Is it a teacher’s job to motivate students?

This term I’m taking a teaching course. Before our first class, we were asked to respond to the following prompt: 

When asked what he does to motivate his players, [NFL coach Chuck Noll] famously said:

I wasn’t hired to motivate players, I was hired to
 coach motivated players.”
Reflecting on your own personal philosophy of teaching, do you believe that it is your responsibility to motivate your students?  If so, how do you do it?  If not, why not?
I am very early in my learning-about-teaching career, so I expect to look back on this with a little bit of embarrassment in the future, but here’s my perspective on this prompt at the moment. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments!

Student motivation should be the goal of all teachers, but, in my opinion, cannot be the responsibility of the teacher alone.

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is hugely effective, where extrinsic is not. It also suggests that extrinsic incentives, like pay in the working world or rewards like candy and contingent play time for children, effectively stomps out intrinsic motivation. So what contributes to intrinsic motivation? Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

My experience as a student was probably not unique, but certainly colors my experience. I was an unmotivated student until I was in my twenties, and as competent and caring as my teachers were, I doubt there was anything they could do to get me to care. I did not have much autonomy (I had to be there when school was in session and I had to learn what the requirements dictated), I didn’t feel mastery (I got mediocre grades and had a what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”) and I didn’t have a sense of purpose (I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, college was a given, but I had no specific reason to be there.) I can look back on brief glimpses in school where I felt motivated— creative writing projects and extracurricular activities—and in all of those, I had the three elements of intrinsic motivation.

NFL coaches have the advantage of working only with those who have not only opted in to the team, but have in fact worked very hard to get on the team. They chose to work hard at it; their talents, developed skills, and experience made them excel at it; and they wanted to win: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They necessarily have strong motivation if they have gotten this far, so it is reasonable to expect a coach to assume their players will be motivated. Unfortunately, most students have very little autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and haven’t for years in the curricular context. It would take a lot for a single teacher to revive the intrinsic motivation to learn, and teachers cannot give students autonomy, mastery, and purpose of their own accord.

Despite those obstacles, I keep my eye on autonomy, mastery and purpose and support them whenever I can. My teaching experience has been in a very structured class which I had no power over, so autonomy was hard to come by, but I intend to support it in the future by giving students options for projects and power over their own topic and methods. When I teach, I tie anything I can back to purpose (the ACT is boring and arbitrary and you will never use the content of this class again, but it can help you get in to the college you want so you can build a career you care about, so let’s focus on that.) The primary way I tried to help my students in this and their future classes was to work on what held me back throughout my life. I emphasize a growth mindset to support mastery. Instead of “wrong,” I think about “not yet,” and I celebrate progress to help them see that they can (and already are!) improving.

On the first day of class, I tell my students to imagine they are teaching their little cousin to do something they love— free-throws, painting, a video game— and then imagine that their cousin misses the basket or makes a mistake. Do you tell her, “wow, you are bad at this! You should probably quit trying to get better?” Of course not. We know that she’s not going to be an expert right away, and we know from experience what kind of dedicated practice it takes to improve! If you wouldn’t talk that way to your little cousin, don’t think of yourself that way either.

Although I can’t give students all the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they would need to develop intrinsic motivation, I can try to help. I find the teaching roles I’ve had so far especially suited to helping students with mastery— if they take anything away from my class, I hope it’s that they can improve, and that their skill and capacity isn’t fixed. I hope this course can give me some tools to foster as much intrinsic motivation as I can in my job.

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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Finals week

Finals week itself is actually way less stressful this term than any term in undergrad or my master’s program, given that my semester-end projects were mostly papers, which were challenging, but due last week. So really, I’m just using it as an excuse for light blogging this week.

I do have a take home final for statistics, from which I thought I would procrastinate briefly to bring you a draft of my personal demand function for Corona lager.

