Monday, October 30, 2017

How to Get an A on any Exam

For most of my pre-college education I was a very average student--and that's being charitable. In my first year of college, I vowed I would learn how to get A's. I bought (and read!) a bunch of books on the subject as well as attended any study skills workshops available on campus. With the right techniques and the willingness to apply them, my outcomes improved drastically. The skill I became best at was test-taking to the point were I even looked forward to them.

Very early in my teaching career, I discovered that many students (like former me) have never been taught how to prepare for a test. Consequentially, they typically do poorly, provoking high levels of anxiety leading up to and during tests. This inevitably leads to a negative feedback loop wherein their negative expectations manifest a self-fulfilling prophesy of poor performance.

This blogpost is for all you people out there that get test anxiety or have children that do. Hopefully, with the tips I'm going to share, they (or you!) can learn to do well and to not fear tests.

Preparing for Exams
The most common mistake students make in preparing for exams is to study 'passively' rather than 'actively'. Let me explain the difference. Passive studying is when you simply reread the material and/or the notes. This will not help you very much and is basically a waste of time. To figure out how to do well on an exam let's think about what an exam is. 

Tip 1: Focus on Understanding Rather Than Memorization
An exam is a demonstration of your comprehension of a topic. So, to do well on an exam you have to be able to do two things: (a) recall the information being asked of you and (b) show that you understand it--usually by applying it. 

If you focus on (b), (a) will follow without any effort. Going from (a) to (b) takes more work. Understanding something requires putting it into a larger context: Figure out where an argument or explanation fits in relation to the main issue. Figure out and how each step in an argument connects to previous premises and supports the conclusion. Once you've done this, you will also have recreated the argument! Pure memorization without understanding is much harder to do. Avoid it where you can.

Some tests do require brute memorization of terms and so you can't escape all memorization. However, most technical terms are merely tools for understanding more complex concepts or theories. Figuring out where a term fits in the larger scheme of things will help you remember it. In short, connect new terms and concepts to other ideas to help understand, and in turn, remember them.

Tip 2: Recreate Exam Conditions
The other vital part of studying is to RECREATE EXAM CONDITIONS. This can be divided into two core ideas: (a) recreate the activity you will have to do and (b) recreate the environment you will be in. 

Recreating the Activity
On an exam you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE information. Simply rereading doesn't train you to recall and write. To practice recalling information, you have to--well--recall and write information. This principle is the same for any skill. 

Suppose I'm on the sportball team and there's a big match coming up against State. Should I just sit in my room thinking about all the sport moves I'm going to make under various conditions? Obviously not. I need to actually play sportball and make real sport moves to perform well in the match. It's true, thinking about it will help a bit, but if my practice consists solely in flipping through a playbook and imagining how I'm going to make awesome sport moves, we won't win the sportball game against State.

Similarly, suppose I'm a musician and I have a concert coming up. Suppose I prepare purely by skimming through the sheet music thinking to myself, "Ok, I got that part. Umhuh. Ok, that's just triplets, I can do that." No one would ever think to prepare for a concert this way. Yet this is how people prepare for academic tests!!111!!!11! Why???/????//!!??

So, to recap, on a test you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE. You should practice recalling and writing the information the same way you'd practice for a sportball game by playing sportball and a musical performance by actually playing the music.

In practical terms this means that after reviewing a potential exam question, you should WRITE, in point form, your answers to the question while your text and notes are closed. This is what it is to recreate the activity of exam-taking. On the exam you don't have access to your notes. If you can't recall and write out your answer in point form without looking at your notes in the relaxed environment of your room, there is no way in heck you'll be able to do it on the actual exam. That kind of crap only happens in the self-deluded dreams of tired students.

Details: I am rarely able to recall and write an answer on the first attempt. Just like learning to play a section of music for a concert, you're not going to nail it your first time through. This is normal. Learning is repetition and incremental improvement. Expect do to just that. 

If I get stuck trying to recall an argument, I peek at my notes, complete the answer then I DO IT AGAIN, this time without peeking. I keep repeating this process as many times as I have to until I can write out the answer without peeking at my notes (i.e., until I perfectly recreate the exam conditions). When I can do it perfectly, I KNOW I will ace the test because I've already aced it several times before even stepping into the exam room.

