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          When planning to train for any kind of test preparation, most people assume that the best strategy is to gradually schedule more frequent tutoring as they get closer to the test date. This makes no sense. Think of the mind like a muscle. In this analogy, the first few weeks of training are slowly more strenuous, it's true. However, once you have built the foundation of skill, it's a matter of practice to increase ability in existing skill. Practice only makes perfect if you have that foundation. Otherwise, you are simply practicing your mistakes. As with any marathon, you want to perfect your skill, practice like crazy to build stamina, and then back off as you get closer to the event to ensure you are rested and ready.           Test prep works in exactly the same way. Instead of cramming before the test, leaving yourself wired and tired, distracted and unable to focus, the best... read more

It's not controversial to aver that procrastination is bad. Most would agree without giving it a second thought. But what about procrastination is so harmful, and why do we procrastinate when we readily agree we shouldn't? When I talk about procrastination, I'm talking about delaying an important task despite knowing we will suffer as a result. Why would we do this? The problem seems to have its roots in an inability to manage emotions, and from an overweighting of short-term benefits over long-term costs. In a landmark 1997 study, Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister rated college students on an established scale of procrastination, then tracked their academic performance, stress, and general health throughout the semester. Initially the procrastinators reported lower levels of stress, presumably because they were enjoying more pleasurable activities in lieu of the work they should have been doing. By the end of the semester, however, the procrastinators earned lower... read more

It's fairly likely that you've heard someone talk about "mindfulness." It's less likely that you know exactly what mindfulness entails, and even less likely that you've heard of Ellen Langer, the "mother of mindfulness" in Western academia. In fact, even if you Googled mindfulness you'd find credit for its popularity in the West given to a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn. Langer's name doesn't appear anywhere on the first page of Google's results, so you probably wouldn't learn that she earned her PhD and began her line of research around the same time as Kabat-Zinn, and that the groundbreaking nature of her work led her to become the first woman tenured in the Psychology Department at Harvard in 1981. Her research has had profound effects on how we think about everything from aging and mental health to decision-making and learning. So even if you don't know her name, it is likely that in one way or another you are familiar with some of her research. The focus of this... read more

Marshaling the cognitive resources and committing the amount of time required to earn good grades and high test scores takes effort. The rewards from these achievements are often delayed, while the rewards from having fun with your friends, playing video games, interacting on social media, watching tv, etc. are more immediate. What strategies can you use to help overcome this mismatch? In the framework explored in this paper, the authors propose that the decision to delay gratification is mediated by two systems: a "cool" cognitive system, and a "hot" emotional system. The more the hot system dominates, the more likely you are to succumb to temptation. Thankfully, as we get older, the cool system matures and thus makes it easier for many of us to delay gratification. We are most vulnerable to the hot system when we are young. You’ve probably seen the marshmallow experiment in which young children are placed in front of a table with a marshmallow... read more

You might wonder what emotion has to do with learning, and why I am writing a blog about sleep and emotion. If you think about it, though, how you to react challenging situations - the emotions you feel, and the cognitions, physiology, and behaviors that accompany them - can have a profound impact on how you learn. Indeed, emotional reactivity can have a profound impact in multiple domains, but in this blog we will focus on its impact on learning. Modern neuroscience is not necessary to understand that sleep is fundamentally important. However, it increasingly allows us to understand why that is the case. Andrea Goldstein and Matt Walker reviewed the literature on sleep and emotion and make a compelling case for the causal role of sleep in optimal affective brain function. For our purposes, I want to focus on the overarching theme of how sleep deprivation diminishes effective emotional reactivity. When people are sleep deprived for even one night, functional... read more

We all know we do better when we're well-rested than when we're not. Modern sleep research has started to uncover exactly why that's the case. In terms of memory, there are at least two important reasons to make sure you're getting enough sleep. First, we better remember what we learned the day before. This is because sleep plays an essential role in the conversion of short-term memory to long-term memory. Short-term memory relies heavily on a brain region known as the hippocampus (named after the Greek word for seahorse, given its shape), while long-term memory relies on a broad network of cortical association areas. When we learn new information, the hippocampus is very active, and when we sleep, it turns out that the activity of our hippocampus predicts how well we will remember what we learned when we wake up. Researchers have even found interesting ways to manipulate and improve this process. For example, in one study, experimenters paired the scent of a rose with a spatial... read more

During the school year, many of the students I work with have jam-packed schedules replete with extracurriculars, sports, and demanding classes. Adding test prep into the mix can complicate schedules even further. So why not take advantage of the time students have off during the summer to get ahead, so that when school resumes they won't have a heavy additional workload to worry about?    There are many reasons why summer classes benefit students. One of the most obvious relates to what is known as the "summer slide." Most students lose about two months of grade-level mathematical proficiency over the summer. In fact, in a meta-analysis of 39 studies that examined the effect of summer vacation on academic achievement, researchers found that summer break was detrimental for both math and reading skills, and that the amount of deterioration increased with grade-level.    Many times I work with sophomores and juniors in high school... read more

When I worked for Kaplan, they required all private tutoring lessons to be two hours. That surprised me because I thought of lessons as one-hour affairs. However, I soon discovered that we could get through a lot more in one two-hour lesson than we could in two one-hour lessons.  Why? For starters, each lesson always starts with a few pleasantries and takes a couple of minutes to get going. Furthermore, it usually takes 15 minutes or so for students' minds to warm up and perform at their best. So by the time we are at our best flow, if the lesson is only one hour, we have often used a quarter to a third of our lesson time.  In my experience, I've found that 90 minutes works well for many students. With 90 minute lessons, we can go through the warm up period and spend more than an hour at our most productive level. An hour is generally too short and delivers less value per dollar than a longer lesson.  Exceptionally motivated students can often... read more

