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The "Five Why's" process for test prep
  • Calendar May 28, 2021
  • User Vincent Perry
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

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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