Archive for December, 2009

It's About Time We Re-evaluated Learning Styles

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I was so excited to see a new study about “learning styles” reported here on PsychCentral on December 18 (see “Learning Styles Re-evaluated” by John Grohol).

The study concluded that  “…psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.”

As an apprentice tutor  in the mid 1970’s I was taught all about learning styles. I was told that some kids were visual learners, others auditory, still others tactile-kinesthetic. I was told that the method for addressing learning disabilities was to assess each child to discover her learning style and then design instruction that uses this modality. I remember doing things like writing sight words on fabric scraps and laying them out on the carpet for my student to hop on as she recited them.

These sorts of interventions were time-consuming to assemble, and, frankly, I never got the impression they helped. And the more graduate-level coursework I did on learning and education, the more skeptical I became. Learning styles “theories,” never grounded in any solid research, seemed more and more like folk-art and less and less like science.

Once I was tutoring on my own, I rapidly abandoned learning styles approaches. I found instead that the important elements of successful interventions were: 1. Teaching at the student’s appropriate instructional level 2. Keeping the student mentally engaged, and 3. Making sure he experienced enough success to keep him motivated.

I now see the learning styles model as one example of the kinds of misconceptions we still have about how learning happens. We still cling to an outdated notion of the brain as an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. The learning styles theory assumes that some brains need the knowledge to be poured in through the eyes, other brains need it to be received through the ears, still others through the fingers and limbs.

Of course, this is not the way brains really work. Brains don’t receive knowledge, they build knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist …

'Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part Six, Managing Your Emotions

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The SAT feels so important, but it’s only one of the pieces colleges use to evaluate you. Take the test seriously, but try to keep it in perspective. And remember, most kids take it twice, just to see if they can up their scores. So don’t treat it like the end of the world.

Anxiety, careless mistakes and other emotional hurdles

Begin studying well before the test, and study at a moderate, consistent pace. Your brain absorbs information best in modest portions, over time.

Focus on the Big Picture. The skills you are learning aren’t just going to boost your SAT score; they’re going to be a permanent part of you, through your whole life! You’re working on becoming a better reader, writer and problem-solver, and you’re going to be glad you invested this time and effort.

Learn about yourself. How do YOU learn best? What sorts of mistakes do you tend to make, and how can you catch yourself? What distracts you? What makes you nervous? What are your strengths? Does it feel good to understand something new? Use your SAT study to become more self-aware and therefore more self-confident.

The week before the test

Eat well and sleep enough, not just the day before the test, but as well as possible for the whole week before the SAT.

Eat a good diet, without too much sugar or caffeine, to get your brain and your nervous system running calmly.

Many students are nervous the night before the test and they don’t sleep well. If you’ve been getting enough sleep on the previous nights it won’t matter; you’ll still be fine.

For night-before or in-the-car-on-the-way-to-the-test study, choose a list of positive vocabulary words (words whose meanings are upbeat and optimistic) and review those. Some research has suggested that this sort of positive thinking can boost your attitude and have an impact on your performance…and it surely can’t hurt!

Breathe deeply, relax…you’ll do fine!

"Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part Five, the Writing Subtest

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Compared to the math section, the writing section is much simpler. The same kinds of errors are used over and over, and you need to be able to recognize them.

The biggest single feature to keep your eyes open for is the “disagreement error.” Somewhere in the passage they switch number (singular vs plural) or tense (past / present / future) or voice (first / second / third person) or verb form…or they confuse a pronoun reference, or they give a list where the items on the list aren’t of the same type or in the same form.

There’s a very good chart of examples in the College Board’s free practice booklet (your school’s guidance department or college counseling department should be able to give you a copy). Reading and understanding those examples will help you a lot!

Oh, yeah. You’ll also need to write an essay. In fact, it’s the first thing you’ll do on the SAT, before you take any of the other sections. The PSAT didn’t make you do this, but here it comes now.

