Tag Archives: book

Get a Head Start On Problem-Solving Courses This Semester


Taking chemistry, biochem, physics, calculus, or their ilk? These courses are light on information to be memorized and heavy on problems to be solved and concepts to be grasped.

That takes time, effort, and repetition, just like learning to play the violin or to draw realistically. Here are some steps to make these sorts of courses much more manageable.

  1. Don’t wait to get started. You can’t cram for these courses, so start studying on day one of the class.
  2. Study regularly with frequent breaks. Your brain needs time between each study session to process new concepts, so study a little in the morning, a little in the afternoon, and do it each day. Research shows that marathon study sessions tend to be less effective.
  3. Don’t substitute learning-about for learning. It’s very tempting to just read through your class notes or the textbook repeatedly. You feel like you are studying, but you really won’t get any better at solving the problems. To get better at the violin, you play the violin; you don’t read about playing the violin. Do practice problems, starting with easier ones and working to harder ones. Of course, your initial introduction to the concepts will usually come from a teacher and/or a text
  4. Get help. When you get stuck, go get help! Possible sources include; friends, teaching assistants, professors, the text book (useful now to help you get over a hurdle), other texts, the internet, and professional tutors.
  5. Don’t wait around to get help either, since the concepts often build on one another. You can’t just skip a difficult concept and hope it doesn’t matter. Before you know it, you’ll have missed three more concepts because they depend on your grasping that first concept.
  6. Set study goals for every class, rather than for every test. Again, since mastery is cumulative, you must learn each concept as it is presented. After each class your goal is to completely master the new concepts before your next class NOT before your next test. The good news is that, if you just keep up, you will have little to do before the tests. Artists don’t need to go back and practice stick figures after they’ve mastered life drawing. You won’t need to go back and practice the basics you learned at the beginning of the semester.
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

How to Become a Math Expert


You aren’t going to like the answer, I’m afraid. They way to become an expert is to really work at it. I’m not being glib. Malcolm Gladwell explains (brilliantly, as usual) in his new book, Outliers, which I highly recommend.

Gladwell builds a very convincing argument that math skill is much more closely related to persistence and hard work than any innate ability. Bottomline: The more you do math, the better you get at math.

Most convincing study: Every four years, elementary and junior high students around the world take the TIMSS test of math and science. The test begins with a long, boring series of 120 questions designed to get the students’ background–parents level of education, home life, views on science, etc.

Continue reading How to Become a Math Expert

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Free SAT and GRE Help and Practice


I often post links to free online practice for the GRE and SAT, but there is much more available at your local library. Check out the prep books and work through them. Even if they are a few years out of date, chances are the majority of the information–especially the actual practice problems and tests–are exactly the same this year as they have been for the last two or three.

I go through many of the new SAT and GRE books every year just to make sure my SAT and GRE prep courses are staying on top of the latest techniques. Guess what? There are almost never any new techniques! The prep companies tend to just fix errors (and introduce new errors they’ll be fixing next year) and rearrange the basic layout a bit.

CAUTION: Make sure you visit the GRE and SAT official websites to look over their latest news and updates, when things do change significantly, that’s a great place to find out about it. I will also send out an email update to my list to keep them on top of things. You can sign up for my list here.

Here’s a link to a previous post that will help you make the most of those prep books. Although some of the post is for premium members only, there is plenty of useful stuff freely available (especially the link at the bottom about “my personal picks” for which GRE and SAT prep books to use).

Another CAUTION: One study found that buying a prep book had no effect on SAT scores–zero. Of course, “buying” a prep book is not the same as diligently working through the prep book. The highest increases in scores came from taking a prep course; the more personalized, the better (ie. high school sponsored prep courses were somewhat helpful, private SAT prep classes were more effective, and one-on-one tutoring was most effective).

If working through a difficult prep book by yourself is not best for you (and it’s not for most students), feel free to contact me about live, one-on-one tutoring via internet (blair [at] studyprof [dot] com). If you are in the Bryan/College Station, Texas, area, check out my live classes at http://studentsuccess.tamu.edu.

Have Your Best Semester Ever!


