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Boost Your Children’s Test Success With "Neuro-Logical" Strategies

Help your children build strong memories and test taking skills.

A Race Between Education and


HG Wells predicted that our future would be a race between education and catastrophe. In this era of increasing emphasis on standardized tests, mounting competition for high quality, affordable colleges, and the tightening belts of financial aid, students from kindergarten through high school need all the help they can get to achieve academic success and sustain their natural curiosity and inherent desire to learn.

With the help of correlations from neuroscience research, you can use best brain practices to help your children build the learning habits for best memory and test taking skills while also sustaining or restoring a positive attitude about school. This first of a three-blog series will focus on several practices to make new learning stick and promote the neural circuits long-term memory so knowledge is truly understood and retained beyond the test.

The Bleak Terrain of Memorization

Rote memorization comprises approximately 70% of a student's study time. Each year, as more information is added to every subject, the volume of material that needs to be memorized increases. Test-taking should be an opportunity for children to demonstrate what they know and understand, but the No Child Left Behind system of evaluating the success of a school is by the cumulative test result averages of all students. These are usually multiple-choice tests that are more an assessment of rote memory than an evaluation of what a child actually learned and will retain as knowledge.

Because standardized tests are likely to be the basis of federal funding of schools for the foreseeable future, and because teachers are under enormous pressure to raise test scores, the pressure of test performance can be stressful even to children as young as second graders. Sometime in early elementary school children start taking spelling and arithmetic tests. If these first test experiences are positive, they are at an advantage because they are more likely to approach future tests with confidence and stress will not block memory storage and retrieval.

But, as for many children, these first experiences are negative and your child stresses out in formal test situations, or has difficulty memorizing facts, he'll need support from you to build his confidence and discover which strategies are best suited for his success. You can guide your child to develop the study skills most suited for the way his brain learns and remembers best. The results will be evident on his test scores, and more importantly in his power as a lifelong learner.

The Brain Seeks Patterns so Help Your Children Activate Prior Knowledge

Understanding how the brain makes and stores short-term (working) memories and converts them into durable long-term memories will help you guide your children through strategies that will empower them to extend their memory capacity, decrease frustration, and promote test taking skills and success.

The brain is a pattern-seeking organ. Only when the brain recognizes relationships between new and prior knowledge can it hold on to new information. When new input enters the working memory construction zone (the hippocampus, deep in the emotional brain), it sets off a search throughout the brain's memory storage areas for stored memory with related patterns. When there is a match, a link to the related pattern goes down to the hippocampus to hold on to that new input. If pattern matching is successful, the new input is physically encoded into a brain cell network with the related memory.

Activating related memory patterns before the new learning supports the brain's pattern seeking and makes it more likely that the new information will stick. This process is called activation of prior knowledge.

Activate prior knowledge bridges

You can activate prior knowledge bridges best if you know what topic your child will be learning next in school and helping him turn on existing memory circuits that relate to what he is about to be taught. Your preparations before the class lesson, such as reminding him of past experiences and interests that activate his prior knowledge circuits will give him the advantage in linking and locking in the upcoming lesson.

Preparing the Brain Bridges so Learning Sticks

The best connections to prior knowledge activate memories that were positive, relate the upcoming topic to personal interests, or draw links from the topic to things your child finds relevant. You will have to be very creative to find ways to connect your child's prior knowledge or interests with some of the topics mandated on tests, such as memorizing the dates for individual battles in the Revolutionary War or the names of the inventers of the cotton gin, sewing machine, and cyclotron, but if it will be tested, your efforts will yield stronger memory storage.

To prepare existing memory pattern circuits, strengthen the links that connect with new learning. Discuss things he is already interested in that will be included in the upcoming class lessons. Instead of just asking what he learned in school each day...and getting a minimal response or worse yet the comment, "Nothing," make your questions more personally relevant. Encourage him to tell you what he was taught that reminds him of things he likes, has done, or wants to do.

For example, if the school lesson is about a part of the country you visited as a family or a part of the world from which your relatives immigrated, look at photos of the trip or have him talk with his relatives about things they experienced or heard about that make that part of the world. Other ways to link new related input with existing knowledge include doing an Internet search together about a country she is studying. Start with things she is interested in, such as the dogs or horses that originated there or their current sports teams. Use Google earth to zoom in on places of interest to her in that country.

Add to your child's prior background knowledge by watching video clips on the Internet related to upcoming class topics. If the class will be studying the geography of mountains or science of weather, watch a video about Mount Everest to stoke interest and provide a background of related memory onto which your child can hook the new information he will hear in class. Preheat interest and memory by showing your child high interest discoveries and innovations that came about because of the science they are about to study.

If the topic of study is Colonial times, watch a video or look at a few Internet sites relating to that theme. Ask questions that prompt your child to describe any similarities between herself and people during that historical era. Emotions are important prior memory link boosters. When she is learning about the leaders of the early colonies, ask her what qualities she would want to see in the leader of a club or team she was thinking about joining. When those memories are stimulated, your child's neural networks and stored patterns are primed to seek and connect with related new information.