Plan on writing a five-paragraph essay: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. You’ll need to take a stand on a given statement (either agree or disagree: DO NOT try to do both!) and then back up your position with three examples from your own life or from literature, history, or current events.

You won’t know the topic in advance, so it’s good to have brainstormed several multi-purpose “stories” and have them ready and waiting in your head. If you have a favorite book, refresh yourself on the characters and the plot so you could write about them easily. If you are a history buff, perhaps you’ll be using historical examples. Examples from your own life or your relatives’ lives are great (stories about your experiences playing soccer, or when Grandpa was in the war or Aunt Susan was a young girl can work really well.)

Practice writing a few essays using the topics suggested in your SAT review book (purchased on-line or at a bookstore). Your essays need to be clear and organized, with good spelling, grammar and punctuation, and …

"Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part Four, the Math Subtest

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

The Math Subtest will challenge your knowledge of math skills through Algebra II (no trigonometry or calculus). Most of the questions are expressed as word problems. Some ask you to find and use patterns or solve unusual problems you’ve never seen in math class.

Most of the questions are multiple choice but some are grid-ins where you write your own answers. For these, the answer is never negative or a radical because there’s no room on the grids for these kinds of numbers.

The math questions generally get harder as they go along, so expect to be more challenged towards the end of a section. Remember, though, each question is worth one point, no matter its difficulty, so make sure you first go through the section and answer every problem you can do. Then go back and work on the difficult ones. Also, don’t get careless and make mistakes on simple problems as you rush to get to the tough ones.

It doesn’t matter how you solve an SAT problem, so long as you get it correct. Often you can use the answer choices and “back-solve,” that is, plug them into the given problem and test them one by one.

Don’t try to do work in your head. Write and draw in your test booklet; make charts, draw pictures, jot down numbers, label the diagrams they give you. The more you write down the faster and more accurately your brain will work. Often, if you are stuck on a problem, just writing down some numbers or making a picture will help you see the next step.

Use your calculator, even for simple math you’d ordinarily do mentally. You’ll be working quickly, under pressure, and your calculator will help you avoid careless mistakes.

Chances are good that your SAT prep will provide a wake-up call to you to review your math skills. Factoring, systems of equations, percents, fractions, geometry rules, and many other topics you “sorta” know, are probably topics you’ll need to go back and get a better handle on.

"Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part Three, The Critical Reading Subtest

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

There are three subtests on the SAT.  The Critical Reading subtest has sentence completion questions which test your vocabulary, and critical reading passages which test your ability to read closely and accurately.

1. Know your Vocabulary

Your review book (purchase one at a bookstore) may contain a list of the most common SAT vocab words, or you may want to purchase a set of flash cards. Vocabulary needs to be studied over time, so begin now and pace your studying to learn a new word every day.

Sometimes words are hard to “wrap your head around,” and even the definitions don’t seem to help. Another person may help you by describing the word in a way you can understand or by putting it in a sentence or painting a mental image you can retain.

Some families practice vocab flash cards at the dinner table or in the car. This is geeky, yes, but it’s a really good idea. Vocabulary is truly best learned with other people, as an interactive, social experience. Maybe you can get a vocab study group organized.

Vocab study may seem tedious, but the SAT vocabulary words are wonderful, useful words you’ll be seeing and using your entire life. You’ll be happy you learned them

2. Know your Critical Reading

The key here is to read carefully. Move through the text as quickly as you can, but don’t rush and fail to understand the material. Read EVERYTHING, including any introduction or notes that come before or after the passages. At the end of each paragraph, stop and ask yourself: What did I just read? What was the main idea?

Make sure you read ALL the answer choices before you select one. Cross off the choices that are clearly wrong and then choose among the rest.

Often you will be referred back to specific lines or words in the text. Underline those words so you don’t waste time searching for them over and over as you refer back to them.

SAT reading is very detail-oriented and precise. Don’t allow your own interpretations to sway your thinking. Just answer the question exactly the …

"Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part Two, Know the Test

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

The SAT and its relatives (PSAT, SSAT) have scoring rules that are different from other multiple-choice tests. These rules are important to understand, because if you don’t you are likely to lose points and hurt your score.

