4 November 2013 08:46 AM

Cramming is a Lousy Way to Study

by rbavaria

What, are you nuts?  You have an exam tomorrow, and you’re just now getting around to studying?  Do you really think cramming the night before will help?  Think again, you poor fool.

Cramming is for short term memory not for learning.  It’s okay for errands to the grocery store (although a simple list could help), but it’s lousy for learning.  What you cram tonight will be gone by tomorrow night. 

Yes, there are plenty of websites that claim to teach you “how to cram for a test.”  (There are also plenty of websites that claim to know where Elvis is living incognito.)  Don’t pay any attention to them.  They’re baloney.

Instead, make a pact with yourself and a couple of study buddies who have each other’s backs.  Your study buddies should be classmates who have the same goals, who refuse to be distracted, who have an eye to the future, and who support and encourage each other.  Together, decide that you’re not going to make the same mistakes you made in the past.  (A friend of mine with a colorful way of putting things says, “Even a jackass doesn’t step in the same hole twice!”)  Then, don’t let anyone get you off track.

Instead of cramming, try these suggestions.  They’re common sense, and besides, you know they’re right.

  1. Go to class every day. Being in class is half the battle.  How can you learn if you’re not there to hear what your teacher has to say?  What your classmates have to say?  What the discussion is about?  What varying points of view exist?
  2. Pay attention.  If being in class is half the battle, paying attention is the other half.  Listen to what others are saying.  Engage your god-given brain.  Think.
  3. Take good notes.  No one can remember everything, so good note-taking is essential not only in class but in later life, too.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s pen-and-paper or electronic.  I tell my students to compare notes after class to make sure they haven’t missed anything.  (Really good teachers will guide you, too.  “This is important, so make sure you know this.”)
  4. Do the assignments.  Teachers give assignments and homework to ensure you’re getting practice on your skills, to reinforce what they just taught in class, or to prepare you for the next lesson.  Take them seriously.  Do the assignments.  On time.  Neatly.
  5. Participate.  When you’re participating in class, you’re learning actively.  Active is better than passive.  That’s why students who are engaged in class usually do better on tests.  Don’t bother yourself with what the losers think.
  6. Ask questions.  When you don’t understand something, when something confuses you, or when you need some clarification, ask about it.  Good teachers know they may not know the answer to everything, but they’ll get a good class discussion going and motivate you to find answers and share with the class tomorrow.  Everyone learns.
  7. Study together.  Make it routine to study regularly with your study buddies.  That way, exam time won’t seem overwhelming.  You’ve already been studying for a month!  Let others cram.
  8. Anticipate what will be on the test.  Being predictive is a great skill.  Remember what your teacher has stressed in class, what your textbook highlighted, what skills were featured in lectures, demonstrations, and group work.  These will be on the test.
  9. Read the test questions carefully.  I have a gazillion stories of students who carelessly read the questions and then, for instance, answered the odd numbered ones when they should have done the even ones.  Follow directions.
  10. Relax.  Easier said than done, I know, but it really is easier when you’ve seriously prepared and not foolishly crammed.


These suggestions work just as well for standardized tests, incidentally.  Like the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT.   Face it, anyone with half a brain can tell who’s crammed for a test and who really knows the material.  Crammers aren’t fooling anyone.  Learning’s for winners.  Cramming’s for losers.  Always has been.  Always will be.

8 November 2012 02:58 PM

How to Improve SAT Scores

by rbavaria

Earlier this fall, the nation’s SAT scores grabbed our attention.  Again.  The 1.6 million students in the Class of 2012 managed to rack up the lowest average reading score since 1972.  (Math scores were up by five points.)  Their writing wasn’t much better.  Writing scores have gone down nine points since 2006 when the SAT instituted its writing component.


This makes us veteran English teachers dispirited and disappointed.  The SATs measure how well students apply their knowledge.


