Improving Academic Performance

The Under-appreciated Power of Paying Attention: Part 1

Posted by mark sko on Fri, Nov 27, 2015 @ 01:21 PM

When a student is really struggling in school or on standardized tests, reversing the trend can seem like a truly daunting task. One of the first things a parent might say to student who comes home with a “C” or “D” on a report card might be, “are you paying attention in class?” This is indeed a very important question, because paying attention in class is critical to performing well in school. Paying attention while taking a standardized test is also critical, yet oddly it probably seems so obvious that you may have never actually thought about the fact that it’s important. In this article, we’ll discuss a seemingly obvious concept in a new light: paying attention.

The idea that “paying attention” is important seems simple, but it actually operates on a variety of different levels. In this article, we’ll address the following three questions:

  1. What does it really mean to focus on paying attention? What are the different dimensions of “paying attention” that a student or parent should be thinking about?
  2. Why is paying attention so important?
  3. What are some strategies for improving your ability to pay attention (follow up post)

1. What does it mean to pay attention?

Let’s start by thinking about your typical high school or college student sitting in class. I’d submit that there are three level of paying attention to consider:

  1. Just listening to the teacher vs. staring out the window or day dreaming about something else
  2. Actively listening to the teacher, and focusing on when she explicitly calls things important, not important, assigns things, asks questions, and perhaps most important, when you do vs. don’t understand what is being said
  3. Fully engaged listening to the teacher, in which you are really trying to understand and digest what she’s saying (which I recognize is not easy if you aren’t also very interested in what is being discussed) to challenge and enhance your understanding of it

You might call (A) the bare minimum and (C) the gold standard of paying attention. (A) is fundamentally about being committed to being a part of the situation at a high level. The first step in this direction is, of course, attending vs. skipping class altogether. But, once you’re there, you really have to focus on listening to what’s going on. If you are day dreaming, it’s almost as if you aren’t there at all. The next step is actively listening, where you focus on identifying when something important has been said. Finally, in C), when you are fully engaged in the lecture, you will naturally ask a question when you don’t understand or want to make a point.

As you move from A through B and toward C, you are essentially realizing that listening to words being said out loud is only the first step in understanding an idea. When you are really paying attention, you are constantly breaking down explanations and ideas, re-phrasing them, creating linkages to other ideas you understand to be true, and making sure you understand.

2. Why is paying attention so important?

Many students think that reading and homework assignments are substitutes for attending or really paying attention in class. But, they are wrong.

When it comes to a typical academic subject, the more obvious reason that paying attention is so important is that classes are typically structured such that you learn things in class, they are reinforced in assigned readings, applied through homework and projects, and your knowledge is then evaluated through quizzes and tests.

However, it’s a little messier than that. Many of us have probably found that, when explained in layman’s terms by a teacher, a given concept or idea is much more digestible than when described in a text book. In other cases, something might be covered in class that actually isn’t covered in a text book at all. So, you can’t skip class, or sleep through it, and think that you’re going to be well positioned to do well in the class. You will literally be missing information that you need to have.

The more subtle reason that paying attention is so important is that our brains and minds don’t just learn things upon hearing or reading them. They learn through the struggle of trying to understand what is being said. The process of trying to digest what is being said in real time, ask questions if necessary, and synthesize information together to form our own opinions and perspective. If you aren’t really paying attention, you won’t be able to identify what it is about a concept or idea that you don’t understand, and therefore won’t be able to struggle to understand it. You might, in fact, not realize that you don’t understand something.

Finally, many people don’t realize that standardized tests explicitly measure your ability to pay attention. When you read a question that says “which of the below answers is not correct?” You may need to know algebra to correctly answer the question, but if you aren’t paying close attention, you might pick A), because it is the answer to the equation. Unfortunately, you would be answering incorrectly, because the question is asking for what is NOT correct.

At the end of the day, if you compare the straight A student with a 4.0 GPA to the straight B student with a 3.0 GPA, or the high school student that scored a 31 on the ACT to his friend that scored a 27, you might just find that the ability and commitment to pay attention is the only real differentiator.

