Archive for the ‘study skills’ Category


The Man Farted from Behind a Tree; Bee Shur Too Proofreed Carefuly

April 23, 2010

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things in a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
• William James

There it was on my desk circled in red on page two of the newspaper I was supposed to have thoroughly proofed in my first assignment on the way to becoming an editor, part of a series of tests that would determine whether I moved on to greater responsibilities at The Daily Sun in Warner Robins, Georgia. Foy Evans, the owner, read the paper every day, looking for just such mistakes, letting us know, kindly, that they were not acceptable.

The man farting from behind a tree was supposed to have darted, of course, but alas, I left him there, passing wind, for all the town to read about. Fortunately, it was my only mistake that day and I kept moving ahead.

Proofread. Seriously. It sounds easy, but it’s not. The eye often sees what it wants to see, what ought to be there. Here’s a little reading exercise I use with one of my classes:

Aoccdring to rscheearch at Cmabride Uinevertisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a word are, the only iprmoetnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can still raed it wouthit porbelm.

I find errors in my posts just about every time I go back and read over them. Words are missing. Tenses are incorrect. I’m missing a comma or a period or I’ve used a semi-colon incorrectly. And I know better. I just didn’t see these things, even with careful reading. Particularly difficult to catch are the words I’ve word processed incorrectly, god for good, thee for the, and other things that won’t end up underlined with red.

I’ve collected a number of favorite student errors over the years. Number one on my hit parade is “Master o Farts in Teaching,” closely followed by a student writing about World War II who wrote that his father “served on a mime sweeper.” San Francisco was once a hotbed of street mimes and I’d love to have seen those annoying white-faced entertainers who silently impeded my progress swept out of the way.

It’s almost impossible to catch all your own errors, so here’s my advice: First, put some time between you and your work. Don’t do everything at the last minute so you won’t have time to reread. (Do note that even as I word process these words I know the virtual impossibility of this actually happening for most students.) Next, read your work out loud to someone else to help you catch incomprehensibility. You’ll spot some of it and so will the listener.

Then have at least one friend read your work. Two is better, but again, they are probably working on their own last-minute things. Ask someone to check for consistency of style too, particularly on long papers or on resumes—use of fonts, type sizes, underlining, centering, indentions, and other things should all “match.”

Here’s something not to do: don’t give someone a paper to proof in class right before you hand it in. What do you expect that person to do? I was in a number of classes as an undergraduate with another English major who often asked me to proof her papers at the last minute. I never knew what to say about the many things that needed to be fixed. Fortunately, the internet now makes it much easier to ask for and give peer input.

Finally, be willing to listen. When I was working as a graphic designer, I used to design employment packages—personal letterheads, resumes, and the like. I took an order from a man who’d been working as a prison guard in “penile institutions,” an error he made multiple times throughout his draft. I corrected his error (it’s penal institutions—penile means of or referring to the penis). He came in to look at a proof, got extremely angry, and left, refusing to pay for anything I’d done. Too bad for him. Worse than farting from behind a tree.

Have you ever completed written work and found an error when it was too late to do anything about it? What do you do to make sure your work is as nearly perfect as it can be?

I have made mistakes, but I have never made the mistake of claiming that I have never made one.
• James Gordon Bennett


The True Object of All Human Life Is Play.*

April 19, 2010

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
•Diane Ackerman

I laughed my way through several committee meetings on Friday. Back-to-back meetings for several hours. It could have been torturous, but because of the various groups of people I was with, it wasn’t. I could have left campus bogged down and tired, but I didn’t. I felt energized. There is a lesson to be learned here for students.

There are study group sessions that suck the success right out of you, so boring and humorless that you no longer even care if you learn anything from the experience. There are study group sessions that waste your time when they devolve into giggling goofiness without purpose. And then there are the sessions that blend fun and camaraderie with seriousness. It might seem that fun has no place in a gathering devoted to test prep or peer editing or presentation planning or whatever it is the group’s meeting for, but shared fun is a powerful way to create cohesiveness within a group.

