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The New SAT Sounds a Lot Easier Than the One You Took

cbnew_blue_RGBYou might have heard that the SAT is getting redesigned again. Among other changes, the plan is to shift back to the old 1600 point scale that old farts like me took. (That’s the way it was pre-2005.) It’ll also be the first test available in both print and digital form, a change which seems almost comically overdue. These changes won’t take effect until 2016.

On top of those changes, there are a number of shifts that bring the test more closely in line with the Common Core State Standards, the guidelines that dictate what students should know by the time they’ve completed a certain grade.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core (and everyone seems to be torn between those two extremes), I think it is reasonably safe to say that the SAT of the near future will be a less stressful experience than what you and I remember. Here are a few of the changes for the easier:

1. The essay section is optional

Though it’s less than 10 years old, the essay portion of the test is going to become entirely optional. It’s likely certain colleges and programs will require it and others will not. But generally speaking, the essay will only be attempted by students who are pretty confident in their writing ability. Like when the essay section was originally introduced. I’m of two minds about this change. On the one hand, it’s too bad that learning how to write is apparently considered an “optional” skill. On the other hand, judging an essay on a fixed, standardized scale just encourages writing what the judges want to see, and that’s often not the same thing as good writing. So maybe having an essay on the SAT was always kind of a ridiculous addition.

2. No more penalties for guessing

As you no doubt remember, in an effort to discourage wild, random guessing, an incorrect answer on a multiple choice question on the SAT was actually worth negative points. I have no complaints whatsoever about the new test ditching the guess penalty; it was always a dumb rule anyway. I had a physics teacher in high school who applied the same rule to his tests. However, the point deductions were much, much larger since quizzes would typically only have 10-12 questions on them. True story, I had a friend who, because of this scoring system, once scored a -3/100.

3. Less topics covered by the math section

Rethinking the SAT as a true college preparatory test, the math section is going to cover a less extensive range of topics. The idea is to focus primarily on the ideas that will carry over into college, which won’t necessarily cover everything from high school. Goodbye geometry.

4. Less esoteric vocabulary

As an English major, this one bugs me a little. The new vocabulary list is going to do away with less commonly used words in favor of words that are more likely to be used in students’ future college and professional careers. You might lose a word like… well, like “esoteric”… in place of a word like “empirical” which is more likely to show up in a college course. No doubt this will make the vocab section easier, but what worries me is the impact this will have on etymology. While plenty of people would argue with me that it’s not important to learn the origins of words, understanding how the various roots and fragments come together to express ideas is incredibly useful to studying any language. You might never use a word like “exculpate,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in knowing that “inculpable,” “culpability” and “mea culpa” are all built from the same root.

So what do you think? Is it a good thing that the test is taking actual high school and college work into deeper consideration? Or do you think the new test sounds too “dumbed down”?

 

How Shared Stressing Out Helps You Relax

tired students with tablet pc, books and notebooks

Misery loves company. A new study out of USC argues that stress is reduced when the experience is shared. In other words, complaining about your ridiculous deadlines, unreasonable professors, and brutal workloads with your classmates is actually a valid coping mechanism.

For the study, researchers measured cortisol (a hormone released in stressful situations) levels among participants completing a public speaking task. Participants who were allowed to discuss the task among one another in advance were notably less stressed than those in isolation.

The key was the emotional state of the person who spoke with the participant. When the emotional profiles were the same — because they were in a similar situation — stress levels decreased. That suggests there’s something more socially advanced going on than simple catharsis. Stress levels aren’t just dropping because the participants are getting the stress off their backs, they’re dropping because the participants see that someone else is stressed out too. There’s an automatic surge of social support that comes just from knowing somebody else is having a similar reaction.

So next time your professor announces that you’ll be having a final paper AND a final exam, don’t call up your parents or your boyfriend/girlfriend to complain. They’ll support you, saying, “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

But you’ll feel a lot better talking to that person who sits next to you in lectures, who’ll tell you, “This is impossible. We are both going to fail.” It’s just nice to know someone else feels the same.

Write About College & Win Prizes

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Have a passion for writing and want to be featured here in our blog? How about a chance of winning a Kindle Fire?