Remember the end of last semester? How you felt completely buried by all the projects and studying you had to get done? Sleepless nights buried under books and class notes. Fingernails chewed to the knuckles from sheer panic. Resolve right now not to let it happen this semester!

Here’s one simple way you can make finals (and mid-terms) a walk in the proverbial park. Start studying now!

I know, it’s the beginning of the semester … you’re still trying to work off the extra Christmas-cookie pounds … you’re still getting up at the crack of noon. Just showing up for class is a challenge right now.

Trust me. Start studying now. Keep up with your reading (you might even … gasp! … read ahead). Do your homework on the day it’s assigned rather than the day it’s due.

Much of being a study ninja boils down to doing it now rather than letting it pile up. Just think, everyone else is slacking for the first two weeks of the semester.  You’ll be two weeks ahead of the curve!  Here’s a nice illustration …

The SAT: An Overview


The SAT Reasoning Test (note: NOT the subject specific SAT tests) is used widely by colleges and universities as one of their admissions criteria.  It is also often used as a criterion in awarding scholarships. It is claimed to test students’ abilities in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics; subjects that are supposed to predict those students’ college success. It does not, however, do a very good job at this task, even by the admission of the College Board, the company that makes the SAT.

Normally taken by high school juniors and seniors, it’s become a dreaded rite of passage for many high school students around the world.  Let’s take a look at the basic layout of the test.

Given seven times a year in the U.S., and six times a year overseas. the SAT tests three different areas; reading, writing, and math.  Each of these are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale, and people usually talk about a combined score, adding the scores from each section together.  A mid-level score might be 1500, while a perfect score would be 2400.

SAT Sections

The SAT has several different question types including a short essay, five-choice multiple-choice questions, and grid-ins, where the student enters their answer on a number grid.

The Writing Section

The SAT Writing section takes a total of sixty minutes; thirty-five minutes test grammar and word usage in the form of multiple-choice questions.  Students will also be asked to spend twenty-five minutes writing an essay.

More details about this section, including exact question types and examples can be found here.  The writing section is relatively new and many colleges and universities do not even consider it in their admissions.  To find out how your schools of choice handle it, you will have to ask their admission’s counselors directly.

The Reading Section

The critical reading sections of the SAT include two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  Question types include sentences with a blank or two blanks in which you must pick the best word or words to go in the blanks.  This mainly tests vocabulary.  There are also short reading passages over which students must answer a series of questions about passage details, structure, main idea, author’s intentions, etc.  These questions mainly test reading comprehension and are the single, hardest section in which to increase your score, mainly because reading comprehension takes months or years to improve significantly.

See more details and examples of these question types here.

The Math Section

The math section of the SAT is also divided between two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  While the majority of the questions are five-choice multiple choice questions, there are also grid-in questions (the College Board calls these “student-produced response” questions), where students must fill in their answers.  The math section tests algebra, geometry, graphing, functions, basic statistics, and data-analysis.  American students can expect to have learned everything they might see on the SAT by tenth grade.

Students are allowed to use a calculator, although every question can be answered without one.  To see the specific question types and examples as well as more details on calculator usage look here.

The Unscored Section

Students will also have an additional twenty-five minute section in either critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice.  This section is used by College Board to try out new questions, and it does not count towards your score.  However, it will not be identified as an experimental section, and you shouldn’t try and guess which section is the unscored section.  Just do your best on all the sections.

College Board claims that this section is used to make sure tests and question types are comparable from test to test and to “insure fairness.”  It also enables them to do some research at your expense.

Test Format

The SAT has a total of 10 sections. The 25-minute essay always comes first, and the final section will always be a 10-minute long, multiple-choice, writing section. Sections two through seven are always 25-minutes each and will alternate between reading, math, and writing in relatively random order. Sections eight and nine are 20-minutes each. In a single SAT administration you and the test-takers next to you may all have different versions of the test with section types (math, reading, writing) in different orders.  There are also two, ten-minute breaks; one after the third test section, and one following the sixth section.


