The last exam

The Thinker by Rodin

I like to blog but increasingly it is getting hard to find time to indulge. My plate is normally piled pretty high with life during any week. I like to keep busy. For example, I teach a class on Tuesday night. That takes time and preparation but I consider it fun, in spite of the fact that it chews up part of my weekend and makes Tuesdays a sixteen-hour day. And there are lots of other things that keep me busy, including the usual: a full time job, various onerous and not so onerous duties around the house, exercise and other volunteer activities.

Blogging requires leisure time, and at least this week it has been largely nonexistent. This is because in addition to teaching a class, I got to sit in the classroom this week. I got to be a student again, which in this case meant cramming a semester course into three days. Speaking for middle age people everywhere who encounter this: Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

The course in question is this one. I won’t identify the vendor except to say I got to take it locally in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, and the view from the 11th floor of this office building is impressive. Taking the course and hopefully passing the exam was challenging, in part because I am a middle aged dude, grad school is more than a decade in my past, and those old studying and cramming skills have atrophied. There is no denying it: I am just not the student I once was. Perhaps I have become a bit soft, or maybe it is just general laziness. I wish my mind were as supple and capable of absorbing knowledge as it used to be. Hunkering down at age 54 has become really hard to do.

“Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. The training was not required and I suggested it to my boss, in part because I had an employee take it and she found it useful. I am not required to get a certain number of continuing education credits every year, but when I had to in the past getting the course certificate was good enough. But certain courses demand more. They demand that they monopolize your life for the time you take them. This course was a three-day course, but it essentially packed in a semester course into three days. It came complete with a high stakes professional exam at the end that had to be shipped to Great Britain for official scoring. I won’t know for a week if I passed. I can say that it was one of the hardest exams I have ever had to take, and that includes the SAT. Some of my classmates were sweating bullets. Their jobs literally depended on passing the test.

Fortunately, the instructor coached us heavily. When you have a course book with more than three hundred pages, there is no way to read it in three days. She knew what to have us focus on and what could safely be ignored. She had us bookmark certain pages and underline key phrases. Even so the course was incredibly briskly paced. Moreover, it came with plenty of homework. Except for some few hours of poor sleep, the course consumed your life for three days.

I was lucky because my boss did not demand that I take the exam. But once in the class my darned sense of professionalism and pride kicked in. How could I shamefully audit the class when everyone else was sweating it? And who knows, maybe I would put the material to use, in spite of the fact that I am rapidly approaching retirement age. Mainly the peer pressure got to me. So I jumped in headfirst and hoped I would make it to the other side of the pool, which looked so far away.

It all felt and was quite daunting, but I know twenty years earlier it would have felt much less so. The course’s pace made my heart beat faster. My hand raced to keep up with the notes I was taking. Very soon my head started throbbing because the fire hose of information just kept coming at me. At the end of the day I staggered home only to find a stack of homework that had to be done, notes to be reviewed, highlighted and terms committed to memory, and my mind fatigued and numb. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but I started to develop cold symptoms. They were really stress symptoms. I was like a Ford with 200,000 miles on it, rarely driven faster than sixty miles an hour suddenly being asked to drive at 120 miles an hour for a hundred miles.

Even with all that preparation and coaching, when I took the practice exam I managed to squeak by with only one point. We quickly reviewed it and our mistakes, and then were given the real exam that was considerably harder than the practice exam. I won’t know for a week or so if I passed. I’m guessing I probably passed, but likely just barely. If I were twenty years younger I might have scored twenty points higher. But those days are sadly behind me. The CPUs in my brain have slowed down over the years. Indexing all that material left some broken links and filing the material was a slow process. The more supple minds around me, principally brilliant students from India and China, seemed to handle it with equanimity.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the last exam I have to take in my life. If I have to take another, I should get some sort of handicap for age. Perhaps I needed the same class to be a day longer and not quite so hurried and harried.

For now much of my week remains a cloud of intensity and mental pain that has passed, I hope for good.

Real Life 101, Lesson 10: How to study

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the tenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

As regular readers may know, I am back in the classroom. It has been about four years since I taught in a community college. I had hoped that certain things would have changed. A few things have changed. Four years ago, my classes were roughly half fellow white Anglo Saxons. Today the ratio is more like 40:60. This is indicative of the area where I live, which is multicultural and is getting more so. In particular, I am seeing a lot more people of who appear predominantly from the Middle East or South Asia. One thing that has not changed is that many of my students are still woefully unprepared for the reality of college.

This is reflected in their grades. About a third of the class will mysteriously melt away through the course of the semester. Sometimes it appears that they just cannot summon the will to attend class. (My class starts at 9 AM.) Others when they get back the first couple quizzes see the handwriting on the wall. You would think that they would withdraw academically and get a tuition refund. Most of them do not, they just sort of fade away and eventually earn an F.

