The Classical-Charlotte Mason Way to Pass a Test, by Cheryl Floyd

Why do we still stress over tests? Why are we still tempted to use them as a meaningful way to assess retention or understanding? I don’t know. I don’t have the cure either, but I certainly do still have the bug.

Recently, I was introduced to a method of notetaking called “Cornell Notetaking”. This method seems to speak to and weave together several aspects of learning, studying, and assessing that we are concerned with inside classical education. You can listen to a brief overview of the method below.

After attending a class and taking notes, one would expect to retain about 40% of the content if assessed around seven days later. However, if students or conference attendees, or church attendants were to review their notes within 10 minutes, their seven-day retention rate increases by 20%! If they reviewed again within 24 hours, they would get a net increase of 30%. And if they fit in one more review session by the seventh day, the overall retention rate would be a whopping 90%! Who doesn’t want a return investment like that? But how do you fit all those review sessions into a week before a test?

At a conference there isn’t enough time between sessions for me to go to the next seminar, use the bathroom, get a drink, AND review my notes – I usually try to do a scan that evening if possible. When the service is over at church, I have to pick up my children right away and get to lunch: my family is hungry! I certainly don’t have time to review my notes then. I miss the magic “ten-minute mark” by the time I get home, eat, and sit down.

As I contemplated how this could work for me in my own situations as a Circe apprentice, a conference attendee, but especially as a homeschooling mother of six, I realized I have been taught two value models that include that initial review: narration and the mimetic sequence.


Narration to the Rescue!

Charlotte Mason really knew what she was doing. She had paid close attention for many years to many students to understand that narration works wonders, if you work it. The key to using this vital tool is to choose the right book and the right amount of time in which to ask. This is the grammar of read-aloud. As you read you stop to ask, what did I just read, or what is happening so far? And when you are finished reading you ask for a summary  – a REVIEW. The next day, before you continue your read-aloud time, you will perform your second review: what happened yesterday, or what did we read yesterday. If you are still reading short books, you can ask about the story from yesterday. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Charlotte Mason says: keep the reading short. Now to incorporate that third review.

You simply include in your schedule every sixth or seventh day, a review narration where you ask, “What have we read since the beginning of the story?” This will be teaching and modeling for your children how to review something. It will train their brains to order content and meaning for review. This is the first model that came to mind as I pondered how to get in enough review to retain important content. But what if you are teaching a lesson?


Mimesis to the Rescue!

The second model I have been taught that would include review is the mimetic sequence. The classical way to teach something is to use this progressive model along with Socratic correction to gently lead students to internalize a concept for themselves. It is not lecture-based. It is not quick. It is, however, highly effective.

In a nutshell, the mimetic process starts with what you want your student to grasp, a “logos,” a central idea, skill, or concept. You set up your lesson to lead them to that point:

First: You will assess if they are prepared to learn the lesson – do they know everything they need to know in order to learn the lesson? If the lesson is multiplication, you remind them about addition.

Second: You give them some types that exemplify your point. It may only take two, it may take ten! But once you see some recognition, you begin a “review”!

Third: Review. What did we do first? What did we do next? How are the examples the same? How are they different?

Fourth: You ask them to put into their own words your point – another form of review –  a very similar process to narration because they have to abstract and summarize the content of your lesson.

Fifth: Assign independent work so you both can see how well they understood the lesson – this would be a form of a “test” better known classically as, assessment.

BOOM! Review within ten minutes, WITHIN the lesson!

Within the next 24 hours, the student reviews the second time when they begin completing the “homework”. 70% retention.

By the end of seven days, you take five to ten minutes to do a third review by having them assess their own homework and explain the lesson back to you with a 90% retention.


To Know is to Grow

The rate at which they begin losing their retention decreases with these closely set reviews. Some things don’t need to be kept at the forefront of our memory; they aren’t meant to be retainable forever. I don’t know that I need to retain a 90% mastery of, Make Way for Ducklings. The skill of reviewing the story is what will be internalized. The beginning and the middle and the ending pattern will be annotated. How to approach an idea and compare the types to abstract the commonality will become second-nature. 

The important aspects gained through repetitive narration and the mimetic sequence become internalized or integral to other facets of learning. For example, I don’t have to review multiplication every year, because if I am multiplying other things, or continuing to practice other forms of math – like multiplying fractions, or practicing algebra – I am inclusively practicing multiplication. The disintegrative parts of our notes or lessons that we want to retain, are transferred to a commonplace notebook that we can review periodically but consistently. 


For the Long Haul

Cindy Rollins says in her book, Mere Motherhood, that she realized she wasn’t educating her children for the present, but for the long haul. Tests tend to bring about a system of binge-studying and then throwing up all the information just to get an associated score. This isn’t conducive to healthy growth and true learning. If we must subject our students to tests, or be subjected ourselves, we can do everyone involved a favor by utilizing these two time-tested models of narration and mimetic instruction to ensure more confidence, less time wasted, and better retention of what is true, good, and beautiful.


Go deeper with how to assess classically!

Join us inside ClassicalU and gain access to the Level 1 course “Assessing Students Classically” This course reviews assessment approaches in the history of education and suggests methods of assessment that align with the ideals of the classical tradition of education. Presenters include Christopher Perrin, Andrew Kern, Robyn Burlew, Josh Gibbs, and Stephen Turley. 

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Cheryl Floyd began her homeschooling journey in 1998 when her son was kicked out of private school for being too much of a boy. Since then she has had six more children and fallen in love with learning and classical education. She is currently enrolled as a second-year journeyman in Circe Institute’s Apprenticeship Program and is a Challenge II Director of Classical Conversations, Inc. She lives near Bossier City, Louisiana with six out of her seven children, her one husband, a cat, and two dogs.

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