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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

Getting Started I took the exam at Irvine Valley College. Unlike most schools, whose administrators post classroom assignments on a billboard, IVC showed up around 8:15, had students stand in the quad, and verbally had students split into separate groups like cattle. Then students ended up having to walk down a confusing pathway to a classroom, where we had to have our IDs checked one-by-one. You can tell which schools have the check-in process down, and which schools need to work on it. IVC is definitely a school that can stand to be more efficient. Once in the room, the proctor had difficulty with the test set-up process. She was unaware of the fact that there were now three components that come with the exam. It used to be that there was just a test booklet and an answer sheet. Now, with the revised exam, there is an essay booklet as well. I don’t think that she was supposed to hand out the essay booklet at the beginning of the administration, especially because... 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 together, 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 most students (exceptions: young students, and students who begin tutoring very close to their test date). With 90 minutes, we can go through the warm up period and spend more than an hour at our most productive level. And 90 minutes isn't so long that it strains students' attention... 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

Ellen's Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 2 3. Know when it’s time to take breaks. Spending a good chunk of time on one subject is good; it helps you settle into a rhythm and lets your brain get into the correct frame of reference for the subject. But there exists a horizon beyond which no progress can or will be made. It’s the point at which your brain has become over-saturated with the current material, and if you continue on you’ll just end up working yourself into circles of frustration. In paper writing, it’s the point at which anything you wrote would make sense to you regardless because you’ve been reading the same few paragraphs to yourself for hours. In math, it’s the point at which you will just end up confusing yourself more and more as you try desperately to work it out. When that moment arrives, you know it’s time to take your break. 4. TAKE BREAKS. I don’t care how much work you have, there’s always enough time for a fifteen-minute break... read more

Way back in 2010, one of my first blog post series on this site took the form of a five-part series on rules for effective time management.  For the next few Ellen's Choices, I've decided to go back through these rules and apply them to the world of preparing for the SAT (or any standardized test). So let's begin with Part 1: All-Nighters Are Evil Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management 1. Never pull an all-nighter. 2. NEVER pull an all-nighter! Seriously! I mean it. All-nighters are downright useless. Besides the fact that this concept breaks almost all of my other rules for effective time management in one go, all-nighters cause fatigue, stress you out, and just end up producing sub-par work. You can’t write well when you’re tired, and staying up all night studying just means you’ll be yawning all the way through the test the next day. If you haven’t learned the information on the test by the night before, you’re not going to learn... 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

     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

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

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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