Ask questions that prompt your child

These same strategies of personalization, relevance, and connection to prior knowledge and interest apply to reading homework. Ask your child to tell you about any personal connections he can make with the characters or problems in a novel or history chapter, rather than just asking for a summary or drilling him about the facts he might be tested on. His voluntary, positive interest connections will build much stronger memories and serve as a link for future details to join as he continues to read.

Mental Manipulation for Long-term Memory

The most successful forms of review are those that give your children opportunities to actively think, interpret, and analyze the information in their prefrontal cortex where long-term memories are constructed. Each time learning is recalled or used the repeated neural activation makes the memory circuit stronger - like exercising a muscle.

Promote this memory strength with mental manipulation of new learning. One such manipulation is to have your child sum up new learning in her own words. Ways to do this include having one child "teach" the information to a sibling, to the family at the dinner table, or during a car ride. Children can also write summaries of the day's learning in a log or journal dedicated to the subject and add their choice of personalized artwork, diagrams, pictures from magazines or the Internet.

Other ways of cementing learning is by synthesizing understanding. This occurs when children use the learning and transfer it to represent it in a new way. These opportunities can be linked with your children's talents and interests such as creating a webpage or PowerPoint, designing a board game, writing or illustrating the topic in a book or video for a younger child, creating a brochure or other advertising materials about the topic ("Come see the fiords of Norway", "Why you should join the Jamestown Colony", or "Live in Michigan and get to experience all phases of the precipitation cycle".

Memory-sustaining manipulations are especially strong when carried out within the first 24-hours of new learning. To encourage this habit, encourage your child to make more connections between the new learning and things he already knows so his brain stores new learning in more than one relational memory circuit.

Each time your child recognizes more relationships between new learning and prior knowledge, it will change his brain as neuroplasticity stimulates more connections and stronger links between the brains' nerve cell circuits. This is the "neurons that fire together, wire together" process that constructs more paths linking up with the new learning (axon coating - synapses-dendrites) to keep it embedded in long-term memory.

Charts and diagrams such as a piece of butcher block paper on your daughter's wall where she adds new topic information as she learns it is a great visual organizer to strengthen and build memory links. Positive emotional strength is added when she adds her own opinions or sketches that represent her feelings about the information. Other opportunities to build and expand those long-term memory patterns include:

* Similarities/differences described, listed, or charted on a poster

* Categorizing (sorting examples of the new topic into lists such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians; solids, liquids, and gases)
* Compare and contrast such as with "graphic organizers," "visual maps," or Venn diagrams

Venn Diagram

Venn Diagram

Venn Diagram for Comparison

* Analogies (similes and metaphors)
Children may need some help or hints to develop their analogies. You can start with analogies you create where they fill in the blank such as, "The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly is like the changing of the seeds into sprouts because they both........."
You can prompt analogies by asking cueing questions such as: In what way was the American Revolution like the basketball strike? How are human hands like bats' wings? How are babies like the new seedlings we are growing? How is Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory similar to the television show, Survivor? In what ways are you like (whatever topic is being taught)?

You'll See The Changes

You will not only help your children's test success, but also help them build better brains by increasing their ability to connect learning with positive experiences, interests, prior knowledge, and existing memory patterns. With enjoyable review activities that connect with your children's learning strengths, their brains own neuroplasticity will build more efficient neural networks to store and help them quickly retrieve the information they study. Each memory building and strengthening process paves the way for the next success as learning promotes learning. It is a great cycle to build.

What's Coming in The Next Two Test Success Blogs?

Part 2: Multisensory Input for Best Storage and Retrieval. Information from each of the senses is stored in a part of the brain specific to that sense. Using different ways of reviewing the same material builds more nerve cell circuits throughout the brain. These connect to one another so you child has more ways to access and retrieve the information.

Part 3: Extending Memory with Personal Relevance, Syn-Naps Brain Breaks, and Neuro-logical Destressing of Test Taking.

"Ask Dr. Judy" - About Your Neuro-Education Topics

If there are topics about which would like to read more that relate to the neuroscience of learning and the brain - from my perspective as a neurologist, former classroom teacher, and current author and presenter about how the brain learns, please include your questions as blog responses with the heading of “Ask Dr Judy” questions. Although I will not be able to address specific individual questions regarding learning problems for individual children, I will try to take on the topics of highest concern and interest about mind, brain, and education.

My area of specialty is using the neuroscience research I read and my years of classroom experience and parenting to make suggestions that connect the research with ways to optimize education and parenting for all children to achieve the highest joyful potentials. I do not focus on individual conditions, such as autism ADHD, or dyslexia, as these deserve responses from subspecialists. As this is a blog format, others may join in the conversation with their opinions and research that relates to the questions.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
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