Recently, I watched an inspiring online talk by physics genius, Jacob Barnett. He struck a chord with me when talking about education and his message was a simple one; study less and think more. At first, I was a little stunned at his blatancy in advocating students to effectively ‘stop learning’ but, post-contemplation, I realised that he was right on a number of levels.
He was right in that privatised exam boards, soft-marking, tough-marking and a host of other blunders have forced exams to become, for many, a somewhat dull, mindless rite of passage rather than an opportunity to show-off what you know and substantiate your education.
Learn, learn, and learn is what seems to fill lessons and come exam season, it’s more of the same stuff. Robotically we plod on and load our minds with information, be it a quadratic formula or a French monologue. The problem is we do very little with this knowledge. We simply regurgitate such information stylistically in ‘our own words’ and this seems to be a pretty effective method in exams, right? Enter Jacob with the curveball; what do you do when the unexpected happens, when you are faced with a really hard question? Increasing student outcries, Facebook campaigns and twitter protests trend this time of year with hundreds of students expressing their outrage at paper errors, tricky problems and downright ‘unfair’ exam questions. Currently, a challenging 2015 Maths GCSE Edexcel question is the talk of twitter.
Thus, a learning-only strategy may work most of the time, but we inhibit ourselves in a number of ways. Firstly, we become unaccustomed to problem-solving. This means we are not used to dealing with questions that really force us to think. Secondly, we forget how to apply ourselves. Barnett points out that when it comes to real worldwide issues, it is not learning but thinking which drives progress and creative innovation. It is this kind of skill which we should be honing. Learning is something we are born doing as exemplified in language and imitation, whereas thinking is driven by ‘higher’ executive functions in the brain.
Thinking is also highly beneficial in exam conditions for three reasons. It prepares you more effectively to answer those tricky curve-ball questions, aids revision and stimulates interest. Many studies on memory demonstrate that we tend to remember the information which is most salient to us. This means that thinking more deeply about topics makes you more likely to remember them. I have found this to be especially true with maths as it is much easier to recall formulas and solve complex problems when you really have contemplated about what you are learning. For more guidance visit our maths tutor page here. Thirdly, all this thinking means you are much more likely to be enthusiastic about your subject AND exam!
This advice may sound obvious, but analysis on the behaviour of a typical student demonstrates that we often forget or don’t make time to think more on the subjects we study. From personal experience, students are likely to learn information religiously. But learning is an innate process; it’s something we all do, even if merely through observation. Students often waste revision time learning on autopilot (it takes, on average, 20 minutes for the brain to default into this mode) rather than using time more effectively. Depending too heavily on learning can be a trap in exam prep., especially as tests are only becoming harder. This is not to say that learning is not important, but rather that we should consolidate its process; Learn, think and test. I believe that this mantra can pave the way to greater efficiency in revision, exam success and educational fulfilment.
In essence, deep thinking is key.