Demand(Corona) = b((T – 75) i)l

T = environmental temperature (Fahrenheit)

i = thirst (arbitrary units on subjective scale from 1 to 10)

l = Do I have a lime? (Yes = 1, No = 0)

b = Have I been to the beach today? (Yes = 1, No = 0)

Alas, it is winter on the east coast, where I live now, so my demand for Corona will be stuck at zero until I leave for California in 6 days (!)

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I Would Totally Go on a Second Date with Bruno Latour

If I’d met him a few years ago (and in an alternate universe), I would totally go on a second date with Bruno Latour. I would enjoy listening to him talk: I think he has really fascinating ideas that I almost understand, but there’s enough that I haven’t quite grasped to keep me wanting more, you know?

I get the sense that he’s really passionate about the co-evolution of society and technology– he uses a lot of exclamation points–and his insistence on bringing ideas of power and dominance into conversations about the proliferation of camera technology is confusing, but in that kind of intriguing/sexy way.

Plus, I am really curious how “syntagm” is pronounced, and there’s a chance that I can get him to say it out loud.

So yeah, I would agree to a second date, because I would want to believe that there was something between us. I think I could fool myself into thinking he could respect me intellectually, at least until the waiter brought the dessert menu. (And by then, I mean, hell, you might as well try the flourless chocolate cake, right?)

He probably won’t have heard a word I said all night (he definitely wouldn’t have been listening to my anecdote about the Kodak case study I read in business school, which I at first thought was relevant, and then thought I could spin as amusing, but really by the end of it, even I realized that I had missed the point) so I won’t feel too bad if he insists on paying.

What I would really want to do is set him up with a friend of mine. That way, I wouldn’t have to date a man who would throw out the word “actant” right away, and then blaze ahead until I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant, and then define it 45 minutes later so I have to simultaneously:

1) parse the definition: “a list of answers to trials– a list which, once stabilized, is hooked to a name of a thing and to a substance.”

2) try to understand the last 45 minutes in light of this information.

3) wonder if he only defined it now because he could sense that I had no idea what he was talking about, and is he starting to think I’m an idiot?

4) wonder if he is actually trying to test out an extension of this theory in which “actant” is an actant, which is part of a program in which he (the literal enunciator?) is using vocabulary to try to get women to leave him alone (?).

5) confuse myself, and try desperately to figure out what he’s talking about now that I’ve been distracted for, let’s be honest, kind of a long time.

6) wait– did he just slam stamp collecting??

You see, I wouldn’t want to seriously date a guy who would do that, or who honestly sounds kind of high when he explains things that you are pretty sure are smart (? but, again, he could just be messing with you). Like, I was pretty sure I knew what “translations” were until he started talking, so either he’s brilliant, or so charismatic that he has me rethinking the word “substitutes” just to prove he can.

I would want to be that guy’s buddy. You know, me and Bruno getting some beers and theorizing, and arguing, and trying on ontological hats until we close down the bar? I go home feeling intellectually inferior, but in a challenged and excited way? And his girlfriend (who is grateful to me for introducing her to such a Mysterious Genius) could deal with him.

Oh my gosh, can you imagine what it would be like if, you know, down the road a few years when you’re living with him? And whatever spark you’d mustered is kind of gone, but you’re comfortable, and you have your own lives, but he keeps forgetting to do the laundry, so you leave him a note on the fridge? And then he dissects your note and your sighs and your conspicuous placement of the laundry basket and tells you all about how “unreal” your program is, and explains, in a sort of exhausted tone, how he’s going to continue to create anti-programs until you truly innovate? And how he explains this in tiny little words, which he defines right away, because that’s the only way he thinks you can understand by now?

Yeah, no thanks. A second date, but that’s it.

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Art, Science, and Audience

This week we are reading about and discussing “the Public Intellectual.” We read short stories by scientists, browsed scholar’s websites, and watched a TED talk by one of our professors. I wrote the following blog post for an assignment in reaction to these examples and ideas: 

I’ve always been a big hobby-sampler– I do a little bit of a lot of things– and the things I really care about don’t get the time investment it takes to make them great. When I moved out here, the constraints of leaving behind my social network and bringing only what I could fit in within the 50lb checked-bag limit brought me a great opportunity, and I selected a single hobby.

