Why there are no shortcuts to examination preparation

This is a contribution by Lucy Wyndham.

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

The college test season is upon us with the first ACT tests in the bag and the next set of papers available to take on April 14th. After years of dominance the numbers of students taking the SAT has fallen behind the ACT, and now more than two million students take the tests. With the rise in numbers, the need to do better than your peers is greater than ever.

Why cramming means nothing

Revision is, for many, a misnomer. To revise means to revisit what is already known. If you are having to do late-night cramming sessions before a test don’t kid yourself that you are revising. Cramming is the stuffing of facts into the short-term memory in the hope that they will be the right things needed on the examination. The ACT and its rival SAT do not check facts but require you to have an understanding of the topics that you can apply in practical ways. There is nothing wrong with revisiting older learning in the weeks running up to a test but this will only truly help you if you knew and understood the topics before revising. A far better use of your time is to ensure you learn and understand every topic as it is taught and frequently revisit it but not to refresh your knowledge but instead to insert new learning into a growing framework of understanding.

Raw learning is sometimes far more important

If, however, you have blocks of information or key equations that just won’t stick there are no shortcuts to memorizing them you’ll have to go old school. When you learned to read and write the only way to make it stick was to do it over and over again. Flash cards, memory games and the old fashioned mainstay of just writing it out repeatedly are the only way that really work. Parrot-fashion learning has fallen out of fashion (and quite rightly with understanding being fundamentally more important) but when it comes to raw, powerful, intense recall there is nothing that beats it. Remember that actors learn lines by reading them out over and over again. Doctors learn medicine and lawyers recall cases through flashcards – it may seem childish but it works.

Remember that practice makes perfect

You’ve put the effort in and solidly learned the key facts through repetition. You’ve stalwartly taken this knowledge and transformed it into understanding through mind-maps and deeper reading… so are you ready for the big day? Not in the least.

Understanding and deeper learning requires cognitive conflict and quite frankly you need to be sure that your understanding is correct. From a much more practical standpoint you also need to become intimately familiar with the way in which you will be tested on your understanding. There is no substitute in the world for taking past examination papers, and with free ACT practice papers available on the internet, that’s more easier than ever. Revision requires knowledge and understanding; not just the knowledge and understanding you are revisiting but a clear knowledge of what you do not know properly and this can only be determined through testing.

Didn’t you get the message? There is no final cramming session. There is no shortcut to success. Revisit, redraft, flashcard and memorise as you go. Link concepts together and read deeper. Understand rather than just learn. And then test yourself over and over again.

How to Fight Distractions: 4 Mindful Ways to Stay on Task

Its easy to get distracted especially when youre juggling a lot of projects.

The secret to staying productive is recognizing the moments of distraction and immediately getting back on track.

Theres always an email to read, a text message to send, a Facebook stream to read, etc.

You see, there are distractions all around us and there are plenty of excuses on why were not finishing up a project that has been sitting on our to do list.

So how do we fight distractions and stay on task?

Here are four ways:

1. Know what distracts you.
What keeps you distracted? Keep a list of items that trigger distractions for you (e.g. clicking a web browser, visiting Huffington Post, reading email, etc.). Keep this list top of mind so you recognize the trigger that is leading you to distraction. Identifying distractions is key to stopping them.

2. Set daily goals for yourself.
If you want to stay focused on your projects, you need to set goals for yourself with specific time-frames. Not setting specific goals within a certain time-frame is the reason why we end up with items on our to do list that we never accomplish. And not having concrete goals makes it easier to get distracted. So set your goals and accomplish them. No excuses.

3. Zone out everything else.
Once you know what distracts you and have your set goals its time to get hyper-focused to accomplish your projects. For me, this means putting on ear phones and listening to sounds of the ocean or rain (to block out all external noises). Second, it means turning Outlook off and closing down all windows except for the one program or window I need. Third, it means putting my phone in a drawer so that I dont see any text messages or know that anyone is calling. The only way to get in the zone to accomplish your goals is to zone out everything else.

