mastery

Take the Test from the Inside (Part II)

Predict what will be on the exam

So, you’ve got good study notes with good questions and killer summaries, and the exam is looming. You’re good to go, right? One more thing. Predict what’s going to be on the test.

I mean, why gamble? Why let it be a surprise? Predicting the test questions is usually pretty easy to do. Look over the syllabus, which is the design of the course. Review what has been discussed in class. Ask yourself, “What has this professor been emphasizing?” Role-play, pretend you’re the professor: what questions would you put on the test? To make sure your predictions are sound, ask the professor outright: “Yo, Teach, what’s gonna be on the test?” (If you really say “Yo, Teach,” though, I won’t answer for what happens to you.) But before you ask, do make your own predictions. Then after you ask and the professor answers, see how accurate your predictions were. This is another study technique: predict and discover—it tunes your analytical skills. If you make the effort to think about and forecast what the professor is going to put on the test and only then ask, you’ll better understand the answers you get and the implications of what’s going to be on the exam because you’ll already have thought about it yourself. Even if the teacher contradicts one or more of your predictions, it still won’t be news to you; you will be intellectually comparing inaccurate conclusions with accurate information, which is an excellent way to learn. Want to do extremely well on tests? Get on the same page as the professor; develop the facility of being able to think like the professor when you need to, as well as the discipline of thinking for yourself all the time.

The actual studying for the test is now easy. Return to your notes (see Part I). Cover up the answers and summary, and quiz yourself by reading and thinking about the left-column questions you wrote. Next, write new summaries and compare them to the old ones. If you study with one or more friends, together try to come up with questions that draw forth the most complex, complete answers, and summaries that explain the most both briefly and elegantly.

When at last you sit down to take the exam, you will have already thoroughly explored every corner of it. You might feel nervous going in, but when you begin to see questions that are just differently worded versions of questions you yourself have asked and answered, questions that you accurately predicted would be here, the jitters will fly away and you will feel at home. Take the test from the inside. It’s easier.

Everything suggested here is just what any good cat burglar does all the time. You want the ginormous diamond in the laser-guarded museum? Tirelessly case the joint for months, leave no blueprint unexamined, gather exactly the right equipment, and practice doing the job. Is it hard work? What’s it worth to you?
 

The Pink Panther

Take the Test from the Inside, Part I

Powerful study techniques and the art of higher-order questioning.

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie note-taking system1 that works especially well for a course that has exams.

Draw a line vertically down the page so that one third of the page is on the left and two thirds are on the right. Also draw a horizontal line across the page about a quarter of the way up from the bottom. You can also buy notebooks that are configured this way.


Note-taking sections

In class, take notes on the right side, in the right column. After class it’s best to review and, more important, continue your notes the same day if possible, when they’re fresh. It’s the follow-up work on your notes that will make the difference when it comes time to study for exams.

The first follow-up step is to write in the left column a question to which the note on the right is the answer. For example, let’s say you took notes on Freud’s definitions of id, ego, and superego. Next to the definition of id (in the left column), you could write, “What is the id?” But there are other questions you could write that would help you more. You want to come up with questions that stimulate you to think about the concept rather than simply retrieve factual data like a computer. Questions that begin with “How” work well, because they ask you to think about process and coming-into-being and cause & effect. “Describe the relationship between…” is another good way to begin questions, as is “What does x have to do with y?”

But exams often ask for definitions, so why not write: “What is Freud’s definition of the id?” Well, you can, but then you’ll be relying on brute force memorization (and for memorizing, flash cards are probably more useful than discursive notes). By contrast, the question “What is the relationship between the id and the superego?” is asking you to think about more than one thing:

  • the definition of id
  • the definition of superego
  • the attitude of the superego in relation to the id, and vice versa
  • how the id and superego function
  • what each is like metaphorically (and here you can get creative: the id is like Cookie Monster or Caligula, while the superego is like the sanctimonious angel on my shoulder or my fourth grade teacher)

… And many more subtle things. Process and relationship questions are higher-order in the sense that they implicate multiple layers of meaning, not just one-to-one labels (e.g. “The id is the primitive part of the mind that seeks sensual pleasure and violence for their own sake” is a simplistic this-equals-that formulation). Higher-order questions develop complete pictures of concepts in interconnected webs. In short, coming up with good questions requires solid understanding of the concepts in the first place, and those same questions will promote solid understanding later on when you’re studying for exams.

After you’ve written questions in the left column for your notes that are in the right column, it’s time to summarize on the bottom of the page. Cover up your notes and questions and explain the main ideas with as much intellectual oomph in as few words as possible. This is one way to tell whether your left-column questions are really useful: when you understand the material well enough to ask good questions, you’ll be able to summarize the material confidently. These are your rules of thumb for studying: if you can’t think of higher-order questions and you have trouble writing a summary, you haven’t grasped the concepts sufficiently; when you can ask the questions and when you can give a summary lecture and teach the concepts, you’ve mastered the material.

Now you’re prepared for the exam! In fact, you’re prepared in more ways than you may be aware of. In Part II you will learn how to predict what’s going to be on the exam.


  1. Based on the “Cornell Notes” system, devised in the 1950s by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University. 

Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.

The Executive Functioning STOP Sign

What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.

People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:

  • Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
  • Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
  • Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
  • Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
  • Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
  • Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
  • Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
  • Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
  • Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
  • Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals

The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.

Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.

Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.

Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.

Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.

(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)

David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?

These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.


  1. “Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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