Thursday, December 31, 2015

Most Effective Study Tips


In recent years, I have enjoyed reading and sharing the latest research regarding brain-based strategies to help children with engagement, memory and learning. The work of Hattie, Tokahoma-Esponosa, Sousa, Willis and others has made its way into much of my work. I have primarily focused on instructional strategies for teachers and have led assemblies for middle and high school students about how their brains work and things that they can do to optimize brain function.  As my daughter struggles through her first Biology course at Birmingham Southern College, it occurred to me that a summary of the most beneficial brain-based study practices would be helpful for students as well.
In the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, the authors share that the number one study strategy with college students is one of the least effective. Re-reading is recommended by some of our top institutions of higher learning and yet re-reading has not proven to be optimal for a number of reasons.  It is time consuming, it doesn’t result in long-lasting memory and it often leads to a misconception of learning because of a growing familiarity with the text begins to feel like mastery.1

Learning is most productive when it takes significant effort. It is often difficult for us to know when we are learning well and when we are not. When we struggle and the learning is hard and slower we are often drawn to strategies that are faster and easier like re-reading or massed practice (cramming for tests) unaware that the short term gains are often temporary.

The process of practicing retrieval from memory is one of the best study methods. The act of retrieval from self-testing has two major benefits.  First, it reveals where we need to focus our study efforts.  Second, the process of recalling learning helps our brains re-consolidate our memory which strengthens our connections to previous learning.  This makes it easier to retrieve in the future. Testing interrupts forgetting and there is lots of evidence to prove that testing and retrieval practice cements learning.
I have listed below my favorite study tips from Make it Stick1.

1)    Read text or lecture notes and write down the big ideas or key concepts and necessary skills from the reading or notes. Rewrite the concepts in your own words in the form of questions. Then, try to identify connections with previous learning and other examples outside of your experience.
2)    Practice retrieving the material from memory by creating self-quizzes. Use the big ideas (in your own words) and the end of chapter summary material at the end of a chapter if available.  Include any new terms or definitions in the chapter that you are not familiar with.
3)    Space your study sessions on different days and interleave the practice of different but similar topics. Try to solve problems before you know the solution. This makes the learning more difficult but the struggle to learn is extremely beneficial.
4)    Create a chart or mind-map on how the various things that you study fit together and how they relate with one another. This strengthens your big picture understanding.
5)    Consider using mnemonic devices to help you remember complicated lists, names, dates, facts or formulas. By assigning devices such as an acronym, rhyme, or phrase one can store or chunk large pieces of information in the brain as a single unit which can be easily retrieved.

Pass these tips along. They work for students of all ages.

1Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap. Print. 

Note: This article first appeared in Southern Distinction Magazine - Education Column. White, C. Vol 3.6, 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Ring the Bell. It’s Time for School

The beginning of school brings with it a wide range of feelings and emotions for students and parents.  Happiness, dread, relief, wistfulness, excitement, fear, eagerness, and resolve are but a few.  While students and parents ready themselves for the sound of the bell, teachers are going through a similar process.  Many of the same feelings and emotions apply.

I always look forward to the first day of school. There is an excitement in the air that serves as a new beginning, a fresh start and the opportunity to grow and learn together.  Goals are set.  Strategies are implemented.   It is truly an exciting time. 

This is especially true for me this year as I transition to the new position of Director of Learning Design and Innovation at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia.  Inspired by the promise of new beginnings, I have established one single, overarching goal. 

I am dedicated and determined to help establish a sustainable rhythm of extraordinary classroom experiences for teachers and students. 

I am referring to the kind of experiences that are marked by human connection and the recognition of mutual engagement; those times when both teacher and student recognize that they have a common goal and are marching lockstep together in pursuit of it.  Those experiences, those moments of recognition, are extraordinary. The kind of experiences where both teacher and student recognize that the student has moved beyond the mastery of factoid memorization which can be replicated on a test and entered the arena of understanding and application of knowledge on a deeper, more profound level.  Again, those experiences, those moments of recognition, are extraordinary.

