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Putting the “plan” in planners

In a month, we are going to start getting calls from parents whose kids have fallen behind and are feeling overwhelmed

How can your son or daughter make sure that that doesn’t happen to them?

Unfortunately, planning is one of these things that students are expected to understand, but aren’t really taught in school. Considering that our students have to deal with 6 classes, sports and other extracurriculars, and personal and family responsibilities, it’s really a tragedy that we spend so much time and effort we spend teaching our kids how to graph hyperbolas, but so little on how to organize and order our affairs. So how can our kids use their planners effectively?

Level 0: How students use planners (to-do list)

Look at a student’s planner (one who uses it), and you’ll see the START of a plan.

That is, you will see homework assignments added to the calendar for today. You may see tests, quizzes, or projects added to their due dates as well. Students will have filled these out in class when the teacher gave the assignment.

But as we all know…knowing when something is due is a prerequisite for a plan, but is not itself a plan. How will we do it? When will we do it? What do we need (information, supplies) to have in order to do it? These are questions that we ask in level 1:

Level 1: Plan and schedule your to-do’s

So you have a homework assignment due tomorrow? Great! Let’s create a plan!

-At what time will you do it? How long do you anticipate it will take?
-Do you have everything you need to do it? If not, what do you need? How can/will you get it?
-Do you anticipate any challenges in getting it done? How will you overcome those challenges?

For a simple homework assignment, it might be very simple and look like the following

4-4:45 Math Assignment 2.1 (on website)

Setting the time that the task will be done creates an intention that will be more likely to be fulfilled. It also allows the student to understand how much time their responsibilities that afternoon will take up and what they can reasonably handle.

For a big, complex project, it might be more complex

10/1/21 3:30-4 Choose a prompt and collect links for research
10/4/21 9-10 Write thesis statement for essay, create outline, and write introduction
10/5/21 4-5:30 Write rough draft
10/7/21 2:30 Go to teacher’s office hours to review rough draft and get feedback
5:30-6 Edit rough draft using teacher feedback
10/10 10am Hand in essay

Looking at this list, boy does it look complicated. But once we plug these individual items into our planner, each individual step feels simple to complete.

Look at what this plan does

  1. It breaks a large project up into manageable chunks to be completed day by day. The student will always know if he is on schedule or falling behind. No surprises the day before that it is going to take longer than anticipated.
  2. It allows the student to “download his brain”. Once he’s got his plan set, the student doesn’t need to think about the task anymore until the appointed time, clearing his mind to focus on the present.
  3. The student has predicted difficulties (that he will want assistance from the teacher and their tutor) and has planned for those.
  4. If something unexpected happens on one of these days, there is no need to panic. Successfully completing the essay will withstand a day or two disruption, since the work is spread out over a period of time.
  5. It separates “planning time” from “doing time” which prevents overwhelm when a student sits down to “start working” on a big project.

Remember, knowing when something is due is NOT a plan. A plan is the step-by-step process and timeline by which the end is to be accomplished.

Level 2: Planning to achieve bigger picture goals (beyond to-do’s)

So is your daughter’s goal to get a 5 on the AP chemistry exam? What is it going to take to accomplish that? It is definitely going to take a lot more than reacting to day-to-day homework assignments.

It is going to take doing things like:

-Going to teacher’s office hours regularly (weekly perhaps) with questions

-doing additional practice (challenge problems in textbook/from an AP test prep book)

-meeting with a study group regularly

-studying frequently (or nearly daily)

These are not “to-do’s” that a teacher assigned. These are things the student needs to do to achieve a larger goal (in this class, a 5 in AP Chemistry)

Doing these things also requires a lot of planning. Each of these items individually has steps that need to be taken in order, time devoted and scheduled. Crucially, what isn’t planned regularly won’t be done regularly.

Let’s take the office hours. Seems pretty simple, just go, right? But the student needs to do a couple things

  1. Decide on a day time that will work regularly, or plan a time each week to decide what day he’ll go to office hours after consulting your calendar for the week. If your child doesn’t do this, he won’t create consistency, and he’ll stop going.
  2. Make sure that homework and reading is done ahead of time for the office hours, so that you have good questions to ask the teacher and can get help that you need. This means that homework time and reading time needs to be scheduled appropriately so that he is at least a bit ahead of the class (in reading at least). Otherwise, you won’t make good use of your teacher’s time.