The College Board, which administers the SATs, says six of ten students are unprepared for college level work.  College Board president Gaston Caperton says these scores should be a “wake up call to action to expand access to rigor for more students.”


I’ve taught high school English for a long time.  Even taught a couple of SAT test-prep classes.  Here’s what I say to these kids:  A test-prep class helps you practice for an unfamiliar test.  It lets you get used to time constraints, lets you get a feel for when it’s good to “guess,” shows you how to eliminate “distracter” answers.  It doesn’t teach you the content of a subject.  You should already know that.  If you don’t know your algebra, or if you don’t know subject-verb agreement, you’re in the wrong place.  Go back to class and study.  Get help if you need it.  Come back later.


Test-prep classes are a wise investment for kids who’ve kept up their studies.  The company I work for, Sylvan Learning , has been helping kids take the SATs for years.  Test-prep classes are the equivalent of athletes practicing at an away field or arena.  They already have mastered their football, baseball, or basketball skills.  Now they’re getting used to the new playing area, getting a feel for the place so they can concentrate just on their playing.


Here are some sure-fire ways to be ready for a test-prep class or for the SATs.  Some of the savviest students I know use them.  I’ve seen them work for over forty years.  They’re all about personal responsibility.


  1. Have a goal.  What grade are you aiming for?  What skills do you want to improve?  What do you want to learn? 
  2. Go to class.  Being late for class is disruptive, rude, and a theft of other people’s time.  Being absent is stupid; you can’t learn anything if you’re not there.
  3. Take good notes.  Learn to write down all the important facts and ideas from your teacher and classmates.  Jot down questions and comments of your own to ask or share later.  Go over your notes – preferably with a study buddy – after class to clarify anything you’re not sure about.  Be sure to include test dates and due dates for assignments and projects. 
  4. Study.  Build study time into your daily routine and stick to it.  Do the readings.  Do the online or book research.  Put in the time.  Invest in your own success.
  5. Participate.  Become involved in class.  When you know an answer, raise your hand.  When you have a question, ask it.  When you want to share an idea or a comment, do so, civilly and respectfully.  Don’t worry about what some classmates will think or say.  It’s your life.  Take control of it.
  6. Organize.  School work is so much easier and more efficient when you’re organized.  Keep a planner.  At home, make sure all your supplies are in easy reach of your study area so you don’t waste time looking for pen, paper, and books.  If you don’t have a study area, put all your supplies in a handy box, not scattered all over the house.
  7. Do your homework.  Homework reinforces what you’ve done in class, gives you important practice, and prepares you for tomorrow’s work.  Stop whining and just do it.
  8. Prepare for tests.  Prepare with your study buddies.  Ask each other questions you think will be on the test.  Practice writing an essay answer or two.  Support each other.
  9. Get help right away when you need it.  If you’re falling behind in a subject – algebra, say – get help from a teacher, a smart friend, or Sylvan.  The longer you wait the further behind you’ll fall.
  10. Take a test-prep class.  If you’ve done all these things, and you still want a “leg up” for test time, take a test-prep class.  You already know the subject material.  Now you need the strategies for the actual taking of the test.  When to guess.  How to budget your time.  How to read directions carefully and strategically.


The “rigor” Mr. Caperton of the College Board speaks of needs to come from schools, of course, but much of it should come from students themselves.  We adults – parents, teachers, coaches – need to support them, monitor them, challenge them, keep them on track, and celebrate with them.







6 August 2012 11:02 AM

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

by rbavaria

I could write a book.


So could every other teacher in the world. 


The book would be about the things kids innocently say in class that their parents would almost certainly prefer to stay private.  Kids are “pre-embarrassment.”  They say whatever comes naturally to mind, share whatever family anecdote seems vaguely related to today’s lesson, and repeat phrases and opinions they hear at home. 


They can’t help it.  That’s what kids do.


“My mom told my dad if he comes home drunk one more time, he’s out on the sidewalk!” a kid merrily shared as we discussed figurative language.