4. Recognize the moments you get distracted and get back on task.
Look, youre going to get distracted no matter how hard you try to stay on task especially if you work in an office. Your office phone can ring, employees can drop by, etc. Even while writing this article, my Outlook program alerted me to an email that looked interesting enough to start reading it. Within 15 seconds of reading it, I realized the distraction and got back to this article. The key is recognizing the distraction and getting back to work.

How do you fight distractions? How are you staying hyper-focused to finish your work? Let me know.

How to Make Your Commute More Productive – 7 Tips

Its amazing how much time we spend commuting to school.

As an undergrad, I would walk for almost 30 minutes just to get to my classes.

And as a grad student, I had a 30 minute commute by car – and then another 10 minutes to find parking.

I would literally spend about an hour a day commuting back and forth to campus.

And thats why I tried various ways to stay productive.

Here are 7 productivity tips for your daily commute:

1. Listen to audiobooks or podcasts to expand your mind.
One easy way to stay productive while driving is to simply listen to audiobooks or podcasts that interest you. Expose yourself to new ideas and new subjects. You can also polish your foreign language skills by choosing podcasts or audiobooks in that language.

2. Review flash cards.
When I was an undergrad, my walk from my dorm room to my classes was nearly 2 miles. I spent this time reviewing flash cards for my classical Latin and Greek language courses. Here are some great websites to download flashcards:

3. Set your goals for the day.
Take a few minutes to think about your goals for the week. If youre driving, you can record your goals on a digital voice recorder, or use your phones voice mail system.

4. Critique and proof your papers.
If you take public transportation, pull out a paper youre working on and start proofing. Dont just look for grammatical mistakes, but also analyze the argumentation and structure.

5. Review class notes.
Its difficult to get any serious reading done while commuting, so thats why skimming class notes is a great way to stay productive. This is only recommended if you walk to class or take public transportation.

6. Return phone calls and/or text messages.
If you owe anyone a phone call, then you could use this time to make phone calls. You could also take this time to call up classmates and set a time to study.

7. Practice breathing exercises.
An easy way to help you reduce anxiety and stress is to practice deep breathing. There are a number of other benefits like helping you feel more awake, and helping you think more clearly. Its a perfect way to spend your commute.

How do you stay productive during your commute?

Group Projects: How to Deal with Different Personality Types

In this guest post, GreekForMe.com provides tips to help students deal with different personality types in your school group projects.

High school teachers and college professors just seem to adore group projects, don’t you think? After all, there’s nothing like teamwork!

Well, if you’ve been part of a group project, you know they’re a lot harder than they look. Working as team is a challenge, and not just for the work involved – the hardest part is juggling all the different personalities.

We have a hunch that learning to work well with our peers might just be the real reason why teachers on insist on group projects. Long before we found ourselves pursuing our dream jobs in the Greek Clothing industry, we were high school and college students just like you, and our experience taught us a thing or two about those faces you’re seeing around the library table.

Larry The Leader
Every group has a Larry. He’s that guy that just seems to take control from the start, saying hello to everyone, reading the project directions, and starting to divvy assignments. Let Larry do his thing, but understand that most Larry’s have a details problem. He’ll happily work out the big picture and be the spokesperson of your project, but you need to help him out by laying out specific roles, deadlines, and the small details of the projects. He (or she!)’s natural habitat is the head seat at your gathering spot.

Introverted Isabella
Isabella is a major asset to the group, so don’t take her quiet demeanor as lacking any group qualities. Sure, she may not want to be the one presenting the project or speaking up during group meetings, but assign her a role and task, and she’ll run with it and get it done. Make it a point to specifically ask her for her opinion and ideas, rather than expecting her to pipe up. She might blush, but she’ll be thankful you sought her opinion – and so will you!

Cooperative Chris and Carrie
You’ll usually have a few of this type, which is great, as they’ll make up the backbone of your group and are the easiest personality type to deal with in a group setting. Chris and Carrie will share their ideas and understand your vision, and although they may not always create new ideas, they will certainly carry out the group’s plan and get it done on time. These two do need to be challenged, so give them the rough plan, and allow them to run with it and put their own stamp on it.