After I'm able to recall and write an answer perfectly without peeking at my notes I move to the next question--but not before! I like to work in sets of three. So, when I'm able to do 3 successive questions perfectly, I circle back to the top of the exam and repeat all of them once. For example, if I'm at question 6, then I'll redo all 6 questions once just to make sure I've really got them. Remember, repetition is the name of the game. It ain't fun but it's more fun than the feeling you get from a crappy grade.

Get yourself to where, with your notebook closed, you can recall and write the answer for every potential test question. When you can, you will ace the test (so long as you took good notes). Also, you'll have a lot less stress because you've already successfully taken the test several times at home. 

Recreating the Environment
Most of this should be obvious but I'll spell it out: 

  • Cellphone off and in another room. 
  • Unplug your modem.
  • Don't use your computer. Print your notes if you took them on your laptop.
  • Cellphone off and in another room.
  • No talking.
  • No chewing gum.
  • No fart noises.
  • No friends.
  • No life.
  • Never give up, never surrender.
I'm going to discuss time from two points of view: Total time and duration of study periods.

Total Prep Time (for Undergrad Exams):
If you want an A, expect to study at least 6-8 hours.
If you want a B, expect to study at least 4-6 hours.
Notice I didn't write anything for the other letter grades. If your goal is a C, save your money, quit school now and find something you enjoy instead.

These prep times will differ from person to person. They will also differ depending on how experienced you are at proper exam preparation. When you use the tips I've given for the first time, you probably won't get an A. This makes sense since you're just beginning to acquire the skills for exam preparation. Similarly, if it's your first time ever practicing for a sportball game you shouldn't expect to beat State. And no right-thinking musician would believe they're going to play a perfect concert after only their first time learning to practice.

Importantly, the above times are total undistracted study time and does not include breaks or meals. Plan your study schedule accordingly.

Finally, the total number of hours can be split up over 2 or (max) 3 days. It can also be done in one day/night.

Study Periods:
Conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't study for longer than about 45min intervals with 10-15min breaks. I think this is right for people who are just leaning proper exam prep but wrong for people who are experienced. No one would say that everyone, regardless of experience, should only run for 45min. No, it depends on how much prior training you've had. The more training you've had, the longer you can run or study effectively, or whatever. 

In the beginning start with conventional wisdom but as you build your recall muscles, extend your study periods. The fewer breaks you can take, the less total time you need to prepare and do well.

Study Groups
Study groups are useful for coming up with the answers for potential test questions, but this shouldn't be counted as studying. 

Exam preparation means recreating exam conditions. Your study group isn't going to be there to offer you answers during the exam so you shouldn't prepare as though they will. And neither will your mom...

Advanced Techniques: Experts Only!!!111!!1
Like I said, I wasn't always good at taking exams but through training and alignment of my chakras, I developed the skills. As I developed the skills and aligned my qi with the universe, I also developed confidence. 

So, here's how I studied for exams at the end of my test-taking career:
I come home from class and sleep until it's 9 hours (or however long I think I'll need to learn everything perfectly) before my exam the next day. I get up. Make a pot of tea and study for 4 hours straight. I take a 30min break to eat and drink a pot of coffee, eat chocolate then I study for another 4 hours. By now I'm starting to get a bit tired so I grab a light breakfast and 2 energy drinks on the way to the exam. I drink one drink on the way and have one on my desk if I feel I need it. 

Write the exam. 

Walk aimlessly around campus waiting for my heart rate to come down from all the caffein. 

Eventually, sleep.

Note: This way of studying for exams requires absolute confidence in your test-taking skills. When it's 1am and are just opening your notes 9 hours out from a final, it's very easy to be overwhelmed and panic. 


  • Decide what letter grade you want on the exam. 
  • Set aside the corresponding number of hours required for that letter grade.
    • A=6 to 8
    • B=4 to 6
  • Mentally commit yourself to studying that number of hours--come hell or high water.
  • Set yourself up in an environment as close to the exam conditions as possible.
  • Turn your phone off AND put it in another room.
  • Cover, Recall, and Write until you can do it perfectly for each answer. NEVER skim your notes. This is a complete waste of precious time.
  • Do not move to the next question until you're perfect on the one you're working on.
  • Focus on understanding (i.e., how different ideas relate and apply to each other) not memorization.
  • Every 3 questions, go back to the top and see if you can do them all again.
  • Walk into the exam with confidence because you've already done it several times perfectly.
  • Write clearly! Your instructor can't give you points for what they can't read.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Value and Gun Rights

The American Dream

I've mentioned before that philosophers distinguish between lumpers and splitters. Splitters take a category of things, actions, concepts and show that there are important distinctions to be made within that category such that we should really see it as two (or more) distinct categories. For example, someone might argue that 'motor vehicle' should be treated as two categories because cars and motorcycles are importantly different in the skills required to drive them. 

