Saturday, November 26, 2011

Making Straight A's

Making straight A's is a do-it-yourself project for students from high school through college and into post-graduate programs. The proven method presented generally can raise grade point averages by about two points -- e.g., from D to B, from C to A and from B to best in class (arrows in Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Class Grade Distribution

This article describes the method for making all A's, starting with motivational factors and simple learning principles, which suggested the successful 1964 prototype used by the author at the University of Chicago (me in Fig. 1) and finally, the more recent, stream-lined recipe for straight A's.

Motivational Factors
This do-it-yourself project for making all A's can save money. It uses less time than the disorganized study methods of almost all students leaving more free time, say, for part-time jobs. High grade average can earn scholarships as well. Perhaps the most important consequence is increased self-esteem, which itself feeds back to further facilitate learning success.

Learning Fundamentals
Imagine a college course named "Your Place 101" where the entire subject matter you have to learn is information about where you reside. You are exposed daily to this information and may have helped create it to some extent -- e.g., how you arrange the furniture. On the other hand, the other students in "Your Place 101" only have limited access when they can visit your place, take notes and try to remember as much as they can.

Just before the big final exam for "Your Place 101", the other students are staying up all night, drinking lots of coffee for stimulation and trying to cram. Anything about your place might be on the exam -- number of rooms, if there are steps to the front door and if so, how many? Is there milk in the refrigerator and if so, on what shelf? To the right or the left? Is there a crack in the ceiling above your bed that you know well, but that the others may not have noticed. What is the color of everything? What are things made of? What appliances are there? Well, the possible questions on the big exam are almost limitless.

In the final days, the other students are in a near panic state comparing notes, trying to recall every detail before the big final exam. Meanwhile, you are getting a good night's sleep, and maybe even relaxing by watching a movie before the big exam. As you enter the exam room, you know that you will score best in the class, nearly 100 percent on the exam because you know the required information backwards and forwards. If they ask something you can't recall, so what! You will settle for 96 to 98 percent correct and still have the highest score in the class. You are completely calm, cool and relaxed amid a sea of very nervous students. To you, the big final exam is just a few hours work interrupting your favorite activities, a necessary requirement for an A grade in the class.

Why do you perform so well in "Your Place 101"? What are the learning fundamentals?

Repetition. For one thing, you never really forced yourself in any manner to learn the required material of the class. You were simply exposed to it repeatedly, day after day. You can open the refrigerator and get the milk with your eyes closed because you remember where you put it, always in the same old place. You know all about your stove, if any. You know where the spoons and forks are. You know the colors of everything in your place. You know how you get to campus from your place. You know how many windows, if any, and do they have curtains and on and on.

Indeed, you have completely memorized perhaps tens of thousands of little "rat facts" by nothing more than repeated exposure.

Low Anxiety. When you immerse yourself in the subject matter (Your Place), you have no fear. To the contrary, your place is for rest and relaxation from your taxing daily schedule of classes and perhaps part-time work. Low anxiety facilitates absorption of information. On the other hand, the other students in the class are all nerves, attempting to note and later memorize all the details of your place. This high anxiety not only impedes the learning process but also recall performance during the big final exam. In sum, low anxiety helps you both in the learning process in preparation for the exam, but also in better recall of information during the exam.

This anxiety factor is quite important. One can almost smell the fear in many beginning medical students -- "Will I become a medical doctor, or not?" I would tell medical students in my Neuroscience classes that all they can do is to work as hard as possible in their studies and not worry about that. Or rephrasing, if they don't work hard, they will never really know the true answer to the question above. Conversely, if they do study as well as possible, medical students usually know the odds of getting an MD degree within one or two semesters, during which medical schools cull out students who cannot maintain a given grade point average.

Low Fatigue. Fatigue -- lack of proper sleep and rest -- impairs performance of many kinds including recall of memorized information. Our "Your Place 101" example ensures that you are rested and full of energy on the big final exam day.

Student-Teacher Contract. Generally, the contract or agreement between student and instructor is simple. If the student demonstrates learning of most of the specified material, he or she gets an A. Lower performance levels get lower grades. Hence, the key question is what is the required material? The typical answer lies in assigned readings, the lecture or class activities, any outlines or hand-outs provided by the instructor, notes from students who took the course previously, and so forth.

In short, a successful student has operated a sort of intelligence agency to determine as closely as possible the required learning tasks. More on this "student as spy" theme below.

The 1964 Prototype
The author developed the all A's method while an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago (UC). In the first semester, I managed to get a B average. True, there were a lot of very smart and well-prepared kids at the UC in those days, many of which out-performed me in grade point average in that first semester.

Each student had a faculty advisor to discuss the academic program and sign off on course registrations. When I expressed some disappointment about the B average for the first semester, my advisor said, "Well, that is quite good, considering that you came from a public school system in Oklahoma."