Level 3: Plan to plan

I’ve written about this before, but in short: if planning time isn’t planned, planning won’t happen. The most important 15 minutes a day for a student is the 15 minutes they take each day to:

  1. Look at their planner and see their schedule for the next couple days
  2. Add any new tasks, with due dates, to their planner
  3. Plan out the steps they need to take to accomplish their to-do’s/goals

A planner that isn’t looked at and written in daily doesn’t help. Which means the highest priority is making sure that daily time is created to read and write in the planner.

Writing is doing

A successful semester is a result of hundreds of individual steps. The more of these steps we write down and plan, the more of these steps will be done, well and timely, and more of our mental energy we’ll be able to divert to the task at hand, rather than endlessly chasing the shadows of poorly understood tasks and goals.

-Vince

Is your son or daughter struggling in school? It may be that they need help with organization and planning. Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com to talk with us. We can help!

Master these two languages to succeed on the SAT/ACT

Language: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them that a community uses to communicate

Language fluency: the ability to comfortably use a language in a practical way to communicate and solve problems day to day

Language foundation: explicit knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of a language

My experience in 18 years of SAT/ACT prep is that the skills you need to succeed on these tests are the skills that we need to succeed in school, college, and “real life”. Seeing my students succeed on the test, but also seeing them use what they are learning to succeed in their classes and in challenges they face outside of school, is what keeps me fired up about this work!

And of course, that’s a much more motivating message for students than “Spend a lot of time learning how to take a test, take it, and then never think about it or what you learned again.” The students who see the greatest level of improvement on the SAT/ACT (and anything really) are the ones that throw themselves into the work, and believe that the work they are doing is valuable rather than pointless.

So what are the two languages student need to master, and what are they currently missing?

English

Most high school English classes do not teach English mechanics in a systematic way. Students  may have had some instruction in elementary school, but middle and high school classes typically focus on reading stories, discussing them in class, and writing an essay every 4 weeks or so. The essays get handed back with grammar corrections, and the student is left to figure out on their own why the comma they used was unnecessary.

Students (and adults) get by with an intuitive understanding of English mechanics. We know when something “sounds” wrong, but we can’t explain why it is wrong.

Here is an example:

Give the calculator to he.

Is there something wrong with that sentence? What is it?

Almost everyone can answer, “It should be ‘him’ not ‘he’”

Great! But WHY should we use “him” rather than “he” here?

In my 18 years of SAT prep, I’ve yet to have a student able to answer that question clearly. Can yours?

How do our kids get 10+ years of education in the English language, and yet can’t explain seemingly basic grammar concepts?

We expect our students to read novels and textbooks, and write essays, but our students can’t answer very basic, fundamental questions about the building blocks of language: words and phrases!

This is like expecting a student to be able to write proofs without understanding what a theorem or postulate is.

It’s like a student saying “I know 2+2=4 because it sounds right, but I don’t really understand why” and expecting that student to be able to build a strong math foundation on that knowledge.

Most students have strong fluency in English but have weak foundations. They can use language day to day to understand and be understood in most simple situations, but they have a poor understanding of why and how different types of words, phrases, or punctuation are used and get into trouble when things get more complex.

The SAT/ACT tests students’ understanding of the underlying principles of English grammar, and having a strong implicit understanding is not enough. The SAT will ask questions that students won’t be able to “sound out”, meaning they will need to rely on their explicit understanding of English mechanics.

The bad news: for most students, English mechanics is going to feel like a brand new subject. I’ve yet to meet the high school student who knows even basics like the parts of speech, identifying subjects and predicates, or how to use commas.

The good news: our high schoolers are more than capable of mastering the basics (and that’s all that’s needed for a significantly improved score.) Our program is based heavily on “A Writer’s Reference” (largely pulling from chapter B, P and D), focussing on parts of speech, punctuation, and the most common errors that the SAT/ACT test.

