Archive for the ‘How to study’ Category

The advantage of listening over reading

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

The advantage of listening over reading

By James H. Choi
Source Link single one of my students is pressed for time.  Heavy loads of studying, reading assignments and other activities seem to be making their calendar bursting in the seams.  Fitting all these activities into a 24-hour day is simply impossible.  Is there anything you can do about it?

Yes.  I lead a busy life myself, and I’ve found a great way to cope with this kind of overload — a way to have an essentially free ride as far as time is concerned.  The secret is by listening to the books instead of reading them.  Learning to written passages has helped me leverage my “free time” and distribute my tasks more efficiently.

What exactly do you listen?  Take literature books for example.  Most of the books in high-school reading list are already available as audio books. You could check these out from a library free or buy many of them for about $20 on  The public libraries in my area (Glenview, Illinois) allow you to log-in and “check out” these audio books by letting you down them into your computer, then subsequently transferred to your mp3 player device.

Consuming books this way allows convert your auto-pilot time into book reading time .  When I’m faced with a long drive, the first thing I look for is audio books to listen to.  Many people will say reading is much better than listening.  I agree.  But do you read?  Do you have time to read?

The fallacy of this advice is that it assumes the choice is between reading and listening.  But the real choice is more often between listening and not reading at all, in which case listening is far superior.  I read five to ten books in addition to every issue of  The Economist every month through listening.  I do not know how much information I retain versus lose.  But I know I am retaining far more information than those who do not read at all.  Obviously.

Listening to books has some disadvantages.  For instance, it’s slower than reading.  So if you have a deadline for a book report the next day, you should read.  Additionally, you might miss some fine points depending on your circumstances.  For example, you may not remember the part you listened while you were evading a hostile-looking dog.  But the fact is that the alternative was nothing.  Even if you have to re-read a book after patchy listening, the audio book offers you a head start.  With one reading of the book, you will understand as much as those who read it twice.

Many people tell me they’re visual learners who cannot acquire knowledge aurally.  To these people, I ask, “Do you communicate over the phone?”  If so, then you must be aurally equipped enough to handle listening.  However, some people seem to be genuinely written-communication-oriented, and cannot learn much from listening.  Some go as far as offering an unsolicited reprimand on my listening habits, and declare that one should focus on the road only while driving.  He claimed that he forgets everything he heard on the radio soon as he leaves the car.  He is probably telling the truth.  But that’s his problem, make sure you don’t constrain yourself for someone else’s handicap.

In addition to literature, lectures are great to listened to.  A great company called “The Great Courses” offers all kinds of courses on all types of topics.  Some courses require you to see the content, but most can be learned completely by listening.  Truly great professors teach these audio lectures, too, far more engaging than than most professors you will ever see in your college campus.  That’s because all professors are there because they are good researchers.  Nobody is ever hired or fired at a campus for his or her teaching ability.  But these audio-lecture professors were selected because of their teaching abilities.  They make it exciting.

I got into literature, philosophy and history after I listened to The Great Courses lectures.  I am not sure if it was my aging (with assumed commensurate maturity) or the lectures alone, but I am sure this hard core science guy would not have reached this point of well-balanced-ness without those lectures and an mp3 player to listen to them.

So rather than pumping the same music into your ears, switch the channel and open yourself to new knowledge.  You’ll find yourself learning a whole lot more without having to allocate any new time.

Categories: How to study

The Importance of Solving Hard Problems

November 16, 2012 2 comments

The Importance of Solving Hard Problems

By James H. Choi
Source Link

As in sports, mathematics has two types of exercise:

1) Repetition, which refines your performance on key tasks (equal to practicing free-throws in basketball).  Routine practice like this is familiar to students, whose math homework usually contains many easy problems.

But students aren’t well-prepared to handle hard problems; their assignments typically skip the most challenging problems at the end of chapters.  The net result student expect problems to be solved quickly.  They expect to shoot 100 free throws and then be done.  They expect to do just 30 minutes of exercising.  If they miss a free throw, they can easily correct the mistake.  They will expect all future problems to be similarly easy.

But repetition is not enough to build math skills.