We’re looking for writers that are passionate about sharing their college experiences by writing exciting content on our blog. We see tremendous value in providing content to college students from college students and we want your help!

Whether your passion is sports, campus politics, fashion, or anything else under the college experience umbrella, we’d love for your stories to be featured in our blog.

We’ll be selecting one blog entry per week and rewarding the lucky writer with $100 in free textbooks that’ll surely come in handy next semester. Plus you’ll receive the esteem of having your work published and seen by a large audience of readers! Oh, and let’s not forget about the chance to win a new Kindle Fire!

If this sounds like a challenge you are up for, please visit: http://www.bookbyte.com/write-to-win.aspx where you can find the rules and submit your entry. Good luck and happy writing!

Stop Telling Students How Much More Money They’ll Make With a Degree

I would prefer not to live in a country in which rhetoric about the purpose of college urges kids from privileged backgrounds to be innovators and creators while the poor kids who do very well in school are taught to be educated, capable employees.

This quote comes from  this article, titled “The Danger of Telling Poor Kids That College Is the Key to Social Mobility” by Andrew Simmons. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in educational issues and socioeconomic differences. The whole thing really hits the nail on the head.money_on_string

Simmons argues that focusing on the monetary rewards of a bachelor’s degree does a disservice to the other, more attractive qualities of college. These are the liberal arts benefits — experimenting with new ideas, expanding your outlook, and learning how to think and communicate critically. We’ve talked about that same point on this blog before, only our focus was on the idea that focusing on how STEM majors earn more money does a disservice to the potential for curiosity and innovation among STEM majors. Simmons indirectly refers to that same point with this statistic: 32% of college students pick a major that doesn’t interest them. Then, big surprise, those 32% are less likely to graduate.

But Simmons’ primary focus is on economic background. While he’s vague about his exact credentials, he makes it clear that he teaches students from lower income families. Again and again, he asserts, the message that lower-income students receive throughout middle and high school is that going to college leads to more money. It’s just assumed that this will be the primary motivator for the less financially privileged.

And that’s ridiculous. Students who have grown up in a household where money is tight already understand the value of a dollar, moreso than their more affluent classmates. The last thing they need is a reminder that money is the end-all, be-all of a career. It’s like we don’t trust poorer students to imagine big, and that’s incredibly disrespectful to their imaginations.

Once you’re out of school and in a career, you really start to see the limits of money as a motivator. Money can motivate you to get out of bed in the morning to go collect your paycheck for a day’s work. It might even motivate you to push yourself a little further for a promotion.

But money can’t motivate you to pour your heart and soul into a project you truly believe in. It can’t motivate you to break the mold. The former is good enough for most people to get by, but the latter is necessary for the people who really want to make a difference or create something great. As Simmons points out in his quote above, that’s the difference between employees and innovators.

Students going into college deserve both more honesty and more encouragement about college. We need to be honest that a degree doesn’t lead directly to a job. We need to be honest that college isn’t for everybody. But we also need to foster bigger ideas in the students that do want to go to college. It’s not about earning potential. It’s about whether a student can look back on his or her college career and feel like they took full advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Are Easier Graduation Requirements Dumbing Down College?

iStock_000005373213XSmallA recent article by the independent education journal The Hechinger Report discussed the troubling trend of cutting back on credits and removing core requirements by many major universities. Sometimes it’s because students graduating from those programs are “low-productive.” Sometimes it’s because politicians want to cut back on the tax dollars going to public universities. Sometimes it’s because university administrations want better graduation rates.

The trend has naturally led to some harsh words from the academics whose programs are threatened. Boston College’s Karen Arnold calls colleges of the near future “Walmarts of higher education.” Western Connecticut State University’s Steven Ward calls it “McDonaldization.” Same idea.

The main conceit of the article is that colleges and universities are trying to look for short-term fixes to increase graduation rates by decreasing the quality of education. While that’s definitely a problem, I’d argue that the real problem is with the motivation (increasing graduation rates) not with the means (removing core requirements, speeding up time until graduation, and allowing more classes to be taken online).

Maybe the problem isn’t the administrations trying to make their institution look good. Maybe it’s a deeper problem with the world having an increasingly non-sustainable idea of what college should be like. Not everybody can afford to commit four full-time years to being a student. Not everybody needs to study physics or history or art after the age of 18. Higher education isn’t, and shouldn’t be, standardized the same as K-12.