No matter what career path your son or daughter chooses, their mastery of the tools of the English language (words, phrases, and clauses) is going to make them more effective communicators. This is work that every student should be doing, regardless of whether or not they are taking the SAT/ACT. SAT/ACT prep is a great excuse to do it.

Math

If a language is “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community”, wouldn’t it be fair to consider math a language? After all, don’t we use math words and symbols to communicate ideas? Doesn’t an equation communicate information just like a sentence does?

Students prepping for the SAT/ACT typically have the opposite problem in math that they do in English.

With English, students typically have strong fluency, but weak understanding of the English mechanics. They can form simple sentences that are usually correct, but they can’t explain why a more complex sentence is incorrect or how to fix it.

With math, typically students have a stronger foundation. They have a stronger grasp on math principles, and can explain how those principles work (at least relative to their grasp on English mechanics). But when it comes to using these principles to actually solve novel problems in the real world (or on the SAT/ACT) they struggle.

Here is an analogy:

Look at how students study (and how they are tested) in a foreign language class.

  • They memorize vocabulary.
  • They repeat model sentences.
  • They learn grammar rules.

They usually know a lot more about Spanish mechanics than English ones!

But ask a student who has taken 4+ years of Spanish to have a simple conversation with you. Most can’t. They’ve learned loads of facts about Spanish, but can’t actually use what they’ve learned to communicate effectively.
Same with math. Students learn algorithms, and memorize how to solve problems in their math classes. But give a student a real world challenge that can be solved using ratios, algebra, geometry, and they freeze. The same thing happens when they look at an SAT/ACT problem they don’t recognize. They aren’t fluent in mathematics.

The SAT/ACT is going to throw a wide variety of math problems at your son or daughter, many of which they have never seen. Success on the math portion of the test is going to come down to how comfortable and confident a student is at digging into a brand new problem.

The bad news: the way students learn and study math in school is not going to prepare them well for the SAT. They need to learn new skills and new mindsets to turn the math knowledge they’ve acquired over the year into a great math score

The good news: problem solving and creative thinking are skills that can be taught and practiced! And boy, does it feel good to actually use all these math skills you’ve learned over the years to do something novel and creative! Just like developing fluency in Spanish, it takes curiosity, diving in, and being OK with and learning from mistakes.

Your son or daughter may not be graphing hyperbolas on a day to day basis ten years from now. But they will need to learn how to use what they’ve learned (in school and out) to creatively solve new problems. SAT/ACT prep is a great opportunity to help them build those skills (and the spirit!)

Interested in learning more about arming your kids with the skills they need to succeed on the SAT/ACT and beyond? Call 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com to schedule a free diagnostic exam and consultation.

Taking control of challenging classes

“This class is too hard!”

As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to hear these words. We can understand our kids’ frustration with a challenging class. More importantly, we want our kids to succeed at anything they put their minds to, and to see our kids, feeling defeated, believe that something is beyond their abilities is crushing to us.

In these moments of self-doubt, your child is almost certainly underestimating their intelligence. And of course, we want to remind them how brilliant they are! But responding to your child, “Of course you can do it!” may not be enough to restore their confidence: more likely, they’ll just disagree with you (teenagers, right?) And, at any rate, contradicting your child doesn’t actually help them with the class they are finding troublesome.

But what if there were steps the student could take that just take effort? Steps that a student, no matter how much they were struggling with a class, know would almost certainly lead to a greater level of success?

Well, there are!

Try “Of course you can do it! Maybe you’d have more success if you…”

Try something new

Of course, this is a list of what those “something”s could be. But this list is not exhaustive. When students are struggling in a class, often part of the issue is lack of engagement. Lack of engagement leads to struggling, which leads to more lack of engagement, and the cycle of passivity continues.

The way to interrupt that cycle is to take action, even if we aren’t 100% sure that action will help. 

Maybe I can read that section again? Or practice another problem? Watch a video? Review my notes? Create a mind map? Explain what I think I understand to a parent? 

Doing something is always going to do more than doing nothing, and at minimum, it will get the student re-engaged in the material. One of the biggest reasons that students struggle in their classes is long periods of disengagement that result from frustration. At minimum, “doing something” will end the disengagement. And maybe, just maybe, the “something” the students does is exactly what is needed to be done to make progress. Doing “something” and engaging with the class daily WILL make a big difference. Ask your son or daughter “What can you do differently?”