I will never forget Johnny Smith. He was big and strong and capable.  He was a football hero.  He was also a lazy student…or so I thought.  I was his Chemistry teacher.  I’d had enough of his poor performance and called him out into the hall one day.  I told him how disappointed I was in him and how I knew he could do better.  He looked at me somewhat stoically until I said, “Johnny, I care about you and I believe in you.  Let me help you.”  Tears ran down his face.  There was a human connection and recognition of pursuit of a common goal.  It occurred to me that Johnny was not lazy…he was afraid.  This big, talented jock was afraid.  The tears were running down my face years later as he told me that he was about to graduate from college and had spent his final year as president of the student body.  That’s extraordinary.

Years ago, our local newspaper published the end of course test scores by school. They even listed our scores per unit!  I was the only physics teacher in my school and my class scores on the light and diffraction unit were dead last.  That summer, I took advantage of a Professional Development opportunity for Physics teachers at North Carolina State University and took what I learned back to my classroom.  When the end of course results were published at the end of that next school year, we were not only first on that unit in the school district, we were 6th in the state.  My students entered the arena of understanding and application.  That’s extraordinary.

I am dedicated and determined to help establish a sustainable rhythm of extraordinary classroom experiences for teachers and students.
Ring the bell.  It’s time for school. 
First Published in Southern Distinction Magazine:
White, C. (2015, October). Ring the Bell. It’s Time for School. Southern Distinction.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Assessment for Learning

I love learning. In fact, some of my earliest memories include playing school with my sisters. To this day, I love going to school and learning how and why things work or why people behave the way they do or about other cultures and traditions around the world. I simply have a thirst for learning new things.

Why? Heidi Grant Halvorson1 (and others) says that students respond in one of three ways when given a school related task.  This response is called a “goal orientation” which seeks to answer the question, “Why am I doing this?”  The three general types of goal orientation are:


1)  Learning Orientation. “To get better”
2)  Performance/Ego Orientation. “To prove ability” or “To hide perceived lack of ability”
3) Task Completion Orientation. “To get it done and get a grade”

I clearly have a learning orientation. 

But, what does this have to do with assessment?

In her book, Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, Jan Chapppuis explains the impact of goal orientations on student motivation. Her research shows that students are prevented from learning by many of the assessment practices used in today’s classrooms.

She says that students with a learning goal orientation believe that effort leads to success. We are motivated by mastery and are quick to try another strategy when faced with failure. We dig in and believe that when we try harder…we can achieve. It is helpful for students with a learning orientation to have an understanding of what success looks like.

Students with a performance/ego orientation will focus on protecting their self-worth by seeking public recognition for performing at a higher level. They seek to hide a perceived lack of ability and want to do those things to achieve success that require little effort. They avoid effort based strategies due to a fear of failure and will often ask, “How do I get an A?” or are driven by not wanting to appear lacking.2

Students with a task completion orientation will focus on the completion of assignments. They focus on completion rather than quality and will focus on points rather than understanding. They don’t really care who does the work as long as it is turned in. They are quick to ask “How much is this worth?”

Several traditional grading practices can actually inhibit student learning. When we award points for completion we send the wrong message to students about the purpose of the assignment which is to attain learning. When we don’t allow sufficient time to practice before assigning a grade on practice work we distort achievement.  Students typically improve with practice. Including scores on practice work in the final grade can cause students to give up when they realize that they cannot overcome the damage to their grade.

What can we do to help develop a culture of learning in our classrooms? Chappuis suggests that we

  • Communicate to our students that learning is the goal of education. We must clearly identify our learning targets so that students know what is expected.
  • Help students understand that learning is a progression and mistakes are a way to learn.
  •  Provide penalty-free feedback during the learning to aid with student improvement.
  • Use feedback from assessments to know our students’ strengths and weaknesses to guide instruction.
  • Use assessment practices that help students understand themselves as learners.
I agree with Jan Chappuis. “The question in a learning culture is not “How can I improve my grade?” but “What do I need to do to master this?” In such a classroom culture, learning happens first and grades follow.

1Halvorson, Heidi Grant. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York, N.Y.: Hudson Street, 2011. Print.

2Chappuis, Jan. Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning. Pearson, 2015. Print. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Actualizing Potential

“You should major in Chemistry!” In my first year of college, Dr. Harrelson had no idea of the power of his words. His encouragement struck me because he obviously believed that I could do it. I never considered this possibility but his words increased my confidence and so I choose that path. How often have the words of someone else given you the encouragement to go beyond your initial thoughts of your own ability to achieve a level of accomplishment that stretches you?

In Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching1, Wilson & Conyers explore the concept of human potential. The idea that success depends primarily on innate abilities beyond our control is disproved through a large body of research. Certainly we have a genetic propensity for ability, but if we consider brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to continually change and develop with hard work, a belief in one’s ability and an optimal environment) we have a better picture of the potential for an individual.

It is also important for children and adolescents to understand the idea of neuroplasticity and that their ability (and yes, their intelligence) can be increased through hard work. The fact that the brain physically changes as connections are formed through practice can give children hope who struggle in an area. In the book Outlierss, Malcom Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule.  This rule basically says that practice in the amount of 10,000 hours results in the development of expertise and he provides wonderful examples ranging from Michael Jordan to the Beatles to Bill Gates.

Hard work and an attitude of persistence and resilience have a huge impact on potential. Carol Dweck3 talks about a “growth mindset” which postulates intelligence and ability can be developed through hard work as opposed to a “fixed mindset” which assumes intelligence and ability are unchangeable. A person with a “growth mindset” is more likely to have a mastery goal orientation in which a person is internally driven and they work and persist to accomplish goals (and actually enjoy it!) whereas a person with a fixed mindset is more likely to have a performance goal orientation in which the person is driven externally for praise or to please someone else.

Access to opportunities for learning is another important factor which impacts a child’s potential. Opportunities include environment, structure, education and the time spent to nurture and help a child develop.  The average number of words that a child in a low income household typically hears is 10 million words at home by age 3 but the average exposure for a child in a high income home is typically 30 million words. This leads to an incredible advantage that is difficult to overcome.1 Ongoing reading, conversations, and educational experiences have a significant impact.  Understandably, many people with lower paying jobs must work longer hours and do more physical work which leaves little time and energy for reading and conversation.

The importance of positive encouragement and feedback for a child’s effort rather than simply assessing results alone cannot be overstated.  Providing ongoing feedback of the process as well as the results serve to foster persistence within the child. It is also important to highlight successful examples or role models to which the child can aspire and to celebrate growth or the accomplishment of milestones along the way.

Summarily, it is not a child’s innate ability that determines potential.  Rather, when a child will make the most of brain neuroplasticy, have access to opportunities, persist in working hard and have caring people who provide encouragement and support….they soar.



1Wilson, Donna, & Conyers, Marcus. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Teachers College, Columbia U, 2013. Print.
 2Wilson, Donna, & Conyers, Marcus. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Teachers College, Columbia U, 2013. Print.
 3Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Google Productivity Tips and Tricks for Educators and Otherwise

A few months ago I led a session on Increasing Personal Productivity at The Google for Education Southern Summit hosted by the Lovett School. I incorporated several principles from David Allen’s book called Getting Things Done1 and correlated his principles into the use of Gmail and Google Calendar. The idea was to help teachers and administrators increase their productivity using these free tools. In a world where we are bombarded by information, continually connected, faced with increasing demands and expectations, it is extremely difficult to accomplish the “stuff” on our plate each day. It is no wonder that a growing percentage of our students and adults suffer from anxiety due to the chaotic and hectic environments in which we are all immersed.
My friends and family will tell you that I frequently take on more than I should and I suppose that is a character flaw but, in my defense, I do enjoy my busy life. Admittedly, sometimes the stress that often accompanies my “bring it on” decisions is not very pleasant. I know that I am not alone. I think many of us have more to do in a day that can reasonably be accomplished. In an effort to get a better handle on the things on my plate, I picked up this book to help me prioritize and put some structure around my responsibilities. 
My favorite suggestion was the idea that we should only handle things one time. Allen says that as mail (or in my case email) arrives we should Delete It, Do it, Delegate it or Defer it. I decided to apply his suggestion to the (literally) thousands of emails in my in-box. So how does it work? When an email arrives, you can either Delete it, Do it if it takes less than two minutes, Delegate it if possible or Defer it to a later time. The items that I defer typically go to my calendar or a “To Do” folder that I have set up in my Gmail. This process actually works and it does truly help with my productivity. Some of the other things within Google that I recommend include the following: 
Use Labels, Folders and the Archive Button I love to use the Archive button to rid your Inbox of the plethora of email that many of us seem to accumulate. You can still search for your email and it is still under “All Mail.” I also started setting up labels and folders in my Gmail. As email arrives you can set up a label so that all email from a particular person or topic can be tagged with color coded (optional but cool) labels. When you create a label, Gmail automatically sets up a folder. When you Archive an email it can be quickly accessed from the folder as well. I assigned a red label to my boss so that when I get an email from him, I notice it right away. Using Labels and Folders is a great way to get control of your email.
Enable Labs to Increase Productivity In Gmail or Google Calendar, there is a gear looking button on the right of the screen. Click on that gear and then click on “Settings” to access the Labs tab. Labs may not be around forever but I have used several for a few years. You must enable Labs for them to become activated. A few of my favorite Gmail labs include Undo Send, Calendar Gadget and Canned Responses. In Google Calendar, some of my favorite labs include Year View, Jump to Date, Gentle Notifications and World Clock (this is nice if you work with people in different time-zones). 
Configure the Extra’s Under Settings I have set up Gmail Offline access by downloading the Gmail app. This allows me to respond to email when I do not have Internet access and then emails are sent when I am connected. Entering your location will enable you to see a weather icon on your calendar. You can set up several time-savers such as syncing your mobile phone, setting up and sharing a family calendar or even importing your favorite sports team or holiday calendar into your personal calendar. Managing your calendar will help free you to spend time on the things that are truly important to you, rather than having needless demands on your time dictate your life. 1Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. New York: Viking, 2001. Print. First published in Southern Distinction Magazine vol. 3.2

