SAT Subject Tests, the Final Countdown

For those of you who have yet to start preparing for the SAT Subject Tests this June, don’t put off studying for them any longer!  If you have been chipping away at sample SAT Subject Tests over the past month or more, good for you. But, if you haven’t begun reviewing yet, you need to use the next three weeks efficiently!

So, where to start?  First off, buy a review book that is written in a way you find easy to read quickly. I personally like the Barron’s SAT Subject Test series as I find their summaries of each topic to be to the point and written in an outline format so you can skim them quickly.  Does the review book provide end of the chapter questions to test your knowledge, and are they formatted like actual test questions you will see on the exam? Don’t waste your time, for example, with fill in the blank questions if there are none on the actual SAT. Again, at least for the science SAT subject tests, Barron’s does a nice job with their end of the chapter questions.

The more practice tests you can do the better.  If you are pressed for time consider completing a test over several sittings. You could even carefully rip a test out of your review book (to save weight and space in your back pack) and do a page or two over lunch or during a free block. It is far better to whittle away at tests on a daily basis than to wait for a mad crunch session Sunday night. We learn by repetition, so the more practice problems you do the more you will recall on the actual day of the test. As you get closer to the actual test date, make sure to do two timed tests so you can be confident you will finish the test in the allotted hour.

While few people enjoy studying for SAT Subject Tests, in most cases you are simultaneously studying for your final exam in that subject, so no matter what your score you will have not wasted your time. So, what are you waiting for? Get studying, and best of luck!


Second Semester; a Fresh Start

Once mid term exams are over, take the time to pause and reflect. How confident were you in your knowledge of each subject?  How well prepared were you when it came time to study for your exams? Were your class notes, tests and handouts already organized by subject or unit, or did you have to scramble to find what you needed? Were you desperately trying to learn topics at the last minute, or methodically refreshing yourself on what you had already learned?  Were there questions or topics on the exams that took you by surprise or you simply did not know? Be honest with yourself, for answers to these questions shed light on what you may need to change as you move forward to better support your leaning style.

Learning is a process. The ultimate task of high school is figuring out how you learn best, then putting that knowledge into action. If you are having a hard time staying focused or following along in class, what can you set in place for yourself now to make next semester more manageable?  Can you meet with your teacher earlier? Use your textbook more? Do additional practice problems (ask your teacher for more if your book doesn’t have them, or go online to a well reviewed teaching site).

If your binders are simply a receptacle for every paper that comes your way (despite your good intentions last September), try setting up a simpler system you will actually use on a daily basis. Perhaps a folder for each unit would work better (and lighten your backpack!). What about putting all papers on a given unit in your binder as you receive them – that way everything you need to study for a given test will be together. Think about what system would work best for you.

Contrary to popular belief, studying for final exams starts now, not in mid June when the weather is fine and summer is beckoning. If first semester did not go as well as you had hoped, don’t despair! You still have the second half of the school year in which you can gain more solid footing. Start now with the one or two steps that feel most helpful.  Remember, you are your best teacher.


Don’t blame the bird! The truth about tryptophan.

Does eating turkey make you sleepy? Is that post-Thanksgiving-stupor really the turkey’s fault? Research indicates that turkey alone doesn’t make you drowsy, but when combined with an excess of carbohydrates, it does.

When I was a child, my grandma set before us a cornucopia of good old Yankee fare: mashed potatoes, pumpkin bread, squash with maple syrup, cranberry sauce, a fancy jell-o mold with pineapple, homemade applesauce and sweet pickles. There was also the turkey in all its golden majesty, filled with stuffing, smothered in gravy. The food was endless. No one stopped at one serving – how could you? Then there was desert. She baked three kinds of pies from scratch: apple, custard and mincemeat. It would be rude not to sample all three. Would you like ice cream or freshly whipped cream with that my dear? We’d stagger through hand washing the dishes while my grandmother started the turkey soup, then retire to the warmth of the living room and the comfort of overstuffed chairs to slowly, one by one, nod off, book upturned in lap.