Lumpers do the opposite. They take what appear to be a collection of distinct things, concepts, or actions and argue that in some important respect they are all the same such that we can treat them as all belonging to the same category. For example, someone might argue that apples and oranges should both be considered 'fruit' from the point of view of import taxes.

Shortly following the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, published an article predictably calling for restraint (i.e., do nothing) with respect to gun control legislation. All the standard arguments were there for why gun control legislation is bad. What stood out to me, however, was the euphemistic lumping of guns as mere tools. Here are a few prominent examples :
The unwillingness to leap to a legal solution to mass gun murders requires recognizing that guns are tools, with genuine uses for personal safety, personal fulfillment, and convenience, just as are cars, as well as noticing that a tiny number of people who own or have access to these specific tools ever use them to harm another human.
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.

Notice the effect on our emotional response to 'guns' when we lump them in with 'tools' (and refer to them as such). Much of the emotional charge runs out of the word. I have no doubt that this is what the writers at Reason magazine intended. I assume their thought is something like this: [Read in your learned teacher voice lecturing to students] "If we are to understand the issue of gun violence we must take a cold reasoned approach to the issue. There is no room for irrational emotion." This is Reason magazine, after all.

Setting aside that most philosophers (since Aristotle) reject the view that all emotions are purely irrational, I want to sporatically adopt this lumping convention for this blogpost: Listen, you hysterical liberals, guns are just tools. There are no relevant distinctions between a philips head screw driver and a gun. They belong in the same category. Settle down.

Before moving forward, I need to quickly introduce a technical term. 'Preference,' as it is used in every day speech, is sometimes used differently from its more narrow meaning in economics and political theory. Preference, as it is used technically, is always an expression of relative choice or value; it's an expression of ranking something relative to some other choice. So, I can never just say I prefer a. I must say that I prefer a to something else. 

P = some person;
a = apples
b = bananas

P {a>b} means that some person prefers apples to bananas.

The main idea here is that whatever we choose, we make that choice in the context of available alternatives. How we rank our preferences is an expression of what we value relative to other things.

Now that we've got the fancy talk out of the way, let's move forward and discuss gun legislation.

Preamble: Gun Violence Statistics and Scope of Argument
I don't want to turn this post into a cut-and-paste of gun facts. I'll just pick a few so I have something to work with.
In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 U.S. citizens),[2][3] and 33,636 deaths due to "injury by firearms" (10.6 deaths per 100,000 U.S. citizens).[4] These deaths consisted of 11,208 homicides,[5] 21,175 suicides,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with "undetermined intent".[4]
In 2010, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm.[7] In 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns.[8] In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides.[9] In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.[10] In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.[11] (Wikipedia) 
I will add without argument, because you're all capable of googling, that the per capita numbers of all kinds of gun deaths, gun crime, and gun injury are much higher in the US when compared to other Western democracies even when crime rates are controlled for.

Finally, let me point out that when I vaguely gesture at 'gun control legislation' below, I'm referring to some empirically supported combination waiting periods, background checks, licensing, and training--whatever it turns out to be--to reduce some subset of recognized gun violence. By 'gun-control legislation' I do not mean confiscating guns or prohibiting their sale (generally). For some reason any mention of gun control legislation is automatically interpreted, by pro-gun advocates, as confiscation or prohibition. This is not what I (or most gun control advocates) mean.

Reread above as many times as you need to.

Let's Get Philosophical
With the empirical and technical out of the way, let's get into the philosophy. The pro-gun lobby argues that we should do nothing in the face of gun violence because they want to own and purchase guns in a way that is unrestricted. Let's express that in the cool unemotional language of economics. Given a choice between 

a = easy access to tools.
b = even attempting to reduce loss of human life.
The anti-legislation person's (P) preference ranking looks like this: 
P: {a>b}
Easy access to tools is more important than any attempt to reduce the loss of human life.