Ask Questions (be curious)

“Why am I so bad at this?!” isn’t really a question. It’s more of a cry of frustration than a genuine inquiry. But if we can get more specific about exactly what the student finds challenging about the class, we can actually come up with strategies that address the specific challenges the student is having. 

For example, a student who asks “What about the tests is so challenging?” might come up with answers like “because I feel so rushed”, “because the test covers things I didn’t study”, or “because the problems are tricky and different from the homework”. Each of these answers suggests different approaches to improving on future tests. But if we don’t ask these questions, it’s tough to figure out the root causes of the struggle. When we DO ask those questions, however, sometimes the solutions are obvious (or, at least, solutions can be found.) The more specific the questions and answers, the better.

The same goes for individual concepts a student is struggling with. If the student is struggling with logarithms, try asking “What is a logarithm?” If a student can’t answer that, it’s no wonder they are struggling! Now, the student has a path to understanding (ask a teacher or a tutor what a logarithm is, look it up online, find the answer in a book, etc)

Write it down

I always say “writing is doing”. There is magic in writing…writing things down makes them more real. It allows you to process a lot of information 

“Write it down” can mean a wide variety of things, like:

-Mind Dump: Just write for 5 minutes straight, without stopping, about the class you are struggling with. Get down all those repetitive thoughts and half-formed ideas. Get it all out. Once you’ve done that, go through what you’ve written down and find the important information. The tasks you have to complete. The ideas you have to improve. Do this once a week, or anytime you are feeling overwhelmed.

-Taking notes: Notes are NOT just about reviewing later. They are also a way to make sure that you are staying engaged in class. It’s easy to passively listen to a teacher lecture and assume that you understand what is going on. Forcing yourself to paraphrase in notes give you the opportunity, in real time, to discover what you don’t understand (and ask questions in class!)

-Use a planner: So often we find that students who are struggling with their classes are struggling, in large part, because they are reacting to day-to-day emergencies, rather than taking a larger view of what they need to do to succeed on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis. Looking at what is coming up over the next few weeks in the class, getting important events added to a planner, and scheduling DAILY study time will make a big difference for a student’s sense of control in the class.

The most important first step in making progress in a difficult class (or any difficult problem) is establishing a sense of control. Often students will focus on external causes (this material is too difficult, my teacher is terrible, etc), and when we assign an external locus of control, it can feel helpless. Instead we need to help the students focus on internal loci of control so they can take action and make progress.

Is your son or daughter struggling with a class? Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email us at help@wellsacademics.com. We’ll help your child get a sense of control back!

Students CAN enjoy SAT/ACT prep

…if we change our attitude about standardized testing.

The messages that we constantly get from teachers, counselors, and even test prep companies, is that standardized testing is an annoying and pointless hoop we need to jump through. We’re told that people who are “good test takers” do well on the test, and that you aren’t being tested on anything relevant. Test prep is focussed on “strategies” and “tactics”. Get through the test, and when you’re done, breathe a sigh of relief and never think about it again.

With messages like these, is it any wonder that students dread the test and test prep? Is it any wonder that so many students go through the motions in their test prep? It’s hard to get energized to put your best effort into something that you believe is barely better than pointless.

I LOVE test prep. It is, by far, my favorite work we do. And I’ve got a much more uplifting and inspiring message about test prep:

Test prep is an opportunity to learn valuable skills and lessons that students need to succeed in college and in life. And many of these lessons, they aren’t learning in school. Here are two of them:

Quality matters. Careless mistakes matter.


In our kids’ math classes, teachers often don’t even look at homework assignments. Students quickly learn that as long as they’ve written something down on the page, they’ll get a stamp on the homework and get their points in the gradebook. If they get a problem wrong on the homework, no big deal, the correct answer is in the back of the book. And if they make an arithmetic mistake on the test, they’ll get partial credit for “understanding how to do the problem”. When students miss a question because of a “careless mistake” they don’t tend to take those as seriously, and they give themselves credit for still knowing “how to do the problem”.