It is very important to prepare for the SAT, not only to make it easier for you to get into the college of your choice, but also to put yourself in the best position to get scholarships and fellowships.  Plan on taking it two or even three times.  You can take a free SAT test here.  I’ve also written about my preferred test prep books here, and I’ve written about the advisability of taking a prep course here (although the article is specifically about the GRE test–similar to the SAT but used for graduate school admissions–the principles are much the same.  I’ve also written on the best schedule to prepare for a test such as this (again, it’s written specifically for the GRE, but the principles are identical.)

Graduating With a Plan of Action


You spend a lot of energy making graduation plans, but do you have a plan of action for after graduation to jumpstart your career? Many people struggle with career choices before making that important life-changing decision that will define who they are for years to come. It is hard to imagine that a new graduate would still struggle with what they want to do with their new college degree. Even if they know, they might not know the next step to take. This article will give a few pointers on how to get started with a plan of action. Continue reading Graduating With a Plan of Action

Talk Yourself Into Better Test Scores


From the series Better Test Performance the Navy SEALs Way.

In a recently televised interview, the Navy SEALs command psychologist, Eric Potterat, listed four key mental techniques taught to SEAL candidates.  Self talk, the third technique listed, concerns how we focus our thoughts in high-stress situations.  Here’s how you can apply this to help increase your own test performance.

Students who panic on the SAT, GRE, or on classroom exams often have destructive patterns of self talk.  They think to themselves, “Oh no.  I missed those last two questions.  I just know it!  I’ll probably fail this whole test and make a D in the class.  I’ll have to drop out of school.  My parents are going to kill me! I’ll probably end up playing xBox 24/7, eating cheesie poofs out of the giant family-size bag, and drinking massive amounts of Mad Dog 20/20 just to drown the pain of the train wreck that is my life!”

Needless to say, that sort of thinking doesn’t help you solve the next calculus problem.  In fact, it produces massive amounts of panic chemicals that make higher-order thinking almost impossible.

Solution?  Instead of talking yourself into a panic, talk yourself into a better state.  One easy way to put this into practice is a technique I call the personal cheerleader.  Here’s how…

  1. Think of someone right now who encourages you when you feel defeated or depressed.  Could be your mom, dad, a coach, a boyfriend, girlfriend, whoever.
  2. Mentally take that person with you to the test.
  3. When you start to panic, have your mental cheerleader give you a little pep-talk.  “You can do it!  Don’t worry about that question.  Concentrate on the next one.”
  4. BONUS: You can take as many mental cheerleaders as you like to the test, and you can take whoever you want.  Try Brad Pitt or the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.  Try Brad Pitt AND the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Changing the way you talk to yourself as a way to increase your success is supported by scads of great research.  But it doesn’t work unless you do it.  Put it into practice today!

Of the 1,200 entering freshmen at West Point in 1987, 100 quit within the first two months.  Why?  These are some of the best and brightest young people our nation has to offer.  To even be admitted they must score high on the SAT, be in excellent physical condition, be top-ranked in high school, and have gone through a strenuous and time-consuming application and admissions process.  What is it about those 100 young men and women that makes them drop out in sixty days or less?

Psychologist Martin Seligman thinks he has the answer.  In his ground-breaking book, Learned Optimism, Dr. Seligman explains that the 100 who dropped out all explained events to themselves poorly.  They tended to explain their failures in terms that were personal (“It’s my own fault”), permanent (“It will never change”), and pervasive (“It undermines everything I do”).  In short, they were pessimists.  Optimists, on the other hand, see their setbacks as not their fault, temporary, and not important in the long run.

Optimists turn out to be more successful than pessimists in many aspects of life.  They make better sales people, they live longer, they are less likely to get depressed or quit, they do better in school, they do better at work, and they do better at sports.  Optimist candidates are more likely to get elected.  Optimists are even healthier!

How does this affect your test performance?  If you are pessimistic you tend to see a low test score as a disaster that cannot be remedied.  It’s your own fault for being lazy or stupid.  It will never change.  It will affect you entire college career.  If that’s your take on things, why bother with studying next time?  Talking to yourself in this manner causes you to give up prematurely.