Free Riding Randy
Uh oh. Randy is that guy or girl in your group who either really doesn’t care, or has so much going on that they just don’t have that much time to invest in the group. If he or she is of the not caring type, take the (often frustrating) time to continually remind him or her of meeting times, speak directly to Randy at meetings, and specifically ask for task updates. It’s never fun to have to be someone’s source of structure, but Larry the Leader will need to be just that for Randy. If Randy simply has too much going on to do much for the project, instead of overwhelming Randy will large tasks, give him a series of small tasks. This presents itself as more doable in light of his busy schedule, but still equals out to someone with a more extended task.

These are just a handful of group personality types what kind of group project personalities have you had the opportunity to get to know? How did you deal with them and make that personality type work for your group? Share the nitty gritty with us!

How to Save Time in School

Here are some easy ways to help you save time – and stay more productive when the Spring semester begins:

Get up 30 minutes early.
By simply waking up 30 minutes earlier, you’re giving yourself time in the morning to accomplish some tasks early.

Plan your clothes at night.
Decide what you’re going to wear the night before.

Pack a breakfast and/or lunch.
If you’re going to be out all day, save time by preparing your meal the day before – that way you don’t need to visit a fast food restaurant. You’ll save time and eat healthier.

Avoid unnecessary trips to the library.
When you need to write a research paper, plan for a research day where you gather all the information you need in one day. Don’t leave the library until you’ve found all the info you need.

Buy groceries once every two weeks.
Try to save time by only visiting the grocery store once every two weeks.

Make large dinners.
Try to make extra large dinners so that you have plenty of leftovers for lunches or other meals throughout the week.

Avoid buying a morning coffee.
You can save yourself 10 to 15 minutes a day by brewing your own coffee rather than by buying it at your favorite coffee shop. This will save you time and money

What are some other ways you save time?

5 Effortless Steps to Seminar Success

Wouldnt it be great to shine as the top student in all your seminars – winning attention from professors (who might well be writing a reference for you in the future) and getting a high grade?

And wouldnt it be even greater to manage this without doing a ton of extra work?

Heres how to succeed in seminars – effortlessly:

1. Read intelligently beforehand

Of course, youre already doing all the assigned reading for your classes. (If not, thats a good place to start!) But rather than just skimming over the chapter youve been given, read intelligently. Pick out a couple of points in the chapter that you could disagree with, or that relate to something the class has already studied.

When it comes to the seminar itself, going beyond the usual bland points will really make you stand out as someone whos not just read the material for the class, but who has thought about it too. Professors like to see students using their brains – its what youre at college for!

2. Volunteer to go first in the semester

Will you need to give a presentation as part of this seminar? If so, volunteer to be the first one in the running order for the semester. Your professor will be impressed that youve got the courage to go first, plus youll get an easy time of it because you wont have had so long to prepare as other students.

Youll also find that its easier to work on producing a great presentation at the beginning of the semester, when you dont have any other deadlines, instead of towards the end when assignments are piling up.

3. Speak in the first 10 minutes

If you can speak up in the first ten minutes of your seminar, itll be much easier to remain an active participant throughout. Its so easy to sit there silently, trying to work up the courage to speak – but the longer you wait, the harder itll be.

Its also a good idea to answer any easy, introductory questions that come up at the start of the seminar; that way, your professor wont be picking on you for the difficult questions later on. Whenever youre confident of an answer, put your hand up; youll reduce the risk of having to stumble through a response when the professor decides its about time you spoke up.

4. Keep the conversation going

One thing most professors hate is a long silence during a seminar. If you can, do your best to keep the conversation going. That doesnt just mean answering questions when no-one else is volunteering, it also means listening carefully to the points that other people are making, and then chiming in with something that offers a new angle on what theyve said, or that takes their point further.

Dont be afraid to disagree or offer an alternative point of view – but dont ever suggest that fellow students are being stupid. A seminar is a safe environment for you and your classmates to learn and explore ideas, and your professor will appreciate it if you help foster that supportive atmosphere.

5. Thank your professor

It might seem a bit like sucking up, but why not thank your professor at the end of the semester? Yes, youll look weird if you send a hand-written missive after every class saying how grateful you are for their seminars but a short, sincere thank you email after the last class is a nice way to put a smile on your professors face.