People absolutely should pursue some form of higher education, but we as a society need to accept the fact that this will (and should) look different for different people. That won’t always include a bachelor’s degree, or in some cases, any kind of degree. As we’ve pointed out on this blog before, it’s better to drop out than to never try. Maybe graduation rates just aren’t a very good indicator of the overall quality of education.

What’s the Worst Final You’ve Ever Taken?

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Every once in awhile a final comes around that just plain kicks you in the butt, no matter how long you’ve prepared or hard you’ve studied. Here are the Bookbyte team’s worst finals experiences.

Holly

My worst final was my hardest, but not necessarily the one with the lowest grade. One of the projects I had for a Layout class was to design and produce a magazine, with each person in the class in charge of one spread. I elected to be editor of the magazine, and spent many long days in the computer lab making sure that the magazine was taken care of. We went through countless rounds of revisions, and since I was in charge, I had to be there the whole time. I’m pretty sure I had several 12+ hour days, working on it between my classes and my job. I barely remember sleeping. It was such a relief to be done with it at the end of the term!

Chris

My worst final goes back to high school. While I definitely took harder tests in college, this was the only time I gave up in the middle of taking something. It was the AP Government exam. Our teacher was close to retirement and had totally checked out. He would cut out early almost every Friday afternoon to play golf. His classes often started on the topic of government, but would drift off into college sports or unrelated life advice. Needless to say I learned almost nothing, and this was largely reflected in the answers on my test. I finally snapped when I reached a question that said: “Define the term ‘logrolling,’ in the legislative sense.” I wrote: “Logrolling is the process by which lumberjacks transport timber downstream.”

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Jesse

By far, the worst final I ever had to take was in the one and only online class I took while in college. It was my Statistics course, the last math requirement I had to take, and we simply had to have everything completed by x date by 9am. Well I decided to wait it out and take care of the other classes that I perceived to be more important and not do any studying or reading. So in the span of six hours I had to take 12 quizzes, a midterm and my final. After each quiz and test I would get my score and my cumulative grade would show so I could see my progress. I finally completed all the quizzes and the midterm at about 4:30am with four and a half hours left before the deadline. But I’d still need to ace the final in order to get an ‘A’. I decided to sleep for two hours and then just try to crank out the final. It was the epitome of cramming, procrastinating and sleep deprivation all coming to a head. I’d never felt so satisfied with getting a ‘B’ in my life!

Jaime

I took course in Conservation Biology one year, but the professor who normally taught the course wasn’t around that year. So, instead. it was covered by a professor who wasn’t too familiar with the subject. During the course, he omitted a ton of stuff from the original professor’s lesson plan. But during the final he still used the original professor’s final word-for-word. Meaning everything he omitted from the lesson plan still showed up on the final. Everyone failed it.

Doby

The worst final exam I have ever taken was for my Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy course. I was the only student in the large class who was not a biology major or pre-med (I was an English major at the time). I was way out of my element, so I had to accept that I would be at a constant disadvantage. It was bloody hard work, especially for just a damned elective, and I found myself in a grim state of mind during dead week as I faced a final exam unlike any I’ve taken before. Before me was the prospect of learning the Latin names, origins, and insertions of >80% of a cat’s muscles, and I had to demonstrate this ability by locating them with tiny pins on the lab specimen I had meticulously dissected over the last month. It seemed an impossible task. I was in the class only because I thought the evolutionary history of vertebrates was ‘cool’.

What did I do? Something out of character: I studied with a classmate. Hitherto I had never studied socially, but I was in over my head and I reluctantly agreed to host a study session with a nice girl who sat next to me in lab. I felt a weird confidence rising in me after hours of her pedagogic scoldings, and after the intense, collaborative study session I had none of the pre-exam angst that had been haunted me. The fear of abject failure had been replaced with a confidence bordering on arrogance.

How did the exam go? It went well. Very well in fact, better than many of those pre-med kids and biology majors.

