Improving Cognition

imagesThe Oxford English dictionary defines “cognition” as “The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” The acquisition of knowledge requires attention, focus,  and rigor, yet many (if not most) students manage to reach the end of their “formal” education without ever learning HOW to improve these qualities.  Many memorize material to spit back on a test without fully understanding what they’ve “learned.”

For too many students, their first real assessment of this learning occurs upon their first standardized exam (SAT, ACT).  Until receiving their exam results, students and their parents have viewed their competitive standings according to subjective and very local school experiences.  I am continually perplexed by what my capable high school students DON’T remember. For example, many students enrolled in advanced math can’t  calculate a simple percent change or insure that subjects and predicates agree. These are elementary concepts that they should carry with them for a lifetime without benefit of an electronic device.   A rude awakening so late in the students’ educational career seems unfair and unnecessary.

So, how can parents prepare their children for this testing reality?   One way is to help student train the cognitive skills that support the mastery of course material. A number of important techniques and exercises can help students develop organizational skills, maximize focus and memory, manage test anxiety, and practice.  In fact, Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist, contends that exceptional performance usually requires what he refers to as “deliberate practice,”  which occurs when an expert coach takes someone through well-designed training over months or years. Of course, the trainee must give the practice his full concentration.  Having the grit to continue deliberate practice that demands continuous improvements is essential for maximizing student learning as well as performance.

In a culture  where much of the gratification is instant and grade inflation is rampant, preparing for standardized exams might stand out as a particularly useful grit training vehicle. While test scores are certainly not an end in themselves, they are part of a process that, like training to beat a personal best in a road race, encourages someone to continue the arduous workouts even when she doesn’t feel like it.


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