The degree to which playfulness becomes part of the process will depend on the group’s task. Memorizing complex formulas is likely to call for more seriousness than planning an engaging presentation.

When I teach a creativity course, I ask my students to reframe their instructions to students, asking them to “play around with” something rather than “work on it.” This simple twist of words can alleviate stress. Certainly the teacher needs to make sure that what students are playing with are the requisite ideas, but permission to play often frees new pathways in the brain.

One of the books on my shelves of favorites is Anne Bruce and James S. Pepitone’s (1999) book, Motivating Employees. I find lots of wisdom applicable to education in things written for business and I especially like Bruce and Pepitone’s list of the “10 Characteristics of Fun” (p. 91):

1)    Humor alleviates stress and tension.
2)    Fun improves communication.
3)    Fun eases conflict
4)    Laughter can help us survive.
5)    Laughing at yourself is the highest form of humor.
6)    Laughter has a natural healing power.
7)    Humor helps lighten the load.
8)    Fun unites people.
9)    Fun breaks up boredom and fatigue.
10)    Fun creates energy.

I’ve experienced the truth of these things in my own personal and professional life, most recently on Friday during a stretch of potentially boring meetings made delightful by the presence of others willing to laugh and take lightly—yet seriously—the tasks we faced.

In my research into fun in learning, I’ve found that the coin of fun has two sides: one is playfulness and the other is deeply serious engagement in whatever it is that needs to be done. This seemingly paradoxical duality has to be experienced before you can fully understand it.

Have you ever had fun while accomplishing a serious or meaningful or difficult task?

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.
• Roger von Oech

* Thanks to G.K. Chesterton for the title quotation.


There Is Then Creative Reading as Well as Creative Writing *

February 6, 2010

Journaling sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Get onto the computer, buy a diary or notebook of some kind and just start writing, right? Write! It sounds easy, but isn’t. What to write about and why bother? Without purpose, enthusiasm wanes quickly. There’s only so much you can say about what you had for supper (although there are entire books devoted to just such records) or the difficulty of finding good teevee timewastery to occupy your extra hours while you send out countless job queries (although other job seekers would likely commiserate). Even something as simple as keeping a daily photographic record of your socks can get lost in the push of daily living.

There are many kinds of purposeful journals that people keep. One kind of journal I’ve found meaningful is the commonplace book, another kind of autobibliographic reflection. In a commonplace book, you record passages from books that have particular meaning for you. You may respond to them or you may just record things in order to “save” them. This personal-choice recording is different from the kinds of reading logs you may have kept for school since the passages can be from books you are reading for pleasure or from websites or magazines or signs you see or—well, whatever. It may also include quotations or lines of poetry or other things you find pleasing. Be sure to note page numbers and bibliographic information in case you want to reference something from your collection later.

Lines from poems sometimes inspire my art and poetry, and quotations often spur me to think beyond the words on the page and into creative possibilities. For example, at the top of the page I’m word processing right now is a quotation from Kim Hubbard I want to use with The Amuseum of Un-Natural History: “Come good times or bad, there is always a market for things nobody needs.” Visit any thrift store and you’ll be visually bombarded by racks and shelves of things nobody needed that are now for sale to others who don’t need them either but want them anyway. This is another of the many things that fascinate me since I am often a victim of the I-don’t-need-it-but-I-really-really-really-want-it sydrome. Yes. I am the woman who just paid $2.69 for a Bakelite adding machine that is frightfully heavy and pretty much useless but incredibly cool looking. But once again, I digress.

Commonplace books have a long history, dating back to times when books were not as easily available and when people might wish to have a record of wisdom on particular topics of interest to them. I will not bore you with these details. Suffice it to say that you could begin now to collect information that interests you from your reading, or from your life if you aren’t doing much reading. You could keep these snippets of interesting information in a journal of some kind, even cutting and gluing in things that you find amusing—or not. Commonplace books figure prominently in Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events and thus can also be used to record and ruminate on the disasters that befall you and the comfort provided by the words of others.

