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Lesson 22: Practice is Key to Understanding

You’ve probably heard that

Practice makes perfect.

Is this true? Well, it depends on how you do it. Practice just for the sake of practice is not enough to gain perfect marks in the exams. Here’s a simple example. Most teachers complete the syllabus for Mathematics Paper 1 in Lower Six itself. Now, suppose that you do 50 P1 past papers in the November/December holidays between Lower Six and Upper Six, but you don’t practice any P1 paper after that. Is this a good strategy? No! The benefits of practice do not last for very long if you don’t keep practising. This is why pro athletes train almost every day. Suppose Ronaldo and Messi stop playing football for a year. Will they remain as good as they are now, after that one year without any practice? Of course not! The same goes for you. To become a Laureate, you should upgrade the previous saying to

Continuous Practice makes perfect.

Think of practice as a medical pill. To follow a health treatment properly, you need to take prescribed doses of your medication at regular intervals for a designated period of time. What happens if you take all your pills in one go? You’ll probably experience more severe health issues due to the overdose. What happens if you don’t take your pills at all? You won’t experience any improvement in your health. What happens if you don’t take your pill every day, as instructed by your doctor? The treatment won’t be effective. Practice works in the same way. In fact,

Practice is the magic pill you need to obtain full marks in your exams. However, as with all pills, it needs to be taken regularly and in appropriate doses.

Remember the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve from a previous lesson? If you analyse it closely enough, you’ll soon realise the benefits of regular, consistent practice in terms of memorisation and effective learning.

Unfortunately, many students are scared of practising questions because they are afraid of making mistakes. If you’ve understood the topic about the importance of learning from your mistakes, you know better! You know that mistakes are essential in the learning process. You may view mistakes as a side effect of taking the practice pill. When you start a treatment, you might feel a lot of pain or discomfort at the beginning because your body is not used to the pill. However, as the days go by, your body starts getting used to it, and you no longer experience such issues. Side effects can be good, bad, or awesome! For instance, you are probably aware that Spiderman got his powers as the result of a side effect of a spider bite. This is an impressive side effect, right? The same goes for mistakes! If you truly understand the power of mistakes, they’ll become an extremely beneficial side effect of practice. However, as Spiderman’s uncle said:

With great power comes great responsibility.

The more you practice, the more mistakes you are going to make. The more mistakes you make, the more power you get. However, it is your responsibility to use this power productively and not waste it. Detailed instructions on how to harness this power have been given in a previous lesson, so we shall not repeat them here. Instead, I’ll show you how you should view practice. Most students think of practice as something that needs to be done after they have fully understood a particular topic. They believe that practice comes after understanding because it’s a way to consolidate what they’ve learnt. However, this is not the case.

Practice is a vital part of the understanding process. It’s not something that should be done after.

Here’s the thing:

You cannot claim to fully understand a topic if you have not had enough practice with it.

Here’s another thing:

You will never be able to explain a topic to that 10-year old kid if you’ve not had enough practice first.

So, you should never delay practice. The best time to start practising is NOW! Here’s a sample step-by-step strategy you could use for each topic:

Step 1

Use the teacher’s explanations, notes, textbooks, YouTube videos and online articles to gain an overview of the topic.

Step 2

Make sure you concisely note down all the essential information from all the sources. This will help you build robust reference materials for the topic.

Step 3

Look at worked examples and try to do them on your own. This should be very easy because you’ve already seen all the steps. All you need to do is understand them and replicate them on your own.

Step 4

Practice the easiest/most fundamental questions you can find. Feel free to use your references, if needed. This will act as “warm-up” for your real “workout” of practising exam questions. This is the first real step of your practice journey, so, if practice usually scares you, this will be the most important step for you.

Step 5

Practice a range of exam questions from the topic. These should include both straightforward questions and more advanced ones. You may still use your references if you want to.

Step 6

Practice exam questions without looking at your references/notes. As before, make sure you practice both easy and hard questions.

Step 7

Practice exam questions without looking at your notes and record how much time you spend per question. Ideally, the amount of time you spend per question should be proportionate to the number of marks allocated to it. For example, suppose the total number of marks for a Mathematics Paper 1 exam is 75. Also, assume that the time limit is 135 minutes. So, on average, you should spend no more than (135 divided by 75) 1.8 minutes per mark. For example, suppose you are doing a 10 marks question. You should aim to spend no more than (1.8 times 10) 18 minutes on it. Don’t worry if you can’t manage it yet. Just keep practising until you can do them quickly enough. This is all part of the learning process. Nobody gets it right on the first time, not even Laureates. So, be patient and keep persevering.

Ideally, most (if not all) of the questions you practice should come from C.A.I.E. Past Papers. Books that classify questions based on the topic are excellent resources for such practice. However, if you don’t have them, you can still look at past papers and pick questions from the topic you are currently working on. You’ll want to tackle exam questions as soon as possible. You should not wait for the teacher to complete the entire syllabus to start practising them. Whenever you reach step 5, you should begin tackling exam questions. No excuses!

Once you’ve satisfactorily completed steps 1-7, for each topic in a paper, you will be ready to do an entire past paper. Again, assuming you’ve followed steps 1-7, here’s a 3-step sample strategy to tackle past papers.

Step 1

Complete past papers while allowing yourself to use your notes.

Step 2

Complete past papers without looking at your notes.

Step 3

Complete past papers without looking at your notes and under exam conditions (i.e. under the time limit)

Remember that you should do past papers regularly and in appropriate doses. It’s up to you to determine how many past papers you want to do, say, per week. Just make sure you stay consistent with what you are doing. I recommend starting small and gradually building up from there. Also, remember to use your Mistakes Sheets all the time! This is how you’ll become perfect. Thus, a final upgrade to the saying should be:

Continuous practice makes perfect, only if you learn from ALL your mistakes and do not repeat them.

Note that these are all sample strategies. They should work on most subjects. However, you might want to tailor them, according to your subject. You might also want to modify them entirely if they don’t suit your purpose. The idea is to come up with a strategy that works for you! What works for others might not necessarily work for you. Always remember this!

Nonetheless, regardless of which subjects you are studying, the Key Takeaway is:

Start Practising NOW!

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