Tag Archives: brain

More Productive Studying By Raising Your Heart Rate


Exercise in many ways optimizes your brain to learn. –Dr. John Ratey

In my personal practice I’ve found it helpful to get up from my studies or work every thirty to forty-five minutes and do some exercise … something to get my blood pumping … something that I can complete in two to five minutes. I use this helpful (free) timer to keep me on track.

I’ve found that my concentration levels remain higher, I’m more productive, and I can work much longer over all. I also don’t end up feeling as tired by the end of the day.

You will, of course, need to identify things that work well for you personally (and, of course, consult a doctor if you have any physical issues). The point is to get your heart rate up a bit.

I personally alternate between these exercises…

  • push ups
  • sit ups
  • brisk walking around the block
  • jogging
  • jumping jacks
  • squats or lunges
  • curls (I just use a basic pair of dumbbells I have)
  • bench press
  • dips (putting my feet on one chair and my hands on two more chairs)
  • shadow boxing
  • crunches

You can find demos of many/most of these at youtube.

By the way, there is solid research finding a correlation between exercise and better brain functioning.

Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT


PSAT/NMSQT stands for “Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is the precursor to the SAT and, most importantly, it’s used to qualify for those coveted National Merit Scholarships you hear so much about.

Colleges pay attention to National Merit Scholars; that means they will come looking for you, instead of you having to try to get admitted! Even better; they will often actually pay for you to go to their school! As a National Merit Scholar you may be awarded additional scholarships to cover tuition, room and board, and even extra pocket money so you don’t have to work at all during college. In short, landing that National Merit Scholarship can make you tens of thousands of dollars AND make you look really good!

What is it? Continue reading Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT

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.

Flash Cards


Flash cards are a powerful tool to help you memorize things such as vocabulary, mathematical formulas, history facts, and spelling. Here are some strategies to help you get the most from your flash cards.

Use flashcards in several different colors. Use each color as a cue to help recall something about the fact on that flash card. For example, if you are using the flash cards to memorize vocabulary words, use a different color for words that have different connotations. Positive words–such as benign, sagacious, and staunch–could go on green or blue 3×5 cards. Negative words–such as mendacious ,stultify, and malevolent–might go on red or yellow 3×5 cards. Neutral words–like rebuttal, soporific, and nominal–could go on white or tan cards. The particular colors you use don’t really matter as long as you are consistent.

Illustrate and embellish the cards. Use different color markers. Draw pictures on the card or even cut them out of a magazine and paste them on the card. The more you work at making the card distinctive, the easier it will be to recall.

Carry the cards around with you and review them whenever you have a chance; at the stoplight, before class, in the line at the grocery store or the bank, on long trips, or walking across campus. Make reviewing the cards a daily habit just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.

Don’t put too much on any one card. The biggest mistake people make is putting too much information on a single flash card. One card equals one fact.

Put the word to be learned on one side of the card and a short two or three word definition on the other side. On a history fact card, for example, you might have “George Washington” on the first side of the card and “first U.S. president” on the other side. You should NOT have “George Washington,” on one side of the card and “first U.S. president, from Virginia, general in revolutionary war,” on the second side of the card.

Change the order of the cards frequently. If the cards always come in the same order, you will start to memorize the order of the answers. It will be much more difficult later to try and recall the facts in a different order.

Flip the cards over from time to time. If you always review the flash card by seeing “Austin” on one side and recalling “Capitol of Texas,” on the other side, then that’s how you will recall it.  When asked, “What’s the capitol of Texas?” you won’t be able to recall it as well, because that isn’t how you studied it.

Make the flash cards as you learn.  Carry around a stack of blank 3×5 cards. As you come across a piece of information you want to memorize, make a flash card and add it to your daily stack. Caution: don’t try and take notes from a class lecture on flash cards, since the connections between ideas are often just as important as any one fact. Take notes and then–immediately after class–decide what key facts should be committed to memory. Put each of those facts on a flash card.

Don’t mix your subjects, since you tend to recall things in context. If you mix up your math flash cards with your history flash cards, it will be much more difficult to recall the history by itself (on a history test, for example), because you learned the two subjects together.

Flash Card Stacks

Separate your cards into stacks that get reviewed at different intervals. You should have an initial stack that gets your attention several times a day. Each time you instantly and correctly recall a card, make a small check mark on it. When the card has two check marks, move it to the next stack.

The next stack is only reviewed every three days; Wednesdays and Saturdays, for example. When cards in that stack can be perfectly recalled, move them to a stack you only review once per week, say every Sunday.

After that, move cards to a once-every-three-weeks stack, which you will probably need to schedule on your calendar. You can then add a nine-week stack, a six-month stack, a one-year stack, etc.

Everyone’s brain is different, so you’ll have to find the intervals that work best for you. Your goal is to review each card as little as possible while still getting excellent recall.

