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Why learners should be teachers

I learned more math working here at Wells Academics in my senior year of college than I learned in my years earning a Mathematics degree at UCSD.

Why?

Because there is no better test of how well you understand something than having to teach it to someone else.

I remember when I started here at Wells Academics, Jared asked me what levels of math I was comfortable with. “All levels” of course! I was a math major! Geometry, trigonometry, algebra, calculus. That’s kid’s stuff.

Then I sat down and worked with my first student. I realized very quickly that “I got an A when I was tested on this” is very different from, “I’m able to answer questions an intelligent high school student might ask” and “I’m able to communicate ideas effectively to a student who is confused.”

This memory has influenced the way that I hire instructors. But more importantly it has influenced the way I teach. I can sense very clearly when I am teaching something that is on the edge of my expertise as opposed to something that I am rock solid on. It’s given me an “early warning” that this is something that I need to put some time to reach a higher level of mastery on.

It also influences my expectations for our students. When my students claim that they understand a concept, I ask them to teach it to me. It becomes very quickly apparent to what degree the student has mastered the concept. Much more so than just having the student work through a problem (which they may have just memorized their way through). Not being able to explain something is a sign that the student will not be able to use that concept in a way that they didn’t expect or hadn’t practiced. It’s a reason students go into tests feeling confident, but don’t get the grades they expect.

Too many students learn very rigid styles of thinking in their classes at school. As long as they can mechanically work through a problem, it doesn’t matter if they understand the underlying principles. I’ve yet to meet the student who, coming in for a session the day before a test on logarithms, can satisfactorily answer the question, “What is a logarithm?” Most students seem surprised to be even asked the question in the first place.

How students can use this idea in their test prep

When you are working through a problem that you feel that you’re just barely on the edge of understanding, start from the beginning and explain, out loud, how you would teach this concept to another student. Don’t just say the steps you took. Imagine you are teaching this problem to a brand new student. What are the important concepts to understand? Why did you do each step in the process?

It’s important that this is out loud: it’s easy to gloss over something if you are only thinking it through in your mind.

Listen carefully to your explanation. There will be parts which, to you, sound crystal clear. There will also be parts in which you search for the right way to explain. Lot’s of hemming and hawing. Don’t let yourself off with “I get it…I just can’t explain it”. Being able to explain something is a demonstration of a high level of mastery. Your inability to do so is an opportunity: you found a gap in your understanding! Dig in to this (or make a note to ask your instructor about it during your session.)

Another great way to put this to use? Create study groups.

How parents can help

Ask your son or daughter to explain some concepts to you that they are learning about in their test prep (or even in school). If they are currently working with us, look at their most recent session reports to get some ideas of what they’ve been covering in sessions and homework. Even if it’s a topic that you personally are not confident with, just be an interested listener.

Ask questions. Try to understand what they are explaining to you. You’ll be able to hear when your son or daughter is confident and explaining clearly versus uncertain and hesitating.

Want to discuss an SAT/ACT test prep program that teaches your kids to think, rather than to memorize and regurgitate? Contact us, email help@wellsacademics.com or call 858.551.2650 today. I’d love to talk with you about how we can help.
-Vince

“Garden path” sentences and the SAT/ACT English

The old man the boat.

Does that look like a complete sentence to you? Probably not.

Surprisingly, it is!

This sentence is an example of something that linguists call a “garden path sentence”. It’s a sentence that, as you read, you feel like you understand where it is going, but seemingly leads to a dead end. They rely on your preconceived ideas about what the structure and purpose of a sentence will be as you read it. In order to understand it, you need to re-trace your steps and figure out where you were misled.

You might look at that sentence and say something like, “It’s just two things. It’s like saying ‘Tree table.’ is a complete sentence.” Good! You’re on the right track.

Let’s take a look at it more closely:

The old man the boat.

First, we need to understand that every sentence needs two parts: a predicate (the part of the sentence containing the verb) and the subject (the noun or pronoun that is doing the predicate). This sentence seems to be missing a predicate: there is no action!

Of course, if there is no verb (no action), it isn’t a complete sentence. But I just told you that is, in fact, a complete sentence. So what gives?

Thing is, while some garden path sentences can be easily figured out by “retracing your steps”, others can tough to untangle without a strong understanding of your parts of speech and what is needed to create a complete sentence. Garden path sentences often rely on a word being understood by the reader as one part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc) or part of sentence (subject, object) but meant by the writer to be a something else.

Have you figured it out yet?

“The old” is the subject (older people, as a group)
“man” is the verb (that is, they run the boat, as in “man your battlestations!”)

Garden path sentences are a great way to test your mastery of the parts of speech and parts of the sentence. Here are a few more to puzzle over, with some hints below. See if you can understand the meaning and the source of the ambiguity, and rewrite the sentence more clearly.

The horse raced past the barn fell.
The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
Fat people eat accumulates.
I convinced her children are noisy
The prime number few.

Hints
What is the subject of “fell”? Read about past participles.
What is the subject of “grows”?
What part of speech is “fat”? What is the subject of accumulates?
What part of speech is “her”? What is the subject of “are noisy”?
What is the verb in this sentence?

Crash Blossoms

There is one place that garden path sentences are much more likely to appear, and that is in newspaper headlines. With their emphasis on brief, sharp sentences, newspaper headlines often leave out articles, conjunctions, and punctuation. This can lead to misunderstood headlines!

The name “Crash Blossoms” comes from an infamous headline

Which led readers to ask: what the heck is a “crash blossom”!

Answer: It’s a garden path headline!

The problem with this sentence? Our mind tends to assume that words that are close together are related. So we assume that “crash” is (somehow?) modifying a noun, “blossoms”. The writer’s intention, though, was to say that the violinist is blossoming.

Here are a few famous ones. See if you can figure out their meaning, and more importantly, what the source of the confusion is, and how you would re-write it! And yes, these are all REAL headlines!

Chinese cooking fat heads for Holland.
Man found dead after Levittown fire killed self.
Lawyer for bear sprayed suspect in package theft alleges vigilantism, entrapment.
Efforts meant to help workers squeeze South Africa’s poorest.
Baby born after crash kills parents.

