Observations from Coaching Astronomy Olympiad Team

Categories Astronomy, Blog

The just-finished Olimpiade Sains Nasional National Science Olympiad, afterwards written as OSN – 2017 marks the fifth edition of the competition which I join as a facilitator (or trainer or coach, whatever), after my participation at the 2012 edition in Jakarta. These 4 years have been enough to provide me meaningful observations that I would like to share here.

I have been coaching students from DKI Jakarta for almost all stages for Astronomy subject, from Pra OSP (pre-provincial level) to OSN. Whenever I am in Jakarta, I come to the training venue to have a teaching session or just to help. If at the time of training I was in Singapore, I sent try out questions and perform analysis of the students’ try out scores.

Once, I had a chance to take part in the scientific committee (who create the test papers). That may sound cool, but the challenge of coaching students seems more exciting for me.

Why?

When you are the participant, your result totally depends on yourself. You may get the best coaching, but if you do not work hard the result will not come to you; or you may not get any coaching at all, but if you work really hard you will get the result.

When you are the coach, your job is to ensure that your students do whatever it takes to perform at their best during the competition. Initially, I thought it was totally based on the quality of the training that you provide, but the experience has proven me wrong. There’s simply much more than just “mastering the syllabus”. It is also about taking care of the mentality and psychology of the student. The whole process is tough, and very frightening, especially at the closing ceremony. However, seeing my students with medals – after their journey from zero – generates an ineffable joy.

And from what I have gone through, there are several interesting points.

 

Drive and Blind Competition

First time I joined the coaching team, I assumed that students who advance to OSN should all have the drive to win, based on my experience with my highly-determined DKI Jakarta team in 2012 which everyone inside getting a medal. My assumption looked proven in 2013 as well, with another 100% medal rate.

However, the assumption let me to make a glaring error in 2014. Knowing that 8 of the participants were in medal range but none of them in gold range, we tried to encourage them by letting them know their OSP rank (not detail of course) and telling them that with hard work, they should be able to get golds. Their responses, however, contradicted our expectation. They became relaxed because they knew they were not so far from getting the medal.

Having learnt from the mistake, in 2015 we reversed it. We told our students that their OSP performance was not disappointing, but not enough to compete with other students. And with our limited budget in 2015, we also told them that our training would definitely not be enough. They had to work hard by themselves as well. Luckily, their response was something that we expected. They were really determined, and their result was astounding.

Students generally have the drive to win, but letting them know their relative positions is a double-edged sword for their drive. I might say that I was more determined after knowing I was the second nation-wide at OSP – because that meant I was in a good position to finish well, but it did not mean that it would apply to other students. Some students may be complacent when they know that they are in a good position, and some students may be discouraged when they know that they are not in a good position, even though it actually matters nothing at the national level. It is better to let them compete blindly, and focus on what matters. This sounds obvious, but some students do ask for their position…

 

Teamwork

After OSN 2016 closing ceremony – when the result was pretty disappointing for us with only 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze, and 3 students went home empty-handed – Eben, an OSN 2015 participant, told me something that had never crossed my mind before. He suggested that students who study together tend to have similar scores during the tests and perform better than those who do not.

Looking back to the results and trying to reflect from them, it seems that Eben was right. Table below shows the result of DKI Jakarta in Astronomy from 2013-2017:

Year No. of Participants Rank Medal
OSN 2013 Bandung, Jawa Barat 6 #1 Gold
#5 Gold
#7 Silver
#15 Silver
#16 Bronze
#22 Bronze
OSN 2014 Mataram, Nusa Tenggara Barat 8 #10 Silver
#15 Silver
#26 Bronze
#30 Bronze
#31 Near Medal
#34 Near Medal
~50
~50
OSN 2015 Yogyakarta, D. I. Yogyakarta 5 #1 Gold
#3 Gold
#6 Silver
#20 Bronze
#35 Near Medal
OSN 2016 Palembang, Sumatera Selatan 6 #4 Gold
#6 Silver
#20 Bronze
#31 Near Medal
#36 Near Medal
#56
OSN 2017 Pekanbaru, Riau 7 #2 Gold
#6 Silver
#8 Silver
#13 Silver
#27 Bronze
#36 Near Medal
#56

In 2013 and 2015, where the results were arguably the best, we (Bu Eka and I) found out that the team on these years were the most cohesive. I did not observe much in 2013 because I was competing in IOAA, but Bu Eka told me that everyone bonded in the team. They did things together, cheered together, and even prayed together. On the other hand, students in 2015 knew that we did not have much budget, so with everything we had they studied hard collectively. Everyone was in, though at the end the 3 boys (there were 3 boys and 2 girls) were more intensive and went higher; and for the girls, one accidentally hit the tripod during observational test and that hurt her score badly.