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Changing It Up!

Although my initial degree was a B.S. in Chemistry, my first teaching job was an interim position in the area of mathematics. It was March and I was filling in at Burns High School in North Carolina for a teacher who was unable to complete the year.  I remember working long hours to prepare to teach Calculus, Geometry, Algebra II and General Math each day. I barely kept my head above water.  It was that first year, however, that I received feedback from one of the many required, formal classroom observations that would forever change the way I prepare to teach. 

Mr. Dalrymple slid into the back of the classroom as I started teaching a lesson on subtracting sums of money using decimals to the large group of students in my General Math class. I used the typical Madeline Hunter lesson plan format that I had been taught and modeled solving example problems.  Unfortunately, as I moved to the guided practice portion of the lesson I found that several of my students were not successful in solving the assigned problem.   So, I decided to complete an additional example problem from my teacher text book on the blackboard.  (Yes…my classroom resources in those days were chalk and erasers rather than keyboards and projectors.)  To my dismay, however, those same students were still unable to solve the problem successfully.

As Mr. Dalrymple left my class he said, “Connie, I appreciate your passion and I can clearly see that you care about your students and that they respect you but what makes you think that if you work the same type of problem the same way you will get a different result?” I thought about those words and repeated them over and over to myself as he walked away.  Actually, I thought about his words for several hours.   How could I teach my students how to solve problems in a different way so that they could truly understand? I decided to enlist my husband to video me at the grocery store buying chicken. I presented the pack of chicken to the cashier, she told me the amount, I gave her a $20 dollar bill and she gave me my change.  My husband videoed me as I smilingly counted the change for the camera.

I arrived early the next day to push a TV monitor into my classroom (I had to check it out from the media center) to show the 5 minute video of me buying a chicken at the grocery store to my students. I remember the giggles and snickers as they watched me smiling and counting.  Giggles and snickers turned in to achievement and mastery.  Perhaps it was the practical application, or the video media, or just the fact that I did not give up on them and demonstrated my belief in their ability to learn the material that made the difference.    Something did.  I’ve never forgotten it.


The idea that we must meet our students where they are and work on developing our kit of strategies, techniques and tools to reach them is critical. I started trying to think of different ways to engage and connect with my students which often meant using real world applications to which they could relate. My desire to find the best ways to reach students has led to technology integration, blended learning, project based learning, inquiry learning, brain-based learning and many other strategies and tools to improve overall lesson design and effectiveness. There is nothing more satisfying than when students finally “get it” and can confidently demonstrate understanding. Continually working on our craft is necessary for teaching effectiveness and student achievement.  That’s our job.  More than that, however, communicating to our students we truly care and believe that they can achieve is…well…potentially life changing.  Do the extra work.  Go the extra mile.  Change it up!