Sometimes I think I am a poor teacher, but those who survive the class have the opportunity to assess me near the end of the course. My teaching style normally gets a B, but it varies from class to class. So I figure I must be an okay teacher although those who dropped my course probably would tell me otherwise. Other times I think that maybe the courses I teach are too hard. This semester I am teaching Computer Fundamentals. About half of it is learning the Microsoft Office suite and the other half conveys basic knowledge about computers and information technology. Many students have picked up significant parts of the Microsoft Office suite already. Granted, many of them have not experimented much with formulas and graphs in Microsoft Excel, but presumably, these things should not be completely new. Nor was the Web Page Design course I taught for many years that difficult. You learn some tags and syntax, you mark it up with an editor and you display it on a web server. In short, neither of my courses were the equivalents of organic chemistry or calculus.

The Computer Fundamentals class is required for most students, so it brings in everyone from math wizards to art majors. I can understand why an art student might be a bit intimidated by numbers, but surely somewhere in their education they got enough courses to have learned things like the order of precedence with mathematical operators and what a function does. Maybe they got it once upon a time. It appears they quickly purged it from their brains.

For most of those failing or flailing, I am left to infer that they just did not learn how to study. If this describes you, young adult, let this part time teacher provide you with the basics.

Rule Number 1: Study takes time. You must set aside the time required to read the material, do the homework and participate in group projects. Most students who actually want to graduate quickly learn they must budget their time. They plan their week in accordance with their homework, upcoming quizzes and examinations. Study does not mean just flipping through your notes at a Starbucks before the class.

Rule Number 2: Read the textbook. If your instructor provides Powerpoint and lecture notes, that is helpful. These things though do not substitute for a textbook; they supplement the textbook. So when your professor says read pages 100-150 before class next week, if you want to get a good grade in the course this is not optional. The professor’s job is to help you join the material you read in the textbook with the information he is providing. In any course, there is far more to learn than the time allocated to teach it to you in class.

Rule Number 3: Take copious notes in class. Most of my students do not even have their notebooks open. Why? When the professor is talking, you should be taking notes as fast as you can scribble them. If you do not understand something, you are supposed to raise your hand and ask questions. That is how you learn.

Rule Number 4: Restate what you have learned after class. Whether it comes from the textbook, lecture notes, slides or your class notes, if you really want to learn, you will take the time to restate what you have learned outside of the class, ideally shortly after the class. Typing it up or jotting it down in a notebook helps to cement knowledge in your brain. When you read a textbook, take the time to mark it up. Get out that yellow highlighter. Read that paragraph with care. If you don’t understand it, read it again. There is often one key sentence or a phrase in a paragraph that conveys the key idea. Highlight that and restate it in your notes.

Rule Number 5: Study in solitude. Many of my students have MP3 players jammed into their ears while they appear to be studying or sometimes instead of listening to me. For studying, listening to music is a bad idea unless the music is classical, or wholly instrumental. The key is it must be subliminal and facilitate studying, not distract you from it. When you study, you need to concentrate on the material, not on the lyrics to a song. Unless you have group study sessions with other students, you need a quiet place and a closed door to study. If you live on campus or even if you do not, a library is a great place to study, in part because when you are there you feel like you must study. Not only do you have most of the resources you need handy if you have to do some research, but it is relatively quiet and there are usually plenty of tables and alcoves available where you can study.

Rule Number 6: Prepare adequately for tests. Review all the relevant material the day before the test. Give focus on your notes where you restated what you learned. Ideally, try to make time an hour or so before the test to review again what you reviewed the night before. If time is of the essence, review the key points that are hard to remember or understand. These things typically make the difference between one grade letter and the next.

Rule Number 7: Practice, practice, practice. Many courses, like the one I am teaching, include labs. Don’t just do the labs in class. Do them again as practice. Most textbooks will have other examples at the end of the textbook you can try. I saw many of my students flounder with a Microsoft Excel quiz I gave recently. While they went through the labs in class, they did not cement the key pieces of learning by redoing their work outside of the course. Naturally, they were quite challenged trying to complete the hands on portion of the quiz because they had not cemented in their brains the fundamental skills.

Rule Number 8: Commit to your education. This probably should be Rule Number 1. An education is obviously not free but even if your tuition is paid for by your parents or a scholarship, you must make the personal commitment to give your study the time and attention it deserves. This means you will probably sleep less, party less, socialize less and goof off less. This is what you have to do if you intend to graduate. When I was a full time student and did not have a job, I typically put in ten to fourteen hour days six or seven days a week. The payoff will be the degree, which will hopefully offer you the chance for a more enriching, interesting and hopefully well paid life. No one said life would be easy. If you want a degree, you must earn it. Put down the beer bottle and pick up the textbook, your notebook and a yellow highlighter instead. Your future you will be very glad you did.