and although the answers may be obvious to you if you haven’t talked through this question with your son or daughter because it is just too obvious then do so – you might be surprised. And don’t accept any glib answers. You need to explore:

–          how is getting an education an advantage?

–          what is the nature of modern society – the information revolution, the internet?

–          what kind of jobs are going to be the most sought after in the future?

–          role models of success – using their brain or their body most?

–          the building block nature of education – what leads to what?

In the end I think it comes down to having choices, in that a good education will give you more choices as an adult than a poor education will. And more choices are worth having. Real poverty can be easily defined as having no choices.

2) Look at goals – what do you want to achieve by the end of the school year?

In all areas – sports, social, cultural, leisure as well as academic. Having helped your child to formulate some goals get them to write them down!! I like to use the following framework for writing goals:

Positive language – what you will do rather than what you won’t do

Outcome focused – what will it be like when it is finished?

Specific – clear, precise – how much, how high, how far…?

I-based – in your control rather than depending on what anyone else must do

Timed – set a time for completion of the goal and any lead-up stages

Incentive – what is the incentive, the purpose, what will be the benefit of achievement?

Visualise – actively and regularly visualise achieving the goal

Evaluate – build in a time frame for evaluation of progress toward the goal

3) Assess present progress

Contact key teachers at school and find out how your child is actually doing. Do not rely on their reporting. As we discovered half way through Year 10 with one of our sons, he was actually doing much worse than he had led us to believe. If you get in a similar position, try and find a champion for your child at school – someone who will unobtrusively keep an eye on his or her progress. We were able to enlist the support of the Year 10 Dean at my son’s school who was able to institute a monthly written feedback check from each teacher from then on.

4) Install review procedures

Every night your child needs to be reading over what s/he has done at school that day, as well as doing homework. It sounds like a lot but it can be as simple as them talking you through each class they had that day. Create a system and stick to it! This procedure made a big difference to my son’s attitude, performance and enjoyment of school.

5) Be prepared to change

One thing that became apparent to us was that our son had one subject (French) that he was grossly under-performing in and in discussion with him it was obvious that this was effecting his performance across his whole school day. We discussed this with his dean (and with him) and we decided to pull him out of his French class (this was in the middle of his school year) and get him into a Drama class instead. The effect was remarkable, his Drama teacher reported to us that he walked straight into Drama as if he had been in the class all year, moved straight into a lead role in a production they were engaged in and in the end of year exams obtained his highest mark – even though he only attended half the year. More importantly his attitude towards his school day rose and he became more positive and more focused overall. The most important thing my wife and I learnt from that experience was the importance of being prepared to change. If the present regime isn’t working – producing the academic results you and your children want – do something differently! As is often said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”

6) Buy resources

As they get closer to exam times, make sure your children have the subject review notes they need for the exams, copies of old exam papers, internet access to subject review sites etc.

7) Identify learning gaps and get remedial tutoring

Even with all the help that we were able to organise our son was still just scraping by we decided that he could do with help in both Maths and Science. During the last part of the first holiday break of the year we organised for the son of a friend (who had finished school the previous year) to come twice a week and spend two hours each time with our son working through the revision guides he had used the previous year. Straight away they identified clear gaps in understanding and began remedial work. The big advantages with using an aquaintance of a similar age were good role modelling, same language structures, familiarity with each other and a comfortable environment. Real progress then began to be made and we continued this system right through the year.

8) Realise that making significant changes to a child’s academic performance is a long slow process and you can’t do it for them.


One of the biggest difficulties I have had with my children over the years is probably helping them to become independent learners. My wife says it is just because I am such a ‘control freak’ and I think that has some validity but I think that many people (especially fathers) face this problem. If we don’t have that much contact with our children on a day to day basis because of our working hours maybe when we do connect we try to help them too much with motivators, rules, systems and strategies of organisation which we know would help them succeed if they implemented them in our absence. The problem being that if we end up being the one that is providing the motivation, the drive, the purpose, the strategies and also we are the one that is getting them started each night in their study and and checking that they finish everything they need to, then they don’t tend to learn how to do it for themselves. Sometimes learning how to learn, independently, is a process best learnt by first experiencing some failure. Somethimes they have to fail first in order to to learn to succeed.



A while ago I came across this fascinating article in the Times Higher Education Supplement which I think highlights the need to help all children to develop process focused learning strategies and the habits skills and techniques of independent learners:

Tutors in Despair at Illiterate Freshers

Jessica Shepherd

THES: 09 February 2006

Undergraduates are entering university less numerate, literate and knowledgeable than ever before, according to the most comprehensive study undertaken of how university admissions staff view the latest intakes of students.

Admissions tutors bemoaned new students’ lack of independent thought, “fear of numbers” and expectations to be “told the answers” in a survey of staff from 16 Oxbridge, Russell Group and post-1992 institutions.

