Why You Need To Teach The Brain Dump As A Test Strategy

     Do you need a great testing strategy to teach your students? Think brain dump. I recently visited an amazing 4th-grade math class and was reminded of the power of this tool.

What is a brain dump?

     A brain dump is a transfer of knowledge and ideas to another storage medium, like paper or a computer document.  Its purpose is to store the material temporarily so we can access it while we use our brainpower to process information.

     To really understand a brain dump, be aware of what it is not.  It is not a:

Stream of consciousness that attempts to record all thoughts and feelings passing through the mind.

Brainstorm, which is an activity, often in a group, that produces new ideas and solutions to problems.

     Brain dumps can be used for academic, professional, or personal purposes, or a mixture.  A real-life situation can be seen as a 4th grader who is handed a geometry quiz.  The student takes a few minutes to “dump” onto a separate sheet of paper things like:

  • the definition of a kite 
  • a sketch of a trapezoid 
  • examples of acute, obtuse, right, and straight angles 
  • concepts that he is concerned he’ll forget or confuse during the quiz  

     He has learned that if he jots down the tricky information to refer to later, his brain is freer to think about the questions in the quiz.  Note: This is not a situation where students make notes outside of class to bring to a quiz, although that is a strategy some teachers offer.  This is only the information that the student can transfer during the assessment period.

     Another real-life situation might be for an overwhelmed high school senior to make an exhaustive list of all of the pre-graduation requirements she must accomplish during the often crazy last semester of school.  It gives her a list for reference as she checks off each task and relieves her worry that she’ll forget something. 

The advantages of a Brain Dump:

     A brain dump can be a powerful tool for students.   Some of the advantages are that a brain dump…
  • Builds confidence: Students can feel that “look how much I know” pride.
  • Reduces stress: If a student can capture info that she fears she’ll forget, that reduces her stress.
  • Organizes learning: Creating schemas, the cognitive structures that we use to organize knowledge and choose behaviors is central to learning.   When we can add to our schemas, learning grows.
  • Can help our EC students: When a child struggles to focus on a task, it can help to have a “parking” place for facts that often get lost while processing the task itself.
  • Is individual and personal: Each brain dump is personal to the child who created it.  The student “dumps” the information that is valuable to her/him, not what a teacher believes is useful. 
  • Is more meaningful:  We tend to buy into products that address our specific needs.
  • Is kid-centric: A child’s brain dump comes from his/her perspective.  Teacher-created materials, while well-meaning, come from an adult’s point of view.
  • Can be used with any medium:  Students can use any type of technology, from computers to paper and pencil.  It can also be used with a scribe.
  • Is created casually: There are no punctuation or grammar rules to follow, no must-have talking points, and neatness doesn’t count.  These are not to be graded!  Kids can relax about not being judged.
  • Can be used as a testing review tool: One of the best uses of a brain dump is during an assessment, whether a shorter quiz, a unit test, or even yearly standardized testing.  For all of the reasons listed above, it can be a powerful tool.

How to Create A Brain Dump

     Teaching students how to create a brain dump can be fun and casual, while still emphasizing its usefulness.  Here’s how:

1. Explain the purpose and advantages of the activity.  Consider using the list above.
2. Explain that the activity isn’t timed, but should only last a few minutes.  The purpose is not to spend all of your quiz time creating a brain dump, but to store information so your brain is freer to process questions.
3. Pick a familiar topic or one you’ve studied recently.
4. Decide how you’ll display as you’re teaching.  Consider using a document camera, a whiteboard, or a giant sticky chart/bulletin board paper.
5. Model as you go. Show all of the different ways you can express on paper what you’ve learned for the topic.  Use as many formats as possible, including sketches, diagrams, lists, computations, definitions, basic facts, and charts.  Talk about why you’re using each format.
6. Let students call out additions to your model.
7. Emphasize that the activity should only take a few minutes.  It shouldn’t take a large part of the assessment period.
8. If students have been writing along with you, let them share their work with a class gallery walk.  
9. If students have been watching you model and teach, they should be getting familiar with the concept. Now, it’s their turn!  Pick another practice topic and turn them loose.

     In the class I visited, the instructions were to "dump as many things as you can remember about math from this year".  That's a tall order, but the kids were up to the challenge!  Here's the brain dump I did with them.

When to Use The Brain Dump

     In a classroom setting, teach students to use a brain dump just before an independent activity, a quiz or test, or as a pre-assessment review.

     As they become more familiar with the process, encourage students to try using this powerful tool in their personal lives.  Challenge them to share with the class.  As it becomes a part of your class language and culture, you can all access it for growth.  I'd love to hear how it works in your class!

     Would you like another powerful tool for your students?  Grab these free Growth Mindset Math Posters!  They make a great, positive display to encourage your math students!

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