Hard Times (1853) is my favorite of Charles Dickens’ books, and on December 11, 2002, I copied this quotation from the book in my commonplace book. Mr. Gradgrind says, “Louisa, never wonder.” The book goes on to say, “Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder” (p. 36).

As an educator, I often wonder why school does not do more to engage students’ interests since interest-building activities would nurture skills useful in life after school. Inquisitiveness—or curiosity—was linked to innovative thinking in a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives. The study found five discovery skills that these creative people possessed: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking (“How Do Innovators Think?” Bronwyn Fryer, Sept., 28, 2009, Harvard Business Review). In this article, Jeff Dyer, one of the researchers, explains why people don’t think inquisitively, saying that “the problem is that even the most creative people are often careful about asking questions for fear of looking stupid, or because they know the organization won’t value it.” This too is in my commonplace book.

Of course, if you’re in school, you can prepare for class by reading your textbooks and related materials, recording references and reflections in a course-related commonplace book. Imagine an instructor’s delight should you do so.

Consider beginning a commonplace book to capture things that interest you.

All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.
• Mortimer J. Adler,
The Padeia Proposal

* Thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson for the title quotation: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”


There Are Things I Plan to Do Soon. Really Soon. Thoughts on Inertia, Endless Lists, and Perpetual Possibility.

February 1, 2010

It’s week five of the quarter. Mid-term. And it feels as though the quarter has barely begun. My lists have sprouted sub-lists and I’m adding to them faster than I can cross things off even when I try the strategy of adding things I’ve already done so I can have the satisfaction of lining them out. The speed of a quarter is both blessing and curse. A blessing because no matter how challenging a course may be (or how much work I have to do) it will soon be over. Quarters are definitely finite. They are a curse because keeping up and getting things done can seem impossibly daunting, especially midway through when nothing much has come to fruition and there is still so much to be done.

Some students are bothered less by this than others. School and its work are secondary. Primary is socialization and having fun with friends and doing just enough work to get by. They would get a different lecture from me. The students I’m thinking about right now are the ones who are procrastinating self-care. They’re putting off eating right, exercising, getting together with friends, making time to have a bit of fun. They are driven to get it all done and get it all done really, really well. They are so deeply immersed in school that everything else becomes secondary.

The brevity of a quarter makes it difficult for these folks to get involved too. As the quarter begins, their intentions are often good, but, hey, there’s plenty of time and it’s smart to see what’s going to be required by your classes first, find out how much “spare” time you’ll have after you calendar (Note the nifty use of a noun as a verb—this is the kind of experimentation that amuses wordfreaks like me and drives other people crazy. I have changed it several times, but I am leaving it because I want to.) school and work and family or whatever else it is that needs to be done.

Then it’s week two and three and four and you’re just getting into the rhythm of things with your life organized around an ever-shifting series of ongoing demands that are the same but different every term. And whammo! Here you are; it’s mid-term and you still haven’t joined that club or gotten together with a group that sounds interesting if only you had the time and you’re still eating fast food or the easiest thing you can scrounge up and there hasn’t been time to walk or go to the gym or whatever. But there will be. Soon.

But it’s mid-term. The middle of it all. WTF time has arrived. Pressure is on to make sure everything is moving along because this fast train is already halfway there when it seems as though the trip has barely begun. No space to take on anything new. Not right now. And wouldn’t it be better to wait for a fresh start anyway? Of course. Possibility is perpetual when you’re in school. There’s always next quarter. And the cycle will start again.

What small step(s) could you take to take better care of yourself this quarter?