The report, leaked to The Times Higher, reveals that lecturers are forced to postpone courses to the second year of undergraduate degrees to make time for remedial teaching and to develop students’ independent learning skills.

Many of the 250 university staff questioned lamented an “overemphasis” on exam success and league tables in the education system for 14 to 19-year-olds, which they say leads to students starting university suffering from “assessment burnout” and expecting to be spoon-fed.

New students, they say, increasingly struggle to cope with the independent and self-directed style of learning expected by higher education tutors.

They say that students are increasingly weak at reading critically, constructing arguments and communicating ideas in writing and have poor grammar skills compared with undergraduates of ten years ago.

Lecturers say that A levels often either cover too much of a subject in too little detail or focus on certain topics and fail to provide adequate knowledge of core ideas.

Geoff Hayward, lecturer in Oxford University’s educational studies department, which carried out the survey with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: “Negative comments are not indicative of higher education tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represent genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from higher education.”

He said the reduced “teachability” of new undergraduates placed the efficiency of the UK higher education sector at risk.

David Law, chair of the Admissions Practitioners’ Group of the Academic Registrars’ Council and academic registrar at Warwick University, said the report confirmed the concerns often aired by admissions staff.

He said: “We are concerned about the interface between pre-university education and undergraduate study. We are all seeing the need to be very careful with our admissions. Universities also need to review their curricula to adapt their courses to new students, though.”


So what are the skills of independent learning???

Along with all the ‘learning to learn’ skills that I am always talking about the most important skill it seems to me is only learned by experiencing failure. It could be called learning to fail but is usually referred to as Resilience.

Studies in Europe, Asia and the USA have shown that resilient students consistently share the following traits:

1)      a focus on learning goals rather than performance goals – resilient students are learning at school to improve their knowledge base rather than to get “A” passes or “Excellence” grades

2)      challenge seeking rather than challenge avoiding

3)      a belief that effort is more important than ability

4)      adaptive behaviours in the face of failure – seek out the problems with their process in order to learn from their mistakes, rather than giving up

5)      motivation more towards mastering subjects for their own sake rather than towards gaining approval or avoiding disapproval

6)      an internal ‘locus of control’ – believe that by their own actions they can significantly influence their own life

7)      an optimistic view of their own future

8)      a belief in the flexibility or malleability of their intelligence which contrasts with the least resilient students who believe their intelligence is more fixed, unalterable.

But the most significant finding, I think, is that we all gain these traits only through our experience of failure. Which does not mean that everyone who fails automatically goes on to become successful but research does seem to show that a lack of failure does not prepare anyone well for handling adversity. Only by experiencing failure, reflecting on it, focusing on the process, deciding on changes to implement and then actually implementing those changes do we learn from our mistakes and move on and grow as individuals.

Think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you?

Painful even to recall isn’t it?

But what happened as a result of that occurrence? How are you different because of it? Do you think you are stronger as a result? Of course you may wish with all your heart that the bad thing never happened but it did and you have learned from it and moved on. In a similar situation in the future you may operate differently or you may now know how to help someone else who is going through similar difficulties.

So what can we, as parents, do for our children?

1)      help them to see the relevance in the world and the possible usefulness in their future of all the subjects they are studying

2)      give them challenging experiences – take them out of their comfort zone occasionally

3)      reward them for effort rather than outcome

4)      if they have difficulty understanding or learning something new, help them to focus on the process – the strategies they are using – as the best source of improvement

5)      give them biographies to read of people who have succeeded by overcoming great adversity – make sure that they expect to have many failures before they succeed

6)      help them to see failures as mistakes they can learn from

7)      encourage them to 100% effort in some aspect (not every aspect) of their lives, to achieve mastery as a goal in itself

8)      find out the areas of their life where they feel they have no control and in stages allow them to gain more control of their life by demonstrating their ability to make considered decisions and fully accept the consequences

9)      help them to develop an optimistic view of their own future

10)   provide them with examples and evidence supporting the ideas that intelligence is flexible, malleable, able to be developed, (Howard Gardner’ s Multiple Intelligence’s model is very robust and proves this point very well)

and lastly, and most importantly for an increasing number of children

11)   focus less on how your child feels and more on what your child does.

In other words avoid empty attempts to bolster your child’s self esteem and focus instead on helping your child to take action to change how they feel. We are all probably victims of the ‘self-esteem’ movement of the 70’s and we have learned to emphasize how a child feels – happy or sad, frustrated, challenged – at the expense of what the child does – mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom and handling challenge. Unfortunately by focusing on directly changing negative feelings into positive ones we are not teaching our children how to handle adversity and ultimately we are producing more helpless, anxious and depressed children.