Easy fix; change how you talk to yourself.  Think right now about the last test you bombed.  Why did you bomb it?  Is it because you are dumb?  Now argue with that reasoning!  “Wait, I’m not dumb.  I beat my roommate in chess all the time, and she’s got a full scholarship.  Besides, I got an A in bio-chem last semester when half the class failed.”

Make excuses for yourself.  “I stayed out too late the night before, and the prof put a bunch of stuff on there that she didn’t mention in class.  Besides, we get to throw out one test score anyway.”  All of these excuses are fixable.  You can get to sleep earlier.  You can go by during office hours and ask the prof to help you make sure you cover everything.

Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, is fascinating reading and provides some more in-depth hints on how to move yourself from pessimism to optimism.  Check it out!

From the Series “Better Test Performance The Navy SEALs Way”
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Are You Smart Enough to Get Good Grades?


Do you have enough mental muscle to get the grades you want or to score as high as you would like on the SAT or GRE?  I’ve pointed out several times that peak mental performance depends more on technique than on sheer power, however, there is no doubt that having a beefy brain does make things easier.

Good news!  Neurological research has demonstrated that the brain responds to mental exercise much like a muscle.  The more you work it, the stronger it gets.  I’m not just referring to IQ; the brain itself actually grows physically in response to training.

Vincenzo Malacarne, an 18th Century Italian scientist first discovered this when he trained birds to do a series of complex tricks.  Later he dissected the birds’s brains and found increased folding in the brains of the trained birds.  The modern technological breakthroughs in brain scans have shown similar variations in human brains in response to learning.

This is great news.  It means that, just as our bodies respond to exercise by becoming stronger and healthier, so do our noggins.  So break out those books and start pumping info!  You can get smarter!

Best Schedule for Studying for the GRE (or any test!)


Many of the test prep books out there include schedules to help you prepare for the GRE or SAT, but every single one that I’ve seen has a fatal flaw!  Their schedules would have you studying each topic only once before the test.  That’s crazy!  No one will master a difficult topic, much less remember it a month or two later, if they’ve only practiced it once.

Many teachers know about spiraling curriculums.  A spiraling curriculum ensures that students keep coming back to the same topic at regular intervals.  This increases recall and promotes mastery.

Our schedule should do the same; things we know we should study less and less as the day approaches.  Things we struggle with we should work on more and more.  Moreover, the best study schedule would be flexible enough to work whether you have a week, a month, or a year in which to prepare.

Here’s a simple method that will…

  1. Make sure you study everything you need to before the test.  No worries about skipping something vital!
  2. Automatically have you review most the things with which you struggle most.  No wasted time.
  3. Enable you to clearly identify what you actually need to study.  That means confidence on the test.
  4. Put the knowledge into your long term memory.  No fear of studying it now and then forgetting it by test time.
  5. Enable you to study as much or as little as you need to in order to prep.  It’s easily configurable to your schedule and needs.

First, get a test prep book (or two) that is comprehensive, giving plenty of attention to each section of the test.  You want a book that explains things in a way that you find easy to understand.  The best way is to go to a book store, pick out five or six likely looking candidates, and thumb through each of them.  Pick the one that appeals most to you.  You’ll quickly find that they all have very similar techniques, but that some seem easier to understand or are more comprehensive.  Here are my personal picks for SAT and GRE.

Next, get a book that has actual practice exams.  I recommend GRE: Practicing to Take the General Test 10th Edition, which contains actual GRE tests released in the past.

Now begin following this schedule.

[hidepost]Day 1: Spend 45 minutes or so go through each different section (verbal, quantitative, and written analytical).  Read carefully.  Do the practice problems and work through all the examples.

At the end of each 45 minutes of study, bookmark the page you’ve reached, and take a five minute break.  After the break, begin your next 45 minute session.  On the GRE, this would mean you spend 45 minutes working through the quantitative section of the prep book.  Then take a five minute break.  After the break, spend 45 minutes going through the verbal section followed by a break.  Finally, spend 45 minutes studying the written analytical.  I would do another 45 minutes section learning new vocabulary as well.  More on that below.

