Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mugging vs understanding: which is a better exam strategy?

Mugging - memorising whole chunks of your textbook without necessarily understanding it - can be a good strategy to use in school. No matter what the question is, you probably can regurgitate a suitable answer.

On the other hand, understanding the underlying intuition behind a concept helps you appreciate the idea better, which could prove useful in an exam.

Which is the better strategy?



To find out, I tapped on the OECD PISA database. The PISA is an international study that evaluates education systems worldwide every three years. In this study, 15 year-olds take a reading, maths, and science test. On top of that, they fill in a survey which asks a number of questions including, as you guessed, questions about how they study.

Here we focus on two questions. First, to what extent do students memorise as many details as possible? Responses include "almost never", "sometimes", "often", and "almost always'. For Singapore, majority of students cite "often", while about a quarter cite "almost always".

As the chart below - showing the average score for each response - shows, the higher the degree of mugging, the lower scores tend to be!

Source: OECD PISA

Secondly, students were also asked whether they checked if they understood what they read. Again, majority of students listed "often", and a third replied "almost always". In terms of grades, we see an entirely opposite effect - students who try to understand their material tend to have higher scores across all subjects.

Source: OECD PISA

Is mugging necessarily a bad strategy? An alternative, and entirely feasible explanation is that weaker students tend to mug, and hence the lower grades. This means mugging is a sign of weakness, not a source. A more elaborate study can explain this better, but for now, it's mostly good news if you see your child/student/yourself trying to understand and not memorise the textbook.

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