“Mom said I could wear my bathing suit for underwear until she feels like doing laundry.”


“Daddy calls Mommy Hot Stuff.”


“Seat belts are for sissies!”


“We don’t say grace before meals because my mom’s a good cook.”


“We got our dog neutered.  Just like Mommy.”


“Granddad says he’ll stop fishin’ and go to church when the Lord stops making such good fishin’ weather on Sundays.”




We teachers hear all kinds of things, and we’re pretty good at not repeating the worst of them.  We’ve developed good techniques at getting the discussion back on track, usually with a straight face, and sometimes after some serious biting of our tongues to keep from laughing out loud.


Here’s a list of some things to remember when kids are within hearing distance.  As my grandmother used to say, “Little pitchers have big ears.”


  1. Don’t badmouth teachers or the school.  We teachers have a hard enough time trying to keep order so we can teach.  If you have a problem with a teacher’s curriculum, style, discipline, or rules, talk about it when Junior isn’t around.  Then, talk to Ms. Legree if you have to.
  2. Don’t badmouth subjects you didn’t like in school.  Yes, by all means, it’s a swell idea to talk about how you hated math when you were in school and you’ve gotten along just fine without it.  Sure, let your child know it’s okay to shrug off math in today’s math-centric, technological world.  What’s the matter with you, for heaven’s sake?
  3. Don’t badmouth other kids or their families.  Talking negatively about other families is a guaranteed recipe for discord.  Kids will repeat what they hear.  As my dear dad used to say, “A sure mark of an adult is knowing when to say nothing.”  He also said, more succinctly, “A closed mouth gathers no foot.”
  4. Don’t make racist or sexist comments.  Besides being cruel and stupid, insulting remarks merely incite further insults.  Leave your children a better legacy.
  5. Don’t repeat neighborhood gossip.  Especially around kids.  No telling what form that gossip takes when your kid starts pushing it second-hand. 
  6. Avoid embarrassing topics.  Now, really, why would you want to discuss your intimate health issues, for example, when little Sally is right there, wide-eyed, soaking it all in, ready to repeat it to her second grade teacher?
  7. Talk about respecting privacy.  Families talk frankly and honestly – that’s good.  So, it’s smart to train kids to recognize that there are some conversations that stay in the family, like that ad campaign about Las Vegas.  Sometimes a little reminder – “This is a Vegas conversation, Albert.” – is a good habit to instill.
  8. Talk about a range of opinions.  Nothing wrong with talking about opinions, even controversial ones.  But it’s best for kids to be exposed to a range of opinions on important subjects, so they can begin to think for themselves and sort out their feelings and thoughts.
  9. Remember kids share family stories.  Our best intentions sometimes go astray.  Kids will hear things not meant for them, misinterpret conversations, or just not know to keep their mouths shut.  They’re just plain naïve.  When embarrassing situations arise, treat them with respect, humility, and an apology.  Talk with your kid about what just happened.  Then pick up the pieces, determine to do better, and move on.
  10. Set a good example.  Be a good role model by speaking respectfully of others, being civil, and disagreeing agreeably.  Kids learn more from our actions than by our words. 


We teachers hear enough embarrassing stories.  Our “If-Parents-Only-Knew-What-Their-Kids-Are-Saying” files are full enough.  Funny, but full.



10 August 2009 11:32 AM

Skills for College

by Dr. Rick

I’ve been an educator for forty years now, and for many of those years I’ve taught high school seniors, most of them bound for some sort of post-secondary education – community colleges, four year colleges and universities, technical training, and specialized career opportunities.  Now I write a blog for students and parents, www.DrRickBlog.com.  


On the last day of class before graduation, I’d give my seniors a little heartfelt talk, my well-honed last ditch attempt to send them out in the world with confidence, good sense, and purpose.  They were always eager to hear what I had to say.  They seemed to want direction at a scary time.  It was my way of saying, “Godspeed.”