In the real world outside of school (and the SAT), no one cares why you made a mistake. There is no partial credit. What they care about is that the job is done correctly. A brilliant student who understands how to do a math problem but makes an algebra error gets the same number of points on a problem as a student who had no clue how to do it. No points for being brilliant. The points go to the students who can execute, over and over again, for 4 hours.

Similarly, re-orienting students to focus their attention on the root causes of the execution mistakes they make is a crucial skill for them that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Instead of, “Oops, I accidentally added those numbers incorrectly. My bad.” students need to think about WHY that mistake happened, and what they need to do differently next time to avoid that mistake. It’s easy to just say “that was a dumb mistake” but there is always ACTION that can be taken to make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again, if we take the time and mentally energy to engage. And if we don’t identify that behavior change, no matter how trivial it seems, we are losing ALL the opportunity to improve.

Caring about quality means:

  • Showing work, neatly and completely, on every problem.
  • Not taking problems, even “easy” ones, for granted.
  • Identifying most common sources of error.

For most students, a focus on execution errors is the simplest way to improve their scores.

“I don’t know” is a FANTASTIC answer


Students learn to be afraid of “I don’t know” in school.

To students, “I don’t know” is being embarrassed when a teacher calls on them, or a bad grade on a test. Students look at their entire job as “to know” and, to them, “I don’t know” is a failure. To them, “I don’t know” means “I need to go talk to someone who does know and have them tell me the thing I need to memorize.”

Here is the problem: No matter how much your son or daughter prepares for the SAT, they are going to see problems that they don’t know how to solve. Their success is going to depend on how comfortable they are in saying, “I don’t know” and diving in and exploring what they do know, asking questions, and trying ideas.

This is especially difficult for more advanced students, since they are used to looking at tests and know how to answer all the questions, because they practiced those problems. It is not at all unusual for a student in calculus to underperform on the math section of the SAT. It is because that student is not used to seeing problems on a test that they don’t know how to solve right off the bat.

“What do I do when I see a problem I don’t know how to solve?” is a crucial skill for students to master. And while teaching creative problem solving is crucial, what is even more important is changing the energy around “I don’t know” from frustration to curiosity. The world is 99.999%+ “I don’t know”s and showing students that they are capable of independent thinking, analysis, synthesis, unlocks their limitless potential. Students that are paralyzed by “I don’t know” will never become the successful problem solvers that they CAN become.

The most successful people in life are the people who bravely and confidently dive into and solve the world’s “I don’t know”s. Showing students that they can bravely and confidently dive into the “I don’t knows” in their SAT prep (and on test day!) is an important step toward producing those brave and confident adults.

Having the right framing when you take on a difficult task, like improving SAT scores, is crucial. Knowing that the work you are doing is going to have a large and lasting positive impact on you is motivating. Motivation is crucial to ensure that students have the energy to push themselves hard in their SAT prep. Improving SAT scores is not a matter of listening to an instructor speak to you two hours per week. It takes consistent sustained effort. Students that find that effort meaningful will exert themselves more consistently than those who believe that the SAT is little more than a bureaucratic hoop to jump through.

-Vince

Call us at 858.551.2560 or email help@wellsacademics.com to discuss how we can help your family get the most our of the test prep process!

Study Skills Workshop

As parents, it’s heartbreaking to see our kids put so much time and effort into studying, but still not see the kind of success in their classes that they should. Do you see your child reacting to day to day homework assignments, and scrambling to put the pieces together to study a day or two before the test (or worse, surprised that a test is coming up in a do or two)?

We want to teach our kids that they will be successful if they work hard. But, as adults, we know that working hard, while very important, isn’t everything. We also need to work effectively.

Do your kids know how to study effectively?

In my experience as an academic coach for over 18 years, most students don’t.

Sure, they may have picked up some tips and tricks here and there. But that isn’t the same as having an overall learning strategy that can be changed and adapted as the need arises.

Our education system spends a lot of time and effort telling our kids what to learn, and precious little on how to learn, which, in the long run, is the far more important skill.