There are some important takeaways from the existence of garden path sentences:

  • It goes to show how mastery of the English language can aid understanding, and how misuse of it can lead to confusion, especially when a word (and there are many of them) can have multiple meanings.
  • They are a great example of the trouble you can get into when you make unquestioned assumptions. Certainly, if we had to consciously think about the part of speech of every word that we wrote and heard, it would slow things down significantly. But it’s also good to be reminded that when we do get lost, we can reorient ourself by asking questions.
  • Getting a good proofreader can make a huge difference in the clarity of your writing.

Looking for support in SAT/ACT prep (or good proof-reading?) Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com!

What parents need to know about their children’s screen time.

I had always thought of myself as someone who had a high level of awareness of how I use technology. I suffered from video game addiction in my 20’s, and the experience taught me that if I am not conscious and purposeful about how I use my time, it’s easy for bad habits to creep in and soak up all that “extra time”. Idle hands do the devil’s work, after all. And it’s so insidious.

Most people are shocked the first time they open the “Screen Time” app on their iPhone and they see the truth of the amount of time they are spending on Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and other timewasters. It’s easier to mindlessly swipe and scroll than it is to read a book, work out, or have a conversation with someone! Using a screen instead of doing something more rewarding is like eating a piece of candy: it’s OK in limited quantities, and feels great in the moment, but you can easily develop a sweet tooth and be constantly chasing that easy sugar high, with disastrous results for your health.

But in learning about Screen Time Clinic, the creation of Nicole Rawson, I saw that I had a lot to learn about not just my own behavior, but, even more importantly, how to help young family members who have a problem with screen time or avoid problematic use behaviors all together. I sat down with Nicole and had a fantastic conversation with her about screentimeclinic.com, the problems that screens cause for our children, and ways to help students struggling with overuse of screens. There were a few themes that came up repeatedly over the course of our conversation.

Nicole Rawson, founder of Screen Time Clinic. Learn more at screentimeclinic.com

Parents have a different relationship with screens than their kids do

According to Nicole, although the negative effects of screen time are becoming well known now, many parents didn’t understand how detrimental screens would be for their children when the iPad was first introduced in 2010 because these parents grew up in a world without the instant gratification that smartphones allow and didn’t see the harm in making things more efficient or entertaining. When we wanted to talk to someone, we had to wait until we got home to call. When we wanted to know something, we had to go to the library. When we wanted to play a game, we had to find a friend or two, sit down at a table, and talk to each other (even video games in those days were face to face affairs). That isn’t to say that easier access to communication, information, and entertainment are on their own bad things. I’m no luddite! Certainly, taken on their own, they are absolutely positive. But they do have downsides that we parents never had to experience growing up.

And so, Nicole points out how many studies have shown that, because the technology was new and we didn’t understand the downsides, teens today grew up with easy access to infinite communication, information, and entertainment. They’ve been getting those dopamine hits from checking those flashing notifications, replies to their pictures, or their farms/cities/etc for their entire lives. For adults, it didn’t start until our brains and our self-regulation skills were fully developed. If you think that some adults have problems with regulating their screen use, think about how tough it must be for kids!

Nicole believes that parents need to set the expectation for kids that phone use is a privilege that must be earned by demonstrating responsible use. “Just because your child has a driver’s license doesn’t mean we give them the keys and say, ‘Alright have fun! Stay under the speed limit!’ We set limits on how and when the car is used while the child shows us, over time, that they can use the car responsibly.” I think that is an extremely apt analogy. A big part of parenting is slowly helping your child expand the areas of life over which they can exert control, helping make sure that they don’t take on what they aren’t ready for. And that is definitely not how I thought about phone use before.

This might mean physically removing a device from a child who is not showing responsible use. “They won’t hate you!” says Nicole, laughing. “Ok, well they might be upset at first. But they will also experience relief after a while because you’ve taken something away that was taking control from them.” We restrict other privileges when students don’t show the necessary responsibility. We should do so with the phone too.

Screens as tools vs screens as entertainment

I think that many people look at screens like I do: yes, like with any technology, there are drawbacks, but those are more than overcome by the benefits. And of course, when we list the benefits, we list the “tools”. For my phone, my most used tools are:

  • Email
  • Calroo (family scheduling app)
  • Rocketbook App (a digital/physical notebook hybrid)
  • aTimeLogger (time tracking app)
  • Waze
  • Upright GO (posture device app)
  • mSecure (password manager)
  • texting/Facebook Messenger

And many more

Thinking about how much easier/better these apps make my life makes me wonder how I managed before smartphones!

But those aren’t the only apps on my phone, are they? Looking at my the Screen Time, I see that my most used app is Safari. And I’ll bet that I was not using it for productive purposes.

Most parents don’t realize how addictive smartphone apps are: they are carefully designed to keep you constantly using or thinking about the app. To keep you scrolling. To keep you checking. And apps accomplish that phenomenally well. I’m sure most adults have exerienced scrolling facebook/twitter/instagram/pinterest and looking up to realize that an hour passed without their noticing. Or trying to get focused work done, but checking notifications keeps pulling you away. How much worse must it be for our teenagers, with their still developing minds and coping skills? (Nicole recommends at the very least turning all notifications off, and turning the color to greyscale to fully see how the design dulls these highly engaging effects.)

On net, therefore, does my phone cause me a net benefit? I’d say yes. But what about our kids’ phones? Our arguments with our kids around phone use often revolve around how important and essential their phones are (even though, for most teens, the tool:entertainment ratio is very low!) When you take a teen’s phone away, they’ll say that they need access to their phones for vital purposes X, Y, and Z, while ignoring pernicious uses A, B, and C (that will typically constitute 90% of their phone use).

I found one way to blunt this argument when I took a look at the “Family Meeting and Support Documents” on screentimeclinic.com. An idea that I found there was having scheduled time to use screens. When you get home, everyone puts their smartphone together in a box or a drawer. They only come out every 30 minutes, or at certain given times, so that we can use the phones to accomplish their intended purposes. Once that purpose is accomplished, the phone is put away, giving our students the freedom to concentrate on work, or interact with people face to face: a skill that adults take for granted, but one that Nicole has, in her own experience as a middle school teacher, seen decline as screen interaction replaces face to face interaction. Some of her colleagues have told her that they’ve observed this decline in students’ social skills as young as Kindergarten!

