Learning curve: summer school

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 10:48am

The autumn term sees teachers writing letters for seniors going to college and those leaving for boarding schools. These days, the number of letters of recommendations I write for students applying to prestigious summer schools also seems to be on the increase.

Attending university-run courses during summer can almost be called the latest fad. When one parent brings in an application form, I can be certain others will follow.

Maths, science and creative writing summer courses at well-known universities such as Stanford, Oxford and Princeton seem enormously popular.

Locally, the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology have developed similar summer programmes, with many deadlines set for the end of this month or February.

Sometimes, one student will attend different modules at several universities over one summer, even though many institutions make it clear on their websites that successfully completing a summer course is not considered at all in admission.

I am often asked if students should apply to university-run camps and attend structured academic summer courses.

We are told that over the summer, students will have an enjoyable taste of life on a world-class campus, and a valuable opportunity to interact with leading academics and gain new knowledge. Some colleges even allow credits to be earned towards undergraduate studies.

But is an academic camp being considered because the student will benefit from reinforcement of skills or topics over the long break from school? Or is it born of the hope that they may gain an advantage for a university placement or a head start on the next academic year?

Certainly, many teachers, particularly those teaching maths, find they need to go over previously learned material when school resumes after the break. IB and IGCSE teachers who have a two-year curriculum to deliver also find the need for revision because the class has only a hazy memory of concepts taught before they went on holiday. There's even a name for this. It's called the "summer slump" or "summer brain drain".

Studies by Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri-Columbia, show that "brain drain" is more likely to occur with computation skills and spelling. This learning loss is "uneven", he finds. While some students may not make any measurable academic gains over the summer, others can lose the equivalent of one to three months' worth of learning.

Summer school can be a positive learning experience for some students, but it's not always the best environment to encourage learning or prevent the inevitable brain drain.

In Hong Kong, schools adopting the American curriculum run academic programmes over the summer to reinforce learning for those students who have not met their course requirements. Spending part of the holidays attending preparatory courses for tests such as the SAT, ACT or PSAT is time well spent, as is attending revision classes for students who have been struggling in their programme.

Still, students who get a break from academic learning over the summer come back recharged and motivated.These students have explored areas that interest them, from photography to Lego, or have improved their swimming or football skills.

Parents of successful children encourage them to catch up on their reading, engage in volunteer work and learn household skills such as sewing, cooking and ironing. And a week or two before school begins they encourage a revision of important topics from the previous academic year, with emphasis placed on getting back into the school routine. This teaches students that school is to be taken seriously. And at the end, there is a well-deserved vacation.

Although lifelong learning has become part of our vocabulary, as parents and teachers we often forget that it goes beyond academic learning.

Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, a non-profit organisation in the United States, puts it succinctly: "Let vacation be vacation, but don't let it be a vacuum. The best kinds of vacations are filled with indelible experiences that help people of any age develop, grow - and, yes, learn."

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School