Here, then, taken from some of my just-before-graduation-talks, are, first, some study skills and, next, some personal attributes that can’t hurt in post-secondary learning.  And beyond, actually.

  1. Organize yourself.  Adults have been telling you this for years, and now you’re on your own.  Make sure you organize your schedule, providing ample time for studying, doing assignments, recreation, and personal time.  Keep a planner – either an electronic one or a written one – and make sure you keep to your own schedule.  Set up routines that provide you with the structure you’ll need.
  2. Set goals.  Know what you’re aiming for.  Make some goals that stretch your capabilities, force you to improve skills and add to your knowledge.  Goals could be academic (learning a new field of study), social (improving the circle or quality of your friends), or personal (relationships).
  3. Be responsible.  You’ve heard these suggestions before, but they’re even more important now that you’re on your own.  When you organize yourself and set goals, make sure you keep to the plan.  Hang out with friends who have your well-being in mind.  It’s not always easy suddenly to have lots of freedom, without parents and teachers setting restrictions and rules for you.  Now, it’s up to you.  Go to class.  Take good notes.  Review them.  Give yourself plenty of time to study for tests.  Concentrate.  Don’t try to multi-task when you’re studying something difficult.  It won’t work. 
  4. Get help when you need it.  Everyone needs a little help now and then.  As soon as you suspect you’re having trouble in class, ask for help.  Ask your professor or teaching assistant.  Get a tutor.  Ask a friend who’s talented in the field of study.  Just get help.  The longer you put it off, the worse it will be.
  5. Be positive.  These are good years, so enjoy them.  Just as you’ve planned and organized yourself for study, give yourself plenty of time for socializing and friendships.  Some of the friendships you make in college will be lifelong, one of life’s true blessings.  Select wisely, enjoy them now, and treasure them later.  Be respectful. Be a good friend.  Listen.
  6. Take advantage of what we know about your age group.  No offense, but you’re not finished growing up.  Brain research tells us that adolescence can extend well into the twenties.  Making the switch from home to college can be difficult, so take advantage of any help that’s available to you.  Now’s the time to select a mentor, for example, a trusted, admired adult whose skills and talents you’d like to emulate.  Have someone you can talk to, study with, and learn from.
  7. Volunteer.  Nothing helps you to learn new skills, to make you competent, and to increase your confidence more than teaching.  Volunteer to teach young kids, for example, to play softball or soccer, to sing or play guitar, to act in a play, to swim at the neighborhood pool, to improve their math or reading during the summer.  You’ll be the grown up and testing the waters while you’re still young.
  8. Stay open to new and old experiences.  Your own personality is still developing.  Learn new skills, join interesting extracurricular groups, stretch your mind, your abilities, and your soul.  If you haven’t gone to church or temple for a while, go with some friends and see how the experience changes now that you’re on your own.
  9. Stay grounded.  You’ve learned good values and attitudes from your parents, teachers, and other trusted adults.  Live up to those values while you’re searching for your own special relationship to them. 
  10. Read.  Never stop reading.  Read for information to stay tuned to the world and your place in it.  Read others’ opinions and develop your own.  Read just for the pure literary pleasure.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a book or a Kindle, just read.  Your mind wants to keep growing.  Indulge it.
23 February 2009 06:50 PM

Getting Ready for College

by rbavaria

We get lots of questions from high school students and their parents about applying for college and university.  Students who have endured high level, challenging courses, rigorous term papers and science projects, had leadership positions on sports teams and extracurricular activities like orchestra, drama, and school newspapers, and kept their grades high still find themselves full of stress when it comes to getting ready for post-high school education.  Stress does not have to be a given.  Stay relaxed, focused, and surround yourself with good friends and family who will support you.  Then, of course, return the favor to them.  Now’s not the time to be a loner.


Here are five simple reminders that can help.  I’ve written about many of these suggestions before, so I’ve put hyperlinks in parentheses for you to read more if you’d like.