Let me reframe that. The average annual death toll from guns is 30 000. Now suppose some piece of legislation could reduce the average gun-related death toll by a paltry 10%. That's 3000 human lives saved every year. Now, imagine we put 3000 people into a theatre and we say to someone who loves tools: 
You have a choice: we can make everyone wait [insert some trivial number of days] to receive a tool or we can let these 3000 human beings die unnecessarily, and repeat the same thing every year.
The choice the anti any legislation tool-lover makes expresses their preference ranking. More specifically, they are expressing the ranking of their values. The anti any legislation position says, in the language of economics: There is more value in everyone getting tools promptly and without hinderance than there is in 3000 people/year dying preventable deaths.

This, simply put, is the 'preference ranking' of the anti-any legislation position.

But It Won't Work
Now, I know what you're thinking. But gun control legislation won't work!!! 

Really? How do you know? Most (but not all) of the evidence points in the other direction for some but not all kinds of gun violence. The exceptions to this trend in the literature are outliers which the pro-tool lobby cites ad nauseam, ignoring the general trend. Why not introduce targeted legislation to address the kinds of violence that seem to respond to legislation in other countries? 

Let's see what this denial of even attempting targeted legislation expresses in terms of value rankings. In doing so, let's grant that no one really knows for sure (in the Cartesian sense) whether a particular kind of tool regulation (that somehow works in just about every other Western democracy) will work in the US. Refusing to even try some targeted legislation expresses the following value ranking:
a = easy access to tools  
b = even bothering to try to prevent the loss of 3 000 lives/year
P: {a>b}
In everyday English, this preference ranking expresses the following: 
It's more important for me have easy access to tools than it is for me to even try saving 3 000 human lives per year from preventable death. That is, me owning a tool and being able to buy tools with minimal restrictions has more value than even trying to prevent the (preventable) loss of 3 000 human lives. 
What the gun-control advocate fails to see is that life's meaning, purpose, and value comes from owning tools. Tools, not human relationships, not cultivation of ones virtue nor talents, not contribution to one's community, not preventable human death, are what matter for the good life. A purposeful and meaningful life depend on, above all else, easy, unrestricted, and unfettered tool ownership.  
In support of this view, Aristotle, in The Nichomachean Ethics famously argues that certain external goods are required in order to live the good life. He writes
But nevertheless happiness plainly requires external goods too, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to act nobly without some furniture of fortune  GUNZ. There are many things that can only be done through instruments, so to speak, such as friends and wealth and political influence AND GUNZ: and there are some things whose absence takes the bloom off our happiness, as good birth, the blessing of children, GUNZ, and personal beauty; for a man is not very likely to be happy if he is very ugly in person, or of low birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he has worthless children or friends, or has lost good ones that he had, OR CAN'T BUY A GUN IMMEDIATELY WITHOUT A BACKGROUND CHECK.

But America Is Different (We're Special)
It is a common trope of the gun control advocate to bring up how, among comparable Western democracies, tighter gun control legislation correlates positively with lower gun death. What these tool-haters fail to appreciate is that our magical American culture is different! Americans have nothing in common psychologically or sociologically or culturally with other human beings. None of the widely studied tendencies of human behavior apply here. Ipso facto, of all the possible gun control legislations that whose number are limited only by the human imagination, we can with absolute confidence and certainty say that none of them will work here. There is no conceivable way that legislation that works on just about every other human culture on the planet--especially those most resembling our own-- could work here. Simply ridiculous to even try.

First of all, this line of thinking is right on both counts. The culture here is different. People here would rather own tools, unfettered and unrestricted, than attempt to reduce the total 30 000 human lives lost per year to tool violence. That, however, is a cultural problem, not something to puff your chest up about. 

Now, here's the really cool part. "Scientists have determined/studies show" that humans have the capacity to reflect on their practices as revise them in light of those reflections. We are not stuck in the culture we find ourselves in! This is shocking, I know. You might need to pause to catch your breath. 

And so, while it is true that current American tool-loving culture makes it difficult to save potentially tens of thousands of lives/year, with some reflection on its values, it could! All it takes is having the thought that the more or less unrestricted access to tools isn't as valuable as tens of thousands of human lives/year.

As it stands, the but-American-culture-is-different-therefore-we-shouldn't-even-try value ranking looks like this: 
a = Maintaining tool-loving at the epicenter of American culture 
b = attempt something to reduce the 30 000 lives/year that are lost. 
P: {a>b}
In plain English, there is more value is continuing to place some kinds of tools at the center of cultural identity than there is value in the lives of the very people who inhabit this community.

