Studying, stress, and sleep: Re-evaulating how we learn


In the most fun classes I’ve had in my life, we had very difficult and stressful tests every two weeks, all of which counted the same for the final grade, and each had the same grade as the final exam. Doesn’t this sound beautiful? To make it sound even nicer, I should add that such classes were advanced Calculus.

Alright. I do I know that this might sound like a nightmare to many, but for once, I’m being serious. The continuous method of evaluation worked. It meant that we had to form a study group that met every week or two in order to revise the material and prepare for the exams. The stress was spread out through the semester, so it did not seem too much to handle at any specific point in time. It was very easy for us students to identify the topics we were struggling with the most, and as classes usually build upon previous knowledge, we could get help as soon as we were tested for something we did not fully understand. Best of all, when we did have the final exam, we felt confident and better prepared, since our final grade was almost entirely set and we already experts on what we were evaluated upon.

At IE, we should follow the same logic. Evaluation methods at IE can be much improved by increasing the periodicity of graded examinations, as a means of improving sleep and alleviating stress, while at the same time helping students improve their time management and detect their weak spots earlier.

I came to realize the strength and simplicity of this idea during this summer while reading Why We Sleep, a wonderful book by Matthew Walker. He is a neuroscientist who specializes in sleep, and the message in his book is quite clear: sleep is of the utmost importance for our wellbeing. Sleep is particularly crucial for learning, as it consolidates memories and stores them for the long term. A teacher himself, Walker questioned the usefulness of having cumulative final exams, for which students constantly under slept in order to cram the material of the entire course into their heads. Walker says it best: testing students over less content is “a tried-and-true effect in the psychology of memory, described as mass versus spaced learning” (2017). The best way to learn is doing so by chunks, instead of all in one go. Sadly, with the current system of final exams, this is most often not the case, and that is partly why we are so quick to forget what we learn for them.

Let me introduce a useful analogy to assert the importance of periodic tests. I worked with my father this summer in the factory he manages, which applies fashion and textile processes to denim. While the company was redesigning its supply chain model, they mentioned the importance of detecting problems early in the production line. If something goes wrong when washing a pair of jeans, on step one, then it’s better to know it as soon as possible, and not when the pair of jeans is already in the final revision before going to the client. This is for the obvious reason that the earlier a problem is detected, the earlier it can be corrected. Why don’t we do the same with learning? Testing students once or twice means that teachers won’t really know what we are struggling with until after the course is finished. Likewise, students won’t really feel the need to clarify doubts and issues straight away, making it more difficult for us to follow the rest of the class content.

Evaluations don’t all have to look like traditional tests; they can definitely be integrated with participation and engaging class activities. For example, by cold calling students, teachers can evaluate if students are keeping up with the class content, be it by asking a question about the assigned readings or asking to briefly explain the main takeaways of the last class. Similarly, small essays that must be turned in at the end of a class can serve as a way to test how much students were actually following the class. Depending on the nature of the class, oral exams could also be employed. The types of tests don’t matter. As long as they are periodic, tests will encourage students to constantly be up to date with the class material and learn the content deeply and thoroughly.

If there really needs to be a final exam, its goal should be to determine whether students learned the basic, big ideas of the course, which is what students are actually expected to learn for the medium and long term. The other exams and evaluations can be more difficult and nuanced, since they cover less content and the material is still fresh in our minds. What’s key is that the other evaluations are assigned a significant weight with regard to the final grade, in order for students to take them seriously and actually be motivated to constantly follow the class.

The effectiveness of having periodic exams on just a few sessions instead of the entire course has been tested and proven. Applying this relatively simple change would greatly improve the students’ motivation and performance in classes as a result of both practical considerations, such as an earlier detection of misunderstood concepts, and biological ones, such as the prevention of the damaging effects of a lack of sleep and lots of stress while learning.

Source: Walker, Matthew (2017). Why We Sleep (p. 156). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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