51 - Optional Part 1 How NOT to Take a Test

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Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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51 - Optional Part 1 How NOT to Take a Test

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In this video, I’m very pleased to introduce you to

Dr. Richard Felder and Dr. Rebecca Brent,

two educators who have had an enormous impact on the landscape of education.

I first met Rich and Rebecca at the very beginning of my teaching career.

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop they taught on student-centered learning,

that workshop changed the whole focus of my teaching and allowed me to

understand learning in a whole new deeper way.

I think you’ll find that your own understanding of

learning will change as you listen to this interview.

Rich Felder has written the best selling book on

Introductory Chemical Engineering in the country and possibly in the world.

He’s also won the Lifetime Achievement Award from

the American Society of Engineering Education for his enormously influential work,

but don’t make the mistake of thinking that Dr.

Felder’s work is only useful for engineers.

A big reason he’s so influential is that the approaches

he uses are applicable to virtually any field of study.

It is actually Dr. Felder’s enormously gifted wife, Dr. Rebecca Brent,

the President of the education consulting firm, Education Designs,

and longtime director of the NSF Sponsored Succeed Coalition Faculty Development Program,

who has helped spearhead

the broad multidisciplinary impact of the couples work on education.

I think you’ll find Dr. Felder and Dr. Brent’s work to have

as powerful an influence on you as it’s had on me.

So, you’ve written some extraordinarily helpful advice

for students about how to prepare for tests.

If you could sum that advice up in a nutshell, what would you say?

Let me first say something about how not to prepare for tests,

which is probably what 90 plus percent of my students do to prepare for tests.

One, generally they ignore the book but they may read the book like a novel,

just going flipping through it, maybe they underline,

which as far as I can tell is a singularly useless strategy for doing anything.

Then when they’ve done that,

maybe they look through the old homework solutions and read through them,

again like a novel,

and then imagine that they’ve studied,

and that provides them with no help at all in preparing for the test.

First of all, the test is not going to be just the homework again.

It’s going to be new problems that they have to solve.

So, if that’s how not to do it, how do you do it?

The only way that I’ve ever found that works to prepare for tests is,

and I’m talking about problem-solving tests,

not the kind that I give in engineering,

is to work problems,

to set problems up,

not to work through them in detail.

So, I tell the students,

you can start with the homework problems that you solve and then solve it again.

Set up the solution without looking back at

the worked-out solution that was graded and see how far you get.

If you can set it up,

so the only thing that’s left to do is algebra or simple math,

then you’re done, then go on to another problem.

Don’t waste your time doing algebra and arithmetic,

you’re not learning anything from that.

Then maybe go to your book and pick out another couple of

problems and try to set those up.

The more of that you do,

the better you’re going to be at solving problems,

the more likely you are to be able to solve the problems that show up on the test.

The other thing that I strongly advise is work with other people.

Get into a study group,

make it a serious study group,

and try to make sure that at least somebody in the study group is smarter than you

are and really knows how to solve the problem so that if you get stuck on something,

this person is likely to be able to figure it

out and all of you go marching along together.

Leave the beer and the snacks in the refrigerator.

Just spend your time working through problems,

setting them up, making sure you know how to solve it,

going on doing more problems.

Then, when you’re either exhausted or you’ve covered as much as you need to cover,

you can then hit the refrigerator.

This is so much like what we’ve talked about throughout this course as far as simply,

reading a book is not putting it necessarily in your brain,

and to have to actively grasp the material,

and working with others sometimes is

a very good way to help reinforce what you’re learning,

and also filling gaps in what you’re trying to learn about.

So, I think that’s

a fabulous advice and I have to say thank you for that wonderful checklist.

You’re welcome.

I think there’s also some things you can do when you

get in the test because sometimes it’s a high pressure situation,

you may feel a lot of anxiety.

So, taking a moment when you get the test,

looking through the whole thing,

just to get a sense of where you’re going.

Pick out the easy questions and start there.

Then if you get stuck somewhere,

go on to something else that you feel confident you can handle.

Keep moving, don’t stop.

Sometimes when we’re anxious, we just freeze.

Keep moving, keep working even if you can’t get everything,

though for partial credit.


Get some of it, put something down and that’ll help you be more successful in the test.

Also, I’ve had students who really felt

rising anxiety if they got to a question that they couldn’t answer right away.

If you find yourself really getting upset, just stop,

take a deep breath,

pause for a moment,

and then look back at it.

Just calming down a little bit can go a long way.

Oh, it can.

Well, that’s one of the things we’ve also talked about in the course,

is breathing from the belly to help draw in and really do deep breathing,

that’s a very effective technique to neurophysiologically allow yourself to calm down.

Another interesting thing, and I think for our viewers,

this shows a bit of the difference in approach of different top quality educators.

One thing we’ve talked about is, just touch,

at the very beginning when you’re starting to look through a test,

touch on and start working some of the more difficult problems just until you get stuck.

So, it takes willpower,

you have to pull yourself off quickly as

soon as you can detect that you’re getting stuck.

But that actually gets your focused attention on it,

then pulls that attention away and when you’re working another easier problem,

it allows you to in the background,

your diffuse mode is working away.

Then when you revisit that more difficult problem,

you’ve got a little bit more going

on intellectually because you’ve had time to think about.

If you wait for the hardest problems later in the tests,

sometimes that can create problems.

So, there’s different approaches and I think different folks,

if they’re aware of the different kinds of approaches,

it gives them more tools that they can use for their intellectual toolkits.


I think that’s always important to look at all the advice,

look at all the suggestions, try things,

give them enough of the try that you see how well they work.

S, I think that’s important for your students.

Always be doing.

I would extend that actually.

The advice you just gave,

I think is life advice not just for taking tests.

There’s this magical phenomenon that I’ve experienced many times in my life.

If I’m working on something,

a problem when I was a student that might be a problem on a homework assignment,

it could have been a problem on a test,

it could be a problem in my doctoral research,

or something I’m working on.

When I went into research as a faculty member but I’m struggling with something,

I can’t make any headway on it,

my natural tendency is just to keep grinding on it,

keep banging my head against that concrete wall

and it doesn’t the damage to the wall at all.

It’s not too good for my head.

What I found is when at of desperation ,or just because I needed a break or whatever,

I stopped grinding on it and I went off and I did something else.

I took a walk, I took a nap,

I went to work on something else I was working on.

Then when I came around later,

got back to work on the problem,

the solution was magically there.

I tend to believe what I’ve read in cognitive science

about all of the stuff going on underneath the conscious part that I’m aware of.

Somewhere in that part of my brain is somebody or

something that’s a lot smarter than whatever I think of as me.

Once I’ve gotten started on the problem,

exactly as you’ve just described,

and then I get away from it,

and it’s like I’m turning it over to that part of my brain which is smarter,

and it somehow solves the problem.

When I come back, there’s the solution like magic.

Yes, that’s the idea.

It’s basically when you purposefully pull your attention off,

or allow your attention to drift off,

that actually opens access to

the neural resting states that you need to be able to solve the problem.

Just alluding to some of these same life issues,

sometimes my husband and I,

we’ll be thinking about a problem that we have to solve, for example,

how do we schedule interviews, how do we,

and we’ll say, you know we don’t have to solve this tonight.

Sure enough, within another day or two,

the answers will come to us.

MY mother you used to call there gave their subconscious an assignment.

I often think about that.

Your mother was very, very smart.

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