Wouldn’t it be great if your child could take a chapter/unit view of their courses, starting the weekend before a new unit begins, and confidently map out a strategy of what to do, day by day, to create the success they want to have on the test?

This is why I am so excited to offer our Summer Study Skills workshop. Students who go through this workshop go into the next school year more confident and more able to deal effectively with challenging classes.

In this workshop, your child will learn:

  • how to “activate” passive studying and get more engaged.
  • how to use visualization to make memory a superpower.
  • why studying starts before the unit begins, and how to prepare for lectures.
  • how to (and why) take notes they can use.
  • study cheat code: communicating with teachers outside of classtime:
  • how to use homework to study

And much much more.

The big picture: students are not victims of difficult classes or tough teachers. With a growth mindset (and of course, the right tools) your child can perform at a high level in any of their classes next year (and into college too!) Arm your kids with these tools and sign up for this workshop today!

Course info:

Weekly, 1 hour, weekly workshop. 8 weeks (week of 6/28-week of 8/16)
Day and Time: TBD (will fit schedules of participants)
Where: Online
Cost: $440 ($400 if paid by 6/15)
Students per workshop: Maximum of 6

Call 858.551.2560 or email help@wellsacademics.com to reserve your child’s spot!

“Getting Things Done: For Students” Summer Workshop

In my years working as an academic coach, I’ve realized more and more that the difficulties that students have in their classes are often not academic problems, but problems with organization, planning, and execution. At Wells Academic Solutions, we’ve been focussing more and more on providing support to students for these issues (in addition to academic support).

But it is tough to convince a student of the value of looking ahead to the next 2-3 weeks when they have a test tomorrow they are worried about, and they have late assignments to make up in another class. 

Our students can’t learn to plan if they have to keep reacting to emergencies (the result of poor planning skills themselves). It creates a cycle of frustration for students and parents. And sadly, though planning, organization, and executive function are crucial skills for success in school, they aren’t skills actually taught explicitly in school.

Which is why I’m excited about our “Getting Things Done: For Students” summer workshop! This is the third summer we’ve offered it. Every school year, we learn more about the things that students are struggling with, and every summer, we learn more about what ideas and techniques connect with students.

Outside of the day-to-day stress of school (like during the summer!), students are more free to focus on developing longer-term skills.

Topics covered include:

  • ”To-Don’ts”: As important as “To-do’s”. Identifying the bad habits that get in the way of accomplishing our goals and how to take steps to eliminate them.
  • Mind Dumps: Learning how to clear out a cluttered, overwhelmed mind, distill important information, and record that information to take action on later.
  • Ready State: How to create and maintain a mental framework and physical workspace ready to take on new responsibilities or assignments without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Goal setting: Learning how to set goals, both within the context of school/classes, and in terms of their development outside of school.
  • Planners: How to use planners effectively, and how to create a planner habit. We’ll cover both analog and digital.

Throughout it all, we’ll be discussing why planning is an important skill and the huge improvements in their lives planning can offer them, both now and for their futures.

Teens are transitioning from a stage in which their lives are planned for them to one in which they need to learn to take more and more responsibility and control so that they’ll become successful adults. We will help give them the tools to navigate their lives and futures in this course.

Course info:

Weekly, 1 hour, weekly workshop. 8 weeks (week of 6/28-week of 8/16)
Day and Time: TBD (will fit schedules of participants)
Where: Online
Cost: $440 ($400 if paid by 6/15)
Students per workshop: Maximum of 6

Call 858.551.2560 or email help@wellsacademics.com to reserve your child’s spot! We’re looking forward to helping them take control of their time and their futures.

-Vince

The “Five Why’s” process for test prep

Why do some students spend so much time studying and still underperform on their exams?

There are many reasons, but one underlies almost all of those ideas: passivity. People (not just students!) tend to do the easiest things that feel like progress. For example:

  • Language learners use Duolingo (easy/passive) rather than speaking to people in the language they want to learn (difficult/active).
  • Programming learners watch a tutorial video (easy/passive) rather than create a website (difficult/active).
  • Math learners by “looking over” homework problems (easy/passive) rather than working through new problems (difficult/active).
  • History learners study by reading the text (easy/passive) rather than taking notes on the text or answering review questions (difficult/active).