Another idea Nicole gave me (that, among many, I have implemented in my home) is purchasing an Amazon Echo or other smart speakers. That way, we can accomplish many of the things we need our phones for (time, set timers/reminders/alarms, look something up. listen to music, and many more!) without picking up a phone and falling into a snare that the phone has set for us.

Also, maybe wearing watches should come back in style?

“In-between” times aren’t harmless

In looking over the support documents at screentimeclinic.com, I was surprised to see discussion of using phones in the bathroom, in the car, and other “in-between” times. In my mind, those were the most innocent uses of phones for their “entertainment” value. I mean, I get why I need to put my phone away and focus when I’m working, or having dinner with my family. But even when I’m in the elevator taking my dog down for a walk, or standing at line at the grocery store? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with scrolling Twitter at times when there is almost no way I could be doing something else productive, right? Thinking about this, I mentioned to my wife that I don’t remember the last time I took an elevator ride and DIDN”T take out my phone!

The support documents explain to the teenager why we shouldn’t use the phone in the bathroom (it’s unsanitary) and in the car (we should all share the responsibility of paying attention to the road). And while these seemed reasonable to me, I sensed there was something else to this. And I was right. “The bathroom is a private place,” Nicole pointed out. Students can be looking at things they should not be looking at. And it turns bathroom visits into interminable opportunities to use the phone in a house where phone use is monitored. I’ve certainly experienced bathroom breaks that went on longer than they needed to because they turned more into “phone breaks”. It’s also a place to hide a behavior that you don’t want other people to know you are taking part in. These seemingly small-but important!-insights continuously impressed me with how much thought Nicole has put into these screen use behaviors.

Thinking about it myself later, I realized that if phone use is a habit, reinforcing the habit with low value use, even places/times that seem innocent (like waiting in line), makes it more likely the habit shows itself in places it shouldn’t (like during dinner or in class). You are creating a “groove” in your mind, making the action more habitual the more the behavior is reinforced. That isn’t to say that I think replying to an email or reading a book on your phone (tools) while standing in line is a bad thing. But getting that dopamine hit from seeing a reply to a post or checking your instagram feed, even while in line, may make it more likely that you’ll seek that dopamine at a “worse” time, later.

Screen Time Clinic can help.

Academic problems can cause family problems. Sometimes the best thing that Wells Academic Solutions does for families is to bring in a neutral third party that doesn’t have the fear/anger/anxiety that parents and students sometimes have. We take the problem off their parents’ plate, which often reduces the student’s anxiety allowing them greater success.

Similarly, Screen Time Clinic can help with screen time problems that are causing family problems. From her personal experience (she has two teenagers herself!) and her extensive research, Nicole is extremely knowledgeable about the difficulties that unregulated screentime can do to students and families, and the emotions that can be wrapped up in it. She helps provide a framework to help students understand the detrimental effects of screentime and for parents to monitor and control it. And she can provide ongoing support to families that need that neutral third party to provide it.

In the end, we want our kids to be tech literate and savvy. And, at least in my experience, the part that we are missing is teaching our students the dangers of our screens, and the regulation skills they’ll need, as it’s certain that the worlds that they will inhabit as adults will have technology even more proliferate. Their ability to control their own attention, rather than have it be controlled by their devices, may be one of the most important skills that that will determine their success as adults.

It’s no surprise that when screen time is reduced, academic attention increases both at home and in school. If you are interested in learning more about ways to maximize your child’s development time and gain support in reducing your child’s screen time check out screentimeclinic.com for more program details or RSVP by emailing info@screentimeclinic to attend their next free seminar in La Jolla on March 4th.

Early preparation ideas for the SAT/ACT

“When should my son/daughter prep for the SAT/ACT?”

The best time to prep for the SAT/ACT for most students is summer before Junior year. By then, most students have been exposed to the vast majority of the math they’ll need for the SAT/ACT. Prepping over the summer gives a student 2+ solid months of uninterrupted prep, without the pressures of the school year, with an entire year to continue if needed based on student progress or lofty score goals. 

But I have parents reach out to me all the time asking, “What can my 8th/9th/10th grader be doing now to set themselves up for success on the SAT/ACT?” And yes there are absolutely things that students at these ages can be doing to make sure that they are “in shape” when they start their test prep program.

Math:

Some of the biggest difficulties that students have with the SAT is weak/inflexible algebra skills and forgetting skills that were learned long ago.

For students that are currently in Algebra I and II (or Integrated I or II), digging more deeply into the material can help students remember the material longer and use the material in a more flexible manner. It’s often the case that students learn material in their classes just well enough to get past the test, which can sometimes mean memorizing how to get through problems. This leads to confused students when they sit down to take an SAT and struggle with algebra problems

Similarly, it’s also the case that many students who start SAT prep have forgotten arithmetic, percentages, ratios, fractions, and many more topics covered in elementary/middle school. These concepts need to be reviewed and reinforced in order for the students to be successful on the SAT/ACT.

What to do: Here are a few great enrichment resources for students who want solidify their math foundation

ALEKS: ALEKS is a fantastic math assessment software that breaks a math course down into hundreds of math topics, and assesses and re-assesses students to make sure they are learning AND retaining. It’s great for reviewing concepts that students have seen before, and breaks the course down into mouse-bites that a student can do in less than five minutes.

Exeter: Exeter Academy is a school in New Hampshire that has a unique math curriculum, which they make available for free online. In the Exeter math curriculum, students are given a textbook that is nothing but hundreds of challenging word problems, and the student collaborate on and present problems, with support from the teacher. While some students find this method of learning math frustrating, Exeter is a fantastic supplement to a typical math curriculum. Once the student has learned the basic skill, looking at challenging problems and trying to figure out how to apply that skill will help solidify and teach flexibility in problem solving, both of which are vital for the SAT.

English

Practically every student who comes in to do SAT/ACT prep with us has a very weak grasp of English grammar/mechanics. They don’t know their parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation rules, etc. This is, unfortunately, just not something taught in middle and high school, leaving students taking the SAT/ACT without the grammar foundation they need to succeed.