You get one point for each correct answer, zero points for each question you don’t answer (leave blank), and you lose ¼ of a point for every incorrect answer.

So, unlike the usual multiple-choice test, guessing has some risk attached, and random guessing will, on average, hurt you. This is because if you guess randomly from the five answer choices, your probability of a correct guess is only 1 out of 5, but your guessing penalty is ¼.

There is one SAT section that doesn’t have this guessing penalty, the grid-in math section (where you fill in your own answers). On this section you should fill in an answer to every problem because you won’t lose any points by being incorrect.

But on the rest of the test, you shouldn’t take shots in the dark. If you have no idea how to answer a question you are better off leaving it blank. However, if you can eliminate two or more of the answer choices, or if you have a pretty good feeling about your answer even though you’re not completely certain, you should go ahead and take your best guess.

You should also look again at your PSAT results. Of the questions you got wrong, how many were “good guesses”? How many were just random stabs? Try to develop a feel for when you should guess and when you shouldn’t. Some people have better gut instincts than others. Are you a good guesser, or should you play it safe and leave more questions blank?

"Tis the Season for SAT Review! Part One, Review Your PSAT

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Eleventh graders all over the country are receiving early holiday “gifts”: their PSAT scores!

The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT. The SAT is one of the two standardized tests required by virtually every college as part of the admissions portfolio.

Prepping kids for standardized tests is a big part of my job. Whether you hire a tutor, enroll in an SAT class, or prepare on your own, here are some pointers to help you out.

Happy holidays! Happy studying!

1. Review your PSAT

The PSAT is a scaled-down version of the SAT. It has the same kinds of questions, just fewer of them. The PSAT is the best predictor of your future SAT score. Just add a zero onto each of your SAT subtest scores for your predicted SAT score.

Your PSAT results are the best SAT study tool you’ve got, so even if you do nothing else to prep for the SAT, you should thoroughly review your PSAT.

Hopefully, your test booklet was sent back to you along with your test results. Your score sheet should tell you how you answered each question, whether you were correct or incorrect, and what was the correct answer for each question.

Go through your PSAT and review every one of your incorrect answers. Try to understand why they were wrong and why the correct choices were correct.

It may help to do this with a friend or a parent who can help you understand the harder questions.

2. Assess your strengths and weaknesses

Now that you’ve reviewed your PSAT, what were your strengths and weaknesses? In what areas might you improve rapidly? In what areas will you need to devote more effort?

3. Clarify your goals

What kind of scores will you need for the colleges to which you’ll be applying? Now’s the time to visit the websites of the schools you’ve been considering and see where you stand in regards to your scores, grades and other qualities.

4. Come up with a plan for study

It’s very realistic to expect that with …

What Does a Tutor Do? Part Three

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I received an e-mail from a tutor with a tough assignment: She’s been hired by her state’s department of education to work with kids whose test scores are low. The objective is to raise those scores!

For math, the tutor has been supplied with a state-prepared workbook and a set of tests and quizzes, and she has a limited, predetermined  number of sessions allotted to work with each child. She’s been given no special training in how to teach math.

How can she best raise test scores and help her students? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Work enough examples for the student to feel success. During any session, stick with one procedure (long division, addition of fractions, subtraction with borrowing, etc.) until your student has made obvious progress and feels more confidence than she did before you began. You’ll likely not achieve mastery during a single session, but don’t switch away to another topic during a tutoring session and leave the student feeling confused. If necessary, temporarily scale the work down (choose simpler problems, use smaller numbers) so the student can leave feel successful.

2. Spiral Review. Revisit hard procedures, even if you’ve moved past them in your curriculum. Let’s say you covered long division last week and this week’s agenda is fractions?…review a long division problem somewhere during your session. (If your student is getting frustrated with the fraction work, switch off to a long division problem and then get back to the fractions. Otherwise, do the review problem either at the beginning or the end of your session). Keep on spiraling back to difficult procedures, right up until test day.