I decided to pursue art in my free time. I minored in art in college, but had mostly done Really Fancy Crafts since I graduated.

portfolioimg dpesvette gridgrowl

The distinction I am drawing between art and crafts isn’t an evaluation of merit, by the way, and I only use it to classify my own work, not others’, but for reference, here’s what I mean. Both art and crafts can be decorative, functional, meaningful, and therapeutic to create, but the design of crafts are informed primarily by another design or a process, where the design of art is informed by my subjective translation of some idea.

Here’s an example of a craft I did.


The photo on the right is of my commissioner with his dad on an old Harley. It’s meaningful and beautiful, but not suited for display because of its size and condition. He wanted to be able to enjoy the image, and I was able to use the photo, a google image search for the name of the bike, and a surprisingly small amount of human judgement to create the painting on the left. The subject, medium, composition, and style reflect only necessity, my aesthetic preferences, and the desires of the guy who paid me :)

Here’s an example of art I made.

harmony (1)

It was physically simpler to make, but the subject, form, media, and style all carry meaning. Here’s a section of the document I used to imagine, refine, and embody an idea into that piece.


You can see that I started with a big, abstract idea (“happiness”) and created a mind map around that idea to settle on a more specific idea I was interested in (“harmony”). At the risk of “explaining the joke,” I’ll explain more of the process to give you an example of how art (as I see it) differs from craft, and perhaps give you a sense of why I find producing art to be rewarding.

I had recently joined a singing group when I made this piece, and was thinking about the human diversity in the group and how it served to build a more complete and beautiful whole in the same way that our musical harmony did. It also took me far out of my comfort zone. So I did some thinking about different dimensions on which humans or ideas can vary. I decided on a matrix design for the concept (I wanted 4 parts, much like we had tenor, lead, baritone, and bass singers), which led me to select two visual dimensions on which the piece could vary. In homage to the abandonment of my habits for new adventures, I forwent my usual style (2 dimensional, monochromatic, representational work) for something I’d never done (3D, full color, abstraction). I designed a bridge shape for the form, to represent the way in which diversity itself can form a link between very different people and how the meeting of each with the others elevates all. The result is 4 sections which start out flat and get taller in the center, where they meet. Diversity is abstracted and visually represented on two dimensions: complexity of structure and breadth of color range.

Now did I expect the audience at that show to look at that and go, “oh! she must belong to an a cappella group?” Of course not :). I want to take my experience and perspective, bring it into a form that evokes these ideas and feelings in me, and allow others to see what they want in it, from their perspectives and experience. That way, as long as I take responsibility to make it maximally true of me, there’s a chance that someone else can see it and think or feel something true of them, and in that moment is the connection I am looking for.

All of that to say, although I enjoy the process and respect the skills required for crafts, I missed the creative thought, iterative meaning-making, and attempt to connect that is part of art.  When I moved, I committed to making that my hobby. Because my thoughts and experiences and perspectives now are so thoroughly informed by and immersed in the thought and science of graduate school, I am making art that responds to and reflects on that experience. Here’s my current work in progress: a 7-foot tall, nontraditional embroidery piece with the working title “Grasp.”

My hope, which I admit is lofty and far out of reach at the moment, is for the art I am making now to be a part of my public scholar profile, to be another avenue to communicate my findings, and to be a jumping off point to discuss the subjective experience of doing science.

Scientists do their best to expand human knowledge and share what they learn, but have to accept the likelihood of an overwhelming majority misunderstanding or not caring about that knowledge much of the time. Artists and scientists, in that way, are very similar and, I think, brave.

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Another Perspective!

One of my cohort-mates (is that a word?) writes a blog, too! In fact, he’s been doing it for way longer than I have: 10 years to my ~10 days.

