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A recent study in The Journal of Neuroscience shows that knowing basic math facts – stuff like 7+5=12 – results in higher scores by high school seniors on the PSAT (a common form of the familiar SAT college prep test).

Even though the math problems on the PSAT are much more complicated than basic arithmetic, those students who could automatically recall basic arithmetic facts were able to solve difficult PSAT math problems more easily than students who had to think to generate basic facts. The less-successful students used a part of the brain involved in effortful problem solving more than the students who were most successful. They had to think harder more of the time.

Researchers were a bit surprised. One would think that using higher level thinking more would result in more correct answers. But this was not the case. Students who had memorized basic facts for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division so that they didn’t have to think much at all to retrieve those facts used complex brain areas less and got the right answers to complex questions more often.

This should make us all stop and think. Even though calculators are easily accessible, children shouldn’t rely on them. It’s important that the old-fashioned work of memorizing math facts continue. Kids do better in math when they achieve fluency with basic facts and can remember them automatically.

Many of us who memorized facts as third and fourth graders now reach for the calculator to answer questions like, “What’s 7 times 8?” But we should be careful. Letting ourselves – and our older children and teens – rely on a machine for basic facts makes us all not so smart. It’s often the little things that make the difference between a solid entrance exam result and a not-so-good one. One of those little things appears to be a poor memory for easy math.

And, of course, it’s not just college entrance that matters. Solutions to everyday problems rely on what kids learn in grade-school. Skills like spelling and basic facts matter.

Has your child practiced her basic facts today?

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Now that school is well underway, you may have noticed that your child is doing less-well on exams than you think she should. You think she knows the material but she’s just not being successful on tests. You’re worried, of course.

Taking exams successfully is a skill, just like everything else. A person isn’t born knowing how to do it. And the idea that exams are somehow “experience-neutral” – that it doesn’t matter how much a person knows about how to take a test as much as it matters that he knows what’s on the test – is just bunk. Of course knowledge of a test’s content is important. But a student has to know how to display that knowledge. She has to know how to take a test.

Good test-taking starts with good preparation. Most children don’t understand the cause-and-effect connection between practice and exam results. They don’t realize that studying – and studying effectively – are key activities. So you can help your child study for exams better in five ways:

1. Incremental study. Help your child to study a little bit every day, especially in areas he’s not done well in the past. Little by little works far better than cramming.

2. Frequent review. Every so often – maybe once a week – have a review session. What are the big ideas presented in the class so far? What areas is the child still fuzzy on?

3. Take practice tests. If practice tests are available – as they are for the SAT, ACT, and entrance to many private schools – use them. If your child stumbles over spelling tests, tests of multiplication facts, and other rote learning, make up your own practice tests.

4. Create your own test questions. As part of your child’s weekly review, ask her to create some questions that might be on the next test. If she were the teacher, what would she ask? Your child can create a test for you to take, letting her be the examiner and you be the student.

5. Review test results. It’s a temptation to just stuff quiz results into the Trapper Keeper and just move on without looking at what went right and what went wrong. But if improving test-taking is the goal, your child has to figure out how he’s getting the grades he’s getting. Sitting down together and going over a quiz is the only way to learn.

All of this works best when you keep things light and unstressful. Remember that you’re teaching important skills, not taking your child to task. If you’re teaching, it’s assumed that he doesn’t know, so it’s not fair to be judgmental.

Whether you’ve helped your child with test-taking skills or not, you can help him do better on exams just by being positive. There’s a big emotional component to any achievement. The old saying, “If you think you can, you can but if you think you can’t your right!” is true. Believing you can do it is essential.

So ahead of a big test help your child with these five preparations:

1. Treat her as if she’s in training. Any test requires clear thinking and stamina and that means good health. So just as if she had a big game to prepare for, ahead of a big exam focus on good nutrition, plenty of rest, and lots of outdoor play. Did you know that sleep is essential to memory and learning? Make sure she’s getting her sleep.

2. Make last-minute review positive. The night before a big test is not the time to focus on negatives. So go over what your child knows and is confident of and don’t worry about cramming in what he doesn’t know. Make any last-minute review a positive experience.

3. Give him a lucky charm. You might not call it that, but you know what I mean – a talisman, something to give him comfort and support when his courage starts to fail. It could be a “lucky coin,” a religious medal, some sort of superhero action figure (make sure he won’t get in trouble for bringing toys to school), or, for an older child, an inspirational saying on a piece of paper. Something he can tuck in a pocket. Why not?

4. Give her a mental blank slate. Remember that “past performance is not an indicator of future results.” Just because math or English or whatever has bedeviled your child in the past is no reason to think that today will be the same. Instead of reminding her that she has to do better than last time, as she walks out the door to school, tell her that she’s going to have a great day and you’ll be thinking of her.

5. Avoid adding pressure. It’s tempting to try to motivate a child with promises of money, gifts, or concert tickets if he does well this time. But this is almost certain to backfire. Instead of focusing your child’s mind, it will distract him with anxious thoughts about how much he wants the reward and how much he fears he won’t get it. At the same time, of course, don’t try to motivate your child with punishment for a poor showing. Again, this doesn’t motivate; instead it sabotages success.

Keep in mind that your child is not you. Certainly you want her to do well, but you cannot make her do well. You cannot take her tests for her. Your role is one of teacher, guide, supporter and cheerleader.

Fill those roles to the best of your ability. That’s the best way to help your child.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.