On the contrary, we found the lack of cohesiveness inside 2014 and 2016 team. One or two students may have been too quiet, and somehow it affected the whole team. The atmosphere in the team in these years was noticeably different than 2013 or 2015. But I know, as an introvert myself, that quietness should not be something to blame. They just had to be encouraged to make the atmosphere more lively.

Having learnt this tendency from Eben, we tried a different approach in 2017; especially as we thought that these 7 students were a bit quiet in the OSP. We told them from the beginning that they need to be cohesive. We asked them to not just study, but play. We asked them to have their common identity. Hence, we got a better result; and I personally see the top 3 to be the most collective students, even though the fourth and fifth are on similar – if not better – level in terms of knowledge.

 

Big Fish and Little Fish

Despite being aware of above points, I still wonder about something else. If cohesiveness – or having an enjoyable atmosphere – affects a team’s performance, then why? Can’t students actually perform by themselves? What about provinces which do not have centralized training but their medal rate is still good?

It is more interesting since I know some information of my students’ performances during OSP. There are cases where the students actually did really well in OSP but messed up in OSN. The easiest example was OSN 2016. In OSP, all 6 students did exceptionally well. 5 of them were in top 10 nation-wide, and the other one was in early 20s. However, as written above, at the end the results were anticlimax. 3 of the 5 students did shockingly poor during the observational round, so they tumbled to their respective final rank (#20, #31, and #36) despite their good theoretical round score; and the other student did poor on all tests, finished around #56. Why could it happen to this one girl?

That has been my question since last year, but as I read Malcolm Gladwell’s David vs Goliath, it seems that I got the idea. In a chapter, he explains about “a fish” that looks big in a small pond and looks small in a big pond. He gives an example of a Brown University student who is smart, but since she is in the middle of even smarter students, she feels stupid and pressurized. She starts thinking if she is actually not that smart. Had she not entered Brown and instead entered a slightly more relaxed university, she would not have thought that way, and she could have enjoyed her learning process.

This student might have felt the same. As I mentioned before, she was the only one among 6 who was not in top 10 nation-wide in OSP. In the early try outs before OSN, she was frequently bottomed the list. The gap between her and the rest was noticeable, though it does not mean at all that she was not capable of getting a medal. However, the feeling of being lagged consumed her. She felt depressed because she felt incapable, and she even cried in front of Bu Eka. We tried convincing her that she could still catch up, but apparently her confidence has fallen hard. She did not recover in time.

After thinking about this, the connections should be understandable. Cohesiveness in a group that will compete individually against other students is important not just to have a fun environment, but also to ensure that everyone moves forward together and no one is left behind. This is probably the priority for next year’s training for OSN 2018, assuming we have got it right in terms of the syllabus coverage.

 

Confidence

I always tell my students that confidence is the first key. With that, they can unleash their maximum potential and their mental will not be easily challenged by other participants or feel inferior like mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I could reflect on my experience. Knowing my position – in the previous paragraph – makes me confident. I also noted that in junior high school, I always failed to win a Math competition in which I did not feel confident because I already saw my competitors as more capable than me. When I went to SMAK 1, my status as a SMAK 1 student boosted my confidence because I knew that SMAK 1 was respected. I did win several competitions in Math, Astronomy, and IT. So for me, confidence is the key.

The challenge is that the way to trigger confidence inside the students is different. Some can be naturally confident, some needs to solve questions consecutively to feel confident, etc. But when we are able to arise the confidence inside them, it can be powerful. Aside from the factors above, I could see that the highest scorers from Jakarta in the last 3 years have always looked confident. They may not always feel confident about their result, but their gesture before the competition showed that they knew that they were gonna make it.

By the way, congratulations for Astro DKI 2017! I am totally aware that my prediction was mostly wrong, so you guys show me what you can do. For 5 of you who got the medals, all the best for Pelatnas and I do hope as many of you could reach the IOAA. For the rest, keep your heads up, this is not the end of everything. Believe that there is always something to learn from every opportunity.

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