School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Best Practices for the SAT, Autism, and Life

In Toughest Exam Question: What Is The Best Way To Study, the Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger examines a growing body of research on how to prepare for high-stakes tests, such as the SAT or college exams. In reviewing these findings, I was immediately struck by the similarity between best study practices and effective instructional strategies for students with autism. Our oldest son has autism; much of what I talk about below is based on our experience with him and students like him.

Practice, Practice and Practice Some More: Research shows that students perform better on exams when they practice (and practice and practice) retrieving and applying the knowledge from their short-term memory. At the end of studying, students should be able to explain the topic from start to finish from memory. One student described taking 30 practice SAT tests this way: “I just took it over and over again, until it became almost aggravating.”

For students with autism practicing targeted skills across settings is a critical piece of any academic or therapeutic plan. A targeted skill is considered “mastered” when it can be repeated without prompts across settings for consecutive trials (e.g., responding to simple requests from different adults). In special education plans, targeted skills typically must be demonstrated by the student with accuracy over multiple trials (e.g., fluency in reading text or math operations). At times this can be frustrating, because the student might demonstrate the skill, but only sporadically. The repetition ensures generalization of the skill. Many students with autism also need more time on task. They can master a skill, but just need a lot more practice.

Sleep Well and Eat Well: Pulling all-nighters before tough exams (still) doesn’t work; in fact it’s linked to lower grades. Neither does waking up earlier than usual to study. What does work is reviewing the most challenging materials right before going to sleep. Eating well up to a week before a test also resulted in better performance by test takers.

For students with autism time alone to recharge is vital for learning and overall well-being. Put simply, living with autism is tiring. You spend much of your energy navigating a world that, at times, can feel overwhelming. Social situations are tricky. Processing what others are saying and doing is challenging. You spend extraordinary effort trying to figure out what the rest of the world takes for granted. At school our son has learned to ask for a break if he needs one. After school he takes a 30-minute break with no interruptions. He enjoys long hikes, and uses the time to recharge.  We also try not to overschedule him with multiple activities. 

No Noise is Good Noise: Contrary to what practically every teen says, students do not study better while listening to music, texting friends or engaging in multiple forms of information juggling. Research shows that teens who listened to music while performing basic tests of recall and categorization performed worse than teens who took the same tests with no distractions.

For students with autism keeping distractions to a minimum helps with focus and attention. Students with autism process language and information differently; this means their brains are again working overtime to filter and categorize materials in a meaningful way. Some students benefit from using headphones to eliminate background noise. Other students need help with visual organization; using notecards to block out extraneous information on a worksheet or textbook can help. Other students might need to sit at the front or back of a classroom to keep distractions to a minimum.

A doctor once described the autism brain this way: A typical brain is like a large filing cabinet. You open up the drawers in any situation and pull out the information you need. Or you put information in the relevant drawer or file. This all happens automatically.

The autism brain has the same filing cabinet, but the filing system is random and disorganized. So imagine opening up files with a recipe for your favorite cookies, but that’s right next to multiplication tables you need to know for a test tomorrow, and the multiplication tables are filed next to the “how to make your bed” file, and that’s filed next to what you are supposed to do when someone on the bus bothers you (e.g., “ask an adult for help”). It’s a monumental task to sort through such a disorganized filing system every time to find the right response. That’s why it helps to keep external distractions to a minimum.

I’m Nervous. I Need A Visual: Research shows that 35% of students are so nervous before a high-stakes test that it impacts their performance. Mental strategies that rely on using visuals can help, such as the student imagining she is a basketball player scoring the winning basket. Other visual strategies include visiting the test site in advance, or writing down and reviewing a list of stress triggers.

For students with autism visuals are a highly effective way of previewing stressful situations. If the student is transitioning to a new classroom, a visit beforehand, preferably during off-hours, pays huge dividends. The student can see what his/her new environment will be like. That gives them an image to store in their brain. Writing down “things I like/things I don’t like” about a new situation also helps the student work through his/her anxiety. If there is a major event coming up, previewing it frequently by talking about it also helps.

Whether it’s going to a new school or taking the SAT, life is filled with high-stress, high-stakes situations. That’s why teaching these coping and studying strategies on the front end can reap big dividends over the long term, both in school and in life.

Beth T. Sigall

November 1, 2011

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