Math’s second second exercise is a lot like weight-lifting in this regard:

2) Challenge.  When you lift easy weights dozens of times a day, you will never build muscle.  To build muscle, you must try to lift something that is beyond your capability.  Only then will your muscles break down and, while you sleep, rebuild themselves stronger.   It is 100-times better to try lifting an anvil than it is to lift your ball-point pen 100 times.

To develop your brain and make it smarter, you must do mental weight-lifting.  School curriculum generally lacks mentally weight-lifting challenges.  So when students begin studying for math competitions, they become fast discouraged by the difficulty of problems.  It’s as if I’ve taken a scrawny boy and told him he must bench-press 200 pounds to win a competition.  He hasn’t been trained.  He will immediately give up.

Some students get personal trainers to help tutor them in learning to solve these math problems.  But if you got a personal trainer for weight-lifting, they must not lift the weight on your behalf.  So the math tutor cannot solve the problems for you.

Students often get discouraged after attempting hard math problems without any perceivable progress.  They want the teacher to solve the problems.  But extend the analogy: When you lift a weight well beyond your capacity, it doesn’t lift off the ground, does it?  Yet your muscles get stronger anyway.  This is the imperceptible gain the students must understand:  Your accomplishment does not come from lifting the weight, or solving the problem.  Your accomplishment comes from exerting your muscles, or brain, and forcing it to strengthen.

When you engage in this type of learning, it’s essential you let your brain recover.  Let it rebuild, reconnect its neurons, process all of what you just attempted.  This is done while you sleep.   Although sleep-deprived students can study rote-memorization topics, this type of brain-building that helps you master challenging concepts can only succeed if you sleep.

Nobody practices for a marathon by running all night the day before a race.  The same goes for you the night before a math test or competition.   You need to sleep well before either of these.

So do not be afraid of hard problems!  Face them.  Struggle.  Do this without any apparent gain.  And then sleep well.  During the process, your brain will become smarter, moving up to a higher IQ level.

Categories: How to study

Why No Koreans Can Ever Win Nobel Prizes in Math

November 15, 2012 2 comments

Why No Koreans Can Ever Win Nobel Prizes in Math

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Dear Sabio Students,

The short answer to title question is: Nobel Prizes for math don’t exist.  That’s why not just Koreans but no human beings ever won them.

Many speculate or joke why Nobel categorically excluded mathematics.  The theory that resonates with me is that Alfred was an immensely practical engineer who couldn’t stand to give a prize for a subject so abstract and removed from reality as mathematics.  But who knows?  You could come up with your own theory and muddy the waters further.

The most prestigious award in Mathematics is the Field Medal, often referred as Nobel Prize of Mathematics.

But the question is still valid if you change the prize name.  If so many Koreans students are scoring well in mathematics compared to those in other countries, how come no  Korean mathematicians ever won the Field Medal?  One typical answer is that Korea needs to teach more creative thinking and less rote memorization in the maths.  I don’t want to repeat that widely-known idea, but rather offer my own thoughts instead.

I would like to challenge why a nation needs a Field Medal recipient for its advancement.

  1. First, why do we need a mathematician of Nobel caliber?  It’s important to note that students’ attainment levels in math are spoken about only as they pertain to the economic growth of a country.  A smarter workforce is supposed to produce a higher standard of living.  By extrapolation, if at least some students can become Nobel-caliber mathematicians, they could raise the whole standard of living, proportional to their intelligence.  But that’s not the case.  Mathematics has no correlation to the living standard of a nation.  Even in business operations heavily reliant on math, such as the search engines at Google or logistics algorithms at Netflix, none of the complex math executed produces Field-Medal-winning mathematicians.
  1. Second, advanced mathematics doesn’t produce wealth.  It’s the other way around.  You need wealth to fund advanced math.  The same logic applied to the Ancient Egyptian standing army.  Ancient Egypt could have its standing army only because its agricultural production was high enough to afford the army, which was a luxury.  Of all scholars, mathematicians are perhaps least concerned about the economic growth of a nation as they pursue their studies.  Not one mathematician I know is doing his or her research so the nation can grow richer, or, so more people can eat better.  Every one of them studies math because it is fun.  Asking a mathematician, “Yes, but what can you do with your math?” instantly brands someone as an outsider to the field.  Having Field Medal recipients in a nation is no just as useful as having Olympics gold medal winning athletes. the sake of argument, let’s assume a Fields medalist could benefit the country, and nations should therefore strive to produce a mathematician of such caliber.  After all, there is some “soft power” advantage of having World Cup winning team or Olympics Gold Medal winning athletes in one’s country.