As Martin P Seligman talks about in his book “The Optimistic Child” (recommended reading) with reference to the American education system –

“The self esteem movement has helped lead to the abolition of tracking,

lest those on lower tracks suffer damaged self-esteem; to the abandonment

of IQ testing, lest those who score low feel low self-esteem; to massive grade

inflation, lest those who earn D’s feel bad; to teaching aimed at the very

bottom of the class, to spare the feelings of the kids slower to learn (now that

they are untracked); to competition becoming a dirty word; to the demise of

rote memorization of epic material; and to less plain old hard work.”


“Feelings of self-esteem in particular and happiness in general, develop as

side effects – of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming

frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product

of doing well. Once a child’s self-esteem is in place, it kindles further success.

Tasks flow more seamlessly, troubles bounce off, and other children seem more

receptive. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state

to be in, but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before

achieving good commerce with the world, confuses profoundly the means and

the end.”

I welcome your comments.

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the author at taolearn@xtra.co.nz


Between mid-year exams (or mocks) and final exams – motivation and focus

8 Sep

Your children have all sat their ‘mock’ exams (I think that is a terrible name for an important set of exams because what does to mock mean? And we wonder why they don’t take them seriously?) and I set out in my last blog how to process those results. Now your children are moving inexorably closer to their greatest challenge of the year, their final exams. And of course they have got a mountain of coursework still to complete, they are tired and stressed after a hard year’s work, they are looking forward to getting away for their Summer holidays and yet we still want them to work harder than they every have – just for the next few months. A big ask.

How can we motivate them to want to work hard, to want to succeed? Well unfortunately we can’t. Only they can motivate themselves, we just have to arrange the conditions as much as we can to help facilitate the development of self-motivation. I see the steps to do this as follows:

1)      purpose – if they don’t know why they are doing it they will find it much harder to complete. As I said in the ‘Back to School’ blog, help them focus on the intrinsic motivators – to find out what they are capable of, to gain the satisfaction of completion, of trying as hard as they can, of learning new things, becoming more competent, more capable, more intelligent, of having more choices in their lives

2)      organisation – they must have a good clear study timetable which sets out exactly how much time they will spend in study each day right up to and through all the exams, and also what subjects they will study each day

3)      resources – they must have good notes to work from, the right textbooks, the right study guides, people to ask questions of and extra tuition available if needed. Also what is very important is having access to old exam papers or individual exam questions in all subjects – these are sometimes available on-line or can be obtained from teachers or from the school library

4)      environment – in the hours that they are studying in the weeks leading up to exams, all distractions must be eliminated, if this is a problem for your child you must intervene. Take away their TV, their internet connection, their i-pod and their phone. Just while they are studying, once they have finished their study for the night they can get all those things back. It’s OK. It’s not life threatening and they won’t hate you forever

5)      study technique – that’s what we teach on our courses, so if your children have done our Exam Confidence course they will know how to study. It is mostly about treating learning as a discrete process requiring the right skills, lots of practice and the ability to learn from mistakes and constantly improve. Most studying involves reading notes, summarising main points in a way that help remembering and doing exam type exercises. As in point 3 access to old exam questions is critical, once a student has completed the information processing and summarising part for one topic, before they move onto the next topic, they need to try answering sample questions on that topic from old exam papers – but not under the same  time constraints as they would find in an exam. This gives them important practice in writing exam answers – getting familiar with the format of questions, organising their material, building clear responses, writing quickly and accurately.

Your role in all this as I have said is to simply arrange conditions as best you can to enable self-motivation to occur. One key area is to engage your children in light discussions about how they are going, whether they are keeping up to schedule or not, asking for any ways that you can help, and watching for signs of pressure and stress. There is nothing wrong with pressure, we can all use pressure to our advantage to help overcome procrastination and when my children were studying for exams I certainly made sure I kept the pressure on. Not in a mean way but just by enquiring as to how much study they were planning on doing tonight, when they were planning on starting, what they were hoping to achieve, if I could bring them a hot drink and their mid-point etc.. It is when pressure turns into stress that I think we, as parents, need to intervene. I define the transition from pressure to stress as being characterised by negative self talk and the expectation of failure. So when your children are moaning about how much work they have to do and how hard it all is I think it is perfectly alright to fob them off with platitudes and aphorisms like “pressure makes diamonds” or “of course it is hard, if it was easy everyone would have one” but what we have to watch out for is when their language moves to expressions of how useless or dumb they feel, or how they expect to fail, or how bad the exams are going to be, or how their life is going to be ruined if they don’t pass etc. etc.. That is the time to intervene. Take them out for a coffee or a movie, get them a treat to eat, or just talk to them about the big picture. What happens, especially with teenagers but with all of us from time to time, is that we get stuck in the short term goals, the things we have to do right now in order to get over the next hurdle in order to meet the deadline, in order to satisfy some external pressure… and we sometimes forget the big picture. Take time to shift your children’s eyes up to the horizon from time to time. Help them to see that the next few weeks are not an eternity, they are merely an eye-blink in their whole life and it won’t be long until the exams are all over and they can have their summer holiday. Also I think it is important to help your children realise that the exams themselves are not significant, all they are, are opportunities to open up different choices. If they were to pass their exams they might have these choices open to them but if they were to fail it wouldn’t be the end of the world, they would just have a whole lot of different choices open to them.