Upon reflection, this remark was somewhat troublesome. "This cannot be", I thought. True, in that first semester, I had spent a lot of time reading almost the entire collected works of C. G. Jung, not required by any course work. Second, although I had a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, this needed to be supplemented by part-time work in the UC library and later at the Computer Center in the Fermi Institute. In short, my time for study was limited. Further, I was planning to conduct an extracurricular research project in social psychology in subsequent semesters, later published in Sociometry. Clearly, I needed more time.

Using the principles above, I tried a new method to master the required course material in less overall time than the other students and to then outperform the other students. It worked.

A few days after the mid-term exams, in the UC bookstore, I saw the professor for one of the courses carrying a folder of papers. I asked the professor if he had the grades yet. "What is your name?" "James Keene". He fumbled through his folder and in a few moments showed me the grade distribution. It looked like Fig. 1 above. There was a single mark way above the other highest grades, clearly outside the "normal distribution" of test scores. The professor, eyeing me curiously, pointed to that highest test score, saying "That's you" (me in Fig. 1). He looked me over with a raised eyebrow and smile as if he thought I might be a superior alien being from another world. Or more mundanely, that maybe I had cheated.

How could Keene have a such a high score? It was like an unknown horse beating some of the best race horses in the world by many lengths completely humiliating the competition. And this Keene method worked in all the other courses as well. What did I do to unlock the learning power of the brain?

Step 1: Identify the required material. During the semester break, I skimmed through all the assigned books and readings for the upcoming semester. In short, I worked like a dog. But this was low anxiety work of a purely clerical nature -- identify content. This step is sort of like the work of an analyst at an intelligence agency. Say your job assignment is country X. You read all the newspapers, new books and magazines and highlight potentially important content or trends. Same for broadcast materials.

In my dorm room intelligence agency, I was identifying and underlining all key content in all the assigned readings even before the semester classes started.

In this clerical, mechanical step, full understanding of the content is not required, just that it appears to be important for potential exam questions and some memorization is required. Later, during lectures and further reading, the content will be better understood.

In 1964, the assigned books were not as explicit as typically seen in current textbooks. Further, many of the assigned readings were primary sources -- e.g., journal articles. In contrast, today's textbooks are filled with tables, flow-diagrams, with liberal use of bold type-face in the text to highlight key material and ideas, making step 1 much easier for students to visually identify core content.

For example, textbooks have lots of vocabulary to learn and define. For biochemistry, it is a no-brainer that you will need to memorize basic metabolic pathways. For microbiology, the types of infectious agents and respective mechanisms of action and treatment. For anatomy, bingo, lots of names of structures to learn.

Indeed, almost every course is a sort of "foreign language" class, since you have to master the jargon used in that field of study. I used to joke, "All we want to award you your MD degree is that you learn a lot of vocabulary so when you read medical books and journals later, you will know what they are talking about."

If you can get the reading list, focus on the chapters of textbooks that are actually assigned in a particular course. As you scan information, if "Could this be on the exam?" is a "Yes", then highlight it.

Step 2: Transcribe the content. In junior high school in Owasso, OK, both boys and girls were required to take a typing class using the pre-electric typewriters of the day. In step 2, I used such a typewriter to transcribe the highlighted course content. As this task progressed, dozens of single-spaced pages of direct quotes from the assigned readings were rendered. This process passed the required information through my visual system and out my motor system to the typewriter, beginning the process of relaxed exposure of my nervous system to the content.

Step 3: Voice record the content. Next I read my condensed, type-written pages into a tape recorder. The key in this step is to read the information as fast as possible. This may take a little practice. If you record the content at your normal speaking speed, it will sound slow and become boring when you listen to it later. Further, time is wasted. So practice reading the content as fast as you can. Again, active brain participation occurs visually as the material is read and processed to the motor system to vocalize it out loud for the recorder.

For speed in recording tabular material, say the column headings once. For example, "vitamin", "chemical structure", "sources", "deficiency symptoms", etc. Then, for each line, the particulars can be recorded without repeating the column titles.

Generally, your recordings will not have long explanation of ideas and things. This sort of understanding of the material comes from lectures and readings in the courses. Hence, listening to tapes of course lectures would not be very effective. Once you understand a concept, that is it; you are done with one-trial learning. Your tapes will contain content for memorization -- vocabulary, brief definitions, lists of things (amino acids, hormones, historical figures and dates, verb conjugations, etc).

Indeed, the recorded content should be delivered as telegraphically as possible, eliminating repeated words, etc. An example, say, from physiology or engineering: "A causes B which causes C followed by D which feeds back to inhibit B" becomes "A, B, C, D decreases B". Your brain will fill in the gaps while you listen. Practice makes perfect and folks learn quickly to fill their tapes with rapid-fire information, so they will not be boring and time-wasting later when listening.

Since exams might be scheduled on different days, use different tapes for different courses.

Step 4: Play your tapes of course content. When you wake up, the first thing you hit is the play button on the tape recorder. Core course content is played at essentially all times. While you get up, while you dress, while you cook, while you eat, etc. Returning to my room after classes or work, again the recorder was in play mode.

In 1964, I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, too big to carry around. Today, students have it much easier and can get a small cassette recorder with little earphones which can easily be carried around. Thus, one can listen to the content in one's residence as well as during travel to and from classes or work, and at times, even during classes, if the lecture material is well understood already.

