Work Smarter, Not Harder: Improve Exam Results

Travis DixonUncategorized

Work smarter, not harder: 

Improving exam results with a themantic approach

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to worry about exam results, and instead we could just focus on getting our students interested and engaged with what they’re learning about?

Thankfully I think adopting a themantic approach to teaching the IB Psych’ course can do both. There are a number of ways in which this approach can improve students’ exam performance, but in this post I’ll focus on three:

  1. Reducing content
  2. Increasing conceptual understanding
  3. Developing critical thinking skills, especially application

Reducing Content

When topics are treated as individual entities there is the very real possibility that chances for overlap are being overlooked. But we all lament at the extent of content we need to cover in this course. However, a carefully planned themantic approach can reduce the sheer amount of research that students need to remember, thus increasing the time to focus on developing other and more important skills.

If content can be reduced, revision time can be used more productively.


Increasing Conceptual Understanding

After learning about schema theory, I’d hope that students would be able to see the benefits of the themantic approach in that it aims to develop conceptual understandings through the development of schematic frameworks.

Take this example of two possible topics:

  • Prejudice


  • Social Identity Theory

Which one will activate more schema in students? After a bit of discussion, I would imagine that students have a far greater schematic framework for prejudice than they do for Social Identity Theory. By teaching SIT in the context of origins of stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, we’re suddenly giving students some real life examples on which to base the abstract concepts of SIT. Moreover, we’re hitting topics the core and the options at the same time, reducing content.

When it comes to revising for exams, students won’t be trying to memorize fragmented pieces of studies and theories but will (hopefully) have a deeper understanding of the connections between these studies and theories and what they demonstrate.



Developing Skills of Application

If you’ve read more than half a dozen student exam answers, you’ll know that a common weakness in many students’ work is their inability to apply research and make it relevant to a question. I believe this can be improved through the themantic approach.

By planning our lessons around a prescribed exam question (which is what the LOs/topics are) we’re inherently asking them to try to fit their understanding of what they’re learning to that question. The problem with this is that it doesn’t necessarily facilitate the process of understanding the research first, which is key in being able to apply it to a new context.

I read an interesting study recently in a review for a new book called, “The Gardener and the Carpenter” (I’ll post about this soon). In the review they describe a study where a teacher walks into a room and shows kids how to play with a toy. In the other condition, the teacher accidentally bumps into the toy. In both conditions the teacher leaves the room and the kids are observed. In the first condition the way the kids play with the toy is rather limited to how they’ve been shown. In the second condition there is more imagination and the kids explore the toy in a wider variety of ways than the other group.

I think this is a good metaphor for approaching learning in the Psychology classroom. Throw the students the toys (what we call building blocks, in the themantic model) and let them play with them (e.g. found out what they mean). They’ll stop thinking about each piece of study as being relevant to a particular exam question and will begin seeing for themselves how research can be applied to multiple different areas.

Of course, they’ll still need practice later with how to express this in writing and how to apply their understanding to a specific question, but their understanding, I believe, will be deeper and so this facilitation of the critical thinking skills will be easier.