I think we need to realistically talk to our children about the successes and the failures we have had, the choices we made and the consequences of those choices and about the real basis for success in our own lives. Which when I look back had nothing to do with exams as such it was mostly to do with good luck, being in the right place at the right time and having an attitude of being willing to take chances, willing to seize opportunities and take risks. But I am also a firm believer in the old saying that “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Lastly about rewards. Rewards are external motivators and as such don’t work too well, and the worst reward of all is money. But in saying that I can see no reason why we shouldn’t offer our children a reward for getting through their study successfully, but not a reward contingent on getting a certain pass or grade or mark. What we need to do is to make sure we are rewarding effort rather than outcome if we want our children to develop a resilient mindset –

a)      programme the reward to occur the moment they finish their last exam – not when the results come out

b)      don’t use money as the reward

c)       make the reward a pleasurable shared opportunity like dinner out for herself and her friends, a holiday weekend, a concert etc

d)      make the reward contingent on effort – no effort no reward, miserable effort miserly reward, huge effort great reward

e)      effort can be measured simply as hours spent in focused concentrated study – see point 4 above

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After mid-year exams – using their results to help prepare for end-of-year exams

26 Aug

In the last couple of months your children will most probably have sat their mid-year exams, by now they will have got all the results back and as they are now looking down the road a bit to their end of year exams it might be a good time to go over those mid-year exam results: 

1) sit down with your child and discuss these results

2) find out which exam results they were least happy with and within those subjects which parts they are most unhappy with

3) find out whether the problem was a lack of understanding of the subject, a lack of the right information, a lack of good study processes, procrastination….or something else, look for evidence

4) now is the time to insert appropriate intervention – provide any resource based solutions – did they have all the right information to study from? If not buy suitable study guides for the subjects, use internet study guides, get more information from teaching staff

5) were their any sections in the exams that they just didn’t understand? If so make sure they go and see the respective teachers and get help from them, if that doesn’t work get focused remedial tutoring in that area, maybe from a student who had the same subjects last year or an external subject expert – be very specific

6) investigate their study techniques:

  • did they have a study timetable?
  • did they stick to their study timetable?
  • how much time did they put into studying the areas they didn’t do as well in as they wanted to?
  • do they know how to summarise information?
  • do they know how to remember what they need?
  • if any of these areas are a problem refer them to the course they did with us

7) make sure they finish the analysis of their mid-year exam performance by making a commitment to change any unsuccessful exam preparation strategy in some positive way

There is still plenty of time left for them to put in place good study strategies before their final exams but they will only do so by recognising what isn’t working and changing it.

This is how mid-year exams are most useful.

Your children now have 2-4 months until their end of year exams. They will be aware of this but often do not have a clear time frame in mind and it always seems to be ‘simply ages’ away. One way I always used to help build timelines without pressure with my children was simply to install one of those large year planners in a prominent place in the kitchen and to mark on it the dates for all significant school, social and sporting events for all to see. And then to cross off the days one by one.

All schools these days have websites with good calendars which give you all the data you need which you can then transfer to your home calendar.

All your children will have different aims, goals and purpose when it comes to their end of year assessments but it is important for them to have thought those things through. “If you don’t know where you are going it is very hard to get there.” They need to be clear as to why they are doing their exams and you as their parent need to realise that a focus on external drivers does not produce the best motivation or the best performance.

I see many parents who try to help their children generate motivation to study by talking to them about the importance of getting the best marks in order to get to the best university in order to get the best job in order to make the most money in order one day to be happy…… And yet in their own lives they notice that their own greatest motivation comes out of learning new things, finding new capacities within themselves, overcoming new challenges, gaining personal satisfaction, producing something worthwhile, helping someone else.  

We all need extrinsic motivators to help us to create dreams, develop plans and set goals but to get through hard times – study, learning all your subjects, exam prep – the most powerful motivators are always intrinsic. As parents I think that one of our jobs is to help our children learn how to enjoy learning for its own sake – to help make learning an autotelic experience. To see all subjects as interesting for the new knowledge that is in them not just for the result at the end of the year. Help focus your children on gaining satisfaction from their study, the satisfaction of taking on new knowledge or more simply the satisfaction of achieving something that they thought would be difficult. And be reassured, because the more satisfaction your children get from their studies the more likely they are to persist with them and achieve the results that we all like to see, anyway.

My Experience

I can remember this time of year some years ago with my own children when my daughter had just finished her internal exams for Year 11, she was waiting to get the results back and then there was going to be a six week gap until she was to sit  her final, end-of-year external exams.

