Archive for the 'review' Category

Ready for September?

Being organised is boring, right? Getting ready for the new term, even more so. If you were getting exam results this summer, hopefully they will let you do what you were hoping for. (If not, take your time figuring out how to choose your next steps.) Assuming you’re going to be studying some more, this post can help you get things sorted quickly. Organisation ideas are first with a ‘shopping list’ at the end.

Being organised might not be very exciting but it’s better than getting behind with coursework, grief for not meeting deadlines or losing your notes so you can’t revise. The best kind of system is simple. There’s less to go wrong and it’s easier to stick to.

Your Aims

  • Have what you need each day at school/college.
  • Get assignments done by the deadline.
  • Keep up with long-term projects.
  • Avoid wasting time at home.

The best way to sort this out is to have three stages in your daily routine at home. Along with school/college life, they complete the cycle so nothing gets missed.

GTD cycle

Unpack bag and brain

As soon as possible after you get in, empty out your stuff. As each item comes out, stick a post-it note on it with the job that needs doing and the deadline, and stick it on the folder or book. This could be finish maths worksheet, research Versailles Treaty online or just review notes. If you’ve nothing to stick a note to, use a filecard instead. If you can, add a guess about how long it will take, and anything else that comes to mind that will help.

example task

Before putting each thing in the jobs pile you might want to fetch a relevant textbook from the shelf or whatever. The point is to set up the jobs for yourself while you remember, to make the next stage easier.

Ideally, have a break before you carry on. You might have sorted out your stuff while having a cup of tea; if not, now’s a good time. Kick a football around, catch up with friends online or cook dinner as a surprise for the folks. Just don’t leave the actual work too late in the evening. Some people prefer an hour’s break, some just a few minutes so they don’t get out of ‘study mode’.

Do what needs doing

Sit down and get the work done. Sounds simple – but it’s not quite that easy. Get rid of distractions as much as possible first. Then look through your pile of work, starting with the most urgent (nearest deadline). Set a timer according to your estimate. Then get on with it.

When it’s done, put it to one side for a final check and start the next piece of work. Many students find it best to alternate ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ work, or complete one favoured subject in between those you’re not so fond of. Just don’t leave all the hard, despised subjects for last. How long you work for will depend on your workload and how much you managed at the weekend. If you know the next few evenings are busy it might be a good idea to do some extra time now. This is not complicated.

Make sure work gets reviewed even if formal homework isn’t set. This makes eventual revision easier too. It’s worth saving anything you produce, which will be in two categories. Electronic stuff needs to be saved or bookmarked so you can find it again. Paper is the same; revision notes, mindmaps, practice Qs should probably be divided by subject and stored in some kind of folder. Obviously, if it’s in your book or handed in to a teacher this will have to happen some other way, but don’t be afraid to save draft copies for your own reference just in case.

Pack bag

Check your timetable and put in what you need. Check deadlines on your calendar, whether it’s on paper or electronic. Your teachers and parents will be frantic to tell you this should be done the night before. That’s because they know that if you leave it for the morning, it’s more likely to be rushed. The important thing is that checking and packing should be a routine, so things are less likely to be forgotten.

So are you ready?

Getting these routines going will make your life easier. They’ll mean work gets done, hopefully before deadlines, and you don’t lose stuff that matters too often. But you can’t really use them until September starts. What you can do is sort out the hardware.

  • Plenty of pens and pencils. Keep some for use just at home if you can.
  • Paper, including graph and plain if possible. Bookmark this link to printable graph paper for emergencies.
  • Post-it notes and index cards. You can get them cheap at pound shops or get pretty ones at Paperchase.
  • Folder with a space for each subject (see this example at Amazon)
  • Subject stuff – art pencils, calculator etc.

Please suggest improvements or your own ideas in the comments – and hope you manage to start back in a good frame of mind. At least until the homework assignments start piling up…

Guest post: From a Student’s Point of View

Today’s post is not mine.

Well, this is kind of a guest post for another blog. I’ve written about tactics and stuff about how to get a better mark, but this is a bit different, a bit more personal.

Well… um, hi. My name’s Josh. I’m an 18yr old Aussie, working on a blog called Mathematical Mischief.

But my little piece isn’t about that at all, today. Today, I’m writing about high school.

That’s always fun, saying those words… it’s been a full year and a half since I’ve had class at a school. I’m at university now, which is really different. For a variety of reasons, I mean, there’s all sorts of amazing people in unis, and in schools, and the learning is crazy different.