Let’s say you are looking over that once-a-week stack on Sunday and there are two cards that you’ve spent five minutes on, trying to remember them, but it just isn’t coming to you. Move those two cards back to the stack you carry around with you, and send it through the system again. Don’t move a card to the next stack until your recall is instantaneous and perfect; for example, you see the Spanish word, la vaca on one side, and you immediately think cow.

Hint: If you can’t immediately recall the word, don’t cheat and look at the other side!  Struggle with it and rack your brain to recall it, even if it takes four or five minutes.  When you finally do recall it, the memory will be much stronger!


© 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.

How to Memorize Formulas and More


Trying to memorize formulas or equations?  You can use mnemonics, as I’ve mentioned previously, but you’ll need to modify your methods a bit to take into account numbers and symbols.  Perhaps the best way to make the method clear is to give you a few examples.

Let’s look at the quadratic formula first.

Going from left to right, I turn the formula into a story or scene with each number and symbol represented in the story. Continue reading How to Memorize Formulas and More

Arousal Control Can Help You Perform Better on Exams

Test Stress Can Shut You Down!
Test Stress Can Shut You Down!

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.  Arousal control, the third technique listed, concerns how we keep calm in stressful situations.  Here’s how you can apply this to help increase your own test performance.

You know that sinking feeling you sometimes get when you first turn over that exam and see a question you don’t know how to answer?  Often times you’ll start to sweat and you may feel jittery and hot.  That’s a panic response.  It worked great 5,000 years ago when your great-great-great-great grandfather was being chased by a bear. His heart rate shot through the roof.  Cortisol–the stress chemical–flooded his system, making him hyper-vigilant to environmental cues and allowing him to react quickly and instinctively.  Blood flowed away from non-essential organs, such as the stomach, and rushed to major muscle groups so he could fight or run away. Helpful for getting away from bears; very unhelpful for concentrating on tests.

So how do we convince our brains to stop panicking so we can do our best on the exam?  The answer is what psychologists term “arousal control,” and one of the easiest ways to do it is by breathing carefully and deliberately. Taking slow deep breaths with controlled exhales works to convince the brain that we are not in a situation where panic is helpful.  Expectant mothers in Lamaze classes, meditating monks, the SEALs, and folk wisdom all agree.  “Just take a couple of deep breaths,” is good advice. Follow this formula…

  1. Inhale deeply, slowly counting to six as you do so
  2. Hold the breath for a count of two
  3. Exhale slowly for a six count, trying to completely expel every bit of air from your lungs.  Feel your face, neck, and shoulders relax as you exhale.  Blow the tension out with your breath.
  4. Hold for a two count
  5. Repeat three times at least
  6. Practice this on a daily basis–in traffic, in line at the grocery store, waiting for class to start–and you’ll soon master the technique

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.

Better Test Performance The Navy SEALs Way


The elite SEALs teams—the U.S. Navy’s Special Ops forces—have discovered how to make their trainees more successful at completing the mythically-tough training and actually become Navy SEALs.  In fact, they now teach trainees stress control techniques that may be responsible for helping to boost the number of successful passing candidates from one fourth of each class to one third of each class.

Amazingly, these techniques are very similar to what I’ve been teaching my students for years.  No magic here.  What I teach comes directly out of good psychological research, and the SEALs have been doing their homework!

According to a recent History Channel documentary on brain science, SEAL trainees are now taught four key stress control techniques that allow them to perform better even during the grinding SEAL Hell Week.

The four keys?  Goal Setting, Mental Rehearsal, Self Talk, and Arousal Control.  I normally teach these techniques in my GRE prep course to help students cope with test anxiety and daunting study schedules.

Check back tomorrow as we look at how the SEALs use goal setting to overcome stress and how you can use it to excel during finals!

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!

The Best Study Schedule (updated)


(this is an updated version of a post from January 2008)

I’ve posted quite a bit on how and when to study in order to maximize recall, but putting it all together may be a bit daunting.  Follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll be well on your way to the top of the class!  These may seem deceptively simple, but every one of these steps is supported by research.  Start following these steps NOW to boost your grades and recall.

Best Study Schedule

  1. Study every day rather than studying for long periods on one or two days a week
  2. As far as it is possible, establish a regular daily study schedule
  3. Study early in the day as much as possible.  Most (but certainly not all) brains function better earlier in the day.
  4. Study between classes during time that would normally be wasted
  5. Study in short sessions, from twenty to forty-five minutes each
  6. Take frequent breaks from two to fifteen minutes long between each session and do something completely unrelated
  7. Review at the beginning an end of each study session
  8. Study new material within fifteen minutes of learning it, and again within twelve hours.  Aim for 100% mastery
  9. Study the cumulative class notes at least once per week
  10. Don’t study at night or on the weekends when it can be avoided.  Rest is just as important as study!  Exception: A brief review right before bed can cement information in.  For example, if I spent two hours going over new notes during the day, I might take ten minutes right before I close my eyes to mentally rehearse the material.