In my consideration of rewards for her exam performance I had two choices, waiting until she got the results back from her exams and see about rewards then – rewarding outcome – or waiting until she finished her last exam and reward her then – rewarding effort. All the research shows that rewarding effort creates resilience so my strategy was always to tell her how impressed I was with the amount of effort she put in for her exams and promise to give her a treat (money, dinner out, a present) as soon as she finishes her last exam. To me the results are not that important it is the application of effort that counts.

My son on the other hand, at the same time of year had had all year, a constant battle with application – the need to use a good process and to put in effort, and had been “slack and lazy” – typical year 10 boy behaviour but not something I was prepared to put up with. After receiving several letters home from teachers referring to his lack of effort in class, his distractibility, his lack of completion of set tasks and his general lazy attitude I decided to take action. 

i)              first I had the discussion with him about purpose – that was OK, he understands very well the purpose of education and gaining good qualifications 

ii)             second, I had the discussion with him about effort – that we only wanted to see a good effort from him, we weren’t concerned about his getting top grades we just wanted to see him try and apply himself 

iii)            third, I made sure he was clear about what a good successful process would be – getting onto his homework as soon as he came home from school, every night reading over the notes he took that day and making key point summaries of information every weekend 

iv)            fourth I talked to him about rewards and punishments – how I would much sooner give him rewards for putting in effort than punishments for not doing so but that I was prepared to do either and I focused in on his 3 key pleasures – TV, MSN and his cell phone. 

The result was an immediate improvement. Being required to do his homework immediately he came home from school made a big difference, the reviews kept him up to date and in class he understood more so he was more focused and concentrated better. We heard from most of his teachers that he had improved his performance in most areas. 

At this time his worst subject was one of his options – French – and when a letter came home informing us that no progress had been made in French, in fact things had got worse, we had another talk. Our solution at this point was to move him out of the French class (which we didn’t consider to be too important for a Kiwi kid) into a different option – Drama – which turned out brilliantly as he discovered a love for this subject and showed he has a real talent for it. 

Then we got another letter home! This time from his Maths teacher!! Obviously the strategies were not working thoroughly so I determined it was time to put in place corrective strategies –  punishment. At this point I took away all his television watching, all his MSN time and I took away his cellphone! I figured that only a massive shock would do the trick so I went for the maximum. I also went out and bought revision guides for English, Maths and Science for him so he had a body of good notes to now work from and I organised some extra tuition for him from a student friend of the family who had recently finished school and who needed some extra cash. 

And it worked! 

He knuckled down and worked better than he ever had before. He started getting all his work done, he began reviewing his material and he worked through his revision guides. Also he took up reading again and began spending all his spare time reading fiction. I also noticed that began to spend more time outdoors and appeared to be enjoying his life and having much more success than ever before. 

He learned from his mistakes, he put in place an effective process and he was focused on putting in effort. He won back his cellphone but we held him on a complete TV and MSN ban until the end of his final exams. 

Now I know that those same strategies would not have worked at all for my daughter but they worked brilliantly for my son. I have always been reluctant in the past to put in place serious punishments for my children but it would seem that in some instances they can be both appropriate and effective. 

My challenge was then to help him to apply himself this well, independently of me, to become a truly autonomous learner – but one step at a time.

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The Run-up to Exams – 8 weeks before finals

10 Jul

Eight weeks until the major band of GCSE and IGCSE examinations, a bit longer for A Level and IB exams. Is it serious yet? Is the nervous tension starting to crackle a little around your house?

Difficult times for all of us.

If your children have kept up with all their coursework all year and have been diligently re-processing all the information they get as they get it, making daily, weekly and monthly summaries then by now they will be serenely confident and will be looking forward to a few weeks stress-free revision and then to aceing the exams.

If on the other hand your children are more “normal” they will have coursework that still needs finishing, they won’t have started serious study yet and they will be seeing the next 12 weeks as being an endless series of serious deadlines. On top of which they will still be getting new material every day at school, usually at a faster pace than normal as teachers struggle to complete their content before the year’s end, and everyone will be pressurising them to study, study, study in order to do well in their exams and not have to live a life of poverty and loneliness. Their reaction is often to practice one of their most highly developed study skills, procrastination. Put it off and put it off and put it off until either the stress level is so high that they finally do get everything they need done under extreme duress (and of course don’t produce their best work) or they procrastinate until it is too late to start and thereby avoid the whole problem and simply fail.

Time for a reality check.

There is still enough time as long as they start work now!

The antidote to procrastination is organisation.

Right now the most important thing for your children to put together is a detailed timetable for the next 12 weeks:

Making an Exam Study Timetable

Very simple but absolutely vital to passing exams.

I will address this directly to your children as it is them who need to complete this task – not you.

