Thursday, March 30, 2006

Motivational Quotes

I find that one of my biggest barriers to learning is finding the motivation to actually start. There are a number of techniques that I use, which I will cover in a later post. One such technique I use is listening to motivational audio programs, or reading some inspirational books.

Although I can't post the complete contents of these books and audio files to this site, I have decided to post some quotes that I have found particularly helpful.

Oh, I just put in the Teddy Roosevelt quote because it made me laugh out loud.

Most, if not all of these quotes are from The Quotations Page. (new window)

Having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of having accomplished a tiresome labor is immense.
- Arnold Bennett

Concentration comes out of a combination of confidence and hunger.
- Arnold Palmer (1929 - )

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.
- Frank Tibolt

You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
- Jack London (1876 - 1916)

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.
- Abigail Adams (1744 - 1818), 1780

Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.
- Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC), The Confucian Analects

Only the curious will learn and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning. The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient.
- Eugene S. Wilson

Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell 'em, 'Certainly I can!' Then get busy and find out how to do it.
- Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919)

Learn the art of patience. Apply discipline to your thoughts when they become anxious over the outcome of a goal. Impatience breeds anxiety, fear, discouragement and failure. Patience creates confidence, decisiveness, and a rational outlook, which eventually leads to success.
- Brian Adams

Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519)

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering you own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them - every day begin the task anew.
- Saint Francis de Sales

One of my favourites:
When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.
- Ed Macauley

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Setting Goals to Achieve More

"How can you expect to hit a target you can’t see?" – Zig Ziglar

When you work do you have a specific, definable goal that you are working for? If you don’t, how can you know if you are getting closer to reaching it? How much material will you have covered by a certain date?

You need to have some goals to get things done, really done.

The advantages to having specific, realistic, dated goals are abundant:

  • They let you see if you are on track or if you need to pick up the pace.
  • They give you focus, allowing you to accomplish specific tasks.
  • They keep you calm by putting your tasks into smaller, manageable bundles. As opposed to looking at a huge list of everything you have to do, freaking out, screaming/crying, eating ice cream, and having nothing accomplished 2 days later.
  • They drive you towards the completion of tasks. You can just look at your goals and you will know what you have to do, which will increase the chance that you will accomplish it. They will remind you to continue to chip away at a goal until it is complete, simply because you want to cross it off your list.

I think you get the point.

To solidify this, I’ll give you some personal examples. I do practice what I preach.

For this site, I told myself: I will have 15 posts by April 2, 2006. I put this sign on my bulletin board, right in front f my chair with a little tally underneath it. I made this goal about a month ago, as I planned to have a new post every 2 days or so. Initially, I was quite ahead of schedule; however, after a series of outings, I fell slightly behind. After looking at my goal, I realized I had some catching up to do and produced a few more posts fairly quickly.

It is important to note that I actually did not post one of them because I didn’t feel it was up to par with the other posts. Don’t work for the sake of working; remember the essence of your goal.

I didn’t want 15 bad posts by April 2, nor did I want 14 good posts and one poor post. I actually meant 15 quality posts. Maybe I should have added that in, but I knew what I meant. As of the time of this post, this will be my 13th “real” post. Which means I’m exactly on pace for reaching my goal.

Switching back to academia: It would be better to say, “I will cover 3 chapters of chemistry well” and do it, rather than covering 5 chapters inadequately. If you were to do that, then what would be the point of all of this?

For a personal academic goal, as I mentioned before, I would like to improve my anatomy practical mark. Now my goal is to get 90% on the final practical exam.

This is a fairly lofty goal from where I stand, but I know how much work it will take to achieve this (in terms of effort and time), so I still think this goal is very achievable. I’ll update you later on how well I have reached my goal.

Do not be afraid to aim higher than usual, to stretch yourself more than normal. You might surprise yourself.

I remember reading a quote in my middle school class a long time ago. “Aim for the moon, because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” Even in middle school I thought it was cheesy. I remember also thinking that the person who said that didn’t realize how far away we are from the rest of the stars (I was a bit of a smart-ass). Those points aside, there is a good point in there: Aim far. The worst that can happen is that you learn something and improve.