3. Enforce regular practice. Math should be practiced every day, especially when a child is struggling. Assign homework problems that are similar to the ones you did together. If your student winds up doing her homework with a lot of errors, assign her to rework the exact same problems you covered in the tutoring session. She can redo them, using her notes as examples. Even copying the steps line by line with her notes open will help her somewhat.

4. Ground concepts in reality. Many kids don’t make …

Curiosity Lane: Learning What to do with Emotions

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Let’s say I’m sitting alone one day…and suddenly I am washed over by a wave of intense loneliness and desolation and emptiness.

What should I do?

Emotions are meant to get us up and moving. Notice that the word “emotion” has the same root as “motivation.” The reason we have feelings is to spur us to action.

But what action?

So here I am feeling wretchedly empty and isolated.  What now?

Well, if I am a primitive hunter-gatherer living thousands of years ago, I might go cuddle my children…or seek a mate…or join the rest of my clan who are gathered around the fire. My solutions would be pretty straightforward.

But what if I’m a modern human being, sitting alone in my apartment on a Saturday afternoon? What do I do with my feelings? How do I even interpret my feelings?

Emotions are innate and automatic, but our interpretations of them and our options for addressing them have a large learned component. Messages from culture and society and upbringing have a lot to do with how we learn to respond to our own feelings.

I am sitting alone one day and suddenly I am washed over by intense feelings of loneliness and desolation and emptiness. Why? …and What should I do?

Today’s culture offers me so many possibilities! Which one is “right”?

Maybe I’m stressed out from work and should find a new job.

I don’t give to charity or volunteer and I feel bad about this.

Maybe I need more sleep.

I wonder if I’m coming down with something?

Modern life is sterile and isolating. There’s nothing I can do about that.

Maybe I should go to a bar and have a few drinks.

My marriage isn’t meeting my emotional needs.

My blood sugar could be off; I should improve my diet.

It’s no wonder I feel so bleak, life has no meaning.

I should just cheer up and stop feeling sorry for myself.

Maybe I’ve got a psychological disorder.

I should try yoga or meditation.

I need to make some new friends.

I haven’t exercised in weeks and my metabolism is off.

I’m a loser. No wonder I’m alone.

I might be suppressing emotions from that painful break-up six months ago.

Maybe I should go back to church.

I …

What Does a Tutor Do? Part Two

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

What if I need to tutor in a subject I don’t know very well?

I received this excellent e-mail yesterday:

I am so glad I read your post on Twitter. I too, have a BA in psychology and am attaining my master’s. I went from the finance world at a later age to change careers. While doing this, I have been sub-teaching, but am now also a tutor. One of my 6th grade students is being tutored in math. I am an excellent student, but have always had trouble in math. Any pointers you could give me for tutoring her would be greatly appreciated.

Tutors often face this challenge. So do parents who are trying to help their own child.

This is a marvelous growth opportunity for your student and for you! You’ll feel so empowered once you finally get a handle on that math.

Here’s what to do:

1. Embrace this opportunity. Relax. You and your student are about to have a wonderful learning experience. Keep your mind and feelings open as you take on the role of learner. Regain empathy for how frustrating and scary…and rewarding!… this can feel. It will make you a better, more sympathetic tutor.

2. Commit to your own homework. You will need to learn the material yourself before each lesson. This will mean extra time and effort on your part. The pay-off will be that you’ll wind up competent in sixth-grade math and prepared for future students.

3. Get a copy of your student’s textbook. Also, get the upcoming assignments in advance.

4. Work the lessons and assignments yourself until you understand them. Go line-by-line through the textbook’s examples, rewriting them in your notebook and explaining to yourself each step. Play the roles of teacher and student simultaneously as you literally teach yourself.

5. Seek additional help for concepts you still don’t understand. I own multiple textbooks for every math level because sometimes an explanation from one book makes more sense to me than another.  “Dummies” books or other workbooks can be great. You can also find math …



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