What to do: There is no substitute for a structured course of study, especially because this isn’t a review of material that the student is already familiar with: for most students, this is largely brand new material. The key is that it is not enough to read and understand. Student need to practice and solve problems as well. Here are some resources

A Writer’s Reference with Exercises, by Diana Hacker: This is a book that will serve any college-bound student well. There are a few sections that a student who is solely focussed on SAT/ACT can probably skip. This is the textbook that high school students should, but don’t, study.

Barrons “Essentials of English”: This is a less comprehensive, but for the SAT/ACT still very good, treatment of English mechanics. It gives more detail and examples of the English mechanics, though doesn’t cover composition quite so thoroughly. This is the more readable book, in my opinion. This book does not have practice problems. It’s vital that students do more than just read. They need to put what they are learning into practice.

-Students should take notes as they read. Cornell notes work great: name of concept on the left and explanations and examples on the right. These can be later used by the student to test themselves. Examples and explanations should be in the student’s own words, not just copied from the text.

-IXL has is a great source of practice for grammar. For math, I prefer ALEKS, but IXL has hundreds of individual problems/sections dealing with all of the grammar concepts that students will face on the SAT. Students can work through IXL after or while reading one of the above texts, and when stuck, refer to one of the above texts to try to learn the underlying concept. IXL also has other programs, including math, but ALEKS is my preference for math.

-When a concept is learned, have the student grab some text and find that concept used in the text. The student should also write out their own sentences employing that concept.

The key is that the grammar problems the student works on at this learning stage should not be SAT/ACT type problems. Students need to focus on mastering one idea/concept at a time. SAT/ACT problems are for once the student has developed comfort with grammar concepts.

Reading

This is the most straightforward: the student needs to read. More than that, they need to improve the quality and speed of reading. Many student have over the years built up detrimental reading habits. Reading something that they aren’t motivated to read, and further, which there is no real consequence (at least immediate) to understanding it well, can just reinforce the unhealthy reading habits. So the focus should be on building better reading habits, and reading shorter passages that are like what they’ll read on the SAT/ACT. Here are some ways to do that.

  1. Newspaper subscription: Newspaper subscriptions are an inexpensive way to bring frequent and various non-fiction reading material into the home. News, science, arts, and editorials are all types of reading they’ll be expected to do on the SAT.
  2. Literary magazines: This is a way to bring in short fiction into the home. Here is an article with some examples.
  3. Reader’s Digest is another resource with short articles and stories on a variety of topics.

Try to schedule family reading time a few times per week (or every day if possible) that is divorced from class materials. Talk with each other about what you read, what you liked and didn’t like about it. I know that it can be tough with schedules, but building a reading habit that lasts a lifetime is worth it (and I bet that you would enjoy creating some time to read with your family as well!)

Students should be encouraged to write in the margins of the articles they are reading, and try to write a sentence or two about the main point(s) of each article. It’s vital that they stay active as they read, and not just passively move their eyes across the page.

In addition, they should be reading articles from a variety of sources, fiction and non-fiction, on a variety of topics. Try to keep it to print (or kindle!) It’s easy to get distracted by computers and tablets.

Writing a journal entry about their opinion or reaction to what they’ve read can also be a good way to clarify what they did and did not understand about the passages they’ve read (and it will encourage them to investigate and think about what they didn’t understand

Final thoughts:

They key is consistency. A student in 9th grade that spends an hour on each of these sections per week is going to head into their SAT prep in Junior year in a much better position than they would have otherwise. But it’s easy for these longer-term objectives to get pushed back as a result of reacting to day-to-day emergencies at school. This is time that needs to be planned and scheduled, just like sports, music, or other extra-curriculars.

If you are looking for someone to support your student in longer-term test prep, give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com!

The PQRST Study System

“I don’t know why I did so poorly on the test. I did the reading, and I knew it all!”

This is a common complaint from students who are overwhelmed by challenging reading material (AP Biology, for example) or just large quantities of reading that needs to be done each week (like in  AP European History). Students who go into a test feeling confident, but tend to underperform on their tests, often discover (when they come in for an academic support session) that they don’t remember/understand the material as well as they thought they did.

Why is that? Because for most students, the initial reading of the text, and perhaps re-reading notes taken, is the end of studying. The student feels successful if, upon reviewing their notes, they recognize everything. The problem is that recognition is not the same as recall, and recall is the key skill needed during a reading based test. What once worked for students when they were younger (just reading the text) is not necessarily enough as the material gets more difficult. And when that happens, we need to change strategies.

Students need to recognize that studying effectively doesn’t just mean reading and re-reading. It means:

-understanding the big picture, rather than just memorizing individual facts.

-applying what you already know to what you are learning

-identifying where you are confused, and knowing how to deal with that

-and, most importantly, testing yourself, repeatedly, and ideally in a manner similar to how you will be tested by your teacher

How can students make sure that all of these things are happening before their tests? Two acronyms: SQ3R or the more modern PQRST.

SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review

PQRST stands for Preview, Question, Read, Summarize, Test

Both of these acronyms point to the same actions, so pick whichever one you prefer. We’ll use the PQRST acronym as we discuss each step.

P is for Preview

Previewing is about getting the big picture of the chapter by scanning and skimming.

Scanning means finding the important words and ideas in the chapter and understanding those ideas well. It means taking advantage of your understanding the structure of the chapter.

How do you find those ideas? Well, there are a few clues:

-bolded terms are generally pretty important. Pay attention to those.

-the name of the chapter, sections, and subheadings will give you a lot of information about the structure and important ideas in the chapter. These can often be found in the table of contents or the first page of the chapter.

-Review questions at the end of each section (or at the end of the chapter) will clue you in to important ideas to look for in the chapter

-Diagrams, tables, timelines, and other images can also help understand what ideas the author is highlighting in the chapter

-Skim the chapter

Skimming means reading quickly, and in particular, not getting bogged down in details. Don’t worry, you are going to read carefully later! Right now, your only job is to read very quickly and understand the main points of the chapter and each section. Don’t read every word. Move your eyes across each page and let what seems important to you jump out at you.

Now, if you are really and truly curious about something you read that you don’t understand, I’m not going to tell you not to dig in (making personal connections with what you are reading can help understanding and retention!) But now is not the time to get frustrated because you aren’t getting everything. Right now, you are just getting the lay of the land, and coming away with the big ideas.