I know that goal setting can have the same benefits for you as it does for me. Get it done, write down your specific, definable, time-stamped goal. Remember to challenge yourself and work hard at it. With determination, I know you’ll reach your goals.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Thinking Big, Bigger, Biggest!

If I had to teach the world only 2 lessons they would be:
1) Keep an open mind in all aspects of your life.

2) Dare to think big. Don’t let people impose their small-minded thinking on you.

The latter is the subject of this post.

There are always people around that will try to bring you down. It will not necessarily be for inherently wrong reasons, they are just misguided. Since this site is about education, I will frame it in this context, but it can go much farther than this.

Before you enter university, everyone talks about the Frosh 15 (or Freshman 15 for you Americans): you’re going to drop 15 percent and gain 15 pounds. And this inevitably happens: the pants get tighter and there is a lot more red on your tests and papers. “Oh well,” we sigh, “everyone told me that this would happen, that’s alright….”

BOO!! BOOOOOO!! You know what’s wrong with this picture? Complacency.

So people say something is going to happen, so we just accept that it will, no mater what. That is complete garbage. Of course the classes are harder, we all knew that was going to happen. There’s more stress too, living alone, relationship drama, all that alcohol, etc. This doesn’t mean that there is no way to do well (or to maintain your weight), it means that you are going to have to work harder now.

“ ‘Work harder?’ What’s that?” You are going to have to work with me here.

By working harder I mean putting more focus towards your work. How can we expect to do as well (or better) than we did in high school by spending more time drinking, sleeping, or entering pie-eating contests? This is just resource allocation; we only have enough time and energy for a set amount of tasks. If we dwindle that away on non-school related things, we should expect a decrease in marks.

I know you want to achieve better grades, that’s why you are still reading this, and it is still very possible. There are 2 big ingredients you are going to need to make this happen: a) A proper mindset and b) Good ol’ fashioned dedication.

I think I’ve already talked about the second one enough, but I’d like to add some points to the first one.

We have to get over our old mindset of accepting mediocrity. We can only become great if greatness becomes a real possibility for us. We have to realize that old performance doesn’t necessarily affect our future potential; we can always improve, only if we are dedicated. If you fail the quiz, you must work doubly hard to do better in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make the idea of improving your performance in a very difficult subject sound trivial, I realize that it can be quite difficult. The thing to remember is that it is not hopeless.

Also, we must remember that other people’s views of life, learning and ourselves are simple personal opinions that don’t have to affect us if we don’t want them to.

“Oh damn, chemistry is impossible!” Ok, there is a lot of material, but other people have survived before, you can too.

“There’s no way you can get above 70 on that midterm. Last year, the class average was 52.” OK, this person doesn’t understand how averages work. Putting that aside, other people’s performance does not have to affect yours. The only thing to gather from this low class average is that you have to dedicate more time to this midterm to achieve a higher grade. (Or that the previous years students were generally quite poor – which does happen.)

You can’t deal with everything so nicely, sometimes you just have to ignore what other people tell you, because you will not let their small-mindedness bring you down.

Remember that greatness will find you, once you are ready to receive it. This reception is not a passive thing; you must alter your mind quite radically before this can happen. You are ready for this change, I’m 100% sure of it.

If you enjoyed this post, maybe you'll enjoy the others. Please bookmark this page (Ctrl-D) or check out the archive/categories to the right. Better yet, tell a friend!

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Activity versus Accomplishment

Does the following scenario sound familiar? So you’ve been working for an hour and a half. Your papers are all organized and nicely hole-punched; your textbook is covered in highlighter; your room is super clean; and you printed your notes for the next 3 weeks. But you haven’t learned a thing.

Ouch. A little too close to home? Yeah, same here.

This isn’t to say that those tasks aren’t important, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. When we are supposed to be studying, we should be working hard on studying. The time for those other tasks can come later, they are not as important.