But even for the students who get to “doing” in their studies, almost all of them are missing something important. When students are practicing for a test by working through problems or answering practice test questions, in correcting their work, they usually ask just one question:

What is the correct answer?

Particularly diligent students might ask a second question:

Why is this the correct answer?

On a math problem, they will try to look over their work to see how the correct answer can be arrived at. On a biology question, they’ll look back through the text to the information that they needed to answer the problem correctly. Once they are satisfied that they see how to arrive at the correct answer, they move on.

This is an important process. But it is not enough. If it was, every student who watched a teacher work through a problem on the board would be acing their tests. Observing how to get a missed problem correct is not enough to ensure that the student will be able to get a different problem correct on a test.

There are two questions every student should be able to answer when they are reviewing a homework problem or practice test question that they missed:

  • Why did I miss this question?
  • What do I need to do differently in order to not make this mistake again?

If the student can’t answer these questions, they are not learning from the error they made in their practice. And these aren’t always easy questions to answer! An academic coach can be a very efficient way to help students answer these questions, but one technique that students can use to make sure they are digging down to the root causes of the error is the “Five ‘Why’s” technique.

What is the “Five Why’s” technique?

When you have a problem you need to get the root cause of, ask a “why” question. Then ask a “why” question about that answer. Ask a total of five “why” questions. Why five? No special reason for five. Four might be enough, and on some problems you might benefit from more. But five is a number that usually ensures you are pushing yourself and squeezing every ounce of value out of the question. 

Let’s say a student missed the following problem:

Most students (and most tutors) will say something like this:

The answer is ‘D’ because when you want to find the original value of something before percentages were applied, you have to divide by the percentage taken. For example, if you want to know 25% of what number is 70, you would divide 70 by .25. And when we take multiple percentages, we have to multiply or divide them one at a time, not add them.

Reading this feels like you are making progress. Oh, I know how to solve that problem now! a student will say. It will make sense to them. But they will NOT necessarily be able to apply that idea next time. So let’s try a more active, effortful approach that forces the student to go through the reasoning process themselves.

Here is what the “5 Why’s’” process might look like

Q1: Why did I pick A?
A1: Because she only paid 80%, and then added 8%, so .88 seemed like the obvious answer as it was the sum of these. I also thought that since we were taking a percentage of something, I should multiply the percentage, not divide.

Q2: Why did I add the percentages?
A2: Because I saw two percentages so I figured I could add them together.

Q3: Why did that not work?
A3: You can’t add those percentages together, you have to multiply each percentage. And multiplying by the percentages rather than dividing would lead to a lower original price, which doesn’t make sense.

Q4: Why do I have to divide p by the percents rather than multiply them?
A4: Because I’m not finding 88% of p. I’m finding 88% of some other number, which means I am multiplying .88 by that other number, not by p. So it is definitely not .88p.

Q5: Why did I not catch this mistake?
A5: I was rushing. I didn’t test my answer. I was confident in the answer.

Now the student, having gone through this questioning process, can answer the key questions:

Why did I miss this question?
Because I didn’t look at all of the answer choices. Because I rushed and picked the “obvious” answer.

What do I need to do differently in order to not make this mistake again?
Look over the other answers in the multiple choice problem, and test my answer.

These takeaways are the entire point of a student’s practice. If the student doesn’t get these, then solving the problem was almost pointless. It was focussing on actions rather than outcomes.

The “Five Why’s” is a great technique because it trains students to look for questions. Questions are the key to unlocking what students know, and help light the way to possible paths to explore. It certainly take more effort than reading an explanation of the answer. But if the objective is a student who can independently work through a variety of different problems, the “Five Why’s” technique will help them discover what is getting in the way.

How you can help

When students are studying for an exam, ask them to explain to you what they are studying, and get curious and ask them “Why” questions that dig down to the foundation of the question/concept. Even if you don’t understand the material they are studying, you will still be able to hear when your son or daughter is unsure (and more importantly, your son or daughter will.) If you son/daughter works with a tutor, listen in and see if the tutor is just “telling” the student the process, or if the tutor is helping the student ask questions to explore their process and understanding.

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