You need a blank calendar of all the time from now until the end of your exams – with enough room to write on each day. What you do is this:

1) mark in all the dates

– highlight weekends, holidays, study break days before the exams

– cross out any days where it is absolutely impossible for you to get any study done – this does not mean every Friday and Saturday

2) write in how much time you will commit to study on each available day (starting tonight)

– you need to decide how much time you will be able to devote to study on every available day and write in the time per day on the timetable. 1 hour, 1½ hours, 2 hours, 2½ hours, 3 hours per day – whatever you think you can do per day

– the important things are to do some study each day you can and to make the amount of time realistic

– anything less than ½ hour study on any one day is going to be a waste of time and any more than 8 hours study on any one day is probably too much

– remember to include study time on the days between each exam

3) add up the total time you have available for study

– all the hours you have just written in – add them all up

– for a study timetable covering 8 weeks prior to a serious exam I would think that less than 40 hours is not taking it seriously enough and more than 150 hours would be giving yourself too much stress – but everyone is different

4) list all your exam subjects in a priority list from the subject that needs the most time (effort, work) put into it to the subject that needs the least time

– use the results from your ‘mock’ exams and your own subject knowledge and comfort to work out a priority list

– some students want to put the same amount of time into every subject and that is fine as an option

5) divide up the total available study time between all your subjects

– giving more hours to the subjects at the top of the list and less hours to each subject down the list

– make sure that the total time is still the same as the total time calculated in Step 3.

6) write in one subject for study each night unless more than 1 hour is available

– I am suggesting studying each subject for one hour and then changing to another subject but you may prefer to stick with one subject for 2 or 3 hours – it is an individual choice

– avoid spending less than 1 hour on one subject

– focus on getting depth in your study rather than covering a little of each subject each night

– remember to devote the whole day before any exam to that exam subject and to programme study on all the days between exams

When you start your serious study for your upcoming exams (tonight) one of the first things you can do is to work out how much information you need to get through and what your study rate needs to be. You need some measure of the total amount of information to be processed in each subject. It might be the total number of topics or assessment standards to be covered, or the total number of pages of information to be processed or some other measure and then you can work out your study rate.

7) calculate your study rate

– add up all the topics/pages to be covered in each subject

– divide by the total hours of study allocated to that subject, this gives you your study rate – amount of information to be processed per hour of study – for each subject

8) monitor your study rate

– if when you are studying you find you are processing on average the correct amount of information you need to per hour, making good summaries and understanding as you go, then you know you will get through everything in time

– if you are processing at below your study rate you need to go back to your timetable and add in more hours for processing that subject

– if you are processing at better than your study rate then you can afford to take time off

9) make your timetable a living document

– if you find you cannot achieve the study you set out for yourself on any one day because something unexpected comes up it is very important to take the hours you were going to devote to that subject and allocate them to another day

And then what…?

Then they have to do it – study.

If they are unsure of how to study all the necessary techniques are in my courses and now in my book “The Art of Learning – Companion Volume for Students” available from my website www.taolearn.com but essentially the keys to effective study in every subject are:

1)     Get as much clarity from teachers as possible about what might be in the exam

2)     Make sure you have good notes or textbooks for the whole subject

3)     Obtain study guides for any subjects you are struggling in

4)     Process all the information in every subject making short explanatory summaries as you go – we suggest using our THOrTmaps as a good summary tool

5)     Once you think you have covered a specific topic thoroughly, find an old exam question on the topic, at your level, and do it without referring back to your notes

6)     Move on to the next topic

7)     If you have difficulty understanding anything, find someone to help explain it to you – teachers, last year’s students, parents, university students, relatives – find someone!

For information on:

Motivation in the lead-up to exams – see my blog https://lancegking.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/last-term-motivation/

Strategies for Exam Room Technique – see my blog from last year  https://lancegking.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/as-the-school-year-closes/ wait until the beginning of May and I will update it for this year and send you another link

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the author at taolearn@xtra.co.nz

Final Exams – final preperation, pressure, stress and the value of education

2 May

For parents of secondary students it is getting close to….


 By now your children will be seriously into their study, and will be starting to wind up for their first exam. If they haven’t started serious study yet then either they are so brilliant that they can retain information perfectly after having heard it only once and consequently don’t need to study, or they are procrastinating or they just don’t care. If the first reason, then that can be problematic because schools have a nasty habit of raising the standard expected with every passing year and at some point they will need to learn how to study, so practice now would be an advantage anyway. If it is the second then some of the things here in this blog will help and if it is the third then that’s OK, someone has to fail, we can’t have everyone passing can we? And as we all know we learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes anyway. Right?

 If your children are well through their revision – going over all the material that they could be examined on, summarising the important stuff as shown on our courses – then as they get closer to the actual exam date the best thing they can do is to work through old exam questions. The questions from old NCEA, IGCSE, GCSE and IB Diploma papers are available on on-line – just google them. The student needs to first read the question, highlight the verbs (what the examiner actually wants them to do), and map out a framework of an answer making sure the structure of the answer correctly mirrors the requirements of the question. Then the student needs to write a full answer without reference to notes in a time frame similar to a real exam situation and then check their answer with their notes. This practice gets them used to the type of questions examiners ask and helps them to organise their thoughts in an appropriate manner. Also your children need to realise that examiners are sometimes not terribly imaginative about writing new exam questions and practice writing answers to old exam questions can somethimes pay off very well.