What is responsible for that after Thanksgiving meal drowsiness, or, in medical parlance, postprandial somnolence? I always blamed the bird – all that tryptophan in turkey meat.  Tryptophan is an amino acid that functions as a precursor in the manufacture of serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter that helps promote and regulate sleep) and melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) in the brain. I always blamed the bird, but I was wrong.

Eating turkey by itself will not make you sleepy. Proteins, like turkey, consist of long chains of amino acids. There are twenty types of amino acids, and tryptophan is one of the rarer ones. Once a protein has been digested (broken down) into its amino acids, those amino acids travel via the blood to various tissues including the blood-brain barrier. Once there, they must be shuttled across the barrier by specialized transport molecules before they can affect the brain. The different types of amino acids present compete for rides on these transport molecules, so poor tryptophan usually has a hard time crossing over the barrier in any significant amount.  After eating turkey, as with other food sources of tryptophan, the presence of these other amino acids in the blood naturally keeps tryptophan in check.

So if it isn’t eating turkey, per se, that causes the sleepiness, what does? Funnily enough, it is all the carbohydrates we also ingest. On Thanksgiving the average person eats more carbohydrates in one meal than are typically eaten in an entire day. Ingestion of a meal that is rich in carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin that, in turn, stimulates the uptake of glucose and many amino acids into cells, leaving behind a higher concentration of the turkey’s tryptophan in the bloodstream. According to Richard Wurtman of MIT (as reported in the November 2007 issue of Scientific American), insulin has little effect on tryptophan, so “by sopping up other amino acids from the blood, insulin reduces tryptophan’s competition; the transport system [into the brain] is no longer tied up and more tryptophan can reach the brain, so serotonin synthesis is stepped up.”

In other words, the drowsiness has more to do with what you eat alongside the turkey and, in particular, with eating too many carbohydrates, than with turkey itself. In fact, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is similar to that found in chicken, beef, pork and cheese, and lower than that found in soybeans and many seeds. So we must pardon the poor turkey after all!

So what is a person to do? You could choose this year to eat more moderate portions, plan on leftovers and take a brisk walk.  Or you could opt for swearing off such self-control and eat as you please – just save me a spot on the couch!  Wishing you peace and hoping you have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving Day.


Learning to Love Science

Chemistry is impossible! Physics is for smart kids! Biology is one long booooring list of things to memorize! Sound familiar? To be sure, there are students who are engaged in the classroom, love and even excel in science.  However, there are too many others who are disconnected and turned off. Feeling overwhelmed, they see learning as an exercise in regurgitating facts for points. They blame the teacher, the text, even their own brains (“I can’t do science!”), but the blame game never gets them very far, it only fuels self-doubt and results in poor performance.

So what’s a person trapped in chemistry class, lost in physics lab or sleeping through middle school science to do? How can you make sense of the avalanche of seemingly unrelated facts you are asked to learn? The secret is making connections! It is connections that bring a subject to life. Make understanding the goal, not rote memorization.

The key to success in science is discovering how seemingly separate topics relate to one another. If you see how new information connects with what you have already learned, you will gain a deeper understanding and no longer need to rely on memorizing facts. Once you can visualize how the facts connect, not only do you know them because they make sense to you, but you can also recall and apply them in later units and tests. You feel confident about what you have learned and more engaged with the topic and with the course.

So get curious. Ask questions. What is the connection between Newton’s laws, the previous topic, and the current unit on projectile motion? What is the connection between atomic theory, valence electrons and chemical bonding? Why is the teacher presenting the subjects in this order? What are the logical connections here?

Get help with answering these questions. Your teacher is the obvious place to begin. Do you meet with him or her when you have questions? What about class notes? Are you taking them? Are you paying close attention to what the teacher is emphasizing in class? Even if you understand the particular fact the teacher is explaining, ask yourself how that information connects to what you’ve already learned.  If you don’t see any connection, ask.