Now, when I was in high school, I can say safely that I had an awful lot of bad habits. Which is not cool. It’s an awful feeling, when you know you can do something, but you’ve completely stuffed it up, because you’ve done the complete opposite thing you should’ve done.

So, today, I’m writing about the five things I wish I’d done better in school. I’ve ranked them from what was more important for me, but these’ll be different for every person. I am hoping that these will be useful for someone, and that you’ll take something out of my mistakes.

Let’s start, shall we?

5. Get enough sleep!

I can say this honestly, I’m terrible at getting any sleep the night before most tests. Sometimes, I’ll be really chilled and like ‘Yeah, I can do this.’, but most days, I’m like this:


Sleeping at the desk - (Photo credit: giuseppesavo)

Now, sleeping at your desk is a terrible idea. I’m 6’5″, so it’s both painful and cramped, when I wake up with my wallet squashed into my face. I’m grateful I’ve learnt my lesson from this.

Solution? – Well, you can do a few things. You can set yourself a study cut-off time, and stop studying. Alternatively, you can go to bed before you crash. Trust me, it saves your back a whole lot of pain in the future.

4. Organise your junk!

I have learnt, numerous times now, that throwing out homework, while it’s still relevant, is the dumbest idea you could possibly think of. What’s the point of throwing out work, when you can revise with it?

So, now I have a system. I divide my work up into two piles – Useful, and Out Of The Box. All my crazy hard questions go into the Out Of The Box pile, and the rest goes into the Useful pile.

It might get crazy, and you might like to chop out any stuff that you’re confident will be remembered, but filing my stuff has been so much of a benefit to me, that it’s not funny. I can use the questions as references, when I receive assignments, or tests, and I can apply that knowledge to my future work.

3. Relationships are distracting!

Right, I can summarise this in one sentence.

In the space of six weeks, while I was dating my girlfriend, I saw her half the time, did my homework none of the time, and my school marks fell through the floor.

Do yourself a favour – Realise that not all relationships last forever. If you want to get into university, or vocational training, you need to be able to apply yourself fully at school. Otherwise, you do lose valuable marks, and a competitive edge on other students.

Now, I’m not saying ditch your partner. But do yourself a favour, and without seeming harsh: step back and take a look at the big picture for a bit. Your relationship might fall apart, but your schooling is so much more important.

If your partner really cares, they’ll understand this.

2. Big money does not mean big score (or intact morals).

First of all – bribing, extortion, theft, and cheating are all terrible things to do. Unfortunately, there are people desperate enough to resort to cheating, or to get someone else to do their homework for them.

The sad world we live in, mean the rich get what they want, and the poor have to work hard to get the most meagre of things. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

The plus side? You can achieve your goals, with persistence and hard work. You don’t need an inheritance to get a good job, you just need to work hard, and show you mean business. Unfortunately, I feel victim to that stigma (I thought money meant success, and I was wrong).

If you don’t have much money, there are often tutoring services available for free (or lots of examples) online. Khan Academy is interesting to check out, and there’s also Math Help Forum and my own blog, just to name a few.

The benefit to this is that while they may not be 100%, you will save 100% of the cash you were going to spend, or didn’t have.

1. Ask for help!

I can say, when I was in high school, I was an ok student. Terrible, with my attitude, however. My poor teacher comes into the classroom one day, goes ballistic at the class, because none of them did their homework. He still went over the course material, though, and asked if students wanted help with the work.

You can never have enough assistance in school. If you’re stuck, make sure you ask for help. Sometimes, there are a lot of difficulties from the core idea of a teacher-student relationship, so it’s good to seek help and advice from a wide range of people.

Ideas like this include using search engines to find explanations of similar questions, emailing teachers constantly for advice, seeking help outside the box.

Teachers aren’t here to judge you, they’re here to make sure you succeed. Make sure you take advantage of that, suck up your pride, and ask the questions that need to be asked. Teachers love questions, and they’re there to help.

So, they’re the five things I’d wish I’d learnt in high school. I’m fortunate to have only ever really seen others affected by 3 (because I have some rich friends (sucks)), but everything else applied to me pretty well.

I hope that I’ve helped someone take something from this – and I hope to see you again another time. 🙂

All the best,


Mathematical Mischief

More Work in Less Time

Getting distracted is pretty easy. It means that getting the same amount of work done takes longer, using up time which you could spend on something fun. If wasting time’s not a problem for you, then you might as well go and do something else instead of reading this.

Still here?