If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.
• Mary Pickford


A Handful of Common Sense Is Worth a Bushel of Learning *

January 26, 2010

Overheard yesterday on Monday of week four of a ten-week quarter. Thirty percent of the class is over. Midterms are next week. It’s after class and the teacher is trying to vacate the room so another group of students can enter. This is paraphrased, but you’ll get the gist:

Hi, I’m Anonymous Student. I’m finally here. I haven’t been to class yet because I had a conflict with work, but I’m here and ready to get caught up.

The teacher says: I already dropped you. The teacher might be thinking: Are you kidding? Are you nuts? This is the first time you’re contacting me? Haven’t you ever heard of phoning or emailing? We could have taken care of this much earlier and I could have told you not to take this course if you weren’t going to be able to attend. (Clearly, no eavesdropper is privy to interior thoughts. I am making this up based on what I am thinking about the situation.)

Avoidance is a form of procrastination. Putting off talking to a teacher about just about anything is not a good idea. Putting off contacting someone about a financial aid problem is not a good idea. Putting off contacting a credit card company about the trouble you’re having making a payment is not a good idea. Some problems go away if you ignore them. Most of them don’t.

It seems like avoiding avoidance would be plain old common sense, but the overheard conversation reminded me of something Mark Twain and Ben Franklin and Voltaire have all been credited with saying: Common sense is not so common. And it’s probably not so common because it’s more difficult than it sounds to be commonsensical. Some people just seem to be better at it than others. I’ve encountered so many students–and other people–who don’t seem to have developed this ability that I’m convinced it’s something schools should deliberately teach instead of assuming that students have common sense and are choosing not to use it. I also believe that a person might be able to self-develop the attributes of common sense.

It’s important to develop critical and creative thinking skills. It’s also important to develop problem-solving skills based in common sense that include giving deliberate attention to using good judgment, thinking things through, considering intended—and unintended—consequences of actions (or lack of them), weighing options, and making sensible decisions.

On a scale of one to ten with one being “have none” and ten being “role model for humanity,” rate your common sense.

The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.
• Thomas Alva Edison

* American proverb


Play The World of Mindcraft: No Purchase Necessary

January 25, 2010

Computer scientist Alan Perlis complained about education, saying, “It goes against the grain of modern education to teach students to program,” asking, “What fun is there to making plans, acquiring discipline, organizing thought, devoting attention to detail, and learning to be self-critical?” Yet the things he describes are exactly the kinds of things that are part of fun in learning. The problem is that not everyone is interested in learning to program. And without interest, almost any activity, no matter how fascinating it is to someone else, is drudgery (see post: “There IS a Formula for Drudgery,” September 16, 2009).

When you’re in school, there’s definitely going to be some drudgery involved whether or not a subject interests you. It’s difficult to avoid it. Almost every discipline has knowledge and skills that take time and deliberate attention to acquire, so even if you love a particular subject, you’re likely to encounter times when what you’re studying is just plain hard work. If you don’t love it, the work may be even harder. Doing the hard work is empowering. Grappling with confusion and uncertainty and coming to understanding builds belief in your ability to successfully meet the challenges not just of school, but of life. It is fun to complete an assignment and know that the work you hand in is meaningful and represents real effort on your part.

It’s week four here on the quarter system and mid-terms are coming. There’s still time to turn the quarter around if you haven’t been making an effort to engage. There’s still time to pay attention, still time to produce quality work, still time to read and study and do what you need to do to be successful. There’s also still time to reflect on your part in the teaching/learning symbiosis, what Perllis refers to as learning to be self-critical. One of the questions students are asked on their course evaluations here is to rank themselves on the degree to which they took responsibility for their own learning. I am always surprised by the number of students who don’t give themselves the highest ranking here. And I always wonder why not.

In “The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know?”, John Taylor Gatto (2005) referenced ten learning abilities identified at Harvard University as essential for adapting to a rapidly changing world of work. As you read them, assess where you are as a student/human being related to each one:

• The ability to define problems without a guide.

• The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.

• The ability to work in teams without guidance.

• The ability to work absolutely alone.

• The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.

• The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.

