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Each week, the coaches from Milestone Academic Counseling offer timely advice for high school students in the Princeton area.

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2 comments - Last on 01/29/2011

Here Come Midterms

Many of our students approach us with the same problem.  All year, they get good grades—perfect homework, A’s on quizzes, 100% class participation—but when the big test arrives, they underperform. 

Most students will interpret this to mean that they have weak test-taking skills.  This might be the problem, but there’s something else you should consider as well: Maybe you don’t know the material as well as you think you do.  Put another way, you know the material well enough to perform in class, but you don’t know it well enough to perform on the test.  What’s the difference? 

  • In Geometry: When you follow along on the board you “get it,” but you can’t solve the problem without help.  You can solve problems just like ones you’ve seen before, but you can’t solve new ones.
  • In English: You know the plot of all the books you’ve read, but you haven’t connected the themes between them.  You can recall one or two examples that illustrate major motifs, but not three or four.
  • In French: You memorized the vocabulary perfectly, but you can’t use it in a sentence.

From one perspective, this is good news.  Your good grades on regular assignments means that you’re a conscientious student, and that you’re learning how to “play the game.”  Good students know how to find patterns in their assignments, tick all the right boxes, and finish their work in time for hockey practice.  Great students know how to see the holes that their homework doesn’t test, and prepare accordingly.  Here are a few ways to make sure you understand the material well enough to ace the test.

  • When you think you “get it,” ask “What if?” and see how the situation changes.  What if one term of an algebra problem was negative instead of positive?  What if Winston hadn’t cracked under O’Brien’s torture in Room 101?  How would history be different if Washington had accepted a third term in office? 
  •  Solve the problem backwards.  Instead of finding acceleration given velocity, find velocity from acceleration.  You’ve found three good examples to support your thesis; now find three good examples to disprove it.
  • Teach it to one of your younger siblings.  Answer her questions, and design problems for her to solve.  If you can simplify a topic well enough to explain it to someone a few years younger, you’re well on your way to mastering it.
  • Teach it to your parents.  If you can simplify a topic well enough to explain it to someone who hasn’t been in school for a few decades, you’ve got it.  And you probably deserve a teaching prize.

Happy studying!




Moderated by Jake Cornelius.

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Jake - what's the best strategy for a student who has a lot of course material to go over - class notes, many pages of boring text to read . . . but does not have alot of time - what are the shortcuts?  How does the student avoid pulling the all nighter and feeling over whelmed?  Obviously, prepping in advance is a total after thought!

The most important advice I can give to students in a time crunch (read: all of them) is to be very deliberate about how you spend your time studying.  Just because you're sitting down with a textbook in front of you doesn't mean you're learning anything!  Furthermore, just because you're reading the book doesn't mean your learning anything either. 

Planning your "cram session" is critical. This means don't simply start at the beginning and see how far you get.  Don't think that merely reading the example problems is sufficient.  It's not how many hours you spend studying, it's how effectively that time is spent that matters.

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