In 2011, Mike Ebersold, a neurosurgeon from La Crosse, Wisconsin, the United States, was summoned to a hospital emergency unit to treat a deer hunter, who had sustained a gunshot wound to the back of the brain. A bullet had lodged in his brain, about an inch deep.
Now, Dr Ebersold is a renowned surgeon, whose patients include former US president Ronald Reagan and United Arab Emirates president Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan.
When Dr Ebersold extracted the bullet, blood gushed out from a vein in torrents — two pints of blood were depleted in five minutes. He knew he had to fix the problem quickly.
It was a formidable task, and he had to do it differently and delicately. If he had sewn the wound the traditional way, the hunter’s tissues would have torn and his ligature leaked. Instead, he transported little pieces of muscle from the patient’s skin and sewed them on the ends of the ruptured vein.
This method was the culmination of years of experience and not found in any medical book. In the end, the hunter, who had a close shave with death, recovered.
That was a real test in Dr Ebersold’s life and it was one of the biggest “medical exams” he had to go through.
He later described his learning in the book Made To Stick. He reflected on his practice in surgery, day in and day out, and refined it delicately and diligently.
He further espoused the importance of memorisation in the book: “You memorise the list of things that you need to worry about in a given situation:
Steps A, B, C, and D. “Unless you keep recalling this manoeuvre, it will not become a reflex before you’ve even had time to think.
Recalling it over and over, practising it over and over. That’s just so important.”
Many people curse “memorisation” and “rote learning” when, indeed, they are the very things that tipped the balance in Dr Ebersold’s favour.
“Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory,” Aristotle wrote in his essay on memory. I couldn’t agree more.
Take me, for example. If I do not listen to, read, speak and write in English all the time, my grasp of the language will deteriorate.
If a football team does not regularly practise and compete, and recall its set-piece of manoeuvres well, it will not be able to survive and excel in the league.
Recently, education in the West has made a U-turn to focus on testing as a means of learning. It has renamed testing as “retrieval practice”.
A mounting body of research has shown that effective testing, including pretesting and post-testing, used as a learning tool can greatly enhance students’ recall of facts and deepen their learning, as compared with an education without exams.
Our students need to embrace examinations as a given because wherever they go, there is an exam in life waiting.
They just need to forget the negative connotations of the word “exam”.
Last but not least, in the NST report on Nov 1, “SPM candidates worry about letting their parents down”, I find it worrying when I read the account of Dr Christine, a mother of a Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) student, who said she made sure her son, Irfan, had a good night’s sleep of six hours daily. Only six hours?
When I asked my SPM students in the past, they all said they had only six hours of sleep a night. Teenage students studying for exams need at least a deep sleep of eight hours to recover from fatigue and consolidate their memory.
A mere six hours would make them sleep-deprived and struggle to recall facts from memory. That’s why a vast number of students is under immense stress during the SPM exam.
Jesse Payne, an author and educator, notes that if teenagers do not get adequate slumber before they turn 25, in the short run, they face decreased performance, memory impairment, decreased alertness, stress in relationships, increased possibility of bodily injury and cognitive impairment.
Worse, in the long run, such teenagers are linked to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), poor quality of life, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, depression, anxiety, mental impairment, obesity and a whole lot more.
The Education Ministry may need to delay school start times to allow over-stressed and sleep-deprived students more sleep time. In China, the US and the United Kingdom, school starts one to two hours later than in Malaysia.
Likewise, parents have a duty to ensure that their children sleep at least eight hours a day for their young brains to function at their best.