This is a copy of the last page from the workbook that your son or daughter received from us on the Exam Confidence course. If they still have the workbook it would be good for them to read over these points before their first exam, if not they are printed here:

Exam Techniques – What to do in the Examination Room

 1)     First skim through the whole paper and highlight the instructions
eg. do all of Section A
and 2 out of 5 in Section B
then 4 out of 7 in Section C
this should keep you from making simple mistakes and also gives your unconscious mind time to draw together the necessary material for later questions while you are doing the first ones

 2)     Second – allocate your time
If you have 2 hours for a 100 mark paper that’s
120 mins for 100 marks
1.2 mins per mark
so a 5 mark question should take 6 minutes
a 10 mark question should take 12 minutes
Write on the exam paper the time you should spend on each question and most importantly stick to time!
Remember that the first half of the marks for any question are the easiest ones to get, so make sure you get all the easy marks, first.

 3)     If you are able to, leave a generous space after each answer – this makes your paper easier to mark and gives you room to add in extra information at the end if you have spare time

 4)     Start with the easiest questions – to get your brain going and your confidence up

 5)     Read each question carefully and highlight the verb – what the examiner wants eg. there is a great deal of difference between
list, compare, discuss and describe

 6)     Use THOrTmaps as planners for long answers and include them at the beginning of your answer – examiners will give you marks for showing your planning for an essay answer as well as the answer itself.

 7)     If you run out of time
–          for maths type exams – explain what you would do to solve the problem without actually doing it – in maths exams over half the marks are for the process, less than half are for getting the right answer
–          for English-type exams – give a list of key points or a THOrTmap but don’t write the essay

 8)     If you have spare time (which you will if you stick to time) – STAY PUT and RELAX. Never leave early. Once you have relaxed you will probably remember extra things you could add in to your answers so go back and add to them in the spaces left. Don’t change any answers unless you are absolutely, 100% sure you got it wrong the first time – first thoughts are usually right.


 Obviously in your family you place a high value on education and you are willing to invest good money in the process of education because ……???

Because you wish your son or daughter to get the best possible exam results to enable them to qualify to go on to the best possible university to get the best possible degree to give them an advantage in the employment market to get the best job which pays the best rate and gives them a satisfying life with all their needs taken care of….????

 Unfortunately there is no good evidence to show that graduates from the best universities earn more money, have more interesting jobs, more job satisfaction, more influence, more power, or more happiness than other graduates and there is good evidence to the contrary:
–      a 1999 study from Princeton of the previous 20 years of graduate placement showed that graduate of prestigious ivy-league colleges (universities) did not end up earning more than graduates of other colleges
–      by 2005 the percentage of CEOs of S&P 500 companies who did not graduate from an ivy-league school had risen to 90% from 84% in 1998.

Of course things may be different where you live but in general the professional labour market these days is totally performance driven and good connections or a good school count for very little.

 So maybe the real reason to have your son or daughter at a good school is for the exposure to a high quality teaching and learning environment which will enable them to maximise their abilities, develop all aspects of their intelligence and have the intrinsic advantages of higher level learning and deeper understandings? Then in a performance driven working environment they can excel by virtue of their intellectual efficacy – the combination of their knowledge and skills, the talents they have developed, their attitude and their ability to learn and problem solve well.

 And as parents we do our best to help with this process by making sure our children are exposed to as many and as varied learning experiences as possible – the extra-curricular ballet classes, gym lessons, swimming lessons, horse riding, karate classes, piano lessons, drama classes, singing lessons, debating societies, chess clubs, not to mention extension or catch up maths, English and other language classes etc. etc. – and making sure they understand that pushing themselves to maximum effort in all that they do will help them develop the mental toughness needed to succeed in this competitive world.

Unfortunately much of this relentless over-achievement is simply turning into stress for our children and particularly for our daughters.

Data from the United Kingdom shows that in 1987 the academic results for boys and girls sitting GCSE were very much the same, but by 1999 there was a 10% performance gap in GCSE results with the girls doing better. And in two studies of 5000 15 year olds across the same time period the rates of anxiety and depression for girls (from high income households) increased from 24% in 1987 to 38% in 1999. Interestingly enough there was no significant increase in problems amongst boys (or amongst girls from low income households) but for privileged girls the rates of hospitalisation for distress tripled – from 6-18%. In 1999 a multi-country study of stress showed that English 15 year old high-income girls were the most stressed by exams in the world (for ages 11 and 13 English girls were in second place, after the USA).