Ed has a particularly interesting perspective because he’s a part-time Ph.D. student who also works for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Because of his work there and his career, he’s much more expert about information studies and its topics than I am. He writes pretty thorough descriptions of what we read and discuss in each of our classes, too, so if you’re interested in learning more about what we learn, Ed’s blog is a great opportunity to read about it!

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Why Privacy Matters

I don’t care much about my own privacy. My facebook profile (under my first, middle, and last name) is mostly public, I gave my banking password, and I don’t cover my webcam with a sticker. You could say that I don’t feel I have much to hide, which is true. However, I do think the right to privacy is a crucial element of a free society and that it’s important for all of us, even those who don’t have anything to hide, to fight to protect that right.

It’s trendy to see privacy as a currency we trade to make cool things, or to stay safe, or to make some other tradeoff that we care about. Although I do compromise some of my own sensitive information for my own convenience, treating others privacy like a commodity is a serious problem.

This blog post is coming out of a class discussion in which one of my classmates asserted that archived data, even data that includes sensitive or personally identifiable information, should be made public online. I’m going to try to convince you that, even if you personally don’t care about privacy, privacy is important and is worth protecting for others, here and abroad, now and in the future.

I think it’s easy and natural to form political or other society-wide opinions based on your beliefs, your circumstances, and how it would effect you. I also think, however, that it is our responsibility as voters, as scholars who work with data about others, and even as humans who could open their mouths within earshot of other humans to consider how those ideas, if implemented, would effect other people in different communities, legal environments, and circumstances.

But you wouldn’t look at other political issues this way, would you? How just would it be for me to say, “I don’t use welfare, so let’s get rid of it,” or, “I don’t have kids who use public education, so we should eliminate it.”

Here’s the bottom line. If you believe that records should be open, or that privacy doesn’t matter, or that “I don’t care; I don’t have anything to hide,” you believe one of two things:

  1. Every human society, now and in the future has norms and laws are basically fair and all communities’ reactions or legal punishments will be just
  2. People who violate the unjust norms of their community or laws of their country should be required to live a fundamentally less free life

For example, I am a highly educated, white, heterosexual American who lives in a liberal state, works at a university, and I have no stigmatized disabilities or illnesses. Pretty lucky, right? But even I have made some life choices and hold controversial political opinions that I wisely keep to myself in some contexts. There could be real consequences that do meaningful harm to me in my in my religious community or workplace if it were public knowledge that I’d visited Planned Parenthood, for example, or voted to legalize marijuana.

The argument there could be, well, Karen– find a more liberal place to work, or a more accepting religious community. But imagine if that solution is implemented across the board, including for people with much bigger secrets than a UTI and a bleeding heart political philosophy. You’d be requiring people who are already facing huge barriers to normal life because of how they were born, where they were born, or even circumstances outside their control to live even less free lives than they are already able to.  For example, people who want access to birth control, gay people, and women who have been raped who live in conservative communities, states, or countries could face dire social and legal consequences– in some places they could even (legally!) be killed.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where the playing field was level and every one could be trusted to be basically reasonable, or adjust their worldview given new information. (My classmate’s argument as I understood it was that if all this sensitive data were to be released, society would be forced to “get over it.”) We do not live in that world: even in the US in 2015 people are being shot for being black, fired for being gay, arrested for legal protests, and publicly shamed and losing their jobs for violating unjust social norms or making a misunderstood joke. Risking lives and livelihoods by betting that all people throughout the world will suddenly see reason is cruelly irresponsible.

And what about the tradeoff? Increasing human knowledge is, of course, important– so important to me that I moved across the country to a place that is cold to live on a graduate student’s stipend for the chance to pursue that end. But the trade off is not open data or no data. The trade off is that only trained people who jumped through some hoops with an IRB can see and use it.