It was the worst final exam I have ever taken because it was my first experience with exam-induced fear so demoralizing that it causes paralysis and extinguishes any hope of (academic) survival. But, it was the best exam I had ever taken as it taught me that, with a friend to help me along, when the scholastic shit hit the academic fan I could duck & roll and come up swinging. The caffeine helped too.

Oregon Considers Offering Free Tuition. You Can Pay Them Back Later.

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Back in the summer, the Oregon State Legislature agreed to a plan that would allow students to attend public universities and community colleges for free. In return, the student agrees to pay a small percent of his or her income after graduation.

It’s more or less an interest-free loan. After all, from the government’s perspective, the biggest problem with student loans is that they cripple graduating students with debt right as they become fully functional members of the economy. While the terms of individual loans vary, they also all work more or less on the principle that getting a degree means you’ll soon be making money. Recent grads know that’s not always the case.

The consequences of these painful interest rates are far-reaching. The higher interest rates get, the longer it takes graduates to move out of their parents’ house, to buy cars, and to buy homes instead of rent them. Nobody but the lenders benefit.

That’s the reasoning for Oregon’s plan. As the number of students needing to take out loans increases, there’s greater incentive for the government to make sure these future members of society aren’t economically handicapped right out of the gate.

The proposal isn’t without its flaws. The length of the percentage payout is a whopping 25 years, and since it’s based on a fixed (though small) percentage, graduates will presumably pay more as they go along. Even if, statistically speaking, this plan saves you money in the long run, those savings are based on the assumption that you’ll only be making so much money over the next two and a half decades. That’s a hard concept for a lot of people to accept. We all want to be millionaires at some undisclosed point in the future.

There’s the additional problem of enforcement. The state government will have to track the income of every student as they move to different states and different countries. And there are actually restrictions on what data educational institutions can collect on students. More restrictions in education than for credit companies, believe it or not.

But Oregon is moving forward with the pilot regardless, and hopefully they’ll figure out better solutions to these problems as they go along. A number of other states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio — have filed similar proposals with their legislations. So who knows? This weird idea might become the new normal.

5 Ways to Procrastinate More Efficiently During Finals

Credit as always to Bill Watterson.

Credit as always to Bill Watterson.

How is doing research for a paper like procrastinating? Both existed before the internet, but now you can do them both so much faster.

Imagine you’re a college student trying to put off working on your finals in 1992. All your on-hand entertainment is restricted to physical media. Your CD of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your VHS copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Your Super Nintendo with Super Mario World. Fast forward 21 years and you can stream thousands of songs instantly through Spotify, watch hundreds of movies instantly on Netflix, and buy hundreds of games instantly through iOS or Steam. It’s a procrastinator’s dream come true and greatest nightmare.

If you can watch a movie instantly instead of putting on your coat, driving to Blockbuster, finding a movie, and coming home, that means you should be able to spend less time on your movie break, right? Even if you know that’s technically true, it’s hard to force your brain to accept that logic.

Our brains will always seek out the path of least resistance, which leaves students with two options: (1) drag your brain kicking and screaming into forced productivity or (2) trick your brain into thinking it’s not working on that thing you don’t want to do. Here are a few ways to pull off option #2.

Approach your work from a new direction

Let’s say you’re working on a paper. You’ve been sitting in front of your monitor for the past two hours and all you’ve managed to do is type, delete, and retype the first sentence about 100 times. Stop what you’re doing. If you know you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again.

Instead, ask yourself new questions: How will the first paragraph after the intro begin? How do I want my paper to end? What citations am I going to use? How do you format an online article in APA style again? Don’t worry about whether or not what you write is final, just search for that point of entry. It’s always easier to work on a paper after you’ve started.

Change your surroundings

The ideas you have in your dorm room are not the same as the ideas you have in the library. When you start feeling stagnant, consider a change of scenery. This can be an effective way to slide from procrastination into increased productivity. Bring your laptop on your coffee break and set up a new work space in the cafe. Just make sure to commit at least an hour or two to the new setting, otherwise you’ll just get restless.

Unlock achievements

The video game industry has figured out that people crave feedback from the things they accomplish, however meaningless. Use the same trick on your own brain. Come up with a list of achievements for your paper. Write 500 words. Complete 5 pages. Finish the bibliography. You can do the same for studying. Memorize 50 Spanish verbs. List all the regions of the brain. Keep a checklist next to your work space and make a mark each time you “unlock” an achievement. It sounds silly, but you might be surprised at how quickly your brain is tricked into registering each achievement as a reward.

