Wednesday, November 13, 2013

If You Want Your Kid to Be a Better Student, Make Them Your Teacher

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? 

We meet parents all the time who are willing to spend hours the night before, doing endless flashcards with their child, or asking the same vocabulary words over and over. By the time the child goes to bed, he or she can recite the correct answer, right on cue, 100% of the time. But then, a week later, the test comes home, and somehow it didn’t pay off. The grade is a C, and the kid feels horrible. But what more could you possibly have done?

Before you conclude that your kid is one of those infamous “naturally bad test takers,” think again. There are plenty of students who can recite the right answers after studying in one particular way. But today, we want to once and for all make a huge distinction between being able to recite answers and actually understanding the material.

In order to be truly ready for a test, a student should be able to answer the questions in any form: give the word when they hear the definition, give the definition when they hear the word, use the term in a sentence...and then use it in a second, different sentence, and so on. Hearing this is, understandably, stressful for parents. Going once through flashcards is something that you can always find time to do. But how are you supposed to think of every possible way that a piece of information might ever get asked to your child??!!

You’re not. The best way to test your student’s understanding--their actual ability to comprehend, use, and apply the information--is to have them teach it to you. Teaching requires such a firm grasp of the concepts that you can bend them into whatever shape or form is going to allow your listener to understand them. Anybody can simply recite a fact; the true test of whether you really understand something is to see whether you could teach it to someone totally new to the material. Chances are, you, the parent, have not been brushing up on Ancient Mesopotamia lately. That makes you the perfect pupil!

Ben Franklin: Writer-Electricity-Guy?
What’s more, as a parent, you’re the expert on your own child’s facial expressions. You know when they feel confident about what they’re saying, and when they’re sort of weaseling their way out of giving a straight answer. Based on the inflection of their voice, does it sound like they’re making a statement or asking a question? “Umm…Ashley ate the last cookie?” “Umm...Ben Franklin was...a...writer-electricity-guy?” If, as the pupil, you feel that your “teacher” is not making the lesson 100% clear for you, then ask questions and make them look up more details or explain it better. You’re not leaving here until you’ve learned!

One great way to push your child to better understanding is to ask for connections that relate the material to aspects of everyday life or to other subjects. For example, if your child is learning the parts of the cell, and that includes lysosomes, then they might say, “Lysosomes are responsible for, like, proteins and other chemicals.” This certainly does not feel like a clear-cut lesson. Ask for more help. At that point, you and your child can look at the parts of the word to see if any of them are familiar in something you know. “Lyso… lyso… that sounds like Lysol!” Lysosomes are responsible for breaking down everything from tiny food particles to bacteria. Oh, wait! Lysol kills bacteria. That’s a great way to remember it. (Actually, both take their name from the Greek root lys- which means to separate, but that’s not important. What matters is that your kid finds a connection to what he or she is learning that makes sense and is memorable.)

Having your child be the teacher guarantees that he or she actually understands it. But even better, it’s much more fun than going through flashcards. Studying becomes a game, and the rule of the game is that you play dumb until your child has really taught you to understand the concepts.

Vocab: Pretend that you don’t speak English. Have them explain what the word means in a way that is CLEAR. (This cannot be, “Um, dubious is, know, sort of...not good…”) Then, have them explain when you’d use that word in life. Again, break it down and relate it to other words if it still seems fuzzy.

History: You are an alien who just landed on Earth. You have never heard of this “Ge-ORG-EY WASH-ing-TONE” fellow. Make your child tell you the story of the American Revolution. It’s not just a list of separate terms--it’s a narrative, and all of these terms are connected through the events. You’re done when you understand all that happened…and why each of those terms or major players mattered.

Science: Play dumb. Have your child explain the cell, not just in terms of the separate parts, but in terms of the processes and connections involved. And they’d better make sure you appreciate the big picture too! Why are cells SO COOL? If you’re not excited, then they haven’t done their job.

No chemistry? No problem.
Playing dumb is the best way you can help your kid!
Perhaps, you’re one of those parents who is panicked because your child has officially surpassed the level of high school knowledge that you remember from way back when. When your child had questions about subtraction, you felt like a superhero. Now that the questions are about physics, you feel like running out of the room. Thankfully, playing dumb is the best thing you can do! Have your child teach advanced chem to you; not knowing anything about it makes you the perfect guinea pig student. You may not know chemistry, but you can certainly tell if a lesson is fuzzy, if you can follow along, and if it’s making sense.

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? When they can teach it to you. Next time your kid asks you to study, hand them the chalk and get ready to be schooled.

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