Do you read the textbook? Even if the teacher didn’t assign it, could it be helpful? Remember, texts are written by teachers whose aim is to present a subject in a logical and engaging way. If you don’t connect with the book the school has provided, ask your teacher to suggest another one. Consider owning a copy of your text so you can make margin notes as you read, thereby helping you stay more focused and alert, especially at the end of a long school day.

Ultimately you are your best teacher. Get started discovering those connections now and the rest of the year will proceed more smoothly. Who knows, you might even join me in thinking that science is exciting!

This blog post was originally published on Sudbury Patch


Teaching Resilience

Many students and adults alike believe intelligence is fixed. You are born with a certain amount of intellect and that’s it; you are brilliant or not so brilliant and there is little you can do about it.  Fortunately, current research demonstrates how neurologically elastic our brains really are; the brain does change with learning and experience throughout our lives.


Even more intriguing, what we believe about our brains can determine how fully we realize our potential. What students believe about their intelligence has profound effects on their achievement in school and their motivation to study and push themselves to be their best. Carol Dweck’s research, summarized in her book Mindset: How we can Learn to Fulfill our Potential, clearly demonstrates that what students believe about their brains – whether they see their intelligence as fixed or as something that can be nurtured and grow – has dramatic implications for how well they perform in school.


Students who believe their intelligence is fixed often stop working when school becomes challenging, thinking they may not be up to the task. Mistakes and poor grades for students with a “fixed mindset” are often demoralizing as such setbacks reinforce their view that their fixed level of intelligence is inadequate. They often malign their own abilities, saying “I can’t do ___,”or blame the teacher for their poor grade. Students with a fixed mindset think that if you have to work hard for something it means you don’t have the innate ability they presume other “smarter” kids have. Dr. Dweck points out the bind these students find themselves in, as not working hard in school assures further failure. “Those with more fixed mindsets were more likely to feel dumb, study less and [for some] seriously consider cheating.” If you think you are not up to the task, not trying is a way to try to protect yourself, to protect your ego.


In contrast, students who believe that intelligence is something that can be cultivated through focused hard work, who possess a “growth mindset,” more willingly confront challenges in school, profit from their mistakes and embrace learning. “Those with a growth mindset had a very straightforward idea of effort – the idea that the harder you work, the more your ability will grow and that even geniuses had to work hard for their accomplishments.” In short, students with a growth mindset embraced study habits that supported them, worked hard and viewed their teachers as allies regardless of whether or not they felt they were good at a given subject and regardless of their grades.


How do students acquire these mindsets, and what can parents and teachers do to help their student’s view of themselves? Dr. Dweck’s research focused on the damaging effect misplaced praise (in an effort to bolster student’s self esteem) has had in recent decades.  In one study, when students were praised in one group for their intelligence (“wow, what a high score – you must be really smart at this”) versus praised for effort (wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”), the results were dramatically different.


The students praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the logic problems presented to them became more difficult, and their performance declined.  However, those praised for their effort maintained their confidence and motivation even as the problems they encountered became more challenging.  Moreover, they not only enjoyed struggling with the harder problems, they used them to sharpen their skills so that their performance improved on the easier ones. “The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn, they wanted to avoid making mistakes. When offered a more challenging task they could learn from, they opted for an easier one, one in which they could avoid making a mistake. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from.” The students with the fixed mindset didn’t want to risk losing the high regard of their instructors.  In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful – especially if you are talented – so they avoided the risk of failing.