To be American means easy access to tools. This matters much more than 10s of thousands of preventable American deaths. Easy access to tools make us who we are. Without our tools and easy access to them we float adrift in a sea of despair with no other possibility of meaning and purpose in sight. Our culture, nay! our very way of life and identity would disintegrate before our eyes without easy access to tools. If 30 000 of us must be sacrificed/year for this end, so be it! We have deliberated and decided what truly matters.

Self-Defense/Protect My Family
Recall the passage from Reason magazine:
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.
People need to chill. All the anti-legislation people are saying is, "hey man, I just want to be able to own tools." Of course, not everyone just wants to own tools merely to love them and hold them and squeeze them. Some people make the argument that owning guns is an extension of their inalienable natural right to self-defense. 

For the moment I'm going to ignore that (a) from the right to self-defense it doesn't follow necessarily that you have a right to every means of self-defense and (b) gun control legislation is not the same as gun prohibition. I want to continue to focus on preferences and their ordering.

It's not that people merely want the right to own tools it's that they want the right to ensure the physical safety of their person and family. Guns are merely...uh...tools in this pursuit. Amiright? 

Let's grant that people have this right. It's not unreasonable after all. We can then ask the question: Are you and your family safer with a gun-tool in the house than without a gun-tool in the house? If you and your family are safer without a gun-tool, then if your concern truly is safety, you will get rid of your gun-tools. This is something to which there is an empirical answer. It's a verifiable and falsifiable matter. More on that later...

For now, take my word that as it turns out that you and your family are less safe with gun-tools in the house. So, if you insist on keeping gun-tools in your house then your concern really isn't safety or self-defense. You value having gun tools more than you value you and your family's safety. We can express the preference ranking like this:
Hypothetical: You and your family are less safe with a gun-tool in the house. 
a=have gun tool in the house.
b=you and your family's safety. 
P: {a>b}
If they hypothetical turns out to be true then the preference ranking says this: There is more value in having a gun tool in my house than there is value in the safety of myself and my family.

This being a hypothetical, for fun let's see what the literature says regarding safety and gun ownership...
For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9715182 
Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily forceLinda E. Saltzman, et al., Weapon Involvement and Injury Outcomes in Family and Intimate Assaults, 267 JAMA, 3043-3047 (1992) 
Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm
More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun. U.S. children and teens made up 43 percent of all children and teens in top 26 high income countries but were 93 percent of all children and teens killed by guns. 
In 2010, children and teen gun death rates in the U.S. were over four times higher than in Canada, the country with the next highest rate, nearly seven times higher than in Israel, and nearly 65 times higher than in the United Kingdom. 
U.S. children and teens were 32 times more likely to die from a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die from a gun suicide or a gun accident than all their peers in the other high-income countries combined. A child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. 

Huh. It looks like having gun-tools in the house actually makes you and your family less safe than not having gun tools in the house. Obviously, this isn't all the literature there is on the matter but the trend is fairly clear.

I could carry on like this all day but the structure of the argument is the same with each iteration. Every objection to even trying out a piece of gun control legislation that targets a subset of gun violence can be expressed as a preference ranking--an ranking of values.
The anti-even-bother-to-try any legislation position always prefers owning a tool to saving human lives. That is, easy access to a tool is always more valuable than human lives.

No irrational emotions needed. This is the cold-hard language of reason.

Loose Ends
"But legislation can't prevent mass shootings." My reply is simply to copypasta the intro from a post I made a few years ago:
Mass shootings represent only a very small fraction of gun-related homicides (about 1% depending on the study you read). Even if we increase this number by a factor of 10 we're still only looking at 10% of gun-related homicides. From the point of view of policy then it makes sense to argue that preventing mass shootings shouldn't be the primary focus or starting point of gun policy. (Not to say it shouldn't at all be the focus of policy, only that there are perhaps better starting points, and lower hanging fruit).
Consider: Suppose policy aims to reduce mass shootings but not other forms of gun violence (primarily from hand guns). Even if that policy reduces mass shootings by 50%, of total gun homicides it's a hollow victory. If however policy reduces other homicides by just 10%, as an absolute number of lives saved, that policy is much more successful. (Assumption: gun violence policy ought to reduce total homicides and injury from guns).