It would be better to devote a certain period of time to intense working (around 60 to 90 minutes works well for me), rather than attempting to do many tasks at once. Although many people claim to be accomplished multi-taskers, research has shown that attempting to multi-task while performing mentally strenuous work significantly reduces performance. (If you want me to cite this, it will take me a while. I read it in New Scientist a while ago.)

This means that we can study or work more efficiently if we stick to one task at a time. I find that I retain a lot more when concentrating on one subject at a time. Some may think this is really obvious, but it is important to reinforce such an important point.

Activity is only the same as accomplishment when we devote our full attention to something. We must stay real with ourselves, a lot of motion only amounts to something good, if we can say we are one step closer to our goals.

Update: I found an article that is pretty similar to the one I read, but I’m pretty sure the one I read was quite a bit longer:
One at a time (opens in new window)

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Redecorating for Success

As I mentioned in my previous post sometimes I decide to resort to drastic measures to perform better in my courses.

In my anatomy course, I found that my major pitfall was histology (The anatomical study of the microscopic structure of animal and plant tissues.) So I decided that I needed to look at some microscope slides. In fact, not just some, a lot.

I redecorated my room accordingly:

By the way: A) It did help a lot; B) My walls needed more pink and purple anyways.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Resolving to Improve Your Weakness

After a disappointing performance in one of my courses, I've decided to redouble my efforts in order to improve.

The course in question was Anatomy, and even after some drastic measures (maybe I'll show you later), I know I could have done better.

After writing the practical midterm, I realized that I placed too much of my focus on the theoretical portion, and I didn't study certain parts that I felt were really boring/complicated. As one would expect, I did quite poorly on the parts that I didn’t study properly for.

This leads me to a lesson I picked up a while ago, but apparently forgot to apply: If there is a subject or topic that you find boring or difficult, you shouldn’t leave it until the end, nor should you spend less time on it as it suits you. You should work on this subject/topic first, and you should work on it the hardest.

If you find a topic boring, it generally means that you won’t do as well as you could. This is due to a lack of a will to learn and the general poor retention that results from chronic apathy. To combat this, you must disproportionately increase your effort in this area to make up for a lack of interest. (By disproportional I mean you'll need more effort to learn the same amount of information because it’s harder to absorb – initially, at least.)

When you start to really intensely study a "less interesting" subject, you'll find that an interesting thing happens: You will actually start enjoying the subject more.

A collective "Gwah?" comes from the masses.

It's true though. Once you begin to learn more, the concepts enter your brain increasingly quickly. You start to feel excited as a once insurmountable mountain becomes a very manageable speed bump. You start making connections within the subject matter, and you start to see how things interrelate. The concepts actually have flow! Maybe the course was taught in this order for a reason. Maybe there is a reason your professor finds the material more interesting than her own apparel, which would explain why she only wears those floral print shirts... bleck.

The main point is that in order to be successful in a topic that isn't your fancy, you will have to put additional focus and resources towards it. It will start getting easier and easier, I swear. But you're going to have to try it to find out. All you have to lose is a disdain for some subject...

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Are you kidding me?

OK, so you are studying for your Biology finals. You have your books open, your notes out, the beats are pumping, 24 is on TV, John and Christy are talking to you on MSN Messenger, and you're sprawled across your couch, that wobbly coffee table and some dusty mugs.

So what are you doing? Oh you say you're "studying"? Lies!!

This reminds me of a book Judge Judy wrote: Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining. Yes, this is a real book.

I can't believe all these people that think that this is even close to studying. I can't believe that I sometimes think this is studying. There are so many things I want to say about this, I don't even know where to start...

Distractions and Your Learning Curve

I'm sure we've all had this: You start studying and things are going sort of slowly. After a little while, you get into a groove and you are learning really effectively. Some time passes, then you notice your attention is starting to wane, you start to get restless, and you eventually just stop studying. That's basically the learning curve. However, if you are constantly distracted by Jay-Z, Jack Bauer and sweet sweet Christy from Linguistics, you are never going to get to that effective learning stage.

Don't lie to yourself!! If you aren't learning with all these distractions, then do something about it! Turn off those "phat beats", move away from the TV and log off of MSN Messenger (appear offline doesn't count).

