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Break It Down and Learn It Backwards: Ace Your Next School Project or Test

By Anne Vize

Some students simply hate tests and assignments. They find them hard to finish, hard to do well at, and hard to be motivated about. But with some simple strategies in mind, you can boost your performance in tests and assignments easily. Read on to find out how...

Roughing Out the Basic Idea

Before you start any task, it is important to have a rough idea of what it is you are setting out to achieve. You need to know:

  • What the whole task is
  • How the task starts
  • How the task finishes
  • What the major steps in completing the task are

By breaking a task down into its smaller pieces you are learning a bit about each of the pieces of the puzzle. This helps you avoid that 'I just don't know where to start' feeling that can put a bit (or a lot!) of stress into beginning or completing an activity at school.

What you are really doing by thinking about a task in this way is doing a task analysis. We all have some areas of our learning in which we do better and other areas in which we do not so well. Doing a task analysis is all about learning to make the most of your positives and not letting the negatives trip you up along the way.

Step-By-Step

Here's an example of task analysis that you can use for your own learning:

Imagine you are trying to learn a forehand drive in tennis. You have a coach in your high school physical education class who insists on showing you the whole stroke over and over, without breaking it down into steps. Now we all know that things learned in steps are often much easier to manage. They are simpler to remember and you can find all those little hints along the way to help make things stick in your memory. Now, if your coach had shown you the steps...

  • Turn side on
  • Racquet back
  • Eyes tracking the ball
  • Balance your body on both feet
  • Shift your weight toward the ball
  • Swing racquet forward
  • Maintain eye contact with ball
  • Watch ball strike racquet in centre of strings
  • Step forward and shift weight to front foot

...then you might have had a chance!

Backward Shaping

Backward shaping simply means learning the last bit of a skill first. It is a great way of feeling good about a task as it means you can get to do the bit at the end where you complete the activity. It sounds a small thing to many people, but for kids in special education it is a major achievement to get to the last stage of a task and finish the job completely.

So in backward shaping you simply put the last bit of an activity first. In our forehand strike example you would start by learning to connect with the ball just before it hit the racquet. If your tennis coach knew about backward shaping he or she would probably help by tossing the ball to you while you were standing in the ready position (side on, racquet back) and also would make sure you could connect easily with the ball by tossing it directly to your racquet. You wouldn't have to worry about the step where you track the ball with your eyes.

Each Step Is Important

Task analysis means understanding all the little steps along the way to get a larger task done. No matter what anyone tells you, everyone has a right to feel that successful 'I did it!' feeling, every single day of their school lives. You can master difficult concepts by breaking them down and tackling them slowly.