1.  Keep up your grades and studies.  Sounds simple, right?  By the end of high school, many seniors can lose steam, be tempted to drift toward the finish line, rest on their laurels.  Now’s not the time to do that.  Set your goals high.  Graduate with honors, make the principal’s list, even aim for an award or scholarship or two.  There’s nothing like going out with a bang!


2.  Keep yourself persistent, organized, and disciplined.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I swear by persistence (December 29, 2008), advocate for keeping yourself organized (September 9, 2008, and September 11, 2008), and preach the power of taking control of your life.  I’ve written about the advantage of having study buddies who can help motivate and support you and keep you sharp for tests and important projects (December 2, 2008).  Make sure your extra curricular activities are meaningful to you and your possible activities in college.  And most important, get help when you need it.  Take a test-prep course from a reliable provider, like Sylvan Learning, so you’ll be familiar with test-taking strategies and the experience itself (July 15, 2008, and July 17, 2008).  Balance your school and social life (November 4, 2008, and November 6, 2008).  Choose good friends to hang out with, friends who will understand and support your choices.


3.  Maintain your study skills.  Focus on organization, time-management, and test-taking (October 7, 2008, and October 9, 2008).  You’ll find these skills important in high school and vital in college.  Keep up your reading of fiction and non-fiction.  Stay curious about the world around you.  Indulge your interests, learn from them, and make connections to the wider world.  Life’s much more interesting when your work and your interests are the same.


4.  Use your summers wisely.  Save money for college expenses like food, books, tuition, housing, transportation, and, yes, fun.  Try to find a job that challenges you and has some relevance to your interests or studies.  Make even the most menial job a learning experience.  (Someday I’ll write about working in a psychiatric hospital with difficult adolescents when I was eighteen – the hardest thing I ever did and ultimately the best training I ever had for teaching.  I was able to survive anything after that!)


5.  Understand the college application process.  Involve your family.  Talk to your parents and other significant adults in your life, and explain why you chose a particular school.  It’ll be a good exercise for when you’re interviewing with an admissions dean.  Use the expertise of your school guidance counselor (February 2, 2009).  Know what tests you’ll need, what deadlines you’ll have to meet, the costs, and other requirements like letters of recommendation.  Do your “due diligence.”   Is the school’s curriculum appropriate for your needs, goals, and interests?  What about extracurriculars?  Sports?  Financial aid?  Scholarships and grants?  Does the school have the special programs you’re interested in (Study abroad, interesting internships, orROTC, for example)?


This sounds like a lot, I know, but if you start early, involve your friends, family, and school professionals in your choices, you’ll avoid the disadvantages of rushing and feeling alone at a time when you need all the support you can get.  There’s strength in numbers, remember. 


Opinion | SAT/ACT

19 February 2009 02:43 PM

College Costs Reinforce Need for College Preparation

by rbavaria

Today we have another guest blogger, Russell D. Greiff.  Rusty is a colleague whose dedication to the success of college- and university-bound teens is infectious.  Not a day goes by that he doesn’t have another idea for motivating, teaching, encouraging, and supporting these students as they begin preparing for their transition from high school to college or university.  He has lots of experience in the education field, from production to licensing, from Reading Rainbow TV to online and interactive services.  It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you our guest blogger for today – just in time for prepping for those SATs and ACTs – Rusty Greiff.


Global competition has made it more necessary than ever for students to attend college in order to obtain well-paying jobs. The release last week of a new public survey, by the groups Public Agenda and the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education, highlights that an increasing number of Americans feel that obtaining a college degree is required to ensure a person’s success in today’s world. Fifty-five percent of respondents felt that completing college was a necessity for future work success. This is in contrast to the 31 percent of respondents who felt this way in 2000 and the 50 percent in 2007.


In response to the need for college planning assistance from families, I believe that the best defense is a strong offense in the college preparation process.