The way to produce Field Medal winner is not by promoting more math classes or exams.  On the contrary, mathematicians of such level can be produced only by promoting idleness.  After one attains a certain level of traditional mathematics study, the further progress will hinge more and more on imagination.  Creativity in mathematics is not something teachers can drill into their students’ minds.

Creativity is spurred while someone is idle, lazing, feeling leisurely.  The fruits of having such leisurely time are typically distributed like a Gaussian, or the bell curve.

On the far left side of the mean (center) of the curve, you have students who went the wrong way; they maybe went to prison, for instance.  In the middle you have the majority: a lot of people unable to accomplish anything apart from watching a few TV shows.  On the far right end of the bell curve, you have a few people who have enough leisurely time to focus their attention on some interesting problem and win the Fields medal.

But the only method of producing this caliber of mathematician — the ones on the right side — is guaranteed to produce a lot of below-average results too because by offering the freedom to succeed, you will also have offer the freedom to fail.

It’s unclear if a nation should be willing to bear such a cost of producing only a handful of brilliant mathematicians if the byproduct is masses of unskilled ones.   Therefore, I’m always skeptical of the argument that Korea should be producing more Nobel-Prize-level mathematicians.  For the nation as a whole, a widespread high-level competence in applicable engineering-level mathematics seems far more desirable than hosting a vast nation of mediocre mathematicians and just a few brilliant ones.

Categories: How to study

Have a Personal Textbook Library On The Cheap

March 10, 2012 1 comment

Have a Personal Textbook Library On The Cheap

feature photoBy James H. Choi
Source Link

Dear Sabio Students,

By James H. Choi

Your textbooks tend to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When you need one at home, it’s in your locker — and vice versa.  So fix this: Have one at home and one at school.

You have one copy that was lent from your school, so you just need one more copy.  Text books are very expensive.  Pr-college students don’t realize this because someone else is paying for them, but they’re all more than $100, often $200.  You might be tempted to sell your book now knowing its price, but don’t.  (First, selling someone else’s property is illegal.  Two, you won’t get much because chances are your edition is an old one, for which no one will pay full price.)

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Categories: How to study

Driving Right into the Traffic Jam

October 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Driving Right into the Traffic Jam

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Today’s Chicago Tribune has an article about New Trier (a high school in Chicago’s affluent North Suburb) students forgoing lunch to take more courses.


The students’ and parents’ decision to forgo lunch has pros and cons, and I find myself ambivalent.  Pros: inches of progress in heavy traffic brings more progress  than not moving at all.  Cons: Slow motion under starvation is better than peace in full stomach?  The judgement should be left to each one’s value/goal. I have a different question “Why did they wait all this time?”

As someone who teaches students to aim/achieve ever higher goals, I am all for the drives and ambitions of these students.  I am only questioning the distribution, or planning, as in, “Yes it is healthy to exercise, but not once a year for one week straight.”

That extra for-credit class that is pushing out the lunch hour could have been taken in previous years.  If not that class, then some other classes.  Of course, there are prerequisites and dependencies in all these courses.  But if students start planning early in their 5th or 6th grade, and map out the course load all the way to their high school years, then they can accomplish far more under less stress.

Different students are apt at different fields, and different students intellectually mature at different time frames.  My contention is that students should not passively let themselves to be carried by the system because that’s how they end up in a lunch-less crunch which–although is not the aim– is the result of the mass education system.

I bet that a great majority of these stressed students have the AP Calculus or AP Physics in the schedule now.  What if those were already done?  What if SAT Physics or SAT 2 Math were already taken care of as well?

Take the subject with the longest prerequisite/dependencies: Mathematics.  In order to take AP Calculus (a must in not only applying to but also to survive at top universities) students must take arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2, trigonometry/precalculus first.  Thus, planning to take the AP Calculus at a specific time is an exercise in long range planning of 6 years that reaches all the way back to elementary school.

This kind of long-term planning may sound ridiculous.  But then so is skipping lunch to take one more course.  If you have to be ridiculous anyway, then choose to eat.

Categories: How to study
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