Why is this step important?

Because if you don’t understand the big picture of the chapter, you are going to have a hard time figuring out how all these individual facts that you are expected to learn are connected. When you understand the larger story or purpose, individual facts make more sense and they are easier to remember.

Previewing a chapter in a high school textbook should take 10-15 minutes.

Q is for Question

This step is about asking questions about the chapter.

Right now, you’ve got a very superficial, big picture understanding of what the chapter is about. Now it’s time to start asking yourself about what kind of information the chapter is likely to talk about, and turn those into questions.

How do we create these questions? Here are some ideas

-Read the title of the chapter, and the titles of the sections and the subheadings. What do you think you are going to learn from each? Those can be questions. For example, say you are reading a chapter about “The Bronze Age”. Here are some questions about that that might occur to you:

-What came before the Bronze Age?

-What came after the Bronze Age?

-How long did the Bronze Age last?

-Why did the Bronze age end?

-What is bronze?

-Why is it called the Bronze Age?

-What is so important about bronze that an entire age of human history was named after it?

What questions occured to you as you previewed the chapter? Write those questions down.

The more questions the better! To generate lots of questions, try to ask a Who/What/Where/When/Why/How question about each idea you came across in your preview. You won’t be able to come up with one of each for every concept, but the effort forces you to explore what you do and don’t already know about each concept. Try to come up with at least one question per subheading.

Check out this article that discusses another method of asking questions using sticky notes.

R is for Read

OK, now, armed with a big picture and lots of questions, we’re ready to read. Unlike in the Preview section, this is close reading, careful reading. But this is not aimless reading. We have two objectives to keep us focussed and engaged as we read.

-to answer all of the questions you came up with in the “Question” step

-to be able to summarize the chapter, each section, each sub-section, and each paragraph after you’ve read it.

-to identify where you are confused so that you can dig deeper.

When you read something, you have to keep your purpose for reading firmly in mind. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose focus/”zone out”. You know what I’m talking about: your eyes are moving down the page, but the words aren’t registering. You realize after reading a page or two that you have no idea what you just read. That kind of reading is what we need to avoid by reading with a purpose. Your primary purpose is to be able to explain the point of each paragraph. Then, at the very minimum, you’ll realize you lost focus after just a paragraph (rather than after a page or two).

As you read, you should be writing. This is another way to make sure you are staying engaged as you read. You can write

-the answers to the questions you wrote down earlier

-other questions you come up with

-important facts or words you want to remember

I recommend Cornell notetaking. Notes in the margin of the text can also be helpful, but be sparing in your highlighting and underlining.

S is for Summarize

Once you’ve read a subsection, a section, or the chapter as a whole, it’s time to make sure you understand what you’ve read. You do this by summarizing the text. I strongly recommend this is done in writing (after all, writing is doing!) If you took notes using Cornell note-taking, you can write your summaries in the left-hand column next to the notes about that subsection or section. Writing an outline is also a good way to summarize.

After you’ve written your summary, look back at the reading to see if you remembered all of the important details. If you’ve missed anything, add it to your summary.

Why is this step important?

  1. It gives you another opportunity to notice when there is something you’ve missed or don’t understand.
  2. It forces you to synthesize the individual facts into an overarching story, which will aid your recall.
  3. It is practice for what you are going to need to do on your test (recall)

My experience is that students often assume that if they read the material carefully, they will be able to recall it on a test. The truth is that you need to practice the skills that you are going to be tested on. If your recall is going to be tested, then your test preparation must include recall practice.

T is for Test

Practice the way you are going to perform. That is, when you practice, you want it to be with the same level of effort and of the same skills that you want to excel at on your test.

But when I ask students if they’ve tested themselves before a “fact-based” class like history or biology, I usually get a blank stare. If a teacher doesn’t give the student a study guide, the student typically feels lost!

So how should students be testing themselves before the test? There are lots of ways. The most important way is by going back over the chapter title, section titles, and subsection titles, and recalling their summary for each of these. This should be done multiple times, over multiple days.

Students should also be answering practice test questions. Where can you find these?

-At the end of a section in the chapter, or the end of the chapter.

-In a test prep book like Barrons or Petersons

-Google “Practice test questions for [topic]” and you’ll find practice tests other teachers have made, quizlets students have made, and more. You can also find old AP test questions (essay and DBQ’s) online. Look for those that deal with the topic your current chapter deals with.

-Get together with a couple friends and create practice questions to test each other with.

Sure, these questions are not going to necessarily be exactly like the questions your teacher asks. That’s OK! Put yourself in a variety of testing situations, and you’ll be able to use the information you’ve learned flexibly.

A few more tips:

-Studying the right way takes PLANNING. If you are overwhelmed by your other classes, and start studying two days before the test, you aren’t going to have time to go through this process, let alone give yourself several days. Test preparation begins with planning, and that should start the day after the last test. So if you have a test on Friday, and the next test is in two weeks, you should have planned out what you are going to do on a day-to-day basis starting Saturday in order to get the result you want. 

-In your plan, make sure that you do the Preview, Questions, Read, Summarize far enough in front of the test to ensure that you have enough time to Test yourself for a few days before the test. For example, for a class in which you have a test every week, ideally you’ll be done with PQRS by Monday, which may mean going through these steps before the class even starts the chapter. That’s OK! 

-You can do PQRS for the whole chapter at once, or do it section by section. For a longer timeframe, section by section works well. But you should aim to do PQRS for a given section/topic before if it is covered in class. Going into a lecture already having learned the material means you’ll be able to be much more engaged. You’ll already know where your points of confusion or your questions are, so you’ll be ready to hear the answers to your questions in the lecture (or just ask them at the right time).

If you aren’t having the kind of success you’d like to have, it means you need to be preparing for the class in a different way than you are. Try the PQRST study system out, and I’m sure you’ll see greater success.

Looking for support for a student who needs mentoring with their study skills? Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com!

What makes students successful?

We’ve all had teachers whom we could tell were subject matter experts, but couldn’t communicate well, or frankly didn’t care about teaching.

Our instructors are much more than just subject matter experts (those are never in short supply, especially being so near to a world class university in UCSD!) Our instructors are mentors and partners to our students. They are people who know not just math, chemistry, or history, but about how to succeed in school, and how to communicate and inspire that in their students.