I have to point out that some people work quite well with music. You'll have to be your own judge though. And be serious with yourself, if you get more done without music, you probably work better without music. Duh.

MSN Messenger

OK, some people are thinking: "Oh what if someone has to tell me something, I should stay on MSN." No, you shouldn't. a) If they are telling you something over MSN, it probably isn't an emergency. b) You have a phone. c) When's the last time something important was discussed on MSN Messenger? Probably not for a while.

Your Studying Area

I'm not going to go into a spiel about ergonomics or lighting. I will, however, remind you to become aware of your study habits. If you study on your bed and always wake up on top of your chemistry homework wondering why instead of reactions you have only a puddle of drool, then maybe you shouldn't work on your bed.

If there are always suspicious thumping sounds coming from your wall, either tell your housemate and his/her "guest" to shut up, or go to the library.

I'm fully aware that this isn't complicated stuff. Many people might have already thought about this before. Far less have done something about it.

Frankly you could just keep doing the same things you've always been doing, but then you should expect the same results. Don't come crying to me when you get 43%. "But I studied for a whole week! How did I do so craptastically?" Did you study effectively for a whole week? Or did you just study Johnny Depp's bum (with some chemistry interspersed)?

If that sounds really bad or really familiar, it's time for a change.

This is serious stuff. Only you can really change yourself. Only you are responsible for that change.

Once you have come to terms with that, all you can do is succeed.

I hope people don't think I'm saying you shouldn't relax ever. I'm saying when you are studying, study hard. When you relax, just relax.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

The Meaning Behind Words

Etymology - 1: a history of a word; 2: the study of the sources and development of words

"Why bother with etymology?" some may ask. Because it can help you learn terms more easily and remember more.

I find that once I know the origin of a word, it helps solidify it's meaning and context. As well, if other new terms with similiar roots come up, then I can easily decipher their meaning and remember them more easily. I usually find their origins at or I just Google it. (All links in this post will open in a new window, unless I screwed something up.)

This post is going to be heavy with scientific terms, my apologies to those who can't deal.

Let's jump into some examples:

Endo means inside/within and exo means outside/external (Greek). So if I talk about an endometrium, it's the inner lining of the uterus - shed during menstruation. If I talk about an exothermic reaction, it is a reaction where heat leaves, or goes outside of the system. You can guess what endothermic means.

I thought this next one was cool when I realized it - which was this morning, incidentally. For some reason I always forgot what an osteoclast was. I knew it had something to do with bone: osteoporosis, osteology, things like that. But the -clast part always threw me. Then I realized the word iconoclast shares the same suffix. If you don't know, an iconoclast is someone who tries to destroy popular ideas/images. More to the point: They take icons and try to break them. If you look up the etymology of iconoclast, you'll see pretty much the same thing. With this we can guess the function of an osteoclast: It breaks down bone. And we'd be correct.

Cephalopods are animals like squids and octopi. Cephalo- comes from the Greek kaphalo meaning head and pod means foot. And that's all these animals really consist of: a head and some modified feet.

How about encephalon? It is something in your head: Your brain!

An important clinical suffix is -itis, usually denoting some inflammation. So if someone has encephalitis, what are they suffering from? You guessed it.

Even if you knew all of these terms already, that is not the point. The point is that you can use the terms you know, or ones you will learn, to more quickly absorb the meaning of new terms or pre-existing difficult terms.

So, for you smartasses out there, I'll end with one final example:


A little intimidating, eh? I'll give you a quick breakdown of the small components, with that you'll probably get an idea of what it means. Oh, you smartasses don't get to look.

Hemo- (or haemo- as the Brits spell it) has to do with blood.
angio- has to do with blood vessels (or lymph vessels).
-blast is usually a cell that produces the thing in front of it. An osteoblast forms new bone. So you can guess what an angioblast is. (By the way, that's why osteoclast was sort of tricky to remember: osteoblast and osteoclast differ by one letter!)
-oma is a tumour of some variety. Like melanoma: a tumour from a type of skin cancer that originates in melanocytes (pigment cells).