We cannot let the our enthusiasm for the Cool Stuff we can do obscure our view of potential consequences of our actions. I can see that there is an additional benefit to crowdsourcing, citizen science, and collective intelligence, but I do not believe that that additional benefit is worth the risk when the people who the data describes did not have the opportunity to give their informed consent to its release. It may also be true that the wisdom of the crowd could help us better understand contagious diseases, chemical weapons, or military strategy, but the risk that some will misuse or misunderstand it prevents us from opening our labs, materials, and plans to the public.

I am very curious about your thoughts about privacy and open data. Please leave me a note in the comments!

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Preventing loneliness, burnout, and other miseries

Before coming to graduate school, I read a lot about how depressing and frustrating and difficult it is. Not just the coursework or the research, in fact, few of the complaints I had read even mentioned those things. They talked about feeling alone, depressed, unsupported, and especially poor. Every week or so on the forums, there’s a post like this, about quitting. Just today, a friend shared this article about the hidden cost of graduate school with me (hint, it’s your mental health.)

This was interesting, since the first doc students I met were notable and inspiring because they loved their work so much. They definitely had a lot of late nights and anxiety about comps, or the job market, but at the end of the day, they loved their work and got a lot done.

So what is the difference?

Here’s what my friend shared, along with that article, on Facebook:


Research suggests social support networks are among the most reliable predictors of happiness and success, that social support networks prevent people (and even rats!) from forming debilitating addictions, and are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient (see: this TED talk about addiction and Happiness Advantage for the rest. No, I won’t stop citing that book.)

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us moved thousands of miles (even over oceans) to come to graduate school, and maintaining old friendships is hard when they are far away. Many graduate students report feeling less engaged with their old friends after starting a new routine and lifestyle with different concerns. Many people tend to pull away from their social support network when work gets tough. Breaking in to new friend groups is challenging, especially with limited time and money, and it will still be a while before you may feel comfortable being yourself around new people.

So what’s the solution?

I think the only thing to do is acknowledge that making new friends is scary and difficult, and that it will take a long time, and commit to doing it anyway. We have a weekly cohort social event, even though there are so few of us, and some of my lab mates have been really welcoming. I’ve started attending a church I can walk to, and I’m planning to start and host a meetup group when I get up the nerve (and money :) It’s going to be hard, but it’s too important to give up on.

The risk here is feeling rejected and exhausted when you can’t immediately replicate old, close friendships, and I certainly get that feeling. That’s a perfectly healthy way to feel, and you don’t need to feel guilty or weak if you experience that. Be compassionate with yourself and remember this day 5 years from now, when you meet a first-year :)

A friend of mine (now a PhD) suggested to me that perhaps it would be best if all graduate students checked in with a therapist occasionally, and especially at the outset. I did exactly that, and I now feel much less alone, and much less afraid of failure. Find some Emotional hygiene habits and techniques that work for you– prayer, meditation, exercise, art– and defend your self-investment time consistently. This resilience you’ll build won’t just help you fearlessly befriend new people, but also bounce back from setbacks and failures in your research, finish big projects, and weather the job market.


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Why is it so hard to read a journal article??

I can’t solve paywalls, journals, and academese, but I can help you get journal articles properly formatted on your Kindle!

Anyone who has tried to read a journal article on a smartphone or eReader knows:

  1. you can technically read a PDF as is
  2. it is a giant pain in the ass

Here. I’ll show you. image2

Most journal articles not only have margins, but columns, so the writing is itsy bitsy on your screen. Kindle has tried to fix this with double-tap zoom, but if you’ve tried it, you know it’s not as easy as all that. Once you get to the bottom of your zoomed screen, you have to figure out how to get to the next one. Even if the convenient side-tap feature works (when you are in the middle of a column), each column is not easily divisible by kindle-screens, so you often have to scan over text you’ve already read to find your place again. It works in a pinch, but I am getting annoyed just thinking about it.

So here’s the solution: k2pdfopt. Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue? Just check out the website.