This research and book raises some interesting questions, both professionally and personally. Mindsets are just beliefs, and, as such, can change over time.  It is so tempting to reassure a student who has experienced failure with “don’t worry, you are smarter than the grade you just got,” but by doing so we are inadvertently feeding the fixed mindset.  Focusing instead on process is the way to nurture a growth mindset .  Highlighting perseverance, strategies and effort, especially in the face of a poor grade or lackluster effort, provides room for discussion and for growth, and it does so without shaming the student.  It supports the sense of learning as a journey, and of making mistakes as a natural part of the process.  A student who feels safe taking risks, who feels he or she can recover and learn from mistakes, will realize that the brain can develop like a muscle, and will be well on the way to becoming a more confident and engaged learner.


Mastering Chemistry

“Chemistry is impossible!”  “Chemistry has no relevance to my life; why must I suffer through it?”  If I had a penny for every time a student complained about chemistry…  Some students do enjoy studying chemistry.  To those of you who find chemistry class to be a struggle at best, do not give up hope!  There are some basic things you can do now to improve your grade, learn to study more effectively and, most importantly, convince yourself that you are a capable student who is up to the challenge chemistry presents.  You might even learn to enjoy it!   As to its relevance to your life? We’ll touch on that later.

First, don’t fall behind in chemistry.  New topics build on previous knowledge, and falling behind can have a domino effect.  For example, learning nomenclature and stoichiometry now provides the foundation for solving many of the problems you will encounter later in the year.  If you are behind, don’t panic, but do take action.  Go back over what you got wrong on previous tests and quizzes.  Does it make sense to you now?  If not, put in the time it takes to catch up, and ask for help as needed.

Cramming and trying to memorize just enough information to get by will not earn you a high score on that next test – sorry!  Understanding how and why things work the way they do will allow you to reason your way through any problem you encounter.  The periodic table is arranged the way it is for good reason – elements with similar chemical reactivities are grouped together.  Use it as your guide.  If HCl (hydrochloric acid) is a very corrosive acid, you could reasonably expect HBr  (hydrobromic acid) and HI (hydroiodic acid) to behave similarly because  of the fact that chlorine, bromine and iodine are all halogens (i.e.: in the same group on the periodic table) and, as such, have similar valence electron configurations. Chemistry problems are like puzzles. If you can recognize the strategy needed to solve them you are more than halfway there.   The more problems you try the better you become at recognizing which strategy you need to use in a given situation.

A good text book can be enormously helpful, but only if you use it wisely.  How many times have you plodded through the pages assigned as homework in chemistry only to find you have no clue what you just read?  What a waste of your time!  Try, instead, what I term active reading.  At the end of a page or section ask yourself questions: What did I just read?  Did it make sense?  How does it relate to what I already know? Taking notes in the margin is a good way to stay focused (use post-its if you don’t own the book, or buy a used, clean copy of the book so you can write in it). Try the sample problems.  Then (it bears repeating here) go on and do more problems.  The more you practice, the more confident you will become.  Learning doesn’t happen all at once. Write a brief summary, in your own words, at the end of each chapter.  This is a good way to test your understanding, and the summaries are really helpful come exam time.

One final bit of advice: preview the next chapter or topic in your book before your teacher discusses it.  All it takes is ten minutes, and the payoff is worth it.  Read the introduction and summary.  Skim the titles of the sections and the diagrams.  Its O.K. if you don’t understand it all, you’re not supposed to yet.  You will, however, gain a general idea of what your teacher will next be talking about, and that will make following along in class and taking good notes a lot easier.  Most teachers present in class what they feel is most important.  Not surprisingly then, good class notes are really helpful come test time!

As to the relevance chemistry has in your life?  You, yourself, are a walking container of chemical reactions, many occurring at lightening speed without a moments thought on your part.  The car you ride in requires split second combustion reactions in order to move.  Knowledge of chemistry is integral to everything from improved health care to cleaning up the environment.  Learning basic chemistry is part of becoming a well rounded person in an increasingly complex world.  On a more personal note, succeeding in chemistry class feels terrific.  You may never write another chemical reaction after this school year is finished, but the next time you face a challenge you will do so with a touch more confidence in yourself as a student.  After all, you survived chemistry!