Improving Academic Performance

Learning How to Learn: 3 Techniques to Improve Test Scores

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 @ 03:49 PM

Learning about learning

MyGuru is slowly undergoing a bit of a transition. We certainly want to continue to be known as the premier source for extremely accomplished tutors who deliver highly customized 1-1 in-person and online tutoring and test prep in Chicago and a steadily growing number of cities.

However, if you want to improve your performance in school, expert feedback and customized instruction from a private tutor doesn’t necessarily need to be a part of your plan. It is almost certainly a good idea, if you have the financial resources to pursue private tutoring. But, there are other tools, approaches, and strategies you can use to do better in school, and we want the MyGuru brand to be known for its ability to empower students to take control of their education, study more effectively, and develop strategies to meet their academic, professional, and personal goals. We want to deliver much more than the ability to connect with a private tutor.

We want to deliver powerful insights about building intelligence, studying effectively, and improving academic performance. To do that, we'll consistently digest, organize, and share practical, actionable, but science-based advice and perspectives on using the power of mindset, deliberate practice, stress reduction, proper sleep and nutrition, time management, strategic planning, and other techniques, which may or may not involve working with one of our private tutors.

I’ve been reading books and blogs and interviewing expert tutors and academic partners for months in an effort to develop content that supports this vision for MyGuru. I also recently completed an awesome course called Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects. The course covers mental tools, approaches, and strategies to help you change your mindset, study more effectively, improve your memory, become a better problem solver, and think more critically, particularly in math and science coursework.

This blog post is actually my final project for the course, which I’m writing and producing in response to the below prompt.

The project I was asked to complete was –

“Depending upon the nature and content of your project, your project may be used as an exemplar for future students, or your project may be incorporated in some other way.

Ideally, this project could be used, not only to affirm your own understanding of the material and how it relates to your life and goals, but can also be used to help other students and also be of assistance to teachers and independent learners at any stage in their progression through a life of learning.

The key requirement of the project is that it is linked to multiple themes covered in the course. Beyond that, there is enormous flexibility.”

My Final Project for Learning How to Learn

There are a variety of ideas, concepts, and strategies I learned in this course that can help students in general (that’s the whole point of the course), and some of them were more or less applicable to students studying for or taking standardized tests. In this final project, my goal is to take three ideas that were discussed in the course and explain how students studying for the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, and many other tests, could apply them to improve their test scores through better studying or more effective test taking itself.

In this project, I’ll briefly share three videos that discuss and help students apply three powerful concepts I learned in the course. Strung together, these videos create a nice base of information that should put students on a better path as they prepare for a standardized test.  In future blog posts, I’ll reference these videos again and expand on what is covered in each of these videos.

The concepts I’ll cover are:

  • Focused vs. diffuse modes of thinking – which is about how our brains actually digest and process information in two different “modes,” one of which tends to be underutilized in most academic settings
  • Mental chunking – the way in which your brain groups ideas, facts, and concepts into “chunks” that it can more readily access to solve problems and answer questions
  • Hard start, easy finish – what I would describe as a “medium risk, high reward” approach for performing well on tests by choosing which questions to answer first

Video 1 – Focused vs. diffuse modes of thinking

In this video, I’ll explain how the focused vs. diffuse modes of learning, combined with an understanding of how progress is typically made when learning an academic discipline, can help students get comfortable with their progress and ability to answer more difficult questions correctly as they prepare for and take standardized tests.

Video 2 – Mental chunking

Now that students have watched video 1, and know how and when to attempt to employ their focused vs. diffuse modes of thinking, my next video discusses the power of mental chunking when it comes to learning and applying new concepts when preparing for and taking standardized tests. In the video, I’ll define “mental chunking” and use an example of how to apply it.

Video 3 – Hard start, easy finish: prioritizing questions when taking a standardized test

In videos 1 and 2 we discussed different modes of learning, how progress is typically made when preparing for a big standardized test, and how a student could use the diffuse mode of thinking and the power of mental chunking to answer more difficult questions (or to save time when answering easier or medium difficulty questions). In video three, I’ll discuss a strategy for getting the most possible questions correct when you actually sit down and take a standardized test. It offers some contrarian, but potentially very effective, advice on which questions to answer when.


I hope you enjoyed the videos. I would highly recommend the online MOOC (i.e. massive open online course) Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects (it starts again in January, 2015) as well as course instructor Barbara Oakley’s new book A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz is MyGuru’s founder. He received a B.S. in Finance from Indiana University and holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He founded MyGuru in 2009 based on his experiences as a private economics, finance, and accounting tutor, as well as his experiences personally studying for the ACT and GMAT. He is passionate about “learning how to learn” and, in addition to the course on which this blog post is based, has completed Growth Mindset training.