So it’s about as modern as the website suggests, but let me reiterate: it works! I can comfortably read a two-column journal article on my Kindle! See? image1

Once you have a habit down for using it, it’s pretty easy. I don’t even use any of the third-party UIs; I run it straight out of Terminal so I can feel like a super villain. You run one PDF at a time (I ignore all the options, just drag and drop the PDF, hit enter twice, and wait) then close the program and open it again for the next PDF(! i know.) You’ll find the PDF names appended with k2pdfopt, then I email them to my Kindle, and there they appear!

Do you have a life hack or a piece of software that makes your academic life easier? Let us know in the comments!

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How I dramatically improved my GRE score

I did a lot of crazed googling before I sat for the GRE exam, so I wanted to pay it forward, and leave a story for those who come later! If you are reading this in advance of taking the GRE, “You can do it!” I hope this is helpful! If you are reading this the night before your exam: GO TO SLEEP!

I need to give a caveat, which will also serve as a spoiler alert: although I started out poorly, I scored well enough on the GRE that I took a job test-taking strategy for the GRE! To avoid representing my employer publicly, this blog will focus on how I raised my GRE score (well before I started working for a test prep company).

Where did I start? I’ve wanted to do research since I found out it was an option, but I knew I hadn’t done nearly enough (read: anything) to prepare for it before that point. Therefore, I dedicated a full year to getting research experience and knocking the GRE out of the park.

My Master’s degree required a different standardized test (the GMAT) so I had some experience with this. The first thing I did was take a practice test.  This confirmed my suspicions (that I was not remotely prepared for the math section) and gave me a sense of the landscape of math I was going to have to get comfortable with. For example, I was going to have to remember something about combinations and permutations, but calculus was out of scope.

BEWARE: The ETS practice tests do not include an experimental section, but the real test does! This means that there is one full section more on the real test than the practice tests. I did not know this, so imagine my horror when I thought I was done and there was another math section of all things. The last section is not necessarily the experimental one, so you want to do your best on all of them! I recommend taking at least one full length exam. Some test prep companies offer one free “diagnostic” exam, so call one up and ask them whether it has an experimental section in it.

Math: I don’t remember my first GRE math score, but I can tell you my final GMAT Quant score (5 years before this) was in the 56th percentile (that’s after lots of memorizing times tables to get it up from the 30s!)

Verbal: My verbal scores tend to be good; I planned to only studied for the verbal section when I needed a break from the math. I knew if anything was going to keep me out of grad school, it was my math score. I think my initial verbal percentile score was in the 80s or 90s.

How do you study for the GRE? Well, I can tell you what I did!

Because my math score was my weak point, I focused on studying both the content and the strategy. There were a few traps I saw myself falling into:

  1. Forgetting concepts I hadn’t seen since I learned them (in 8th grade)
  2. Selecting trap answers (and feeling stupid and frustrated later)
  3. Getting stuck and wasting time when I kept getting an answer that wasn’t there
  4. Having to try several different approaches to the same problem before I found one that worked

Here’s how I tackled them each:

  1. Relearned my multiplication tables, geometry rules, power rules, and practicing. Basically, reviewing content that I had forgotten. I used “Math for Dummies” style books and the ETS guides for this instead of the test prep company’s books, which mostly focus on strategy.
  2. Learning and practicing strategy. This is where the test company books come in. You want anyone but ETS to tell you how to game the test– ETS is not going to tell me how they write trap answers. One key thing I noticed is that if the solution seems too easy to be on the GRE, it might in fact be. Take a second look at the set up (are they taking a percent of a percent?) and the question itself (am I giving an answer to a different, easier question?)This is important. Don’t feel stupid when you pick a trap answer. That is literally their whole purpose. And generally, don’t let this arbitrary, tricky, test tell you anything about yourself. It is not a measure of your intelligence or predictor of your success. It’s a measure of your GRE score, full stop.
  3. SKIP. I had to learn how to “mark” a question and come back later. Not only will it give me the opportunity to answer more, easier questions during the time I would be spinning my wheels, I often found I’d have fresh eyes when I looked back nearer the end of the exam, and could see what I was missing. It was hard to get out of the normal, school habit of answering all the questions in order, but this probably earned me more additional points than any other strategy I employed. It’s worth it. (Just make sure to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to guess all the ones you left blank– might as well!)
  4. Practice on GRE-style questions helps prevent frustration here. They have a lot of concepts and question set ups that they reuse, and having figured out how to do it once makes the second time much easier. And needless to say, doing this before your butt is in the seat on test day is ideal. However, having figured out problems in the past will help you figure out new kinds of problems, too. Test prep companies have figured out some very neat ways of laying out information for certain kinds of common problems, like averages, ratios, algebra problems, and combination problems. If you find yourself struggling with this, a test prep book or even a class may be a wise investment.