• The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.

• The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.

• The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically. (Note: dialectic, debate to resolve a conflict between two contradictory or seemingly contradictory ideas, with truth on both sides; grappling with essential tensions).

• The ability to attack problems heuristically. (Note: heuristic, trial and error solutions, discovery learning, rather than using set rules).

Assessing yourself isn’t enough. To be successful in school—and in life—you must also set goals that target building on your strengths and addressing your weaknesses. This isn’t a one-time activity, but an ongoing process. It’s playing the game of mindcraft and reaching higher and higher levels of self-empowerment as a learner.

What learning goals would be beneficial for you this term?

It’s not only the ability to raise and answer those questions [referring to habits of mind that explore evidence, point of view, connections, supposition, and relevance] though, but also the disposition to do so. For that matter, any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one’s interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking. Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.
–Alfie Kohn (2004),
What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?, pp. 9-10


More on the Dream Theme: The Dream that Keeps Your Hopes Alive*

January 22, 2010

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
• Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)

Yes, there is a theme this week, a dream theme that I diverged from yesterday as a personal stress management exercise that illuminated some things that make teacher/me crazy. But back to the theme. Dreams are as important to success in school as any textbook you’ll buy or any course you’ll take. If education won’t help you with your aspirations, why bother? Money? Money is certainly necessary, but past a certain point of sustaining your life on a reasonable level, it’s just more. And that kind of more is never enough.

Besides, it’s all relative. As Jeana Keough, one of Orange County’s Real Housewives said on a recent show, “I could be happy in a 5000 square foot house. I don’t need 9000.” Really? Dear girl, here in the real world where many of us live daily, most people are delighted with much less.

Why would musician Paul McCartney say he never plans to retire? How about Oprah or many other wealthy-enough-to-never-have-to-work-again folks? Why do they keep working when they could be doing nothing? Why work if you don’t have to and if you do have to, isn’t the work and your purpose for doing it even more important? Thomas Edison, the inventor we can thank for the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, said, “One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its rewards to the man who loves his work, but speaking for myself, I can honestly say this is not so. . .I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”

Any kind of training or education can be just one more thing to check off on your to-do list. An article in this month’s Wired,** “Summa Cum Fraud,” by David Wolman (pp. 68-75), reports that “every year, diploma mills sell as many doctoral degrees as are awarded by real universities,” noting also that “fake diplomas are known to have existed as far back as 14th-century Europe.” While paying for a degree without having to attend a single class might sound good, it won’t help you find your purpose and passions. Neither will attending classes without being present.

What is the dream that keeps your hopes alive?

There’s no easy way out. If there were, I would have bought it. And believe me, it would be one of my favorite things!
• Oprah Winfrey

Money can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, encourage unethical behavior, foster short-term thinking, and become addictive.
• Daniel H. Pink

* from “After All This Time” by Rodney Crowell

** Special note re: Wired. I love this magazine. It reminds me of how much I don’t know, reminds me of how much I don’t want to know, and fills me with fascinating information that is the brain equivalent of Styrofoam packing peanuts, filling space, but nothing I’d want to keep. I’m just hoping that it’s the kind that dissolves eventually, otherwise, I’ll be packed with useless facts about things like “Japan’s Coolest Gadgets,” like the Mugen Puchi Puchi aka Endless Pop Pop, a toy that simulates the sounds of bubblewrap popping. Gotta have it! There’s lots more that I might want if I could only read the type.

Here’s a hint for graphic designers: white type on a pale blue or yellow background is not pleasant reading for anyone nor is grey type a good idea, and just because you can create two-point type does not mean that you should use it. This hint also applies to student work. If you hand in a paper or are doing a presentation, make sure your intended audience can read it. No matter how good something looks, if the information can’t be easily accessed, the communication has failed to communicate. And while I realize that sometimes such choices are purposeful, work that needs a grade is not the place to experiment unless you’re actually in a class that requires you to do so.