Day 2:  Pick up where you left off doing the same 45 minutes + break pattern.  Work all the way through each section–verbal, quantitative, and written analytical–in this manner.  When you’ve worked all the way through a given section, quantitative for example, start over at the beginning of that section.

But now your schedule will change up a bit.  Spend twenty minutes working through the section each day.  As you come to things that you know well, put a check mark next to those items.  Next time you go back through the quantitative, you’ll see that check mark and know that you don’t need to study it.  You can skip it.

Spend the rest of your 45 minutes working actual practice problems from the other book.  Don’t forget to go back to any you miss and try and determine exactly why you missed them!

Days 3 and 4: Repeat the process.  In each section, you will work all the way through it in 45 minute per day increments.  Then you will start over at the beginning of the section and repeat the process, dividing up the 45 minutes into review of the book and practicing actual problems.  Each time you review the section, you’ll check off more and more topics that you’ve mastered.  That means you’ll end up spending more and more time on the things you haven’t mastered.

Day 5: Pick an area in which your weakest in each of the sections and devote your full 45 minutes to mastering that one topic.  If the book you bought isn’t helping you grasp the concept fully, go back to the book store and look up the same topic in a couple of different books or do a search on the internet for lessons on that topic.  Here are some good sites for math help, some tips for essays, and some verbal help as well.  For example, in the quantitative I’m having a tough time figuring out how to do permutation and combination problems, so I’ll spend 45 minutes doing a tutorial on that topic I found on the internet.  After a break, I’ll spend 45 minutes working on mastering the sentence completions that have given me so much trouble, etc.

Day 6: Do an entire practice test that’s as close to the real thing as you can get.  Treat it like it’s really the test!  This is where you will identify key weaknesses, get down your timing, and build your mental stamina.  For GRE practice tests, I would begin with the free PowerPrep software from ETS.

Day 7: Take a day off to rest and recuperate.  This is important!  If you get burned out and stop studying or slow down too much it could be a disaster.  Take time off!

This schedule works great just as it is for practically any test.  For the GRE, I might apply this schedule as written if I were taking the GRE in one month.

If you have more time and energy for studying each day, you might run through the sequence twice a day (that is, you might do day one and two on one day, day two and three on the next day, etc.). If you have six months to practice, you might break it down, so that you aren’t doing as much each day, but follow the same sequence to make sure you cover everything.  If you only have one week to study, you may decide to do double or even triple your study each day.  Again, just stick with the sequence.

Make sure you don’t neglect your vocabulary, since learning new vocabulary is the single best way to increase your score in the verbal section.  I would treat that as an extra 45 minute section each day.  If you don’t have time to learn at least 300 new words before the test, I wouldn’t bother.  Less than that and you’ll have little chance of actually seeing enough of the new words you learned to increase your score.  300 words is the minimum; learn 1,000 or even 3,000 and you can add hundreds of points to your score.

Certain sections, such as the verbal, won’t require too much review before you have all the techniques down.  Once you feel confident in applying the techniques, the only way to improve is to increase your vocabulary.  At that point, instead of continuing to do 45 minutes of practice and review on the verbal, devote that time to doing more vocabulary.  Similarly, after you have written five or six of the written analytical essays, you may decide to stop practicing that and devote more of your time to some other area where you struggle.

If you apply this schedule above, doing four 45 minute sections (verbal, quantitative, written, and vocabulary) plus breaks each day, your study time works out to three hours and 15 minutes a day, six days a week.  Of course, you may be able to do less per day if you begin to prepare for the test several months out.

Use this schedule to break your studies down into manageable chunks.  You can work with the confidence that you’ll cover everything you need to do well on the test.  You can also be sure that your spending your time on the areas that will pay off most for you![/hidepost]

What’s the Best Way to Study When I Have Several Tests In The Same Week?


Mid-terms and finals are the bane of most college students’ existence.  One final exam would be bad enough, but at the end of the semester we often have to take two or three exams in a single day!  It’s enough to make even the most studious among us pine for the life of a beach bum.

If you find yourself in this unenviable position, here are some tips and tricks to help you make the best of a bad situation.

Continue reading What’s the Best Way to Study When I Have Several Tests In The Same Week?