Give yourself more (yes, more) things to do

Taking finals is the academic equivalent of a marathon. You have to maintain a steady momentum if you want to make it til the end. That’s all the more reason not to burn yourself out focusing on a single, seemingly insurmountable task. Instead, make a list of around 6-10 things to do. You don’t want too few, because then it’ll be too easy to put them off. You don’t want too many, because then you’ll feel overwhelmed.

Your goal is to maintain the feeling of constantly moving forward. That’s essential to keeping your brain from rebelling. Even if one of those things is something as minor as cleaning your dorm or apartment or selling the textbooks you don’t need anymore, you’re still squeezing a little bit of productivity out of your procrastination.

Put one last thing on your list you’ll never get around to doing

I’ll admit it, this is kind of a weird one, but it’s always worked for me. Maybe there’s just some part of my lizard brain that is always happy with getting my things-to-do-list down to “good enough.”

Whenever I’m planning out the day, I always put more on then I’ll be able to do. That way, I always feel like I’m slightly behind, which, strangely enough, always helps me stay on track. It’s a way of preserving momentum from one day into the next. I’m never completely finished, but I’m always completing tasks as a way of putting off other upcoming ones.

Should All Tests Be Open Book?

Posted by Reddit user snerro

Posted by Reddit user snerro

A thread on Reddit with the above image kicked off an interesting discussion by teachers and students on the value of memorization in education. As often happens with stuff we find on Reddit, we carried the discussion back into the office, and not all of us were on the same page. Here’s what we thought:

Gavin

I’m a big promoter of practical testing. I don’t think ‘multiple guess’ tests really show anyone what you know or how well you can apply that knowledge, but mostly if you are a good test taker or not. Out in the real world you are rewarded for your ability to problem solve and find the answers, rather than knowing an answer from memory. Furthermore I am also a fan of portfolios vs. test scores to showcase one’s knowledge and achievements. I would say I strongly agree with the puffin.

Jesse

While having an open book test could encourage resourcefulness, you still have to know, roughly, where in your notes or text the answer can be found.  To me, it sounds like you’re taking the risk of spending more time on the back end, during the physical test, than on the front end by actually knowing and understanding the material. If I’m having open heart surgery do I want my surgeon to have an anatomy chart open on the table while he’s cutting me open? Or how much time does it waste when your cashier has to look up each and every code of every item you purchase? I’ll take my chances on a med student that’s been forced to memorize everything or general edu student that’s taken the time and effort to memorize their class materials over someone who hasn’t.

Justin

I’m not a fan of standardized testing as I don’t believe it accurately reflects one’s intelligence. People in the real world are allowed to use their resources, pool their knowledge with others, collaborate and problem solve to come to a conclusion. I think the meme is accurate in that memorization is not education; memorization is just one of many tools that you have. One’s score or overall intelligence shouldn’t be solely tied to that.

Holly

Textbooks can be a convoluted mess. I always thought that I would do a better job on a test if it was open book, but I spent so much time searching for answers that I would skirt the line of completing a test on time. Cramming for a test only helped me to take tests faster. Memorizing enough information to answer correctly or with an educated guess always proved successful for me, so I didn’t have a problem with it. I disagree with the advice puffin. Yes, it’s true that in real life you have an opportunity to ask someone for help. But it’s also important to have a base knowledge in place.

Chris

I don’t think this issue is as much about the merits of memorization as it is about whether or not a test is well-designed. The point of a test is to apply knowledge, sure, but writing a persuasive essay, making an educated guess, and solving for X are all different valid ways to apply knowledge. That variety is important, since each type of test exercises a different skill set. I wouldn’t ever argue that all tests should be open book, but I think they get too needlessly stressful when they’re designed in a way that tries both your ability to recall and your ability to apply, like an art history final where you need to remember exact spelling for Islamic art and artists. (This one happened to me, extra ridiculousness points because those names and terms were transliterated from Arabic anyway.)

What do you think?

Trying to Turn English, Reading, & Literature Into a Numbers Game

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

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