You might be surprised how few students ever bother to thank their professors – taking ten minutes to do so could make all the difference when it comes to asking for a reference, or negotiating an extension to your essay deadline.

Are you a seminar super-star? What are your top tips on being a great member of the class?

Guest Writer: Ali Hale is a freelance writer and postgrad student in London, UK. She launched the blog Alpha Student – helping you get the most from your time at university.

Pimp Your USB Thumbdrive – 8 Nifty Apps

I carry around a USB thumbdrive at school because Im always using different library computers.

Over the weekend, I discovered 8 useful apps that can be added to a thumbdrive to aid in productivity.

I hope you find some of these useful as well . . .

Encrypt Your Thumbdrive
First off, make sure to encrypt your USB flash drive to protect your information. You can easily secure everything with TrueCrypt – which is a free, open source encryption software. This means nobody can access your info without a password.

OpenOffice.org Portable
If you want access to your office applications: word, spreadsheets, PowerPoint, you should download this office application.

Portable FireFox
Keep your bookmarks, favorite extensions, and passwords with you wherever you go.

HotNotes
Add sticky notes on your desktop and easily transfer them to your next computer.

Pidgin Portable
Take your IM settings and buddy lists with you. It includes support for all the IM networks like AOL, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and Jabber.

FireFTP Extension
If you want quick access to your FTP, youll love this nifty addition to your thumbdrive.

PeaZip Portable
Compress or uncompress your ZIP files on whatever computer your on.

PortableApps
Ever wish you had your email client, web browser, favorite bookmarks, office suite, and everything else with you at all times? Well, PortableApps is a free program that you can install on your thumbdrive which will give you access to whatever programs/files you have on your personal computer wherever you go.

What do you put on your USB thumbdrive?

Top 20 RSS Feed Readers You Should Know About

Now that the school semester just ended, its time to catch up on some reading.

Im a big fan of Google Reader, but there are a bunch of other great RSS readers out there.

Heres a nifty collection of RSS readers you may not know about:

Alertbear
Desktop-based feed reader for Windows.

Alesti
An RSS reader based on Ajax. Very simple, clean interface.

Bloglines
Organize, save, and share all your favorite feeds and its completely free.

Fastladder
Fastladder claims to help you read the most amount of feeds in the shortest time-frame.

Fav.or.it
Allows you aggregate RSS feeds like a typical reader – and allows you to leave comments on blog posts without leaving the site.

FeedDemon
Get your RSS feeds sent directly to your Windows desktop. Requires Microsoft Windows.

Feedreader
A desktop-based feed reader. Its like a feed reader in Microsoft Outlook.

FeedShow
Free online feed reader that lets you save items locally and covert posts to PDF or print format.

GoogleReader
Organize your feeds into folders, share with friends, save your favorites, and add notes to any post you want. My favorite.

GreatNews
It automatically stores all your feeds locally, so you have access to the feeds even if the site is down. It also integrates nicely into Bloglines.com.

GritWire
Its a personal page like Netvibes that has a SpeedFeed Reader application.

MSN Start
A typical personalized page (a la iGoogle) where you can add feeds of your favorite sites.

My Yahoo
A personalized page that allows you to add your RSS feeds.

Netvibes
A clean-lookin personalized page that allows you subscribe to feeds. I have several friends who like using Netvibes because of the sweet interface.

NewsAlloy
A web-based feed reader that is Mobile/PDA enabled.

NewsGator
The site offers a free web-based RSS feed reader – and a desktop version that integrates into Microsoft Office.

Rojo
A simple RSS reader – similar to Google Reader.

Sage
A nice lightweight RSS feed reader extension for Firefox.

Shrook
A free RSS feed reader for your MAC desktop.

Voyage
Visually-appealing RSS feed reader that lets you scroll through feeds with your mouse wheel.

And if you dont know how RSS readers work, heres a great video that shows you the benefits of subscribing to your favorite web content:

Please let me know of any others that I missed.

Ill be glad to add them here.