 These results seem to correlate with studies of resilience where boys tend to show a significantly higher level of discouragement and hopeless feeling in the early years of high school than as seniors whereas girls show a significant decrease in the self-regard and self-confidence throughout their school development, and levels of perfectionism, hopelessness and discouragement are found to rise in girls from junior to senior high school years. Researchers have found what appears to be an outbreak of perfectionism amongst high-income daughters, as one such girl stated: “Girls try to have it all: be really, really clever, have a great social life with lots of friends and be really pretty and thin. What leads to high stress is juggling all of them.” This kind of self imposed pressure sometimes leads to unhealthy perfectionism. This kind of perfectionist feels that her best is never good enough, she sets impossibly high standards, has an intense fear of failure and is plagued by self doubt. Perfectionism, academic success and eating disorders very often go together – in a sample of women from one Oxford University college, over one-third had suffered an eating disorder at some point in their life and 10% had one currently.

 What this all comes down to is the value we in our households put on the outcomes of academic performance. It is clear from the research that parents who make their positive regard for a child dependent on performance outcomes will produce children whose self worth is inextricably linked to academic scores and who consequently are much more likely to feel anxious, stressed, distressed and helpless.

 The opposite state of mind to helplessness is resilience.



 Resilience is:
1) Efficacy – self belief – a young persons belief in whether achieving a certain goal or completing a certain task is achievable for them, plus

2) Agency – the skills, techniques and strategies the young person needs in order to achieve the goal or complete the task, plus

3) Action – the impetus to take action, observe the result, make strategy or process corrections, and have another go – the technique of learning from mistakes and overcoming the fear of failure 

 To help with this we as parents can:

 1)     Help our children get an objective perspective of their own situation – the big picture. If they do well in these exams then many options are opened up for them but if they don’t do well in these exams then all that changes is that the options that are opened up are different, not necessarily worse just different. As every successful person knows suffering and hardship are essential parts of success in any field and as one door closes another always opens. They need to be encouraged to follow the path that most fascinates them, that they are willing to put a lot of energy and effort into. Education is not a race – it is not the first to finish who wins, education is a process not an outcome.

 2)      Make sure they have all the right process skills to deal effectively with all the challenges that lie ahead of them in the next few weeks – timetable, good notes, resources, study guides, an understanding of what will be in the exam, support, extra tutoring where they need it, good summarising technique, access to past exam papers, access to teachers etc.

 3)     Listen to the language they use about study and school and the subjects they are doing. Helpless attributions for difficulties are all about – “its someone else’s fault”, “there’s nothing I can do” , “it’s too late anyway”, “I can’t do it”, “I just don’t understand it”, “there’s no point”, there’s too much to do”, “the teacher was useless” etc etc. Encourage them to learn to take action to solve problems – offer whatever support they need to solve the problem, help them to manage their time, create an atmosphere where they feel encouraged to ask for help. Help them to notice and take control of their own internal dialogue – encourage a shift from “I can’t” to “I haven’t yet”. Encourage “what can I do about this?” type of language.

 4)     Encourage them to objectively analyse what strategies they have used before in similar situations and how effective they were. Get them to acknowledge their own mistakes and difficulties and to make plans to prevent similar situations arising this time eg. leaving study to the last minute and then panicking and feeling overwhelmed – accurate timetabling and attention to time management; feeling stressed and alone in their study – studying with like minded friends.

 BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY – provide total support but back off the pressure. Link positive regard to who they are not to what they produce. Accept your children exactly as they are. They do not need changing. They are you – and you turned out OK in the end – didn’t you?

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Summer holiday time

5 Jan

Now is the time to build great holiday memories. Get away from home as much as you can. Create summer adventures for your children. What’s the definition of an adventure? No fixed destination! Make sure your children have a holiday. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be off-shore, it just has to be significantly different from the rest of the year. These are the times your children will remember most.

I think that on a holiday the most important thing is to make sure that you get away from technology. No TV, no cell phones, no video games, lots of board games, cards, sightseeing etc – enforced opportunities to engage with your children, that’s what we all need.

The best holidays we ever had were the ones where we packed a tent, and went exploring parts of our own country that the children had not been to before. I find that children are wonderful at finding interesting things to do, at finding adventure, where ever they are – as long as they haven’t been there before. Novelty seems to work best. And involve them in the planning – talk about the adventure long before it happens, get them books on the area you are going to, get them to plan out what to see and where to go.

If you are in New Zealand, make sure you take your children to the beach as much as possible. Ninety-five percent of New Zealanders live within a 2 hour drive of the coast. Go to where other people don’t go. Every beach is worth exploring – ‘the West coast is the best coast’.

With respect to the oncoming school year, try to create a sense of positive anticipation for the new school year. Ask  your children what they want to achieve this coming year. Help them start to formulate goals and plans for this coming year. And if possible build in the possibilityof another great get-away holiday at the end of  it.

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