When I interview potential instructors, I ask them two questions to get a sense of how self-aware they are about their own success as students. 
The questions are:

  1. What makes/made you a successful student?
  2. What are unsuccessful, but earnest, students doing/not doing that is leading to their lack of success in school?

Someone who gets a perfect score on the SAT isn’t going to be able to help another student do the same unless they understand HOW they got that score. And an instructor that doesn’t understand why students succeed is not going to be able to help other students succeed.

Because some of these answers, I think, will be surprising to our students, I wanted to share them. So here are some of the common threads I’ve seen in the answers to these questions:

Successful students know how and aren’t ashamed to go out and find answers/get help.

Successful students aren’t successful just because they are brilliant and always know the answers. Successful students get confused and stumped too! The difference is that the most successful students don’t hesitate in employing a number of strategies to get the answers they need, and they don’t wait to get those answers. They know that “I don’t know” is the start of a process of exploration.

This is a value that we want to transmit to our students. No matter how brilliant you son/daughter might think their instructor is, there are going to be times where the instructor “doesn’t know the answer”. How the instructor handles that moment can be a more important lesson than the math/chemistry/English that the session is ostensibly about. It can be an eye opening experience for a student to see a person, whom they look at as a brilliant expert, to say, without worry or embarrassment, “Hmm, yknow, I don’t know. Let’s look it up online/see if we can figure it out from your textbook/ask another instructor for help.” Seeing an expert  unconcerned by “I don’t know”, but moving quickly to action, to success, can be an eye-opener for students, who, in my experience, think that “smart people just ‘get it’”.

On the other hand, the stories our instructors tell me in their interviews about “big mistakes they’ve learned from” often revolve around not asking questions or for help, or asking for help too late in the process.

This also includes regular communication with teachers (not sitting on or ignoring problems, but seeking out the help and advice of teachers right away

Successful students act as though they have control, and focus on aspects that they have control over

What has worked in the past won’t always work in the future. One year you have a teacher who posts lecture notes online; the next year you have a teacher who tests completely off notes and doesn’t post them online. One teacher tests problems straight out of the homework; another teacher asks questions much more challenging than homework problems. One allows a page of notes; another doesn’t. The point is that when a successful student is struggling, they ask “what is not working right now, and what do I need to change in my process?” This can certainly involve getting advice from a teacher, but it usually involves looking over tests to find out what questions are missed and why they were missed. The “why” is a two part question:

-What could I have done differently, at the moment that I was looking at this question?

This is a question about test taking strategy, problem solving, discipline, creativity, etc. Using what you knew at the time, was there something that you could have done differently to get the question correct.

-What could I have done differently in the course of my test preparation so that when I looked at this question, I had the information and skill needed to get this question correct?

This is a question about test preparation. Why didn’t the student know what they needed to know for this question. Did the student not know it would be on the test? Why not? Did the student believe that he understood the concept, but didn’t? Why? Did the student know they didn’t know the concept? Why didn’t the student get help sooner?

What successful students DON’T do is tell themselves stories about:

-I’m bad at this subject

-This teacher is terrible

-I’m too far behind

-This class is too boring

Etc

Now, set aside whether any of these statements are or are not true. If the goal is to succeed in the class, are they helpful beliefs? 

Successful students look beyond what they don’t have control of, and focus on what they do have control of:

-How can I get better at this subject?

-How can I succeed despite a less-than-ideal teacher?

-How can I get caught up?

-How can I get interested in this class? How can I succeed despite not being interested in this class?


Successful students believe that the challenges they are facing are surmountable.

Successful students don’t react; they plan

If a student feels like school is little more than moving from crisis to crisis, they are going to feel like they have very little control. It’s very common that we get calls from parents who have a panicked student who has a test tomorrow for which they are not prepared. They take the test, they do poorly, and they tell themselves a story about how hard the class is, how terrible they are at the class, how unfair the test is, and so on.

My question: why did it take until the day before the test for the student to realize there is a problem?

The answer: The student didn’t have a study plan for their test that started they day before the unit began and lasted until the day of the test.

Students believe that if they go to class, do the reading, and do the assigned homework, they will get a good grade. Successful students know that success, in anything, means planning for success, not assuming that it will come.


Planning to succeed on a test (and therefore in a class) involves:

-Analysis of previous test/test preparation

-Previewing the new unit

-Active studying/note-taking daily

-Using homework to find weaknesses

-Creating/taking practice exams

These are not all things that a teacher will assign. These things can’t all be done 1, 2, or 3 days before the test. By then, it’s often too late. Whereas if a student discovers that he doesn’t understand a concept a week and a half before the test, and does something about it then, there is plenty of time to learn, practice, review, and master the concept before test day.

Success on a test requires a plan. A student who is waiting for the teacher to tell them to take action is goint to always be playing catch-up.

What other things do successful students do, in your experience?

Making the most (academically) of Winter break

With Winter break coming up, students are hopefully going to get some well-earned rest. But that doesn’t mean that there are not things that students can (and should!) be doing over winter break to get a jump start on the new year.

During the school year, it can sometimes feel like things are out of control for students. That they are reacting to crisis after crisis. Winter break can be a time of relative calm to take stock of classes, and plan/take measured actions away from the day to day craziness of the school year. Here are some ideas as to what students can do to make the most of their time off of school.

Talk with teachers.

Your son or daughter should be meeting with their teachers regularly. Even in a class that is going well, meeting with the teacher one-on-one during lunch or afterschool once a month or so can help teachers put a name/personality to a face and can yield important information about what is coming up in the class. Before break is a great time to meet with teachers, but particularly with teachers of the classes the student is struggling in. Students should ask their teachers some variant of the following question: “I want to improve my grade in this class. What can I do/focus on over break to help raise my grade?” Students can lots of helpful information, like

-when the next test is going to be and what it is going to cover

-study tips (not just what to study but how to)

-extra credit opportunities (maybe)

-feedback about what you aren’t doing well in the class 

-opportunity to turn in late assignments

Even if the student doesn’t get fantastic information, facetime with the teacher at least communicates that the student cares about the class and is trying to improve. 

If your break has already started, send your teacher an email.