The Nuts and Bolts of Time Management

If youve been reading productivity blogs for a while, you probably already know the basics of time management:

  • Making your “To Do” list
  • Focusing on one task/goal at a time
  • Creating deadlines for yourself
  • Rewarding yourself for accomplishing your goals
  • Avoiding procrastination
  • Making time to relax

Its easy to understand these basics, but its another to actually apply them in real-world situations.

As you know, its very easy to lose focus on our daily goals – especially with email, Digg.com, Google Reader, yada, yada, yada.

So thats why Ive found these online resources on time management very practical:

Managing Your Time
Dartmouth developed a nifty list of online resources for time management. The article includes links to a time management video, planning documents, and free calendars to download in both Word and Excel.

Beating Procrastination
The best way to defeat procrastination is to identify it the moment its happening. This article provides 3 practical steps to overcome this weakness in all of us.

10 Tips for Time Management in a Multitasking World
Even though this article is focused on todays office environment, it definitely fits with the life of a busy student.

12 Hours to Better Time Management
Lifehack.org developed a great article on time management. Pay close attention to the first section that discusses how to set up your calendars.

61 Time Saving Tips
This article starts by saying that You DO have enough time for everything and then gives you a laundry list of ways to help you accomplish all your goals.

8 Ways to Avoid Managing Your Time Effectively
Sometimes it helps to read the opposite advice to think clearly about what were doing to waste time.

Time Management Principles for Students
The University of Minnesota Duluth compiled this list of time management strategies for students. Simple and practical.

TimeTracker
TimeTracker is an online tool to help you track the time you spend on each of your tasks. It can help keep you on focused – which is helpful when you need to write a lengthy paper.

Time Management [Video] – Randy Pausch
This lecture was recorded at the University of Virginia – and runs over an hour. Its both informative and entertaining.

How to Stop Procrastinating: 4 Steps to Finally Getting That Project Done

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We all have items on our list that we dont want to do.

And some projects end up staying on our to do list for weeks or even months.

Here are four ways to help you get that research paper or project done in a timely fashion:

1. Assign a realistic deadline for yourself.
The first step to stop procrastinating is to set a realistic deadline for yourself. Research has shown that our performance to complete a task increases as deadlines shorten, but performance declines if the deadline is too brief (Journal of Management).

So write down a realistic date next to your projects and visualize yourself completing it. Make sure the date you assigned is realistic otherwise youre setting yourself up for failure, which can just drive anxiety up and lessen the likelihood youll actually accomplish it.

Once youve set your deadline, create calendar alerts for yourself and reminders to stay on track. I like to set alerts for myself with Google Calendar to keep my momentum going.

2. Break-up big projects into tiny ones.
One reason we dont work on a project is because some are too big (and so we keep pushing it away hoping it will go away). However, just by breaking a big project into small projects can help you build momentum and motivation for finishing.

For example, if I set a goal to write a book in 6 months, it can seem like a difficult project to achieve. However, if I plan on writing just one page a day, I could have a 180 page book done in 6 months easily. Thinking about accomplishing a small task each day is a better way to think about finishing a large project.

3. Ask others to get involved.
One way to spur you further and to ensure youll accomplish your goal is to get another person involved. Have someone check with you to see how youre project is going.

The idea that you need to report on your progress can give you just the right amount of motivation to keep moving on your project. So bring another person in if youre very serious about accomplishing a big goal on time.

4. Reward yourself for accomplishing projects.
One key to helping you complete a task that has been stuck on your to do list is to motivate yourself to get it done. Reward yourself in some way for accomplishing the goal and consider even writing the reward next to the due date. Giving yourself a reward can provide just the push you need to help you achieve your goal and stop procrastinating.

According to Harvard Business Review, Regina Conti, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University and an expert in motivation, provides the example of doing your taxes. A person may want to complete their taxes to avoid the legal penalties of not doing so, but because those penalties are far in the future and the task is a boring one, they will not have much incentive to get started with the project, she says.

To make a task feel more immediate, focus on short-term rewards, such as getting a refund. Or if there arent any, insert your own. Treat yourself to a coffee break, or a quick chat with a co-worker once youve finished a task.

So what about you? How do you fight procrastination and achieve your goals?

Let me know what works for you.

Further Research on Procrastination: