Dec 29, 2009


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million kids between the ages of 5 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2006. The common perception is that a student with ADHD will exhibit a total lack of focus, accompanied by fidgeting, daydreaming, impulsiveness, and a tendency to cause disruption. However, there is another, often overlooked side to this disorder that could actually be considered somewhat of a benefit.

In addition to a lack of focus on activities that do not hold interest for the ADHD student, activities that are engaging can trigger a state of “hyperfocus”. This is essentially a term used to describe a frame of mind in which the individual can block out any exterior distractions and hone in on the task at hand with unusual concentration and endurance. For example, an ADHD student may have tremendous difficulty completing a Math assignment, but will be able to play a computer game for hours without interruption.

The cause of hyperfocus (as well as other ADHD symptoms) is believed to be a deficiency in neurotransmitters inside the brain. However, this is still under debate, as is the way in which ADHD medication alleviates these symptoms.

Despite the obvious problems this may cause, hyperfocus can certainly be seen in a positive light as well. Swimming legend Michael Phelps, for example, has proven that ADHD and hyperfocus can help an individual attain greatness.

Students and parents of students with ADHD should be mindful of this aspect of the disorder and strive to utilize it in a positive way where possible. Encourage it when it yields helpful benefits, and curtail it when it interferes with other facets of life. Teachers also have a responsibility to tailor lessons so that students with ADHD are engaged. One great article from, written by Royce Flippin, offers insightful advice on one way to do this: "Kids with ADD are demanding a higher standard of teaching," says William Sears, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. "A child with ADD gets bored quickly when he's asked to memorize a bunch of history dates. But if he helps write a play on the subject and then performs in it, he's going to shine."

Dec 21, 2009

Class Time

As teachers and students began the ’09-’10 school year this past September, President Barack Obama made the announcement that American students would need to boost their academic performance, and that one method of attaining that boost was through a lengthened school year and school day. Curtailing vacations and extending class time are critical steps, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argues, because American students are at a disadvantage when compared to students in other countries where the academic calendar is longer: “The school calendar is based on the agrarian calendar, which no longer makes sense.”

Proponents of the increase cite increased student achievement as essential to the future of the American economy and democracy. However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the proposed route to higher achievement, a fact acknowledged in the President's speech: “Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

Other critics include Teacher Unions, which have gone to extreme measures to balance a budget that does not seem to support the President’s plans for more school. Others are advocating a more efficient use of class time instead of simply adding to what is already there.

And of course, caught in the middle are the students. With most of their time spent in the classroom, plus the pressures of extra curricular activities, homework, and sometimes a part-time job, it is no wonder why many students are pushing back on the idea of lengthening the school year. Students already feel overburdened by the pressures of academia, and to add to that would be folly in the minds of many.

There is no easy solution. On the one hand is a need for improved education, and on the other are the eternal constraints of time and money. What do you think?

Dec 15, 2009

Music and Learning

As we’ve seen before, learning to play a musical instrument can have a strong positive effect on the brain. For example, audible comprehension in accomplished music-makers is notably more acute than in less skilled individuals. But what effect does music have on the brain when we simply listen to it?

When you hear music, there is a lot going on in your head. Researchers have found that as you process the rhythm and modulating tone, sections of your brain responsible for language, memory, and motor control are stimulated.

What does this mean for learning? Some have proposed that there is a direct correlation between listening to a particular type of music and performance in cognitive function. One of the most famous examples of this is the “Mozart Effect”. Essentially, the term describes a briefly observed improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning after listening to the relaxing sounds of Mozart’s compositions.

Some, however, attribute this increase in performance to “enjoyment arousal”- basically, the sounds cause pleasure, which lead to a state of mildly enhanced cognitive ability. Nonetheless, the countering results have not stopped a monsoon of interest, including several parallel studies and even proposed legislation to provide schoolchildren with classical music recordings.

Regardless of the true power of the “Mozart Effect”, current research is in support of the use of music as a learning aid when the music in question employs a slow-tempo and non-percussive tonality (such as a Mozart sonata).

Anyone who needs to learn something should consider music to be another tool to employ where necessary. Perhaps classical is a good counter to construction happening next door, or perhaps the rhythms of jazz can be the right fit for memorizing key terms. Experiment and try to find the best fit for you.

Dec 10, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Statistics are often used as a vehicle for proving something. You see them every day and in innumerable forms, such as opinion polls, news stories, or weather forecasts. Many use the statistics they hear to form opinions, allocate funds, and plan their lives. In fact, we here at HippoCampus are 99.9% sure you’re looking at a statistic right now. But what do these numbers really mean? Are they total truth, total lies, or somewhere in the median? Read on (if you’re in the mode).

The practice of manipulating statistical data to elicit a predetermined reaction is commonplace in every corner of the worldwide media. Sometimes it is the reporter of the data that does this, and sometimes it is the researcher creating the data. Either way, it is important to be able to spot it when it happens.

Let’s use an example. Say we wanted to know how “green” a certain car manufacturer is, so we decide to find the average fuel mileage for the cars that they produce. There are a total of six different models: one gets 12 MPG, two get 14, one gets 16, one gets 20, and an ultra-high efficient hybrid model that’s powered by veggie-diesel, solar panels, and bad puns gets 200 MPG. Using this data set (12, 14, 14, 16, 20, 200), we can find the average using a couple of different methods, the most common being the mean, median, and mode.

Let’s find the median and mode first. Median is essentially the “middle value” of the list. In our data set, this equates to the number between 14 and 16, or 15. The Mode is the number that occurs most frequently in the list. In our data, this is the number 14, as it is the only value that occurs more than once.

Now let’s find the mean. This is the method most people are familiar with when it comes to finding average. To calculate mean, add together all the values in the data set and divide by the number of values in the set:

12+14+14+16+20+200 = 276

276/6 = 46

Notice that depending on the method that we use, we can get vastly different numbers. Now consider if the car manufacturer wanted to market itself as environmentally friendly and fuel efficient- which of the preceding methods do you think they will use in their press releases and advertisements about average fuel economy? It would not be difficult to misrepresent the average of 46 MPG as “evidence” that all of the cars produced by the manufacturer were fuel-efficient.

This is, of course, just one way that the unyielding veracity of numbers can be bent to a certain purpose. Look for more on this topic in future posts!

Nov 30, 2009

More on the Educational Value of Travel

Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” This high praise, coming from one of America’s most famous authors, perfectly illustrates the power of travel.

Last week, we covered a few of the reasons that students should consider travel alongside traditional extracurricular activities as a means towards personal education, as well as talked about some of the ways that travel could parallel these activities. One unmentioned comparison is the counter-intuitive notion that travel could provide a local benefit similar to community-service. While it is true that an individual can directly improve the lives of community members by staying at home and volunteering, insights gained through travel could hold similar potential. Imagine relating an experience with people from your community in such a fashion that those who listen will connect to the people you talk about without even meeting them. Or how about presenting a cultural experience that broadened your own point of view in hopes of repeating the effect locally? The potential, like most extracurricular activities, relies on the individual and their ambition for self-directed learning.

For the student looking to set their résumé apart from all the others, travel could provide the necessary boost to open even the most prestigious of doors. Consider a traditional extracurricular activity, like interning at a locally distributed paper as a means towards building some journalism credibility. Now consider putting down on your résumé that you interned at that locally distributed newspaper in a foreign country and had to perfect a second-language to do it. To have such a unique insight into the world of journalism is going to land you far more consideration than staying at home for a similar internship.

As you weigh the paths available to you in the pursuit of self-betterment, consider travel, in all its many forms, one of several options. The exploration of foreign places is important for anyone seeking a well-rounded understanding of the world they occupy. We end this week’s blog the same way in which it began; with a quote from author Mark Twain--“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Nov 23, 2009

The Educational Value of Travel

Taking the opportunity to learn in a fresh, new environment can engage even the most reluctant learner out there. And while some top-tier students choose to commit their free time to resume-builders like community service and sports teams, others find more value in exploring some place new. That’s not to say there isn’t tremendous merit in serving the community or leading a team- undoubtedly, both offer the potential for incredible experiences in and of themselves. But resources permitting, some students may benefit more from simply traveling.

For example, there has been plenty of talk on this blog about the improvement of learning through the diversification of the learning experience and multimodal teaching methods, but the total physical immersion of travel takes this idea to a whole new level. For example, all of the senses are engaged when a traveler simply walks down a foreign street--they can see the architecture, hear the language, and smell the local food. This creates an unparalleled number of connections in the brain, enhancing learning like nothing else can.

Additionally, one should never forget the educational applications that travel can bring to specific academic subjects. This is part of the reason why field trips are so awesome. What better way is there to learn about the history of the Roman Empire than to actually touch a part of the Coliseum? Or, one could dive into the art of drama by attending a Shakespearean production in the reconstructed Globe Theater of London. Or how about picking up a foreign language by using it non-stop in its country of origin? Of course, you don’t necessarily need to leave the country--think of the benefits of learning about the American Government by spending a week in Washington D.C., or the effects of volcanoes in Hawaii, or marine biology along the California coast?

Some see travel as a mere luxury. This is certainly true in some cases--for example, sitting on the beach all day while you stare at the water and hold a cold beverage is not exactly academically rigorous (even if your goal is to examine the tides!). But if you concentrate on gathering knowledge, and head off somewhere with a sense of discovery and an eagerness to learn, travel could be the best teacher you ever have.

Nov 20, 2009

Re-Examining Learning Styles

We’ve always been huge proponents of finding your own learning style- we’ve recommended it as a means towards better test results, choosing the right class and teacher, and several other applications. But what does this term really mean?

The word “style” connotes a predisposition towards a particular presentation medium, when in fact, finding the perfect way to learn could change as quickly as what you would like to have for dinner. Learning is an extremely complex amalgamation of connecting thoughts and memory through hundreds of billions of nerve cells inside your head. What works once won’t necessarily work again in exactly the same way. Emotions, physical well-being, and other factors all contribute to how we learn, and blanket assumptions on the best approach to material are not always correct.

For example, it is possible that the material itself could determine the best method for learning. For example, some may find Math learning to be a visual process, while History could be more suited to an auditory presentation.

While tacking down the perfect method for learning varies so widely, the evidence at hand does support the utilization of numerous different presentation models. More variety equates to better engagement and retention.

As we learn and move through life, our brain is constantly re-shaping itself to adapt to the needs that we place upon it. The more we use certain connection inside the brain, the stronger they become. The inverse of this is also true, with old and unused connections fading in time. This could help back up any predispositions you may have towards learning preference- if you are used to using a certain sensory input (hearing, for example) to learn, it would make sense to fall-back to that format if you are struggling with a particular subject.

Additionally, it is important not to eschew other methods for learning- you may uncover a treasure trove of connections you didn’t even know was there!

Nov 10, 2009

Millennial Education

In case you hadn’t noticed, marketing companies have a name for those of us born between 1980 and 1995 – Millennials. Individuals between the ages of 29 and 14 have been dubbed as the generation that was born with a monitor and keyboard already latched to their faces and fingers, completely unaware of a world without cell phones or the Internet, a generation that is just now realizing it’s power- not just to consume, but to change the world.

The generation is, however, very good at consuming. Millennials can purportedly multitask their way to consuming 20 hours worth of media in a scant 7 hours per day. Other superpowers include the ability to scrutinize, evaluate, and customize experiences to suit particular needs, wants, and abilities. This specialized selectivity encompasses the opinions of peers, who play an important part of decision-making.

It is expectations such as these that compose a broad conglomeration of ideals that educators are basing new proposals for teaching techniques, methodology, and technologies. It is the reason we now have educational resources like online class environments, SmartBoards, and media-rich homework help sites like HippoCampus. They are advances in the name of making learning interesting, relevant, and above all, effective.

But one of the most critical aspects of the Millennial Generation is its size, with some sources weighing it in at over 60 million strong. This is just another indicator of greater and greater population growth, one aspect that education continues to grapple with.

The question remains- how does a society teach an ever-expanding population with expanding needs and requirements? The “solution” of mass-produced education is one that many believe we are already leaning towards.

But, there are some new ways around that bleak proposal. Adaptive learning, for example, employs novel data-mining techniques to find the best approach for a student to take towards learning material. If, for example, the student displays adequate competence in a particular topic, they will be sped on to the next topic, maintaining engagement. Or, if a student has problems with a particular topic, they can try multiple types of material presentation in an effort to find one that suits their particular learning style, such as video instead of a reading exercise.

Another exciting idea is the use of artificial intelligence to teach a class. Imagine never crashing a course to get the best teacher- just click and select. Oh, and don’t forget to leave a comment and rating so your friends know whether or not to sign up.

Nov 2, 2009

De-structure Yourself

Intelligence is anything but monotone, and we’ve tried to cover more than a few angles of its multi-faceted nature. For example, one way of measuring intelligence is to look at the number of connections a brain can make, or the “plasticity” of a brain. Plasticity is highest when we are very young, which helps us learn language and social norms quite quickly. It should come as no surprise then that one of the most basic of childhood pursuits- playtime- is also a major contributing factor to intelligence.

It has been well documented that unstructured playtime is very important in the development of a myriad of characteristics, including social skills and stress relief. But it is also critical in the development of problem-solving skills and creativity. When kids have the freedom to play outside the constraints of school, parents, or some other pre-ordained organization, they end up finding their own activities and solutions, many of which can be more rewarding than anything produced outside their own mind.

One particularly interesting aspect of the data available is the importance of rambunctious faux fighting, which turns out to be one of the most important types of imaginative playtime- a callback to our more primitive roots. In the modern world we’ve made for ourselves, it’s important to remember just how hard-wired these basics can be.

The idea of unstructured play inevitably comes back to the concept of a fixed mindset and growth mindset. When someone is used to relying on their own brain to find a solution (for example, to boredom), they won’t shy away from finding their own solution when they are confronted with another type of problem. Instead of insurmountable obstacles, the brain sees challenges and imaginative ways around them.

While the subjects observed in these studies were children, it’s still important to schedule in some unstructured time as adults too. Creativity is always something adults complain about losing as they gain the wisdom of years and experience- perhaps they could get some of it back if they only tried. Who knows- they might even learn something.

Oct 26, 2009

More Multimodal Learning

A couple weeks ago, we talked about a few new ways that student engagement could be improved in the classroom. Rote memorization is falling by the wayside while several new formats and practices take its place, and teachers are forging new methods of integrating technology with curriculum. This week, we’ll cover a few more ways that students can play a role in transforming their education.

Many teachers are falling over themselves in the rush to implement 21st century web-based tools in their courses. The common scenario of having an entire class “switch-off” when they enter the classroom is under scrutiny, and some educators are asking why education has chosen to ignore the reality of life as a modern student to instead fall back on tired practices. But those who choose to explore the potential of applications like Facebook and Twitter have not quite fully grasped just how to use these tools for education. As a student, you can play a role in making class time less boring, more fun, and abundantly more educational.

While some teachers may be more open than others to integrating new practices into their teaching style, it’s important to start small. Try suggesting that your teacher records his or her lectures (or maybe bring in a recording device for them) so that audio files are available for reference later, such as for studying or writing a research paper. This also helps capture anything that you may have missed while you jotted down notes. Then, post the lecture in a place where the entire class can access it. Having some notes to listen to on your iPod before taking a test can really help keep all that information in your head.

Much of the same could be said of PowerPoint presentations. If your teacher is a fan of this method of lecturing, tell them about This site is a free place to post files like PowerPoint lectures, and can provide access to anyone in the class with an Internet connection.

The ubiquitous application Facebook can also be useful. Consider creating a Facebook Group for your class. This will provide a great space for discussing homework, organizing study groups, posting useful resources, and just about any other communication need. Plus, as a bonus, it gives teachers and students a place to connect outside the classroom, and lets teachers see how students are handling the material (for example: the kind of questions that may be asked regarding a particular essay topic).

A more extreme example would be running some king of educational ARG, or Alternate Reality Game. ARGs are growing in popularity, and have been used for several purposes (especially marketing). What if a teacher set-up an ARG that taught you something? Imagine an Environmental Science course where students had to collect data in the field, make observations, and answer questions through text messaging to find a downed alien spaceship. Or, how about a History lesson where students had to work together to gather clues in a museum, eventually leading them to a particular location to find the answer to a mystery? Odds are, any teacher that went through the effort of setting up an educational ARG would be giving his or her students something they would never forget.

Remember, talk to your teacher first before trying any of these suggestions (they won’t appreciate you posting their lecture all over the Internet without them knowing!). If you can help your teacher understand and implement the tools that you use everyday for fun, the more fun you’ll have with your own education.

Oct 20, 2009

William's Windmill and Ingenuity

In the recently published book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, William Kamkwamba narrates the inspirational story of how his own strength of will and brilliant ingenuity overcame great odds and the skeptical views of others to produce something amazing. Kamkwamba relates how, as a fourteen-year-old boy, he created an electricity-producing windmill out of found objects in his native home of Malawi, Africa. Using nothing more than an old book found in a local library and his own genius as a guide, Kamkwamba was able to piece together a windmill that produced enough electricity to power a few light bulbs and a radio- luxuries that fewer than 2% of Malawians enjoy. He used objects like PVC pipes, metal nails, old tractor parts, and felled tree branches to produce the complicated machinery necessary for his windmill.

On a recent episode of the “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, Kamkwamba was asked about the first time he was shown the limitless potential of the modern luxury that is the Internet. Smiling, he recalled Googling the term “windmill”, and upon viewing the millions of hits, responded “Where was this Google all this time?”

Kamkwamba’s story is a great inspiration to anyone who feels as though they are unsure about how to do something or whether they will succeed in a difficult task. A recent post regarding the closed versus growth mindset ties into this as well- Kamkwamba obviously did not consider all the ways that he could fail, but rather all the ways he could succeed. Despite tremendous adversity, he was able to prevail through ingenuity, hard work, and intelligence. While he did run into difficulties, he persevered and made discoveries that overcame them. His ability to work through these difficulties was rewarded not just with electricity and a feeling of accomplishment, but a book deal and international fame as well!

Oct 12, 2009

Multimodal Learning

For a very long time, education consisted of little more than rote memorization. This meant reading and writing, followed by more reading and writing. Learners had very little in terms of options when it came to meeting their personal educational needs.

But as history progressed and technology produced new avenues for information distribution, learning started to take on different forms. Devices like VCRs and audio cassette players brought audio and visual components into the classroom. Then came the laptop computer and Powerpoint presentations. Gradually, students have been weaned from rote memorization, and instead engaged through a variety of different media. Today, rote memorization has not been tossed aside, but rather supplemented. As modern schools grapple with the seemingly endless resources of the Internet, students are being confronted with new ways to learn.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. With new modes of learning comes higher rates of knowledge acquisition and retention. There have been a number of studies on the power of this. One study released last year, for example, demonstrated that combining visual and verbal instruction resulted in sizeable increases for learning. The challenge facing educators now is how to incorporate material that touches on all the different learning styles that students could utilize.

If you find your teacher blissfully unaware of all the opportunities available for engaging you as a student, don’t hesitate to show him or her the light. If all you get is lecture after lecture, try presenting a short HippoCampus clip to spice things up. Or, print off some pictures that might add a nice visual to the lecturer’s notes. Or, bring in an audio recording to hear another perspective, such as a speech given by the subject matter in a history lesson. There’s so much out there, you just have to go out and find it.

Even if you can’t get your teacher to incorporate all the fantastic resources you know are available, don’t deprive yourself and your fellow classmates of resources you know can help. Actively engage the content, and you’ll find that you’ll learn faster, more effectively, and possibly even have a good time.

Oct 5, 2009

Change Your Mind

In “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, renowned Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck outlines how an individual’s mindset can affect one’s actions, motivation, and performance. Last week, we delved into the meaning behind Dr. Dweck’s dueling concepts of the “Fixed” and “Growth” mindsets and the various implications that adopters of either could expect. This week, we’ll examine a few ways that an individual can change their outlook, and thus garner the benefits of a “Growth Mindset”.

Undoubtedly, the first step is recognition of what it means to have a “Growth” and “Fixed Mindset”. However, understanding how a “Fixed Mindset” will react to a difficult situation or obstacle is easier than actually applying the knowledge to one’s own thought process. To do that requires a step away from one’s own inner mental ticker to gain an outsider’s perspective. Try not to jump to any conclusions about what you can and cannot do. Instead, realize that any mental gymnastics you may undertake towards finding a solution, even if you don’t succeed, will result in great personal gains. Don’t always rely on innate skills- learning from your mistakes can be more useful than getting something perfectly on the first attempt.

In an interview on “Countdown to College” radio with Beth Pickett, Dr. Dweck describes two types of athletes. The first type has an abundance of natural talent, while the second must practice hard to gain the same level of ability. While the first group typically fizzles out when they run out of talent, the second group goes on to achieve even greater levels of ability. This is because the first group was in a “Fixed Mindset”, and would give up once they had reached the limits of their natural abilities. The second type had a “Growth Mindset”, and thanks to a willingness to learn and adapt to the challenges that they faced, could continue the development of their ability until they had surpassed those with an abundance of natural talent.

As this example demonstrates, the truly beneficial part of solving a problem is the process by which the individual goes about finding the solution. While some intelligence and ability can come naturally, the development of these traits is what really matters. Someone isn’t “stupid” if they fail. To achieve the loftier ambitions of life, don’t be afraid of a little hard work- in the end, it will help you more than you might realize.

Sep 28, 2009

Make Up Your Mind

Mind over matter dictates that with the right attitude, a person can achieve just about anything. When confronting great intellectual difficulty, this ideal becomes particularly critical. However, few people realize just how dramatic the opposite effect can be. With the wrong attitude, you could defeat yourself without even trying.

In “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, authored by noted Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, this idea is explored through the concept of a “Fixed Mindset” versus a “Growth Mindset”. Dr. Dweck visited “Countdown To College Radio” last year to discuss her findings on student intelligence and motivation.

Dr. Dweck’s research revealed that, depending on a specific mindset, coping with failure could lead an individual down two separate paths. A “Growth Mindset” allows the individual to see failure as an opportunity to improve and learn, with success stemming from a change in strategy or method. By contrast, an individual with a “Fixed Mindset” will take failure as an indication of personal inability, and consequently, performance will decrease and the individual could give up on the difficult task all together.

These opposite attitudes hold many other consequences. Individuals with a “Fixed Mindset” will try very hard not to look dumb or stupid, and will usually only proceed with something (like a new activity) when they know they’ll be good at it. “Growth Mindset” people will jump into something new headfirst, ready to tackle any obstacle. They may fail a few times, but they will learn from their mistakes and correct them so they aren’t repeated in the future.

Academics are no different. Study habits for a “Fixed Mindset” student will mean cramming in as much information as possible with minimal effort and a heavy reliance on natural ability to carry the grade. “Growth Mindset” students will relish in the challenge of new material, and will really go in-depth to learn it. If both mindsets were to receive a poor grade, the “Growth Mindset” would take advantage of all the resources available to understand and correct why they did not get the grade they wanted, while a “Fixed Mindset” student might consider dropping out or even cheating.

Next week, we’ll take a look at where these two attitudes come from and what you can do to help your mind grow.

Sep 21, 2009

College Application Letter of Recommendation

Everyone knows that the right connections can take you anywhere. Sometimes all it takes is a foot in the door to gain access where everyone else is turned away. This is a fact of life that is universally applicable, no matter where your goals may lead.

Getting into college is no different. But even though you may have never met the dean of the school of your choice or had a close family friend on the admissions board, there are still ways to use the opinions of others to sway things your way. One perfect way to do this is the letter of recommendation.

Consider who you want writing yours. Pick a teacher whose class you enjoy. Whatever you present to the letter-writer in class will be presented to the letter-reader in admissions. If you are attentive, responsible, and show initiative in class, your teacher will write that in. If you fall asleep and rarely turn in homework, your teacher will write that in. You want to present admissions with the ideal student- find the teacher who will best see that side of you.

Also consider the authority of the letter-writer. A brand new teacher will not hold as much sway as the head of a department. However, it is always better to pick the person who knows you best, even if they aren’t as far up the totem pole as some other choice.

Make sure to give your teacher enough time to complete his or her task. It’s hard for someone to say you have disciplined work habits when you’re trying to get something done at the last minute! Depending on workload, you should give your teacher about a month to get the letter done. While this may seem like a very long time, teachers are usually way too busy to think about much more than grading and running a class. Let your teacher of choice know as soon as they are chosen. Ask about their schedule, let them in on your deadlines, and try to find something that works for them. Remember, asking for a letter of recommendation is more than just a favor- they are putting their own reputation on the line for you!

Aug 31, 2009

College Relief

For the last few weeks, we’ve been going through some of things students must think about when it comes time to apply to college. From picking the right school to dealing with senior year issues, anyone looking to take their education on to the next level will certainly have a lot on their plate. Fortunately, this post won’t give you any more to worry about- this week we’re giving you short cuts to college relief!

Depending on your goals, admissions can come at a variety of times. There are many different types of admission plans, such as early decision, early action, and rolling enrollment. If you can’t seem to stop stressing about getting into college, consider applying for early action or rolling admissions. These types of enrollment do not require a commitment if you happen to get in, and allow more anxious students the opportunity to get a school “under their belt” should they choose to get things done early. Once you know you have at least one option available to you, those other acceptance/rejections letters coming in the mail won’t seem nearly as scary!

Dorm life could also make things pretty stressful. Maybe you’re not used to living with another person, or maybe your roommate doesn’t have the same study habits as you. One way to make integration into this new lifestyle a bit more relaxed is taking some time to get to know your future roommate. First, get some kind of contact information from your school prior to the move-in date. Then, be the first to engage him or her in a “get-to-know-you” conversation. This could mean a phone call, email, or even a Facebook wall post. A simple “hello” could make the shock of your first day on campus much more easy going.

One final note on tests- practice won’t always make perfect, but it certainly makes it a lot easier! If you are worried about an upcoming exam, such as the SAT, take a quick practice test. Seeing the multiple choice answers, the bubbles waiting to be filled, the wording and phrasing of the questions, and the pressure of a ticking clock could make even the most battle-hardened test-taker choke. Take a second to familiarize yourself, and you won’t get that “deer-in-the-headlights” look when your proctor hands you the workbook.

Aug 24, 2009

Some Real College Goals

There are plenty of parents out there who seem obsessed with the multitude of college application numbers: SAT scores, acceptance rates, grade point averages…the list goes on and on. And sure, there are many topics to consider when going through the drawn-out process of applying to college (such as picking the right school for you, what to do during senior year, and writing the application essay). But while all these things are important, too often the end result is a lack of vision for the future. We aren’t talking about next summer, or next year, or even halfway through your college career. At the end of the day, all the hard work you put towards going to college should be for one thing: happiness.

Take this example- say there’s a student who is thinking about becoming a doctor. Let’s call her Mary. Perhaps Mary’s parents have encouraged her to go to med school and start her own practice. As high school starts to wind down and the college application process looms larger on the horizon, Mary isn’t sure about what direction she should go in, so she decides to take her parents’ advice and become a doctor. Mary begins to search for the ideal pre-med program, she researches acceptance rates for graduates at the top medical schools, and she even writes her college essay on how she wants to be a doctor.

But when the time comes for admission interviews, Mary is asked over and over why she wants to be a doctor. She may answer generically about ambitions to help people and having a curiosity about human anatomy, but when peppered for specifics, she draws a blank. Mary has never volunteered at a hospital, never taken any classes on medicine, and suddenly, her ambitions seem more like a passing interest than a passion. Even if she is accepted, she may find that her new path towards becoming a doctor isn’t quite what she expected. Unless you truly have a deep commitment to an endeavor as grueling as becoming an MD, chances are you won’t want to actually to go through the process of becoming one.

That long-winded example hopefully illustrated the following point: it’s important to follow your own interests before anyone else’s. If you don’t have a good idea what those interests are, that’s OK! There is time to figure it out if you plan properly. The summertime is a perfect opportunity to pursue potential interests. Volunteer or intern in the fields you may want to work in one day. Try new and exciting things and find out ways to make money by doing what’s fun. Even in college there is time- many people change their major, occasionally multiple times.

The more things you try, the better. Additionally, the earlier you try them, the higher your chances will be for success. The more experiences you have, the more likely you are to find the perfect fit for you. And as the old adage goes, if your profession is something you love, you won’t work a day in your life!

Aug 17, 2009

Picking the Right College

Last week we took a look at senior year and the process of applying to college. This week, we’re going a bit backwards and taking a look at what to look for when the moment comes to start picking out the college for you.

A lot goes into the decision-making process for something this important, and many consider price to be one of the most narrowing aspects of college choice. Prestige, public vs. private, and popularity are all contributors to the bottom line of annual tuition. However, it’s important to remember that financial aid is in place to help those in need get to college. The more in need a student is, the more likely they are to receive aid. If you think you qualify for this kind of support, do as much research as you can into the types of financial aid available. Although application processes are often lengthy and exhaustive, the reward could be a free ride to the school of your

Many people believe that community colleges are a viable alternative to a full stint at a four-year institution. Getting a bargain price on that pricey diploma may sound tempting, but take the advice of Beth Pickett, host of “Countdown to College Radio”: "Community colleges are inexpensive, but many also have a surprisingly low rate of sending students on to a four-year college. Many students who start out at community college never get their bachelor's degree.” Getting all the classes you need is often challenging, and could take much more than the 2-year allotment you give it. However, this is still an option that is possible, but you must be highly motivated to pull it off.

Next, consider where you would like to live. Do you like sun and sand, or snowboards and scarves? Big-city lights or wide-open country? Down the road from Mom and Dad, or several states in-between? Location really is everything when you think about the amount of time you will spend doing things other than studying. Try to imagine all the fun activities that might encompass.

Size is also a critical part to choosing the right school. While some prefer small classes, with a tight professor-student connection, others like giant lecture halls and massive crowds. The smaller you go, the more intimate your relationships will be, both with the faculty and other students. With bigger student populations comes more diversity and experiences. Those with an independent streak may prefer a larger school, while individuals who prefer contact might want to stick with something smaller. Beth delved a bit deeper into this particular topic in a previous "Countdown to College Radio" broadcast, which can be found here.

So much has to go into picking the right school that a lot of students forget one of the most crucial parts to the whole process- your intuition. While objectivity is great, your gut should also have a say. And remember, the best choice is always going to be one that you make.

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Aug 10, 2009

Going to College and Senior Year

Ahh, senior year- the top of the food chain, the peak of the high school pile. It’s a year when normal students are transformed into outbound travelers; ready to take the next step, wherever it may lead. For many, that next step is college, and even for the most ambitious student in the world, it can be quite tempting to take a little break. After all, you just went through three tough years of school, and now that it’s coming to a close, you deserve a vacation, right? The answer is a definitive yes. But if you want to go off to college, that vacation shouldn’t kick into high gear until the summer months start rolling around.

Teachers, parents, and councilors alike will lecture on and on about the dreaded “senioritis”- an awful affliction that stuns otherwise normal students into total academic paralysis. While some of these stories may be a bit exaggerated, the truth is most college-bound seniors are simply overwhelmed by the time consuming, energy expending, exhaustion inducing process that is the college application process. Standardized testing, credit transfers, financial aid… the list goes on and on. Pile on top of this the responsibility of choosing where you want to spend the next several years of your life studying, and it’s no wonder seniors are finding their normal course load coming second on the to do list.

Taking care of all these different requirements in the course of one academic school year comes down to one thing- planning. Thankfully, the same principles for regular time management apply. Get a big calendar and start writing down due dates, test dates, and any other important deadline you may have. This will help keep you on track and minimize last-minute stress sessions.

Another important tip is to apply to many schools, not just a few. There should be three tiers to consider- reach schools, ideal schools, and safety schools. These tiers coincide with your odds of gaining admittance, from low to high, respectively. This is where research becomes so important- every school you apply to must be a place you want to go to, otherwise, why apply?

One place to find a plethora of information on this subject comes from "Countdown to College" radio host Beth Pickett. In this timely interview, Beth picks the brain of Fred Zuker, President of Lambuth University in Jackson, TN, and covers just about everything there is to know about this crucial moment in a student's career.

As you work your way towards that high school diploma, don’t lose sight of your goals, both in the long and short term. Picking the right college is a tremendous opportunity for personal growth and independence. With just a little bit of planning and sustained effort, you won’t stumble with the next step.

Want to ask the Hippo a question? Send any comments you may have to:

Aug 3, 2009

Socializing, Emotion, and the Brain

It should come as no surprise that we here at HippoCampus love the brain. We love how flexible it is, the amount of stuff it can learn, and just how powerful each and every individual can be when using his or her brain correctly. There has been plenty of talk on this blog about the many ways someone can go about making their brain as good as it can be (such as with diet or exercise). In continuation of this cognitive improvement theme, we’ll make another brief foray into what researchers are learning about the way we learn.

According to a recent Science Daily article, social interaction plays a much more major role in learning than previously thought. The subtle nuances of learning from another person, face-to-face, helps facilitate the connections needed to synthesize information. This includes things like eye direction, or when gaze is lead by another who is looking at something.

The article goes on to explain the utilization of social technologies. Interactions that occur on Facebook or Twitter are not the same as sitting down with an experienced tutor, however, social networking tools remain crucial to understanding the application of technology to learning. The ubiquitous nature of these applications is a testament to their social importance and ease of use, and if used correctly, would teach much about how technology could fit into the learning environments of tomorrow. The key is creating something that incorporates the benefits of technology (such as accessibility and power of integration) with the benefits of face-to-face interaction (such as gaze direction).

Another fascinating article, this time published by eSchool News, outlines recent developments in the understanding of emotion in learning. Assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has worked with the latest brain imaging technology to discover that when there is an emotional trigger of admiration, the body responds generally with a positive overall performance. This counters the argument that decisions are best made with cold, hard rationality alone.

The discovery coincides with previous advice to eat well and exercise. Exam preparation should include general and mental health alongside studying. If you feel good and healthy, chances are you’ll learn better as a result.

Want to ask the Hippo a question? Send any comments you may have to:

Jul 27, 2009

Paper or Plastic? published an article last week documenting the debate over whether or not the government should provide students with electronic reading aides dubbed “Kindles”. These devices are essentially flat, lightweight, high-resolution black and white screens that incorporate a built-in keyboard and wireless capability. With 2 GB of internal storage, the Kindle could do for the bookworm what the iPod did for the audiophile.

Actually giving every student in America access to a Kindle is no easy (or cheap) proposition, and opponents are quick to list the many problems that could arise. Who, for example, would replace a Kindle that is lost or stolen? Additionally, classic textbooks will never “break-down” like an electronic device could. However, the benefits for integrating eTextbooks like the Kindle are just as compelling. Proponents say the price for providing reading materials would actually decrease over time once the devices were in the hands of students. Factor in other advantages, such as doing away with the chore of hauling around cumbersome and heavy paper textbooks, plus the ability to instantly update old content, and it’s easy to see the excitement that surrounds this issue.

But is the world ready for education without the paper-bound textbook? The answer to that question lies in the reality of the modern learning environment. While some teachers are quick to integrate the latest technology available into their classrooms, there are still traditionalists who see eTextbooks as just another boondoggle. Teaching styles are varied and conditional, and what works for one teacher could seriously hinder another. On the other hand, while making teachers happy is certainly beneficial to education, in the end, it is all about the student.

The real question at the heart of this gets back to a previous blog post where I called upon all online students to address the question of what the next learning environment should look like. There seems to be a groundswell of new ideas being presented that want to answer this, but while an imaginary destination is nice, what’s really needed is a roadmap.

Jul 21, 2009

Think Global

With the leisure of summer comes a feeling of freedom from the pressures of going to class, writing papers, and taking tests. It can be easy to forget just how much of a privilege a quality education is. The path to self-improvement rarely strays from the course of learning, and with such an opportunity perpetually available, it is crucial to stay focused on just how valuable it truly is.

In the opening pages of “The Promise of Open Educational Resources” by Marshall S. Smith and Catherine M. Casserly, it is stated that:

At the heart of open-educational-resources movement is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the World Wide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse that knowledge.

This idea drives the OER movement to each corner of the globe with the goal of giving everyone the opportunity of self-improvement. There is a ubiquitous need for learning, just as there is a ubiquitous need for food and shelter. Because of this, there will always be students.

Learners have the incredible transformative power to take information, synthesize it, and pass it on to others. The realization that everyone is both teacher and student at some level is integral to the formation of open education for everyone. In a previous blog, a call was made to all online students to help shape the future of online education. As programs reach beyond borders and oceans, connections are made that should be recognized as potential avenues for learning.

Cross-cultural integration is the inevitable result of the World Wide Web, and the possibilities for cross-cultural sharing must be pursued at every opportunity. Encourage your teachers to take advantage of the resources at their disposal and broaden their horizons to encompass the whole globe. Organize an e-mail pen pal program. Find out how other students are studying, how other teachers are teaching, and what other classes are learning. Consider things from a global point of view. As your scope gets bigger, your limitations will shrink.

Jul 13, 2009

Choosing the Right Teachers and Classes

It happens several times each and every academic year- new schedules, new classes, and of course, new teachers. Although the first week of a new semester or trimester may seem like a brief respite from the overwhelming workload of finals, there’s a reason universities give students some leeway before launching fully into the curriculum- this is the time set aside to allow you to pick the right teachers and classes for you.

There are many things to consider before building your new schedule. Some people like to plan out every class they will take until graduation, while others wait until the last minute to fill up their roster. Do your best not to be part of the latter group- while it’s tempting to settle for whatever is immediately available, it’s possible you’ll pay for it in the end with an incongruous schedule or unnecessary credit.

Once you know what courses to take, do some research into what options fulfill each requirement. Find out what time slots are offered- when do you learn the best? Are you most attentive first thing in the morning, or is the late afternoon more your style? Make sure to leave enough time for snack breaks- learning on an empty stomach rarely happens. Also, check where each class will be held. Lugging tons of textbooks from one side of campus to the other can be a painful exercise for anyone without a spare forklift.

Next, check up on your teachers. Sites like are popular and may seem quite useful, but it’s important to use these merely as a preamble to forming your own opinions. It’s you, and not some random poster on the Internet, who will be synching your unique learning style to their teaching style. One recent graduate tells a story of how she found her favorite teacher based on negative comments posted on “I could tell the people who posted bad comments clashed with his personality, and would probably clash with mine. I ended up taking four of his classes.”

Spend an extra five minutes after the introductory session to talk to your potential new teacher and get a better understanding how you will be spending class time. Will you have to write a lot of papers? Group projects? Lectures? Know what works best for you and search for the perfect fit.

Any extra effort you put into finding the right class and teacher combo will be returned to you ten-fold. You’ll get better grades, work less hard, and learn a whole lot more. Just don’t take Calculus at 8 AM – unless you’re into that sort of thing.

Jul 7, 2009

Calling All Online Students

Online course usage is growing by the day. As the acceptance of this highly sought after medium expands, more and more schools are rushing to implement online aspects to their curriculum. The latest study from the Department of Education is sure to fan these flames even further, giving online proponents weighty evidence to back their case. But what exactly is this document saying?

The ninety-four pages puts forth quite a lot of data, but there are some very important aspects to consider before declaring online education as superior. First, it describes courses that integrate in-class instruction with online elements (a “blended” model) to be the most effective when compared to wholly online or strictly face-to-face models. However, the study goes on to state that these blended courses that exhibited superiority “differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy.” (page xvii). Clearly, it is how these elements are used that matters the most.

Earlier, the study reports “online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.” (page xvi). As a student in an online course, what does this mean to you? In an earlier blog, the possibility for a student-driven curriculum was explored. Could this be the next step?

The opportunities for online courses are just now beginning to truly take shape, and the fate of education as we know it hangs in the balance. The key is to create something that allows the student to learn as effectively as possible.

So now I leave the question to you, the student. What form should this new medium take? What has worked best for you? What hasn’t worked? In what way can online education promote “control of [a learner’s] interactions with media and [prompt] learner reflection”?

The future is in your hands.

Jun 29, 2009

Student Activism

As the world continues to watch chaos unfold in Iran, it’s important to understand our own duty as American citizens towards activism. A free and democratic society is one where differences are settled with debate and not a battlefield. Chronically at the forefront of public debate are the student activists, who wield their positions with passionate rhetoric, winning the hearts and minds of fellow citizens as they go. If you feel like taking part in this oldest and dearest of American traditions, here are a few tips that will help you along the way (regardless of where you may stand on the political spectrum):

The first thing you should do is inform yourself. One of the greatest tools at your disposal will be the ability to articulate and argue your point of view. If you can’t establish your voice as credible, your cause will be lost in a flood of misunderstanding and counter-arguments. Research not only your own perspective, but that of the opposition as well- anticipate how you will need to persuade others to join your fight.

Next, recruit and organize. Use everything you can think of- social networking sites, school common grounds, even the opinion letters section of your school newspaper could help turn a like-minded individual into a fellow activist. Make sure to utilize the press every step of the way. Any journalists who cover your efforts will basically give you free advertising. Try to keep them on your side- even though the press is supposed to be totally objective, a carefully placed word or phrase could easily either demonize or glorify your cause .

As you look deeper into how you can have a bigger impact, align yourself with larger-organizations that are fighting for the same thing. With activism, there is always power in numbers.

Be visible, and be clear. Don’t leave any room for confusion when demonstrating. Although your arguments may be complex, try to keep things as concise as possible so those casually observing will have no doubt what you are fighting for. It could be helpful to print out a short (roughly a page) pamphlet that explains your position to those who may want to know more.

Know your rights. Free speech and freedom of assembly are some of the most closely held rights that we as Americans enjoy. Read up on what you can and can’t do so you’ll know when your rights are infringed upon.

Finally, and most importantly, keep it peaceful. Passions will run high, but one of the quickest ways to draw condemnation is through demonstrations that involve something other than words. Any violence or vandalism will likely cause more harm than good by giving your opponents ammunition to use against you.

Once you have a plan and supporters, exercise those rights and fight for what you believe in. There’s no more satisfaction than that which comes from doing it yourself, so be the change you want to see.

Jun 23, 2009

Stay Sharp During The Summer

Bountiful summer is upon us. For students, that means plenty of sun, heat, and free time now that the school year is gone. And even though the days are longer and the weather is warm, the extended vacation will inevitably draw us indoors. Television and videogames can sing a siren song to anyone without a whole lot to do and a whole bunch of time to do it. The key, of course, is to stay active! But if summer school and college prep classes aren’t exactly your cup of tea, here are a few summer activities that can be both engaging and beneficial.

Amusement parks are a real blast, but for something a little more cerebral, try a museum or science center. Few students visit these types of places outside of a school field trip, and it can be liberating to wander at your own will, as opposed to being stuck in the rigid “go there, look here” format of a class-time outing. Find something that interests you, like a painting gallery, observatory, or zoo, and then bring your friends.

Reading and writing ability can take a plunge during the summer months, so hit the local library or bookstore and pick out a few titles that peak your interest. If all you can think about is reaching for the X-Box controller, try some fiction from your favorite videogame. Journaling is another great way to keep these essential skills sharp. Make a commitment to sit down and write every day. Even if you just spend five or ten minutes scribbling down a couple lines, you’ll be exercising critical brain functions that would otherwise be shutdown until September.

Try to create as much as you can. Summer is the perfect time to try something new, like drawing or playing guitar. You could join an art class that is laid back and lets you go at your own pace, or you could start a band to rock out with your newfound musical talent. Remember to keep it as fun as possible- you’re supposed to enjoy yourself for these three months.

Don’t shy away from volunteering- there are plenty of opportunities to donate your time towards something you’d enjoy. If you like hiking, volunteer with the local parks service. If you like Basketball, try coaching a team at the local youth center. Not only will you be serving the community, you’ll be adding some extra spice to your college application.

At the very least, get out and do all those fun summer activities. Go to the beach, or have a water gun fight, or eat ice cream in the park. There will be plenty of time to play videogames when it’s below freezing and there’s a foot of snow on the ground!

Jun 16, 2009

Can You Design A Better Course Than Your Teacher?

America has a long-standing tradition of industrialization. We tend to standardize and implement on an ever-increasing scale with just about everything we involve ourselves in, from agriculture to automobiles. The same can be said for education. Parallels can be drawn to a batch-processing assembly line where lecture-driven classes turn out 25 students per classroom, per teacher, per 50 minute session.

Despite American efforts towards an industrialized system of education, graduation rates have stalled over the last 30 years. But if industrialization increases productivity exponentially, why do we see this stall?

One answer could be that the system in place simply does not work when brought to bear on the problems surrounding modern education. Industrialization is easy when one is creating a product. Shaping minds, however, is not quite as simple. An ever-increasing class size and a decreasing teacher-to-student ratio are both difficult barriers to circumvent. Kids feel as though they are stuck in a system that is simply putting them through the paces and pushing them towards a purpose-less graduation.

Myk Garn, Director of Educational Technology at the Southern Regional Educational Board, believes one solution lies with a form of individualized instruction coming not from teachers, but rather from the students themselves. “The more you standardize a process, the more it must also be individualized. The idea is mass-customization for effectiveness,” he explains. “What we know is that teachers are at the end of their ability to individualize instruction at some point around 25-30 students. But many smart minds believe students, using technology, which is inherently a 1:1 medium, guided by a teacher, can realistically individualize instruction themselves. We need to try this because if we want to make a significant difference in the success rate of students, we have to do something significantly different.”

Myk’s vision puts students at the helm, guiding the curriculum in a model that is student-driven as opposed to student-centered. It is the student, Myk proposes, that should be able to direct their own learning, passing on knowledge to their peers in ways that they see fit.

The tools to do just that are already in place. Modern technology gives the student the ability to create their very own learning objects and modules, driving the methodology towards higher efficacy in radical new ways.

This, of course, raises many questions. Where will the teacher fit into this equation? How will the students be guided so that accomplishment and achievement can be recognized and measured? What will this new model look like in the real world? Will students be better or worse equipped for the workforce?

With new possibilities comes new hurtles, but the most important question remains: can you design a better course than your teacher?

Jun 1, 2009

Public Speaking Tips

Public speaking can really hurt, but a disinterested audience will make it even worse. Boring topics, monotonous tones, and a seemingly endless stream of words can put people to sleep quicker than a blunt blow to the head. Make sure you aren’t a public speaking offender by following a few simple tips.

In a speech, there are two very important considerations. The first is the audience. How big of an audience will you speak too? What kind of people are they? What are you trying to tell them? Remember that everything you say can be construed differently depending on things like your audience’s background, beliefs, and age. Create a speech for those who will hear it. The second very important consideration is the time you're allotted to speak. How will you fit in everything you want to tell them without going on too long (or, possibly, not long enough)? How will each piece of the speech flow together to create one cohesive message?

These are all things you should work out as you practice your speech. Tailor the tone and word choice to your audience, and get a feel for how it flows. Connecting each piece of information is of the utmost importance. A speech that flows well will keep an audience’s attention, while one that does not will confuse and discourage other from listening. Finally, practice the speech aloud, timing yourself as you go. Good timing and practice will allow you to engage the audience with eye contact and hand gestures. People are more likely to pay attention if they feel like you are talking to them and not reading off a script.

Once you have the words down, consider infusing your speech with some multimedia. Double-check the compatibility of the venue at which you will be speaking and plan accordingly. Just about every speech can benefit from the addition of a slideshow, song, or short movie. One cool idea is to provide pre-burned CD’s to your audience (if it is small enough and laptop-equipped) containing some pictures that illustrate your words. The audience can open these as you direct or at their leisure, and will engage them in a fashion that is more effective then throwing the same pictures on a large screen at the front of the room. This way, the audience will feel like they are part of the speech as opposed to merely observers of it.

Once you are comfortable, get up on the stage and let it go! Try to speak as organically and normal as possible, even though you may have practiced each word a hundred times. Be wary of speaking too quickly- presenters will often speed up their speech if they are nervous. Before you know it, you’ll be done and the audience will be cheering!

May 20, 2009

How To Properly Cite A Source

You’re sweating bullets over the keyboard, pounding out those last few pages for a research paper. You’re on a deadline and you need to finish. You’re at your weakest, but stay strong- it can be tempting to fall into the trap of plagiarism!

Plagiarism is when you present someone else’s ideas or words as your own. This form of literary fraud is actually very easy to circumvent- all you need to do is give credit where credit is due. If you find a really good passage or snippet of information, don’t hesitate to take it! Just make sure to cite the author afterwards.

Citations allow the audience to find the source you use. This is very useful to anyone looking into the background of your arguments or topic. Additionally, citations help support your ideas by demonstrating how others would validate your claims.

There are many different forms a citation can take, and often, your teacher or professor will give you a set of guidelines to follow when formatting your sources. These are considered citation “styles”, and each comes with its own unique way of quotation (used in the body of a paper) and bibliography (which comes at the very end). These differ with the type of source you are citing (electronic, book by one author, encyclopedia, etc.). Check out for free downloads of a few popular citation styles.

By far the most common citation is the electronic source, or information you find on the Internet. Unfortunately, electronic sources can be some of the most challenging to correctly cite, as particulars about the who, what, and where of the information you access may not be immediately given. For these, you usually need to find out who the author is, the title of the article, version number, date of publication (or posting), website title, date that the material was accessed, and finally, the URL. Printed books will have most of this data printed on the first few pages, but websites tend to hide this kind of stuff in the margins and nooks and crannies of a page.

There are many types of plagiarism that are obvious, like copy/pasting a whole paragraph as if you wrote it. However, there are other, more subtle forms of plagiarism as well. Check out for a well-rounded list of possible ways to cheat at writing.

If you find yourself stretching for those last few paragraphs, remember: adding quotes and an author’s name will always fill more space than just a copy/paste.

May 4, 2009

Finding Motivation

It can be really hard to get up the motivation needed to complete some of our loftier ambitions. We often feel overwhelmed by the immensity of some tasks, and will give up before we even begin. This is common, and if you find yourself stuck in a rut, try a few of these tips.

Lacking the energy to get up and do something could come from a variety of sources. Perhaps your diet isn’t the best, or you aren’t as in shape as you could be. A quick fix for lack of energy could be a cup of coffee, some candy, or another type of snack. These are all good in the short term as they provide that momentary oomph to get you up and going. However, they will leave you wanting more after a few hours. For long-term energy, look for carbohydrates, like pasta or breads. These will keep you fueled for longer and more steadily, and won’t lead to the “crash” you might get from caffeine or sugar. Try to stay away from foods high in fat, as they will leave you feeling sleepy and unproductive.

While big rewards can come from big jobs, it’s easy to be discouraged when confronted with all the problems that come along with such big tasks. Take each step individually, and focus on one goal at a time. If, for example, you have four papers and a final exam to study for, plan out your time so that you can tackle each individually. You will be more productive and effective if you can concentrate on one as opposed to worrying about everything else.

For long-term goals, record your progress. Motivation is much easier to find if you don’t feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Track how much you have accomplished, where you run into problems, and solutions you find along the way.

Finally, think positively! Focus on the rewards of a job well done. Don’t get mired in the setbacks. Remember, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

Apr 27, 2009

Teaching Styles

There has been plenty of talk on this blog about the different types of learning styles that a student may use. This information is useful for the classroom, as it identifies which elements of a lesson will be most effective and how to maximize the learning experience. However, that is just one side of the equation. It is also important to understand a few of the teaching styles you might encounter in order to better prepare for any difficulties or problems you may run into.

In his book Teaching With Style(1), Dr. Anthony F. Grasha outlines five basic teaching styles that educators could employ. These are listed as “Expert”, “Formal Authority”, “Personal Model”, “Facilitator”, and “Delegator”, and each has unique advantages, disadvantages, and methods for teaching material.

The “Expert” model is just as it sounds- the teacher exudes knowledge by possessing the special facts, figures, and insights that the students require. Students are expected to absorb the information and display a similar level of confidence and ability in their own knowledge. Teachers use this model in conjunction with formal lectures to transmit information. Advantages here are the level of content that is available to learn, however, this can have the disadvantage of intimidating students who might feel less prepared.

Next is the “Formal Authority” model. This is similar to the “Expert” model in that it tends to focus on the nitty-gritty details of a subject. However, this is done in a way that is tightly structured and outlined with a “right” and “wrong” way of doing things. This is good in that it provides the student with crystal-clear expectations and instruction. However, this structure can also be inflexible to the needs of students.

The “Personal Model” places the teacher at the forefront. Students are encouraged to solve problems by following the teacher’s example. This method emphasizes observation, however it may lead to a belief that the only way to solve a problem is the teacher’s way.

The methods of the “Facilitator” are more hands-off in that the teacher acts like a guide for students. Peer-to-peer learning and group projects are employed, with a greater degree of creativity allowed. The teacher lets students explore many different options and solutions. This is great for flexibility, however it is time consuming and may not be appropriate where more direct approaches are called for.

Finally, there is the “Delegator”. This model is for students who can act without the constant attention of the teacher, who is merely available to help when called for by the students. This inspires independence for learning, but may not be appropriate for students who are not ready for it.

With knowledge of these teaching styles, you can better prepare for any possible expectations or projects that the teacher may bring to the classroom. Also, if you think there may be a better approach, try suggesting it. You may find that you can make life easier for both yourself and your teacher.

1) Grasha, Anthony F. Teaching with Style: A Practical Guide to Enhancing Learning by Understanding Teaching and Learning Styles. Pittsburgh: Alliance Publishers, (1996).

Apr 20, 2009

The Importance of Relaxation

Whether it’s in the classroom, at the office, or simply out on the street running errands, the stress of everyday life can be a killer. All the anxiety that we endure contributes to a variety of health risks, such as elevated blood pressure, heart disease, and decreased immune system effectiveness (to name just a few). It is important to balance these mental and physical strains with techniques that let us unwind.

The health benefits of effective relaxation are great and varied. According to the Mayo Clinic, individuals who are more relaxed will have reduced muscle tension, increased blood flow to major muscles, slower breathing rate, and a decreased demand for oxygen. Additionally, they will respond to stressful situations in a healthier fashion, with a decrease in negative emotional reactions (such as anger), greater energy reserves, and better concentration.

There are many ways to relax, and finding the most effective method is dependant on the individual (check past blogs for a few ideas). However, here are a few techniques to explore:

One way many people like to relax is by soaking in a hot tub. The warm water will promote blood flow and loosen joints, as well as help relieve any muscle pain. This can be paired with a variety of other relaxing activities, such as listening to music, meditating, or massage (particularly if you happen to be relaxing in a hot tub equipped with jets).

Exercise is another good stress-reliever. In addition to the release of brain-chemicals that promote healthy cognitive function, exercise allows muscles to release stored energy, thereby reducing tension. Exercise is also a form of meditation, allowing for introspection and reflection away from the hassle of daily routine.

Stretching and Yoga techniques are also quite popular. Read up on the various poses and practices that this ancient stress relief has to offer. You can start at home, and when you want to progress, attend a class. Yoga combines a variety of different physical and mental methods that will help integrate your mind and body, helping you become more aware of how you are stressed and how to alleviate that stress.

Relaxation is an important factor to balancing one’s life. Without it, many things suffer. Take time to stabilize your stress, and you will be healthier, happier, and more effective in everything you do.

Apr 13, 2009

Ways To Learn A Foreign Language

In February, we outlined a few of the benefits that come along with learning a second language, including social advantages and improved cognitive function. This week, we will explore a few ways to develop this special skill and get you going on the path towards bilingual ability.

The best possible place to learn a new language is not in a classroom, but rather in a locale where that language is spoken exclusively. Learners will find themselves challenged more frequently and significantly when confronted with daily tasks and scenarios that call upon their ability to effectively communicate to get what they want. Simple situations like ordering food in a restaurant, directing a taxi cab home, or shopping for clothes will call upon the speaker to incorporate a variety of different words and tenses to try to convey what they are after. The brain is much more apt to learn what is necessary if required to do so to simply get through the day.

Although it is not optimal, taking a language class is the next best thing to re-location. Local community colleges will usually offer many different levels for interested students, and the human-to-human interaction is critical. You also have the added benefit of continual practice, with homework and regular class schedules figuring into your routine.

If time conflicts and a busy agenda are the issue, there are still several other avenues to explore. There are many programs available for the computer that allow the user to learn a language at their own pace. The most popular of these is Rosetta Stone, which incorporates text, pictures, and audio to help progress along the way.

Like most learned skills, the key to all these methods is practice. Supplement your plan with activities that help keep your lingual ability sharp, such as a pen pal or e-mail buddy (which helps with slang and common usage you might not get from a language curriculum). The more you practice, the more fluent you’ll become. You’ll find that you reach a point where changing between languages is as simple as flipping a switch, a skill that’s not just useful, but quite impressive as well!

Apr 6, 2009

Videogames and Education

Technology is one of the great innovators when it comes to teaching. If used properly, the right tool can help both instructor and student realize their educational goals far more quickly and effectively. However, despite the myriad of improvements now in place in schools all over the country, there are still many avenues of progress left under-realized. One of these is in the realm of videogames. In an industry once considered to be mere entertainment, there is now a brand new wave of learning tools being put to use.

Videogames are rapidly becoming the go-to resource for a variety of skill sets. However, this is nothing new. Children of the 80’s and early 90’s will remember a host of old-school games designed to teach things like resource management, basic math, and geography. Similarly, modern edu-games deal with a variety of different topics, from simple brain-teasers to full-fledged graphical adventures.

How effective are these new methods? Due to the pace at which innovations are being implemented, research is limited. However, some studies show that videogames are not necessarily more effective than traditional pen-and-paper methods towards improving cognitive functions and learning. However, as the techniques evolve, this could change. Students still expect to be engaged by the material they are presented with. Developing how this happens, such as though interaction and individual participation, is important to integrating new technologies into the curriculum. In many ways, educational videogames are still in their infancy stage, and there is a long way to go before comparisons can be made to traditional pedagogical techniques.

However, there are still many concerns about the unknown side effects of introducing these new techniques on a broad scale. One of the most common of these is the idea that violence in videogames (such as “blasting” the answer to an equation in Math Blaster) is psychologically harmful. Some see the games as promoting violence as a solution. Without a doubt, the majority of research on videogames has dealt with the effects of violent media on the psyche of the player, but all evidence seems to conclude that only the most violent videogames (i.e. those without any intrinsic value beyond simple entertainment) have an effect on the user (roughly the same as other forms of violent media, such as in movies or television programs). The validity of educational games in the classroom has yet to be truly defined, and as technology continues forward, these questions will come to center stage.

Mar 30, 2009

Integrating Technology

Perhaps you’re about to enter a more rigorous year of high school, or you’re about to go off to college, or you finally got that internship you were shooting for. All of these are great qualifiers for buying a new laptop or computer. The machine you own is an essential link in the career or educational path you undertake, and can either save you tons of time or severely slow any progress you make towards your goals. It’s important you have a machine that will hold up to whatever you could throw at it.

The first thing to decide on is format. This decision comes down to either a Macintosh or Windows-based platform. If the format you usually use is the same as the format that you will need to integrate with (for example, if you own a Windows machine and you are interning in an office that uses exclusively Windows), stay with it. However, if the format that you need to integrate with is different, the question comes down to whether you should learn a new format for the ease of integration, or integrate what you’re used to with the separate format. The reason this is so important is that integration between the Macintosh and Windows formats is not yet streamlined to the point where you won’t run into at least a few headaches. However, learning a new format could cause just as many problems due to unfamiliarity.

It’s always a good idea to consult with the local tech department for tips. If it looks like the differences between integrating your system with the new system will be too great, consider learning a new way of computing. Also, it never hurts to have both systems available. Consider purchasing a cheap, older computer with the different format so you have both platforms available to you.

Internet integration is becoming easier and easier nowadays, but it is still critical to double-check that you will be able to access the Internet quickly and easily without spending down-time chasing down glitches.

Consider what programs you’ll need. Things like word processors, Internet browsers, and presentation creators are a must, and usually come pre-loaded on any new computer.

Finally, consider accessories. Free space can dwindle very rapidly when collecting assignments on top of the usual stash of music, movies, pictures, and particulars of your personal computer, so consider an external hard drive. Also, a mouse could help ease the strain on your index finger if you’ll be clicking a lot.

The key is to anticipate how you’ll be using the computer on a daily basis, and then build your system from there. Do it right, and you’ll slide into your new position with ease!

Mar 23, 2009

How To Cheaply Travel Abroad

The travel bug is easy to catch. Without warning, you could be struck by the enticing call of distant lands, strange new cultures, and exotic dishes, and once you’ve heard that siren song, it’s hard to forget. Frequently, the only antidote is a healthy dose of wandering around in a foreign country. But don’t think this remedy always comes with the side effect of a deflated wallet- there are many ways to ease the cost of curing the travel bug.

When planning your trip, try to bring along as many companions as you can. Group rates are a great way to reduce airfare and accommodations expenses, as well as all those little things that can add up over time, like tooth paste and toilet paper. Plus, it’s always nice to have friends there to share the experience.

Try to pack as light as you can. Less stuff will mean a lower expense hauling it around, both on your back and your budget. Additionally, keeping all those clothes clean will be cheaper if you simply have less clothing to get dirty.

Learning the language is crucial, not just for getting around, but also for keeping expenses down. Unlike the USA, negotiations over price are commonplace abroad, and it’s easy for locals to take a tourist for all they’re worth when the haggling is one-sided. Being conversant in the local tongue will help keep away any unexpected expenditures.

Although tasting all the different delicacies is fun, it can be a huge drain on the funds. Visit the grocery store and make as many of your own meals as you can, saving any extra money you have to splurge on a restaurant every so often.

If you intend on staying for several months, see if you can make your trip profitable. Get a job teaching English, being a mentor, or simply waiting tables. Each day you work translates into another day of travel.

Finally, remember that just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile- visit museums, fairs, parks, or any other activity that doesn’t require spending. You’ll be surprised at the differences that local flavor can add to an everyday activity. Make your own tour, perhaps off a free information pamphlet. Even simply walking the streets can be an enriching a unique experience in a foreign country. You might meet someone and get the local highlights and treatment.

It’s possible to travel on just about any budget, if planned correctly. The key is to take only what you need to have a successful trip abroad. If that includes a 5 star hotel accommodation and room service every night, then expect to pay out the nose. But, if you just want to travel for travel’s sake, plan out a budget, look for shortcuts to save money, and get out there!