As for verbal, I learned a LOT of vocabulary.

You may also want to familiarize yourself with the question formats and learn some process of elimination strategy if you are struggling with this section, but for me, the big road block was words I didn’t know.

The difficulty with vocabulary is that it takes time to build up. I always tell my SAT students that vocabulary may be a pain, but it’s about the only thing from your test prep that you will carry with you after the test is over, and that’s true with GRE, too. If you know you want to take the GRE at any point in the future, even before you start prepping in earnest, get yourself some flashcards

Here’s how I make the most of flashcards:

  1. If you purchased your own flashcards, put them in three piles: “Words I know,” “Words I don’t know,” and “Words I kind of know.” In the rest of life, “kind of know” is basically the same as “don’t know,” but here, “kind of know” is golden. If you see a word you recognize, and you wouldn’t use it in a sentence, but you know it’s a positive word, that might be enough to eliminate it if the question calls for a negative word! Don’t discount the words you “only” kind of know! My goal is to move cards from “don’t” to “kinda” and from “kinda” to “do.” Much less daunting task than memorizing a full deck.
  2. DRAW ON THE BACK. If you haven’t read “Moonwalking with Einstein” or heard Jonathan Foer speak, I recommend that you check out his TED talk. What you’ll learn is that your brain loves visual mnemonics, and you can do crazy things (like memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards) by attaching pictures to things. Do this with your vocab words– the wilder and more personal, the better. It can be something simple:

    For “felicitous” (meaning “well-fitting, well-chosen, or pleasing) imagine a woman named Felicity trying on a beautiful dress.

    Or something crazy:

    For “copious” (meaning “a lot”) imagine a someone fighting tooth and nail to keep his head above the ever-growing sea of paper spewing from a malfunctioning copier.

    These may not suit your fancy, but that’s OK– this is the part where you get to do whatever you want in the privacy of your own head. I think you’ll find that not only does this make studying vocab more effective, it also makes it way more fun.

How did I do? 

I raised my score on the math to the 81st percentile: up 25 percentile from my actual GMAT score and up about 50 percentile from my first GMAT practice test (yeah, that one was seared into my brain.) What you should learn from this is don’t be discouraged my low initial scores. You are not alone, nor without hope! The GRE is a skill like anything else: it can be improved with deliberate practice. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it, or even invest in it. Two interesting notes about this: the last practice test I took before the real exam, my math percentile was in the 60s– I guess it was that good old focused anxiety! Also, on my qualifying exam to teach the GRE, my math score was in the 93rd percentile. This means that although this was over years and with a level of immersion that no one would be expected to match with test prep, by reviewing content, learning strategy, and practicing deliberately, I brought my math scores up about 70 percentile points.

I got a perfect score on the verbal. This was a pleasant surprise, but wasn’t really important to my feeling like I succeeded at the exam– my verbal score is never what was holding me back. I had gotten a few perfect scores on the practice tests in the week leading up to the real thing, it mostly served to freak me out instead of encourage me. All that said, I was delighted with this score, and it is why I will never take the GRE again (and risk scoring lower 😉

I hope this is helpful! Remember that studies show that students who thought of the happiest day of their lives right before taking a standardized test out scored those who did not: do what ever you need to do to be as happy and confident as you can be before you take the GRE!

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