Create a plan/set goals

All that said, don’t wait to hear back from your teacher to start planning!

Yes, I’m big on planning. What gets written gets done. Two or three weeks is a lot of time to be able to get caught up and ahead. But it won’t happen unless the student has a concrete day to day plan for, at minimum, how much time they want to spend studying. Even just a couple hours of studying every day can make a world of difference over the course of two weeks (and won’t prevent a student from enjoying their break!)

The student should ask two questions about each class:

-What is my goal for this class?

-What can I do over the next two weeks to accomplish that goal?

It’s crucial, though, that the student set goals for their preparation that are unconnected to just time spent studying. Goals could include:

  1. Taking a practice exam for each math chapter for review
  2. Complete overdue assignments in English
  3. Come in to Wells Academics for an SAT diagnostic exam
  4. Read 80 pages in English book per day.
  5. Take notes on each history chapter we’ve covered this year for review.
  6. Spend an hour every day studying for upcoming SAT/ACT

The more specific the goals are, the more usefully the time will be spent. Have the student think about what they can do to make sure the last few weeks of the semester are successful for each of their classes. But make sure that the goals can be accomplished in two weeks and in an amount of daily time that the student is comfortable committing.

Be realistic (but don’t procrastinate!)

On one hand, I get it. It’s break! And students have been working hard and deserve some time off. That’s why goals should be able to be accomplished in a time that the student should feel comfortable with, and that a student can still feel like they are getting some rest and time off. That amount of time will be different for each student. Like I said earlier, a lot can be accomplished in a couple hours per day (especially in a day in which 8 hours has not already been spent in school). Making lots of progress in that two hours can lead to momentum that they just can’t get during the school year with all the time commitments they have.

On the other hand, taking a complete break from studying doesn’t just mean missing an opportunity to catch up/get ahead. It also means regression. It means having to spend a few days waking up from “vacation brain”. Spending a couple hours a day on study can help keep students in fighting shape so they don’t lose their edge going into the new year (and for many students who have finals in January, there is really no time for shaking off vacation brain.)

It’s important to not procrastinate. It’s easy for the days slip by and sadly look back at the missed opportunity. Spending a little time each day can help a student who feels out of control right now start the new year feeling confident, in control, and on the path to success.

If you are looking for some support this winter break in getting caught up or getting ahead, give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com!

What to learn from a poor test grade

We’re starting to get calls from parents about unexpectedly poor grades on a test or quiz. And while students and parents should be on the lookout for red flags like this that something isn’t going well in the student’s class, it isn’t time to panic! Any failure in life is an opportunity for learning, and a poor grade on a test is no exception to that.

The key, though, is this: the student must come away understanding

-why the missed questions were missed, and, more importantly

-in what ways was the test preparation process inadequate

Before we get into how to find the answers to the above questions, a warning:

Blaming the teacher is (usually) not productive.

It’s very easy for a student to blame a poor test grade on something the teacher didn’t teach (or teach well), or the teacher’s not giving the students the correct information about the test, and any number of other reasons that the teacher might be at fault.

And, these reasons MAY be right.

But here is the problem: even if the reasons ARE right, if the goal is a higher grade in the class, blaming the teacher is not helpful, because it’s very unlikely that the teacher is going to change. So a student who performed poorly on a test has a choice: blame the teacher, and let that be the excuse for not succeeding in the class, or look for the ways that the student can change, and make those the path to success, despite having a teacher that isn’t doing things the ideal way for the student.

For example:

Excuse: “I didn’t understand how the teacher explained that concept”

Solution: “When I don’t understand how the teacher explains a concept, I need to ask a question/get help from a tutor or a friend/watch a video on Khan Academy.

Excuse: “The teacher is so picky and marked me down for now showing my work/writing units/doing the problems the exact way she showed us.”

Solution: “I need to make sure that when I practice I am showing my work/writing my units/doing the problems exactly the way she showed us.”

Excuse: “The teacher asked questions that weren’t even in the book/review sheet/slides”

Solution: “Some of the questions came from sources I didn’t expect. I need to make sure I am reviewing all the sources, not just the book/review sheet/slides.”

Students need to look for what they can take control of, despite how they might feel about the teacher!

So, how do we make sure that the student learns the lessons and makes the changes in behavior so that the student learns how to succeed on future tests.

Step 1: Analyze the test.

The student needs to look over the test and work to understand why each question was missed. This doesn’t JUST mean understanding how to do the problem correctly. It also means understanding exactly what the student did wrong, and WHY the student did it incorrectly in the first place.

That is, it isn’t enough to say, “Oh I missed that question because I multiplied instead of adding the exponents.” Why did the student multiply instead of add? Was it because the student didn’t know that they should multiply? Was the student running low on time and rushed through, leading to the error? Did the student skip a step in their work? Each of these reasons for missing the question has its own solution.

In order to do this, the student needs direct access to the test. Ideally, the teacher will allow the student to take the test home. If not, the student should take detailed notes on their test, and/or request time to see the teacher before or after school to review the test in detail. If the student explains it as, “I’m not happy with my performance on this test, and I want to figure out what I did wrong so I can improve for my next test” the teacher should be accomodating!

Step 2: How did the student end up taking a test that he was unprepared for?

This is the more important, and oftentimes more overlooked question. To answer this question, think about the following:

-What was my test preparation timeline? Did I have a study plan that started at the beginning of the unit, or did I wait to do my studying until the day(s) before the test?

-Was there material on the test that I did not expect to see? If so, why? Was the material from a source I didn’t expect to be tested on (textbook, slides, lecture notes, worksheets, homework problems, practice exams, other sources on the teacher’s website)? If so, why didn’t I expect to be tested on it? Will I regularly be tested on material from this source?

-Did I feel confident going into the test? If so, why did I feel prepared when I was, in fact, unprepared? Did I test myself in a variety of different ways, or did I just “feel” ready? Did I use active (free response questions, solving problems start to finish, free recall) or passive (reviewing notes, re-reading the chapter, “looking over” problems) methods of study?

-If I didn’t feel confident, when did I realize I wasn’t confident? The day before the test? If so, why didn’t I know sooner? If I knew sooner, what did I do once I realized I wasn’t confident?

