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Spaced repetition and making my students master biology

    The reason why a tutor can be more effective than a school teacher is because we can control our student’s learning by spaced repetition of content.

    In contrast, a school teacher is busy with admin work, presiding over student’s co-curricular activities, organizing school level events, attending meetings in and outside of school etc.

    As a tutor, I don’t do much else except to teach and also curate the best flow of content within a class.

    Outside of teaching, I spend time profiling my students, updating my teaching materials and thinking how I can bring my teaching to the next level.

    Why the school teaching is not effective

    In most schools, their teachers frequently split class time between lectures, tutorials and practicals.

    Majority of these sessions revolves around understanding content.

    In tuition classes, whilst I allocate a portion of time with students for that, I also spend time repeating, emphasizing memorization and rote learning adapting certain memory techniques helpful for my students.

    When students flip between the 2 realms of learning do they finally gain subject fluency.

    Teachers are setting their students up for failure if they only focused on understanding-centered learning.

    This is bad because most students don’t have photographic memory.

    Almost all my students gain understanding as I talk about the topic at hand. However, the understanding can quickly slip away and the students have to start from ground zero again without practice and spaced repetition.

    So when the big exams come, these students are not ready because they are learning to understand the material but unable to gain fluency to use it in novel situations in examinations.

    It’s no wonder hearing a new (failing) student recently remarked to me, ‘I don’t understand how I could’ve done so badly, I understood what my teacher taught in class!

    What is spaced repetition?

    It is revisiting the subject material repeatedly but separated by a period of time in each instance right before the students forget.

    It is much like once the car that is moving, the moment it slows down, pump the accelerator a little and it quickly gets up to speed.

    This is in contrast to cramming, which is rote memorization right before an exams.

    Cramming is proven to be very short term and does not translate to long term memory 👇🏻

    YouTube video

    Even worse, the student will have to spend a lot of time doing it. For difficult exams like the Singaporean A levels that I talk about, it is not possible therefore to be able to cover the entire material within a short period of time and remembering everything.

    So poor performance ensues.

    The main reason for the poor performance is that the student only recognizes the fact they should know using cramming. Recognition is not the same as recall.

    And the latter is what spaced repetition enhances.

    How to use spaced repetition in exam preparations?

    Fortunately there is an app for this.

    The anki app is something my past students have success with.

    Where you create a set of digital cards filling them up with a variety of facts covering the subject you learn.
    spaced repetition
    The app registers the correct and incorrect responses to these cards and identifies which card is causing problems.

    It then pushes the card with correct responses further back and increase the frequency of problem cards instead.

    Over time this helps students to effectively commit concepts into long term memory.

    YouTube video

    Why spaced repetition is important in exam performance

    If students use spaced repetition successfully, they will have easy access to the concepts.

    When they encounter novel scenarios in exams, they can quickly tap on the concepts easily using it to answer questions.

    This is also known as chunking.

    In contrast, students who use cramming are much slower in response as they try to search for the facts. As such, the preoccupation prevents them from analyzing the novel situation at hand.

    A standard A level biology paper has a lot of questions but students have a short amount of time to complete it. So its clear which preparation technique is superior.

    Tips for executing spaced repetition

    First, not all subjects can benefit from the use of spaced repetition.

    Biology is suitable because it is content heavy but conceptually lighter versus physics or organic chemistry which is the opposite.

    Second, because a student taking A levels is extremely busy, it is hard to sit through a deck with few hundred cards at a go.

    My suggestion is to break it into chunks during the down times such as when you are eating, commuting, waiting in line, going from 1 building to another etc. And they add up!

    Know that even working through only a few cards within a minute, you are already enhancing your content memory.

    Third, work on the anki decks every day!

    Yes, indeed it sounds like a lot of work. However if you fall behind, then the algorithm that anki is built on will not be effective.

    If you do fall behind, dedicate a few days purely to catch up.

    Fourth, do not spend too much time on the anki decks if you are already regularly using it!

    Anything beyond 60 minutes without rest will saturate your brain and means you will not remember. Breaking it up into multiple sessions a day will be a better bet for developing memory.

    In addition, this will complement the Pomodoro technique I talk about and personally use really well.

    Fifth, the key idea of spaced repetition is recall not recognition.

    So if you fail to recall even though the card contents look familiar, be honest and mark it as incorrect attempt.

    Finally, before you attempt to start a deck make sure you already understand the concepts.

    If you do not understand the underlying concepts is better to sort that out first before attempting spaced repetition.

    In such scenarios start work on those decks on those topics you already know well.

    Tips for settings in the anki app

    In most circumstances, the default settings in the anki app will suffice.

    However, you may also want to fine tune the settings to give you an optimum speed of learning (especially those with exams round the corner!!!).

    The video below is a handy overview 👇🏻

    YouTube video


    If you still have some time now before the major exams are coming up, you should quickly create these cards and start exam preparations.

    The earlier you do, the more likely the facts are in long term memory.

    And therefore the more benefits translate during exams.

    I have created a set for my students for their convenience and can be accessed HERE. Doing it so that my students can vastly speed up their preparations.

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