The truth is that everyone gets distracted. Let’s assume that you have a certain amount of work you must do. This could be your own review tasks, assignments set by a teacher or active revision. You should always know how long it should take you, more or less. Any time you spend on something else is a distraction, and means less time for you to move on to something else. that ‘something’ could be another subject, or a hobby or interest of your own. So if you’d like to have more time for fun stuff, keeping reading is a good idea.


Everyone gets distracted by different things but there are probably some common themes, even if the details differ. Read through the list and decide what costs you the most time when you’re supposed to be working. Not in the time your parents say you should be working, but when you’re actually planning to get something done.

  • mobile phone (calls/texts)
  • social networks (Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging)
  • computer games / off-topic web browsing
  • music playing
  • TV on nearby
  • family members
  • pets

There might be other things, too. You might want to spend an hour working and write down everything that distracts you, see if it matches up what you think. Now, some distractions are worse than others, either because they’re hard to ignore, or because they happen again and again. Spend a couple of minutes putting them into an order, from most to least distracting, like this one from Information Is Beautiful a few years back.


You’ve got your list. You know what’s distracting you. Now it’s time to do something about it.

There’s no real shortcut here. You’re not trying to justify what you’re doing to your parents or your teachers. If you want to get more done, in less time – with the incentive that you can then have guilt-free time afterwards to do fun stuff – you need to work with fewer distractions. If it helps, remember that these distractions are not only making the work take longer, but it’s likely they’re reducing the quality too. Which means you won’t understand it so well, which means you won’t do so well in the exams…

Anyway. If you want to avoid the distractions, you need to do something about it. What you do will depend on the problem, but there are some pretty common-sense ideas.

  • Turn off the TV and games console. Music can work as background noise but moving pictures scream “look at me!” Researchers actually use this to test how interesting programmes are and have done since Sesame Street.
  • As a minimum, put your mobile on silent. Ideally put it in another room.
  • Use a kitchen timer, set to go off to tell you when you’ve done enough and need a break. Much less than 20 minutes and you won’t get into the routine, much more than 40 and you’ll lose focus. A few minutes to stretch is probably enough. Don’t put the TV on.
  • If you need to use a computer, don’t try to keep a tab or window on Facebook ‘just in case’. The web can be fantastic for research, reviewing work and testing yourself. It also has millions of hours of cats playing on YouTube. Resist.
  • For once, emotional blackmail can work in your favour. Tell your family you’re trying to get work done properly for school. Insist that little sisters/loading the dishwasher/walking the dog will distract you during your study session. With luck, they’ll have forgotten when you’re finished and you can choose something fun to do.*

If distractions still happen, keep a note of them. If the same thing shows up a lot, then do something about it. Over time it should get easier to remain focused and you’ll get more done in less time. Leaving you the rest of your evening or weekend to watch cats on the internet. Or whatever.


*Not guaranteed.

Getting It

It’s amazing how many people – often those who will happily spend hours rehearsing stunts with a football or the intricacies of a computer game – assume after a couple of minutes that they can’t answer a question in school.

Claiming “I don’t get it.” is rarely helpful. It’s hard to type this without it sounding like a pep talk, but some concepts are difficult for everyone. The question isn’t about whether you’re good at something or not, it’s more complicated than that. People’s intelligence isn’t a fixed quantity. We all learn things, all the time. Having a different approach can make a big difference, to your understanding and to your achievement. What you want is what’s been described as a ‘growth mindset‘.

So instead of claiming that you don’t ‘get’ something, try a few things out. This is not about getting it magically. You still might not understand it. But by going through this process, you’ll understand better what is causing the problem, and hopefully be able to seek more useful help or advice.


You might want to swap around the order of Buddy and Book – although there’s a big difference between asking for help and copying someone else’s answers. But this way by the time you ask a teacher for support, you’ll be able to tell them what you’ve tried. You might have narrowed down the problem a little. This might depend on the subject – maths problems can affect how you approach a science problem, or the use of words in sources makes history difficult. Once you start to recognise what is causing you to find it difficult, you can address it. Learning is about making progress in steps, not about having a flash of inspiration.

How about adding some prompts in the comments below? What tactics help you to figure out a question? Do you refer to a subject glossary,  highlight question words or something completely different?



Bookmarks and Favourites

There are easier ways to organise where you’ve been online than trawling through the last year on the ‘History’ tab. It doesn’t need to be a big job, and in fact is a pretty good way of reviewing what you know about a subject or topic. The aim isn’t to read every page or site, but to figure out where the gaps are. If you take a moment to think about what you want your ideal list of sites to do, it’ll probably look a bit like this:


  • make it easy to find specific sites
  • be divided into social and school lists
  • have lists for subjects to make review/revision easier


  • available through phone
  • able to share with friends

Most browsers will give you the choice of creating folders (or in some cases dividers) in your list. Simply make a social and a school folder. The social folder can include your sports club pages, forums and blogs for your hobbies or whatever. Take five minutes to drag and drop everything fun into it. Create subfolders once it gets past a dozen or so sites.