SAT* and ACT® scores continue to play an important role in an applicant’s ultimate college acceptance and his or her access to scholarships and grants.  Additionally, if students have the academic, study and organizational skills needed for college, they may save time and money by successfully transitioning into a university course load and not having to enroll in non-credited remedial classes during their freshman year.


According to The Project on Student Debt, students today are graduating college with an average level of education debt of approximately $21,000, and one in four students takes at least six years to graduate. Excelling in core academic programs and AP classes increases grant and scholarship opportunities, while preparing the student to graduate within four years.


An effective way to counter the dependence on loans is to prepare for college-level instruction by focusing on SAT and ACT success, as well as solidifying the foundation in advanced reading, writing and math concepts that is necessary for lifelong success.


A majority of Sylvan College Prep students increase their scores by an average of 160 to 200 points or more for the SAT and up to five points for the ACT. Despite increased competition, these students now have a better chance of obtaining college funding and acceptance into their top-choice schools. In fact, one student in our Bastrop, Texas, learning center increased his SAT score from 1400 to a perfect 2400, just a few weeks ago. This student’s chance for future success increases exponentially due to his significant achievement.


How can families prepare for college – while saving money?

Sylvan Learning is helping to soften the financial blow to parents through the launch of our ongoing national effort to help alleviate stress while preparing for college.


Students can participate in Sylvan-sponsored SAT and ACT practice tests held at their local high schools as fundraisers. Sylvan Learning’s College Prep professionals will then review and score the results and provide each student with an in-person improvement session.


Additionally, parents can attend free workshops, “Test Stress: A Parent’s Real Guide to College Test Prep,” dedicated to helping families develop high school action plans, college planners and the ability to navigate through the complicated college admissions process. Parents can contact their neighborhood Sylvan Learning center to find out when a seminar will be held in their area.


Begin preparing for college now.  Click here for free educational information– including stress-free tips for scoring higher on the SAT/ACT. 




23 September 2008 10:36 AM

Should the SAT and ACT be Abandoned?

by Dr. Rick

I read yesterday that the National Association of College Admission Counseling recommends that colleges and universities no longer rely on SAT and ACT scores in their admissions practices.  Instead, the NACAC recommends admissions exams more closely related to high school curriculum and achievement.


That’s common sense.


There’s still a place for the SAT and the ACT, though.  It may be a smaller place, and it may not carry the weight it once carried, but there’s still a place for traditional entrance exams.  The SAT and the ACT give students a chance to show their problem solving skills, their mastery of content knowledge, their abilities to persevere, to plan, to study, and to work toward a major goal.


Schools that rely solely on students’ SAT or ACT scores – if there are any left – should, of course, make these scores one part of many admissions criteria.  If I were an admissions officer I would want to know about those scores, but I’d want to know a whole lot more about a student, too.  What about her high school grades?  The kinds of courses she took?  The extracurricular activities she was involved in?  What did teachers say in their recommendations?  What are her out-of-school interests?  What books has she read recently?  What does her written work tell about her mastery of the language?  Does she have an intellectual curiosity?  What does higher education mean to her – a quest for more knowledge, a career path, a social activity, a time for growth?


Are there still colleges and universities that are uninterested in such things and want only to know SAT or ACT scores?  If so, then by all means they must change.  But if a school uses the scores as one part of a wider process to admit students, those scores can be useful.  Rather than deal-makers or deal-breakers, they become one more bit of data to ensure that the higher learning experience is good for all students with talents and skills that mere tests cannot discern.

Dr. Rick In The News

WMARabc2news.com - March 2, 2011
Baltimore Celebrates Read Across America

WMARabc2news.com - March 2, 2011
Read Across America Interview

The Friday Flyer - February 18, 2011
Parents can Nurture the Love of Reading

Multiples and More - July 5, 2010
Expert Post: Dr. Rick of Sylvan Learning

Examiner.com - May 15, 2010
Summer Skill Sharpeners

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