Tag Archives: brain

Math for Neanderthals

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“Locksmith?  Please come as soon as you can!  It’s about to rain and I’ve locked my keys in my convertible with the top down!”  Ouch.  Most of us have done things just as painfully stupid … or, is it just me.  What’s going on?  How is it that we can sometimes behave like total neanderthals?  (I apologize if you, your relatives, or your significant other is a neanderthal.)*

The screw-up comes because we’ve bypassed our brains [hidepost]in favor of a standard response to the problem in front of us.  We are so focused on the way we usually do it–in this case, unlocking the car door with a key–that we overlook the obvious and simple solution.

Enter the GRE and SAT quantitative sections.  The “right way” to do any given math problem was drilled into our heads in junior high and high school math classes.  We did that particular problem type over and over again.  We showed our work.  We lost points if we didn’t follow the method step-by-mind-numbing-step.  Now, whenever we see a familiar problem on the SAT or GRE, we start following the steps, showing our work as we go.

News flash: the testmakers left the top down on the convertible!  If you are looking for the key you learned in high school, you are wasting time.  Since the GRE and SAT are timed tests, you are not expected to do much in the way of long calculations.  If you find yourself doing a ton of calculating, you missed a short cut somewhere.

Example:  Which quantity is greater?    1/16 + 1/4 + 1/7    OR    1/6 + 1/16 + 1/4

If you started looking for a common denominator, tell the locksmith, “nevermind,” and put away your phone.  Just eliminate the fractions both have in common; 1/4 and 1/16 are common to both sequences, so eliminate them.  You’re really just comparing 1/6 to 1/7.  1/6 is the larger fraction, so that’s your answer; no math necessary.

As you work practice problems in preparation for the test, STOP … DROP … and ROLL (hmmm … seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before).  StopDrop your pencil.  And … errr … Roll your eyes over the problem looking for that shortcut.  You KNOW it’s gotta be there. when you find yourself starting on a long series of calculations.

WARNING: this takes practice.  So break out those practice problems and begin searching for shortcuts.

*No neanderthals were harmed in the writing of this post.[/hidepost]

Memorizing Fast and Effectively

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[hidepost]Helpful Software for Memory Tasks

In my classes on GRE and SAT Prep we talk about effective ways to commit all that vocabulary to memory. Reviewing every word every day is a waste of time. You want to study each item as little as possible and still be able to recall it at test time. In class we talked about a way to use different stacks of flashcards to minimize review and maximize recall. SuperMemo 2004 software does the same thing, but much more effectively.

Enter your facts in minimalist, flashcard style. Example; “Q. Lion?, A. Large African cat.” Supermemo 2004 will quiz you on that fact on a schedule designed to minimize reviews while ensuring that it isn’t forgotten. This is very powerful and useful software, and I would DEFINITELY shell out the $19 and use it. One warning; the website and the program are NOT pretty or terribly intuitive. It will take you some time to get used to how the app works, but it pays huge dividends. And it’s not just for vocabulary. You can commit anything to memory using SuperMemo.

Check it out at http://www.supermemo.com/.[/hidepost]

The same-old, boring PB & J

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Once upon a time there was a poor-but-noble college prof who ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches year after palate-petrifying year. After a while, even this most ardent admirer of Jiff and jam began skipping meals. Welcome to the gray, twilight existence of your average college prof, doomed to grade an unending and uninspired procession of pallid papers and plain-jane projects–the same-old, boring pb&j.

“What’s that knocking?” you inquire. Why, friend, that is none other than opportunity! You can rescue them from yet another helping of the paper equivalent of pb&j, serving them up instead a succulent seabass souffle, asparagus enchante drizzled in truffle oil, and an audacious yet piquant white wine. Ummmm … must … have … seabass.

“But how?” you moan. “As it is, I barely have time to slap some expired peanut butter and cheap jelly onto a stale slice of Wonderbread. Who has the time to come up with such original and four-star fare?” Stop talking to yourself, and I’ll tell you. Take two minutes to brainstorm. Here’s how…

  1. identify the topic. Usually the prof does this part for you. Perhaps she has requested a ten-page treatise on the rise and much-regretted fall of the baby-blue tuxedo in American fashion. Or better yet, that engineering prof with the regrettable haircut has mandated a group project whereby you will design and present an engineering solution to prevent navel lint in large, hirsute men, whilst your erstwhile teammates order pizza and apprise you of all that you are missing on Family Guy.
  2. Write said topic at the top of a blank sheet of paper or on the back of a napping teammate, and set a timer for two minutes.
  3. As the timer ticks, write out solutions/treatments of the topic as fast and furious as your sweaty meat hooks and overworked noggin will allow. Don’t edit now; just write. Abbrev. Summarize. JUST…GET…IT…DOWN. In fact, throw in a few ideas that would cause your psych prof to tut-tut under his breath and eye you suspiciously. At least one in five of your ideas should be complete, drug-induced drivel. You’ll be surprised (no, really, you will) at how often those ideas will spur you on to really original anti-drivel. Go for at least twenty ideas in two minutes.
  4. When the time is up, go back and add, subtract, multiply, and divide your list of ideas. Add ideas together to make new and bigger ideas; ideas with hair on their chests and a gleam in their eyes. Subtract the sub-usable ideas; kick’em to the curb. Multiply by riffing off the ideas you have down, and divide up complex ideas into their simpler parts.

Out of twenty ideas you might get five that don’t induce wretching and contribute to male-pattern baldness, and maybe two that are really exceptionally clever, if you do say so yourself. Take the pick of the litter and work it into a meal fit for a monarch of some sort.

Your prof, freed from the tyranny of the standard pb&j, will give you a much better grade than you deserve. And they all lived happily ever after.