Tips for School

Since the school year is about to begin, I thought I’d share tips on classroom success that I learned as a university professor.

Let’s begin with Gilbert’s Law of Classroom Inequality: whoever holds the gradebook is always right. It doesn’t matter whether or not that statement is true. It matters that your teachers control your grades, and you don’t.

To argue a point of grammar or punctuation, your only successful defense is The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Fowler is the absolute force of authority. He’s like The Shadow; he knows. No one with any sense argues with Fowler.

If you bribe someone else to write your essays for you, you will get caught. I guarantee that your teachers know what kind of mistakes you make and will notice that they’re missing.

While we’re on the subject of plagiarism, don’t steal from popular magazines. They have distinctive styles that are very easy to recognize. Whatever you do, don’t steal from the most recent issue. Teachers have to visit doctors’ and dentists’ offices, too. (I know. Big shocker.)

Opinions can’t compete with facts. Facts can be proven; opinions can’t. By the way, shouting your opinion more loudly than your opponent does not mean that you get to win. As a student, you are what you know (can prove), not what you imagine might be true.

Errors can’t be successfully defended by a claim of poetic license. If you don’t have a publication history, and school publications do not count, you are operating poetics without a license.

Foreign languages are a snap when you make your own vocabulary flash cards. Try to quiz yourself several times a day. Put the English translation on one side of a

3 x 5 notecard and the foreign word on the other. Remember to get an index card box with an alphabetical organizer. It’s easy to lose cards, and it’s hard to find the one(s) you need without alphabetical divisions.

Skimming is not reading, and reading something one time is not studying. To prepare for a test, tape any questions that you think might appear, leave a short pause, and then tape the correct answer. Try to answer before you play the correct response. Our first, best memory is still through our ears. Testing yourself three times is usually all you need to be prepared.

Different types of tests demand different strategies. For example, never assume that an open book test is a gift. That’s only true for the well prepared. The unready will spend most of the exam time trying to figure out where the answers are.

Open note tests are a teaching tool. For the first exam, quite a few of my students didn’t have notes. (Oh, well. Bad news for them.) Believe me, they took notes after that.

When you change your answer on a test, you will go from right to wrong most of the time. In fact, the less prepared you are, the more likely that the first answer that pops into your head will be correct. Remember that we were hardwired to live outdoors among the predators, and that you are descended from a very long line of people who guessed right the second they saw the tiger. Your brain has no clue that your anxiety, fear, or panic is over ink and paper. You are a prey animal. Use your instincts.

Don’t get stuck on a question. You can always return to it later. In the meanwhile, answer all of the questions that come to you easily. You don’t want to lose most of your time struggling for just one answer.

Beware the true or false test in which all of the answers are either true or false. The test is usually meant to be an (dirty trick) object lesson. You’ll be told that. If you really knew the material, you couldn’t have been fooled. The truth is that everything you know from years of educational brainwashing tells you that some of your answers have got to be wrong, and that’s enough to erode the confidence you have in yourself.

Studies have shown that certain tactics help students to improve their multiple choice scores. When I read one study, I scoffed; then, I looked at my exams. The study was correct on all counts.

1) These tests are true or false with some extra options. Don’t be fooled by unusual patterns, like three a’s in a row.

2) Start by eliminating as many wrong choices as you possibly can, so that you narrow the choices down.

3) When you have no clue, go with c) or 3). This answer appears the most frequently.

4) When your choices are: both a and b, both b and c, both a and c, all of the above, try really hard to eliminate some of the possibilities. Remember that all of the above is an extremely easy answer to write. When you know the material, being right three or more times in a row is a piece of cake.

5) When none of the above appears, unless it’s an option for every question, it’s the answer. It’s quite difficult to be wrong three or more times in a row.


Resorting to prayer has never, in the entire history a humans, made up for poor or nonexistent studying. I am writing from experience here. Apparently, your maker was not enrolled in your class and can’t possibly provide the answers. (Too many tests, too little time.)

Remember that there really aren’t trick questions if you know the material; however, some questions can seem misleading—usually because you haven’t read them carefully enough. Watch out for words like no, not, -n’t, but, or except. These words can change the meaning of the question to its opposite. Also, beware of “absolutist” words like all, none, always, or never. Very few things are all-or-nothing. For example, “The death penalty never deters a muderer.” I can easily disprove that statement. Execution deters the muderers who are executed. I promise you that they’ll never kill again. (Kindly note the appropriate use of never here.)

This brings us to Gilbert’s Law of Go Flunk Yourself. Teachers don’t, in fact can’t, flunk you. They can only record the accident that you’ve had with the material.

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Volume 4, Issue 17, Posted 4:58 PM, 07.29.2008