In our next post, we'll explore some strategies for improving your ability to pay attention.

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Tags: academic performance, tutoring, study help, study tips, personalized education, online educational resources

Boost Your Academic Success With These Three Study Habits

Posted by mark sko on Tue, Aug 25, 2015 @ 11:00 AM

A 1961 study entitled "Project Talent" found that college students in those times spent an average of 24 hours per week studying. Fast-forward 50 years to 2011, and students were studying only 14 hours per week on average, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Some have attributed this drop to the adoption of more pass-fail courses, so students need only do the bare minimum. Others have posited that foreign language requirements (and the long study hours associated with them) are being phased-out, while grades are becoming less important to job recruiters in lieu of extracurricular activities.

But grades don't necessarily have to suffer because you're studying less. Efficiency is more important than quantity when it comes to preparation. Here are a few ways to maximize the effectiveness of shorter study sessions.

Divide and Conquer

This phrase is a negative when referring to government strategies but is golden for college students trying to get the best grades possible. In courses that require a lot of reading, find a couple classmates who are dedicated and committed to getting good grades. The three of you can divide the reading assignments equally by three, take solid (yet brief) notes, then have a study session during which you all exchange the information. Each student can make copies of the other's notes after discussions about the main ideas. This method can literally cut your time spent reading by more than a third.

Variety Is King

A 2010 study by University of South Florida researchers examined a group of fourth-graders trying to learn new mathematical equations. Half of the group studied one type of equation at a time, calculating the solutions for several in a row, then moving on to the next type of equation. The other half studied a mixture of all four different types of equations simultaneously. When the students took a test the next day, the ones who studied the mixture of equations fared twice as well on the test than their counterparts.

An August 2011 study published in Psychology and Aging similarly tested adults using the same method. The first group viewed mixed collections of paintings by various artists, while the other group viewed a dozen paintings from each individual artist, then a dozen from another artist, etc. The previous group was better able to distinguish the styles of each artist upon testing.

What this means is that students should vary their studies as opposed to spending five hours on one subject on a given night. Do an hour of calculus, then read your literature assignment for an hour, then log onto your Lenovo and post your required discussion group response for your online history course.

Eat Blueberries

There is absolutely no better brain food than blueberries. Researchers at Reading University in the U.K. gave lab rats a steady diet of blueberries for three weeks. The blueberry-fed rats were not only able to improve memory by 83 percent when navigating through a maze vs. the control group, but also experienced a reversal in age-related declines in memory. College students and adults over 50 should eat a half-cup of blueberries per day to get the benefit of the flavonoids that regenerate nerve endings. Some doctors have even considered blueberries as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Blueberries are also tasty and rich in anti-oxidants.

About the Author

Neal Ortega - Neal is the co-founder of a student charity group at his university.

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Tags: academic performance, tutoring, study help, study tips, personalized education, online educational resources

Personalized Learning and its Benefits

Posted by mark sko on Fri, Aug 14, 2015 @ 11:33 AM

You can walk into any classroom today and see that different students struggle with different things.

Some students at the elementary school down the road might have a hard time doing fractions during math class while others might struggle with remembering the capitals of all 50 states.

Maybe a college student is in an Intermediate Accounting class, but her previous professor from Intro to Accounting only went over straight-line depreciation and never mentioned double-declining depreciation. She lacks that foundation she needs to succeed in her class. It is not her fault. Her previous professor just decided to emphasize a different topic of accounting instead.

Personalized learning is important because each student has his or her own individualized needs and focus areas to reinforce. Students learn in different ways. They come from different backgrounds. They even have varying academic foundations. When it comes to a student’s education, one-size does not fit all.

More effort will have to be put into identifying topics and subjects that each student individually struggles with. Maybe it is a teacher, a professor, or a tutor explaining it to them in a different way by using a visual graphic instead of writing it out on a white board. Maybe it means going over that biology material a few extra times to make sure the student understands it. Maybe it comes to a few extra hours of studying those GRE vocabulary words to guarantee you really have them down.

Thankfully there are many great opportunities, services, and tools out there to help personalize the learning of each student. Professors have office hours that students can attend and ask questions. Teachers are normally in their classrooms during lunch. Both of these options are both a) remarkably underutilized by students and b) completely free. These two options should be considered step one to improving your academic performance. Private tutoring is, in many ways, the gold standard of customized instruction, but it can be expensive.

However, there are also great online learning tools out there to help personalize the learning experience for each student. Kahn academy is perhaps the most popular. It’s free, and has a fast growing library of high quality, on demand video content in a wide variety of subjects. It allows a student to build their own study plan around the concepts they might be struggling with. Magoosh, ePrep, and Leanerator offer low cost, video-based, adaptive test prep environments for the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and many AP tests. Most of these solutions offer content and unique technology solutions to allow a student to customize their learning experience with varying degrees of structure.

Our Memory Science platform is a different type of online learning tool. It uses key tenants of neuroscience to deliver Byte-Sized chunks of information that help students learn and retain anything that they might struggle with. A student can create a supplement herself to help her remember the process of a reaction in O-Chem, or purchase premade content on macroeconomic theories. The Memory Science platform is a place for you to spend time on the topics and materials that matter to you.


 About the Author

Memory Science is a neuroscience-learning platform that utilizes Byte-Sized Learning to help students learn efficiently, retain more, and perform better. You can find us at

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Tags: academic performance, tutoring, study help, personalized education, online educational resources

Common Collegiate Confusion – Mistakes Every Freshman Makes

Posted by Morgan Bissett-Tessier on Fri, Jul 31, 2015 @ 12:00 PM

They say that hindsight is 20/20.  Hundreds of thousands of people have gone through their freshman year of college with regrets and wishes and dreams of what could have been, what they should have done.  But that only means that there is greater hope for current college freshmen if they are only willing to listen and trust the people who have been there.  Compiled from the thoughts and opinions of dozens of undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, this list is comprised of the most common mistakes that freshmen make their first year of school.

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Tags: college education, college freshman, college tips

How to Study More Effectively

Posted by mark sko on Wed, Jul 01, 2015 @ 09:30 AM

 Quality over quantity. It’s an often-used, and generally helpful, notion. However, when it comes to studying, two points need to be made:

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Tags: study habits, deliberate practice

How to Get the Most Out of Private Tutoring

Posted by Mo Murthi on Tue, May 12, 2015 @ 01:32 PM

Finding a good tutor is not easy (we can help with that!), but once you've found someone who works well with you, there are some things you can do to get even more out of the relationship.

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Tags: private tutoring

Being Strategic: Set Goals, Gather Facts, Consider Alternatives, Make Plans

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 @ 02:02 PM

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it's about deliberately choosing to be different.” - Michael Porter, famous Harvard Business School professor

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Tags: strategic study plan

Embrace Mental Math Throughout Everyday Life

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Apr 06, 2015 @ 01:53 PM

“I would like to make a case for raising the importance of mental math as a major component in students’ tool kits of mathematical knowledge. Mental math is often associated with the ability to do computations quickly, but in its broadest sense, mental math also involves conceptual understanding and problem solving.” - Cathy Seeley, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President 2004-2006

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Tags: math, math skills

The Indirect Effects of Independent Reading

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Mar 23, 2015 @ 12:25 PM

“The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to growth in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information.  Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not. - Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians

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Tags: Reading Comprehension

Calm Your Mind: Understanding & Managing Stress

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 @ 12:32 PM

“A bit of stress in short doses is useful in improving our memory and enhancing performance. However, too much, too regularly, is extremely damaging to our mental and physical well-being.”

From, a web-site founded by globally recognized mindfulness and meditation expert Andy Puddicomb

Just because you have no major or minor diagnosed mental health disorder, doesn’t mean you have a completely healthy mind. If school, work, sports, orsocial situations tend to make you nervous and stressed, your performance suffers.

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Tags: academic performance, Managing Stress