Notice that use of this time for content listening results in a double whammy regarding the competition. Yes, the competition, since many courses are graded based on your performance relative to that of the other students. It's like a sports team steals the ball from the opposition and scores. That's a two point differential: the point the other team did not score and the one your team did score. In like manner, listening to your recorded course content traveling to and from classes or work, between classes, etc, is time you spend enhancing performance -- the same time the other students generally waste.

If you speak very fast during recording, it is amazing how much course content a 90 minute cassette with two 45 minute sides can hold.

The key requirement in step 4 is to actively listen to the tape. Consider your favorite songs. You might play them hundreds of times and never learn the lyrics beyond the chorus or parts of the first verse -- "I'm a soul man" or "...I was feeling kind of sea-sick, but the crowd called out for more..." But if you actively listen, with some repetition, one can easily memorize song lyrics to sing along with little additional effort. The same applies to your recorded course content. After some repetitions, you can stop the recorder and recite out loud what the tape will say next and recall the next topic on the tape, much as one recalls the next song on a frequently played music album. We might say that your course tapes are the "greatest hits" of your current classes.

Since you are playing your tapes almost all the time, not to worry if your mind wanders or if you stop to chat with a friend. The method works not by turning yourself into a robot, but by using time as efficiently as possible to expose you repeatedly to course content.

Step 5: Update content during the semester. After classes begin in a semester, new material from lectures or additional reading assignments will probably add content in steps 1 to 3, which are updated as fast as possible. The repetition principle applies in all steps. That is, if these tasks are completed in a shorter time, a greater time or number of days for repeated listening to your tapes remains before scheduled exams.

Step 6: Read while you listen. In the last days before an exam, in the 1964 prototype for this method, I would play the tapes and read out-loud the notes from which the tapes were made. Or if not reading out-loud, I read silently while listening. Thus, the brain was exposed to the same content both visually from the typed notes and through the auditory system from the playing tape.

Aside from this final reinforcement, one can simply rest and relax before exams while the other students are nervously staying up all night trying to cram facts into their rag-tag, scrambled brains.

Step 7: Take the exams. Obviously, one does need to show up for the exams. However, as mentioned, this step is just a few hours of low-stress, clerical work. Indeed, enter the exam room with a supremely confident "Ask me anything" attitude.

In my experience, the steps above actually take less time than most students spend supposedly studying and also yield substantially better results. Clearly, success is pegged to some extent on a commitment to work very hard early in the semester and preferably even before classes start. Thus, more time for relaxed repeated exposure to the content remains before exams. However, this work is low stress, clerical or secretarial in nature. You are simply gathering and condensing core information in steps 1 to 3, much like the job of an analyst in a spy agency.

Stream-lined Method
My original 1964 protocol described above was clearly over-kill. There was no need to be viewed as an extraterrestrial with vastly superior intelligence (me in Fig. 1). Thus, in subsequent semesters, I stream-lined the method. Step 2 -- typing the identified content -- was eliminated. Many who wish to try this method may not have the typing skills. In summary, the steps above can be reduced, bypassing step 2, by reading highlighted material straight from course readings or notes directly to your portable cassette recorder.

General Applicability
A number of my medical students have used my method over the years with noteworthy success. I know of no failures. Thus, the method works for most if not all people because it uses the optimal conditions for the brain to absorb factual information with maximal efficiency. This efficiency has been observed in two variables: less overall time "studying" and greatly improved performance.

One might worry that the method might fail if less time were available. Here is an extreme case. In the mid-term exams, one medical student had several D grades making it almost impossible to recover in the final exams to achieve a B average required by the medical school for him to continue his studies. In a sort of panic, he approached me to tell him about my all A's method which he had heard about during the orientation sessions for entering students in the medical school. The school's administration regularly scheduled me to give a 15 minute presentation of my academic success method in these sessions.

This student started my program in the middle of a semester. The next day, he showed up with two 90 minute cassette tapes, "I stayed up all night recording these from the material in the first half of the semester which will be covered again on the final exams. Next I'll do the material which is assigned but not yet presented in lecture for the remainder of the semester." In short, instead of going home with D and C grades with a broken spirit, this student went on to earn his MD degree. True, he did not get all A's, but he managed to keep a B average to complete the program.

This method worked for different exam formats -- multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-blank and essay, since each requires recall of pertinent information.

Improving content storage and recall as described should not be confused with general intelligence. Ability to absorb and recall information appears to be only one component of intelligence. Apparently, educational institutions measure content recall in exams for various reasons. For example, mastery of factual information is easier to measure than other intelligence componenents such as insight, relationships among ideas, intuition, creative analysis and other assorted intellectual skills. However, recall performance does seem to be correlated with general intelligence.

In summary, my method works not because there is something atypical about me. Whoever uses it will improve their performance, as far as we know at present. It is simply a matter of considering brain capability to memorize data as a tool. Tools work best when operated properly. Use your brain properly as described and you will need little good luck in your studies!
© 2011 James J Keene