You can succeed on your next test…but not by approaching your next test the same way you approached your last test. Be determined to determine what went wrong and what you can do differently next time.

Does your son or daughter need help getting ready for their next test? Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email help@wellsacademics.com!

The power of plugging numbers in

One of the biggest differences between studying for a math class and preparing for the SAT is that, in a math class students are expected to understand (or even just memorize) certain processes or algorithms. Success on a math test in a math class often feels like looking at a problem, recognizing that it is a problem very similar to problems you’ve repeatedly practiced in your homework, and repeating the process you’ve learned. In fact, on a math test, if you solved a problem by simply plugging numbers in (rather than using the process taught you you by your teacher) you’ll likely get the problem marked as wrong (even if you got the correct answer!)

And that is understandable. A math teacher is trying to teach students how to use a particular tool. If the student solves a problem by using a tool other than what the teacher taught, the student has not demonstrated mastery of the tool. If a student is being taught how to use a hammer, and the student connects two pieces of wood with a screw, the student really hasn’t demonstrated master of the hammer.

There is, though, a BIG problem with telling students that the only way to solve a problem is the “right” way: that is not how the real world works. Success in our personal and professional lives depends on our ability to look at a problem we do not know how to solve, and find a way to solve it with what we know at the time. If we wait until we remember the “right” way to solve a problem, we might be waiting a very long time. 

The result: students coming in for test prep and class support sessions with problems they could not solve, who haven’t tried anything to solve them, and who wait, with hands folded in lap, for instructors to teach them a process for them to memorize.

Waiting for someone to tell you what to do is not going to lead to success on the SAT, and it is not going to lead to success in life, personally or professionally. The SAT doesn’t care HOW you get the correct answer. They just care that you get the correct answer.

Here is an example from an SAT practice exam on the college board website:

Now, a student might look at this problem and say “Wow, this looks really complicated. I’ve got no idea how to do this…oh well.” That’s the thinking of a student who is looking for the “right” want to do the question.

Watch how asking questions and “trying something” can lead to the correct answer, even if the student doesn’t understand the “right way” to solve the problem.

First question: what concepts is this problem dealing with?

This problem is dealing with variables, right? Well, what is a variable? You might answer something like “It’s a letter that can be replaced with different numbers.” What does that suggest we can do with these variables?

Replace them with numbers of course! So let’s try plugging numbers in for m and p,

What numbers should we plug in?

“I don’t know.”

And again, we have an opportunity for a student who doesn’t know the “right” numbers to plug in to throw up their hands in exasperation. How about trying…any numbers? Let’s try m=3 and p=7.

Now the problem turns into something simpler:

Armand sent 3 text messages per hour for 5 hours. What can we determine here? Oh, he sent 15 text messages!

Tyrone sent 7 text messages per hour for 4 hours. What can we determine here? Oh, he sent 28 text messages!

So it looks like he sent a total of 43 text messages.

Ok, so what? None of the answers say 43.

Well, what DO you know about the answers? They have variables. What can we do with variables? Plug in numbers. What numbers?

Oh, m=3 and p=7!

We plug those numbers in to each answer choice and we find that C gives us 43! C is the answer.

A discerning student might notice that answer C also used the same operations we did. But the more important point is this: we did not need to understand the algebra behind this problem to solve it by plugging in numbers. All we had to understand is that if you send 3 text messages per hour for 5 hours, that’s 15 text messages.

Too often, we see students leave points on the table on their SAT exams, practice tests, and homework assignments that could be solved very simply if only they asked questions about the problem and tried something!

This is not to say that learning the algebraic way to solve this problem is not valuable. It absolutely is! Ideally, when you see a problem like this on your SAT, you’ve mastered the algebraic method of solving it. If so, great! Solve it using algebra. But if you haven’t, and you solve this problem “the long way”, yes, you should absolutely go back and review the necessary algebra. But, because you WILL see math problems on your test you don’t recognize, you MUST practice doing something, anything, with a problem to learn about it. Otherwise, you’ll be throwing away potentially easy points like these!

Here is another example:

This is one of the problems students miss the most on the diagnostic test, in my experience

Maybe you look at this problem and say “Ugh there are fractions within fractions. This looks so confusing. There is no way I’ll be able to simplify this”

Maybe you say, “I have never seen this before in my life.”

So you move on, because you “don’t know how to solve” the problem.

What if, instead, you said, “Hmm, these equations have variables. Maybe I can try plugging in numbers to the answer choices?”

What number should we try plugging into the answer choices? It says x > 3 How about 4?

And we see that if we plug in x = 4, the value of this expression is 42/13.

OK, but none of our answers are 42/13, so how does that help?

Look at the answers. What do you see? Variables. What can you do with variable? Plug in numbers. What number? x=4…the same number we plugged in a minute ago!

Is that going “to work”? No idea…let’s try it and see!

Even as you were plugging numbers in, you might have been saying to yourself, “I have no idea if this if going to work”. But when you plug 4 into the answer choices and you see 42/13 pop out of answer choice B, you’ll realize that, even if you didn’t feel like you knew what you were doing, plugging in numbers was enough to find the answer.

Now, if you looked closer are the answer choices, you might have also realized the following:

-C and D were not going to give a fractional value from plugging in x=4, s, so we probably don’t need to try those ones.

-If you did A first and got 13/42, you might have noticed that B was the reciprocal of A, which means B must be correct (since the reciprobal of 13/42 is 42/13, which was our answers)

Even if you didn’t notice those things, though, you can still get this question 100% correct by doing nothing more than plugging numbers in.

YES, after solving this problem by plugging in numbers, you need to go back and review complex fractions if that was a concept you were not comfortable with. 

That said, in your test prep, you ALSO need to be practicing “what do I do when I don’t know the answer?” And waiting until the internet or a teacher/tutor gives you the knowledge you “need” is not practicing that.

In conclusion:

Big idea: when you are faced with an SAT problem that deals with variables, and you have no idea how to proceed, try plugging in numbers to see if you can learn something about the problem. You will surprise yourself with how often doing this alone will solve the problem!

Bigger idea: When you “don’t know how” to solve a problem in your practice, you MUST practice doing as much as you can. Try anything you can think of to learn something about the problem. This will be an invaluable skill if you want to squeeze more points out of the math section.

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