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FARMIPS: the practice of champions

October 8, 2010

Final exams. Say this to your students, and they get the willies. This is the worst time for a high school student. Five days of testing that challenge even the most resilient student, and twist the most growth minded kid into memorization monster who sleeps with her chemistry flashcards, reads her spanish notes over breakfast and starts almost every conversation with “I am so stressed.”

This has always fascinated me, because there’s a very similar moment for kids in sports—the state championship. But here, kids are poised, psyched and resilient. They relish the extra practice, don’t even think of taking a shortcut, and approach the last game of the season, when so much is on the line with a sense of joy, and usually, no matter the result of the game, come away with a real sense of satisfaction. And oddly, this happens in some of the AP classes I’ve witnessed, where teacher set the AP out as the “championship game” and kids go all stand and deliver on it (heck, I remember doing this myself).

So how is it that kids approach these two championship moments in completely different ways? Grades are a huge part of it, but I think there’s more to it, and for the past few years, I’ve been trying to develop some strategic ways to get my kids thinking more like champion athletes about how they approach their exams, and to do this, I’ve taken a few tips from Cal Newport. Here are a couple of his posts that inspired me the most in developing my exam prep regimen:

I start by asking my students the question I started this post off with—why are students rock solid in the state championship game, but fall apart during exams? And then I tell them I want them to view the this exam as the state championship. Would they do extra practice for the state championship? Sure—but it wouldn’t be going through the motions of making notecards—it would be a step up from “everyday” practice. And I say this is why we’re talking about the final exam now—10 weeks in advance, since this is what championship teams do.

I then explain the concept of building a Final Assessment Review Mega-Insight Problem Set (FARMPIS). The goal is to take on seriously challenging problems that push you to develop deep insight, rather than just plug numbers into formulas, problems that make you figure out which concepts you need to solve. If you can do this, and then practice re-solving the problems from scratch, students will walk into the final with the confidence of a champion athlete.

Although I firmly believe doing a FARMIPS is it’s own reward, I’ve decided to incentivize students to create it by offering up to 5 points on their exam grade for completing a problem set that takes 10-15 hours of work. When I tried this last year, I found that the key to doing this is really giving the kids hard problems that push them to synthesize multiple concepts, figure out what the question is testing on their own, rather than letting them make up their own problems based on the concept lists (this ends up being a bit too easy, and doesn’t really develop deep insight). But regardless, I found that students who completed a FARMIPS significantly outperformed their peers (this year, I’ll take some better data to present), and doing this really became a source of pride for lots of kids, especially some kids who didn’t quite see themselves as top science students, and the word FARMIPS became a part of the school lexicon.

Here’s the handout that describes how to create a FARMIPS

View this document on Scribd

Here’s the first set of FARMIPS questions I gave out today.

View this document on Scribd

In the future, I’ll write about our other strategies we use to prepare for exams, including setting up a study/sleep plan for exam week, and a final exam postmortem.

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