Do you think you have a feeling for the definition? Really think about it, then check it out.

Pretty close weren't you? Yeah, etymology is awesome.

So look those words up! Our modern age means that etymology is only seconds away. If you have Firefox, you can use the pre-installed search bar. If you don't have it, then go here and install the one from


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Knowledge and Relationships

I've been reading a book called The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and I just wanted to share an excerpt that I found very interesting. It may not help you do better in school, but it's something to think about.
When we talk about memory, we aren't just talking about ideas and impressions and facts stored inside our heads. An awful lot of what we remember is actually stored outside our brains. Most of us deliberately don't memorize most of the phone numbers we need. But we do memorize where to find them -- in a phone book, or in our personal Rolodex.
Perhaps more important, though, we store information with other people. Couples do this automatically. A few years ago, for example, [Daniel] Wegner [of the University of Virginia] set up a memory test with 59 couples, all of whom had been dating for at least 3 months. Half of the couples were allowed to stay together, and half were split up, and given a new partner whom they didn't know. Wegner then asked all the pairs to read 64 statements, each with an underlined word, like "Midori is a Japanese melon liqueur." Five minutes after looking at all the statements, the pairs were asked to write down as many as they could remember. Sure enough, the pairs who knew each other remembered substantially more items than those who didn't know each other. Wegner argues that when people know each other well, they create an implicit joint memory system -- a transactive memory system -- which is based on an understanding about who is best suited to remember what kinds of things. "Relationship development is often understood as a process of mutual self-disclosure," he writes. "Although it is probably more romantic to cast this process as one of interpersonal revelation and acceptance, it can also be appreciated as a necessary precursor to transactive memory." Transactive memory is part of what intimacy means. In fact, Wegner argues, it is the loss of this kind of joint memory that helps to make divorce so painful. "Divorced people who suffer depression and complain of cognitive dysfunction may be expressing the loss of their external memory systems," he writes. "They once were able to discuss their experiences to reach a shared understanding. . . . They once could count on access to a wide range of storage in their partner, and this, too, is gone. . . . The loss of transactive memory feels like losing a part of one's own mind."
Simply fascinating. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is an amazing read, full of many examples and theories of how small changes can push circumstances past their tipping point.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Memory Tips - Pegging

Pegging can be used to remember items in a specific order or associated with certain numbers. Basically, it is where you form vivid mental associations between a preset known object (the peg) and what you want to memorize. You are putting the item you want to memorize on the peg. So if you can remember the preset list, then the associated objects follow easily.

Let's start small. Let's say you have to memorize a grocery list in order: Butter, Celery, Ground beef, Cheerios, Campbell's soup, Bread, Frozen Peas and Bananas.

Now we want to peg these items on something with which we are already familiar: our body. Hey, why not? We all know our bodies quite well. (Too well in some cases.) Let's use our head, mouth, neck, elbows, hands, bum, knees and feet. This is just going from top to bottom. You could add more body parts, but there are only 8 items on the list.

Now to go through the items and our body parts:

Butter. What's the first peg? Head. OK, now you need to create a strong image that assocates the two objects. Imagine smearng the butter into your hair and moving it all around. It's so thick, you could even make a little mohawk with it. This is a lot of butter. The fatty butter is even starting to melt a little and is slowly dripping down your ears. Gross.

The key is to make the image really vivid and incorporate emotion into it. The stronger the better. Either positive or negative, it doesn't matter, but don't go too crazy. And you really have to visualize it or this won't work. Try this for the butter one, I can wait....

This post is quite long, please click the permalink below (the time this was published) to continue reading. If you are reading this, thanks for clicking through.

Good. Next, mouth with celery. Easy. Imagine eating the celery. Don't just stop there! The celery is so crunchy and crisp. With every bite, water just explodes out of every cell. Crrrrrrrrrrunch! Oh man, now you have one of those celery stringy pieces stuck in your teeth, like thick green dental floss. It even hurts to pull it out, better leave it in.

Third is the neck with ground beef. Let's keep this relatively clean. Imagine rubbing the ice-cold ground beef on your neck. You can feel that fatty residue being left all over the front and back of your neck. Then unexpectedly, the beef starts frying on your neck. You can now smell the delicious beef cooking on your neck.

You don't have to confine yourself to the realm of reality. What's the point of having an imagination?

Now, elbows and cheerios. Crush those little wheaty O's unto chunks. But those cheerios won't go without a fight. They start cutting your elbows deeply. It burns as you contunue to grind your elbows in the cheerios as the powder enters your wounds.

Hands and Campbell's soup. You pour boiling Chicken à la King all over your hands. Ouch! Darn! Fiddlesticks! It's so creamy so it sticks really well - like a thick, white, chicken-flavoured paste. Oh Campbell, why did you make such a delicious yet adhesive soup?

Sorry about that.

Bum and Bread. This is going to get a little funny, just stick with me. So your bum is really hot (temperature, not appealing). What can cool it off? A nice refreshing loaf of Wonder bread. Just take a seat on the whole loaf. Feel the squishy loaf compress under your bum, while nestling it and creating a bum-shaped impression. This is the coolest most comfortable seat cushion ever! In fact, you go to the grocery store to sit on their whole stock of fluffy, fluffy bread. That's nice.

Knees and frozen peas. If that rhyme doesn't help, then we can imagine pressing those frozen peas against your knee. Ooh! Cold. They start easing your knee joint. Feel yourself relax. These frozen peas start thawing a bit, and the water drips down your leg. It tickles a little. Are you still visualizing? Concentrate!

Feet and bananas. You and your new dance partner are performing the Tango de la Meurte (Tango of Death) on a floor covered in bananas. You aren't even wearing shoes because that's how intense you are about dancing. You can feel the bananas squish between your toes as you step on them, feel them ooze between your toes. As you dance more furiously, the banana paste and peels begin to fly into the air, the smell fills the room. Suddenly, you slip on one of the peels, and after 7 mid-air summersaults you land in your partners arms with a banana peel between your teeth. Amazing.

Now that we've done the whole list, let's just make sure we know the body parts first: Head, mouth, neck, elbows, hands, bum, knees and feet.

Now try to remember all the items on the list without cheating. Actually minimize this page. (for Windows users: Alt + Space, n; for Apple users: Open Apple + M). Or you could click the minimize button. Go and think about it now! I'll wait here....

Did you do it? If not, try it.

I'm going to bet that if you did it, you were able to remember all of the items (or at least all but 1-2).

This sort of thinking isn't just limited to grocery lists. And it doesn't have to just be lists. You can link any two items with this sort of imagery as well. I'll give you an example I used for anatomy. (Sorry if you don't get this example.)

Just so you can vaguely visualize this, you'll have to know that the adrenal glands are on top the kidneys (one on each), and they look like flat, stumpy pyramids.

I couldn't remember what the outermost layer of the adrenal cortex did - the outer layer is called the zona glomerulosa. I know the adrenal gland is responsible for hormone production, but specifically which ones? The outer layer is responsible for making mineralcorticoids - they basically regulate the salt (mineral) levels in the body.

So, I imagined someone pouring salt on my adrenal glands, so much salt that they started shriveling up.

Now, I can't forget that the outer layer of the adrenal cortex (the zona glomerulosa) produces mineralcorticoids.

I hope you are starting to see that power that pegging can have.

There is another form that involves number associations, but I'll save that for later.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembering the basics

I was helping someone out with a statistics problem and after a good look they seemed to be on the right track. Then I started thinking, over-thinking to be more precise. I started thinking of really complex and convoluted formulae for solving the problem.

After 10mins of this, I realized the answer was right in the first place.

That's just plain silly.

Remember: The answer isn't always so complicated. In any work that you do, look for the simple solution first. If it works, that's most likely the answer. If not, then keep working. As a button once so elegantly stated, "Keep it simple, stupid."


parsimony: n. principle of using the least resources or explainations to solve a problem
-- see also Occam's Razor


Monday, March 06, 2006

Test Taking Tips

It's OK to change your answer after thinking about it

I always hear that people hate changing their answers because whenever they switch it, they were right the first time. Although this can be the case in many situations, I propose that people just remember the damn-I-should’ve-left-it times more often than the thank-goodness-I-switched-it times. People are inherently more sensitive to pain than pleasure.

I think that if you think about something long enough, given the time and reasoning, and arrive at a different answer, you’re probably right. Now you have had more time to think about it and attack it from different angles. This causes me to want to…

Stay even if you finish early.

Double-check your damn answers. There is no excuse for a stupid mistake if you have the time to double-check. Coloring in the wrong bubble, reading one word incorrectly, etc. These things can and do happen. So we have to make sure that we catch them before those scantrons hit the marking machine.

Pee before the test

Thirty minutes to an hour before the test, just squeeze that urine out. Not only is that tinkle feeling distracting, but leaving to use the washroom takes up precious time.

Don’t eat anything really greasy/gas-inducing/untested before the test.

Before one of my midterms I ate some day-old spicy Vietnamese food. Bad idea. Nothing is more distracting than pineapples doing the rhumba in your stomach. Just eat something fairly light that won’t give you any problems. Try not to eat too much because that will take away much needed blood from your brain.

Sit beside people that will not distract you.

The list of distracting people can be pretty large: People you are sexually attracted to; people you know will finish their test really quickly; friends that cry/groan during tests; people who smell (perfume or B.O., it doesn’t matter); people who ask a lot of questions; and the list goes on.

If the test hasn’t started and you notice a potential distraction in your proximity, just get up and move. You can make up an excuse if you feel the need. It’s probably easier to say nothing though, maybe they’ll realize they could use some (Lady) Speed Stick. However, if some distractions do arise, then…

Keep your cool.

This is a very important tip. You can definitely handle most distractions by staying calm. Sexual attraction? Just breathe and don’t look. Five people leave really early? They are probably impatient or they have the runs. The loud people and the smelly people are hard to deal with. Just suck it up. Maybe if you slid a piece of gum over the table, they would get the message…

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This test isn't going well…

I just wrote an organic chemistry midterm today, and to put it lightly, there were no survivors. However, I’m not one to give up without a fight. There are still a few things to keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation:

Stay calm.

Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. Just because you don’t know how to do one portion doesn’t mean that you can’t do the rest of the test. There are still many marks out there for the taking. Remaining calm will help you think more effectively. Plus, you’ll live longer.

Keep the time and mark distribution in mind.

You should spend a longer time on something that is worth more marks. If you spend an hour on something worth 20 percent, on a 2-hour exam, that’s just silly. Which brings me to…

Skip around, do what you can.

If you can’t do a certain section of the exam, or just a question, skip it and come back to it later if you can. There’s no reason to lose time to something you won’t do in the place of answering 5 other questions correctly.

Use the test’s information to help you.

Sometimes you can only remember bits and pieces of a concept. However, even so you can glean a bit of information from other questions that are asking about the same thing.

If question 3 is:
What chemical is the basis of genetic information?
(a) RNA (b) DNA (c) amino acids (d) proteins (e) Butter
Hopefully, you can eliminate (e), then let’s say you know it’s not (d) as well. But then from there, you don’t know any more.

But if question 36 is:
What DNA-binding protein is responsible for gene coding?
From here we can see that there has to be some protein that binds to DNA that is responsible for gene coding. “DNA!! That’s the answer to 3! Oh that sounds familiar…” Maybe just vaguely familiar, but enough to get you the mark.


If there is no penalty for guessing, guess away. If there are 5 choices, you have a 1/5 (20%) chance of getting it right. That’s way better than the lottery, and people play that all the time. Even if it’s a short answer and you really don’t know, just try something that could sort of work, even if you know it’s wrong. You never know: Part marks.

Put what you do know.

This is sort of related to the above point. If you even know a little bit about something, put that and elaborate on it. Even a really really small amount. You could easily get a part mark from your small seemingly unimportant fact.

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Note Taking Tips (in class)

If the professor does not speak terribly quickly, try to listen to what he/she says first, then write it down.

This way you can actually learn what you are writing so you can remember it then, or learn it more easily later.

Even if you think you have a fair understanding of a point that was just mentioned, write it down (unless it’s ridiculously obvious).

This has happened to me a million times: I don’t write down an “obvious” point, then when I look back to my notes I can’t figure out what the next points mean or how they relate to each other. It may seem easy to remember at the time, but you just heard it, of course you’re going to remember it, it was one second ago! Later is a different story.

Preview the material.

Oh come on, don’t make that face. I know this can be a tough one, but it can really help ease you into the material. You don’t have to know everything before the lecture starts, even a little bit helps. If a broad concept is already familiar, then learning the details becomes a lot easier and faster.

Write with a multi-coloured pen.

I like my 4-Color Bic pen a lot. I like to write side-notes or really important points in different colours. If I see red, I’m going to pay attention! If I see green, usually I’ve added in some relvant, but nonessential, information. As a science student, sometimes drawing chemical reactions in one colour can get a little confusing. However with blue arrows, red dots, marshmallow hearts and green clovers, the chemistry is easy.

Use symbols ** ## $$

Although the multi-coloured pen is not for everyone, I highly highly recommend using at least one symbol for emphasis in your notes. There are always some facts that are more important than others. Then there are those points that all existence depends on. If I see this:


I better remember that blood is slightly basic.

Create some subheadings.

If you don’t have a lecture outline or you're writing your own notes, organization is key. It will help you put your knowledge into groups, which is far easier to understand/learn than a big mess of facts.

Keep distractions to a minimum.

I don’t see how some people expect to learn while talking or even eating. These are taking your attention away from listening and writing; those are 2 of your biggest ways to learn. I realize keeping up with your friends is important, but there’s always time after class, in the evening, the weekend, etc. Try to explain to your friends nicely that you’ll talk to them afterwards.

As well, talking can be pretty distracting to those around you. I think I have a bit of a hearing problem, so even mid-volume speech can really throw me off. Oh, by the way, no one else cares what you did (or even whom you did) on the weekend, especially if you have a really nasal voice.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Acknowledge what you don't know

I’ve noticed this phenomenon in many people (including myself): We all say / think that we know something, while in the back of our minds we realize that we don’t have a full grasp on some concept. Yet we still continue like we fully understand. I’ll give an example in a moment.

While this can apply to many facets of our lives, I’m going to show how it can affect our academic learning.

Let’s say I pretend to understand chemistry. “Yeah, there are some molecules. Sometimes they’re together, sometimes they aren’t.” Frankly, that’s total garbage. This is quite a bit of exaggeration, but I hope it looks a little familiar.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we know something, and when test time comes everything falls apart. Do not wait until a test to realize you don’t know something. The only person you are hurting is yourself.

A long time ago I remember learning about the Four Levels of Knowledge*:

1) You don't know that you don't know.
(You don't realize you are ignorant.)

2) You know what you don't know.
(You are aware of your ignorance.)

3) You don't know that you know.
(You are not aware of the knowledge you have.)

4) You know that you know.
(You realize what knowledge you have and how to use it.).

- In the first stage, since you don’t even know that you are lacking knowledge, you can’t even work to fix it.

- In the second stage, the highlight of this article, you are now aware of your ignorance, so you can work to learn what you are missing.

- In the third stage, you are in the process of learning; however, you still are not aware of when to use this knowledge or how extensive it is.

- In the last stage, you have become so proficient in the material that you can use it in many contexts.

The key to extract from this is that you should be aware of how much you know, and work to improve from there. It's ok to not know something, but it's not ok to sit by and do nothing about it.

Once you realize you need to learn something, work towards learning it. I know it can be difficult at times, but you can do it. Trust me.

* I have actually heard this in another way as well, with 3 and 4 switched. If the last stage is “You don’t know what you know”, then you are so proficient with something that you perform it naturally without any real conscious thought. This applies more to skills-based things like judo or piano. I think in academic matters you should always be thinking.

PS: I realize there must be a compromise between learning in complete detail and covering everything, if time is tight. This is probably a good endorsement for time-management, but I’ll save that for later.

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