Sometimes I work with students who perform well during our lessons, but who struggle when it comes to actually taking the test. It turns out the reason for this might be genetic.    When we experience stress, our prefrontal cortex is flooded with dopamine. Some of us are coded with a gene that slowly removes the dopamine, while others have a variant that rapidly removes it. The prefrontal cortex is critical for planning and decision-making, and it performs best when an optimal level of dopamine is maintained. Normally, on many cognitive tests, people with the slow variant of the gene perform better. But in stressful, high-stakes situations the opposite happens: those with the fast variant do better. Thus people with the slow variant have been dubbed Worriers, and those with the fast variant, Warriors.    However, being a Worrier does not mean you will inevitably be a victim of chronic underperformance in stressful situations. In one of the studies... read more

The Economist recently published an article with some surprising research findings about stress. Contrary to popular belief, stress is not always bad, nor is it the amount of stress that matters. Rather, the key determinant of its impact on performance and health is largely psychological.    In one study, researchers divided a set of GRE test takers into two groups. Saliva samples were taken to establish baseline stress levels for all participants. Then one group was told that stress during practice exams is natural and can improve performance, while the other group just took the test. Saliva samples were taken at the end of the exam, and the results from both groups indicated similar levels of stress. BUT, the group that had learned stress can be helpful scored higher on the practice test (and, several months later, on the actual GRE) than those who just took the test.    Even more impressively, in 2012 a group of researchers scoured through... read more

I can't speak for every tutor, but I know that if you work with me I have certain expectations of you in order to ensure that you will see the greatest possible improvement in your score. Luckily, they are really quite simple, and adhering to them makes a huge difference. I've attached a PDF version to summarize my Top 5 Test Prep Essentials that you can download, but I will review each of them below too.    For starters, I may be stating the obvious, but you absolutely must complete all homework assignments. All my assignments are tailored to your current performance and designed to help you achieve your goal score. Many students aspire to achieve dramatic improvements, and I fully believe such improvements are possible. BUT, in order to achieve such goals, it is imperative that you complete every homework assignment. If there is a notable gap between your current score and your goal score, that is perfectly ok, but it makes the homework that much more important... read more

Today's post is just a quick good luck wish to all who are taking the ACTs tomorrow morning!  Don't forget, you can always take them more than once, so if you're  not happy with your scores, feel free to contact me for some tutoring so you can improve for the next one!

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

I have taught SAT/ACT prep in the public school system for many years.  On the first day, I ask my students to flip their book over and read the quote that says, "The SAT is not designed to trick you!"  I then have them circle that quote and write "LIE!" next to it.  College Boards are as much about successful test taking skills, as they are about knowledge.  There are so many simple strategies that can easily improve scores by 100 points.    One concept I emphasize is skipping questions.  I had a student's score go up by over 100 points, simply by answering less questions!    You don't have to be an English star to do well on College Boards.  With practice, knowledge, and the right test-taking skills, you can walk in on test day confident, and emerge successful!

Between ACT and SAT preparation, strategies may differ in some specific ways, yet the overall objective is the same:  build confidence, reduce time, improve accuracy.   Confidence ... why?  Does confidence matter?   Yes!  Here's why --   1 - Neurochemically. Confidence lets us give the thinking brain its proper attention.  When we feel anxious or otherwise flooded with emotion, the stress / alert chemicals actually interfere with cognition.   2 - Cognitively.  Confidence lets us assess competing options more effectively, in order to identify and take calculated risks while avoiding impulsivity.   3 - Intuitively.  Confidence provides feedback to let us know when we are appropriately prepared.  When we feel a lack of confidence, the feeling, itself, indicates that we have overlooked something important.  When we have fully prepared and are sure we have done so, the feeling of confidence... read more

Recently, I have been tutoring students who are planning on taking standardized exams and I wanted to share the tips and tricks I have been exploring to increase student confidence and outcome on the exam. A detailed post will be posted within the week.   Tutor AVM

When I first took the SAT, I sat in a classroom with desks that were connected to chairs. One problem: these desks were less than the size of a piece of paper. Whenever I tried to flip pages, my materials fell on the floor, my pencil rolled off my desk, and I had to spend the time flipping each individual page rather than keeping my booklet open. This wasted a lot of time, and I'm sure I could have done better if the desk hadn't been stressing me out so much. Even though most people don't think about it, it's important to know where you are taking the SAT or ACT. Is it at a high school? Or a college where desks might be much smaller? If you can't go check out the testing site in person, try to talk to people in your area to see what they thought of the site. They might have some productive advice: "There's no AC in the building" or "the chairs were very comfortable". You'll never know until you ask. The other thing I recommend is to take the test... read more

When I first took the SAT, I sat in a classroom with desks that were connected to chairs. One problem: these desks were less than the size of a piece of paper. Whenever I tried to flip pages, my materials fell on the floor, my pencil rolled off my desk, and I had to spend the time flipping each individual page rather than keeping my booklet open. This wasted a lot of time, and I'm sure I could have done better if the desk hadn't been stressing me out so much.   Even though most people don't think about it, it's important to know where you are taking the SAT or ACT. Is it at a high school? Or a college where desks might be much smaller? If you can't go check out the testing site in person, try to talk to people in your area to see what they thought of the site. They might have some productive advice: "There's no AC in the building" or "the chairs were very comfortable". You'll never know until you ask.   The other thing I recommend is to... read more

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