The school folder needs a section for each subject, or possibly teacher. Don’t try to move all your bookmarks at once; it can be a long job. If you do one subject at a time, it’s a useful way to review what you’ve learned and what is missing. There are three that are definitely worth adding to save time when you’re in a hurry:

  • the exam board subject page (where you can get past papers)
  • relevant BBC Bitesize page
  • other preferred revision sites, if any (e.g. S-Cool)

If you find the list for each subject starts to get confusing, break it up into each exam paper or module. If your browser allows you to use tags instead, this is even better – just tag each bookmark with as many relevant keywords as you want, then search for them the easy way.


Making your lists (or part of them, you may want to be careful) with friends or teachers can be worthwhile – especially if you swap, rather than share. If you’re serious about being able to get at your bookmarks anywhere, you might like to check out this list of services at LifeHacker. Before you get started with one, check you can access it through school, as some are blocked or hard to use through a firewall. It might also be worth making some bookmarks available on your phone, if the sites have a mobile version for quick revision while waiting at the bus stop. (More mobile phone tips coming soon.)

It’s amazing how many so-called adults don’t organise their online life. The point of this isn’t to be virtuous, or to look smart. It means that when you need something, you can find it quickly and easily. This means work gets done to a higher standard (as long as you don’t just bookmark Wikipedia articles) and you get more time to do something useful.

Improving Homework

Perhaps it seems unfair that teachers judge students based on the quality of their homework. In theory, it’s useful because it gives a double snapshot, of both understanding and effort. From a student’s point of view, homework is a way for teachers to make them feel miserable at home as well as in lessons. This, however, is missing the point.

Homework is about learning. The idea of carefully set homework is to allow students to review what they’ve covered in the lesson, practise techniques or prepare for something that’s coming up. Along the way, some tasks will encourage the acquisition and use of skills like research, summary and planning. Teachers get an idea of what you understand, and how to help you with the bits you don’t.

So if you think of homework as half diagnosis and trouble-shooting, half early exam preparation, maybe it’s easier to see the point. If so, perhaps you’re ready to think about how to improve it…

Image and link to Improving HW checklist

For any subject, you’ll have weak areas. Some of those will be things that affect all subjects, like handwriting or spelling, or problems with maths. Just as your teacher will offer comments and suggestions for improvements on your work, you need to be able to spot what’s not so good and fix it yourself. The whole point of school is to get to the point where you can do just as well without the teacher. By using the checklist above (linked from the image) regularly you’ll learn what your common mistakes are and start to avoid them.

Five C Words

For any idea, it’s important to see both the details and the big picture. There are loads of different ways to get you thinking about this, from de Bono’s Thinking Hats to applying Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is another, and works well for thinking through an idea in lessons, reviewing work or as part of revision. You can scribble it quickly or use the printable version below to record it for the future.


What is the main idea? Sum it up in a sentence, a definition, or an equation.

Thermal radiation: heat can be transferred as an EM wave


How does it fit into the world or the universe? Why does it matter? What are the most closely related ideas?

Like other kids of heat transfer (conduction and convection) it is caused by a difference in temperature.


What key words or relevant characteristics will suggest this concept is important? What will need to be considered to explain it? What words in a question will give a clue that this idea is related to the answer?

The colour and surface area of the object affects how quickly heat is emitted or absorbed. Heat can be radiated through a vacuum. It is also called infra-red (IR) radiation.


How does it work? What makes it happen? Does this mean it can be predicted, or prevented?

Heat is transferred along a temperature gradient. Bigger differences mean heat is emitted faster (higher power). Shiny surfaces reflect thermal radiation.


What effects does this have? Is it dangerous? Does it have implications for spending or earning money? How is it used in technology?

We can’t stop it, only slow it down. We use shiny or polished surfaces to reduce it, for example in Thermos flasks. An object will cool faster if it is a dark colour with a large surface area, so we include cooling fins on electrical equipment like laptops, fridges and freezers. Ear size in animals tells us about the climate they live in (compare arctic foxes with elephants). As the ice caps melt there is less reflection of thermal radiation to space, possibly accelerating climate change.

If you can explain the different aspects of an idea like this, then you probably understand it well enough to use in a variety of situations. And that, after all, is the point of learning.