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College daze: Georgia Tech honors grad shares secrets to maintaining grades & sanity

William Konop began tutoring teens for the ACT and SAT while he was still an undergraduate at Georgia Tech. A recent graduate, Konop co-founded of the Seneca Education Group, a tutoring company based out of Alpharetta.

A highly requested tutor who began writing math curriculum while still in college, Konop graduated Tech with highest honors in pure mathematics. He now applies statistics and data analysis and a cognitive psychology approach to test prep at his company.

In this piece, he shares his approach to conquering exams in high-pressure learning environments like Georgia Tech.

My son is a freshman at Tech and always preparing for a test. (He mentioned to me last night he has three midterms in most classes.) He attended a public high school with an International Baccalaureate program so he is accustomed to testing, but says his Tech chemistry and math tests are intense and frequent.

In writing about education for two decades, I've seen rising concern among parents over k-12 testing, but little debate around testing on the college level. I chatted with a woman recently whose daughter attended a private high school that de-emphasized testing in favor of portfolio reviews. Her daughter is now pre-med at an elite college and spending all her time in tutoring and review sessions for tests. The young woman understands the material, but is not used to racing against a clock to demonstrate her fluency. So, her challenge is figuring out how to show her grasp of complex content under pressurized testing conditions, according to her mother.

With that background, here is Konop's essay on easing testing struggles:

By William Konop

“Georgia Tech is where fun goes to die,” a friend once warned me.

While declaring "the death of all fun" upon arrival to the campus is a bit premature, some of my most vivid memories are of frantic note-taking and equally frantic all-nighters spent keeping my head above water.

Freshman year was especially jarring as I was also learning to balance the demands of school with my part-time job as an ACT/SAT tutor. Altogether, it was like a prolonged electrocution. Had I not cared about doing well, the stress wouldn’t have been as severe, but doing well is the point, right? No one comes to Georgia Tech or any college to fail.

Numerous nights, I quietly slipped into tears. No day contained enough hours. When could I find time to just be a college kid?

In the tutoring world, there are numerous educational psychology drills to implement with students, but those tools could not conquer the obstacle of time. They helped me endure the stress, but they did so without giving me any practical tasks to change the situation. It was not enough to find a pathway to acquire the information. I needed to find the quickest pathway possible so that I could get to bed before 2 a.m.

Through trial and error, I was fortunate to discover a handful of tools that dramatically altered my experience at Georgia Tech. I trained myself to learn more efficiently and was able to reduce the time spent studying for classes while maintaining highest honors in my coursework.

If these techniques worked for me as a student, why not apply them to the students I tutored? My personal goal was to maximize what I could learn while reducing the amount of time it took me to learn it. That's a goal common to all academically serious students who want to live a balanced life.

So I forged ahead, customizing drills to each of my students’ tutoring programs, and watched for the results.

I didn’t teach them stress management, yet they were less stressed. Neither did I have a magical technique for tapping into their motivation, yet that came more easily to them, too. Most importantly, I had the pleasure of seeing student after student reach their goal test scores in a fraction of the time they’d expected.

These drills quickly became handy tools that I always kept at my side. There are two cognitive enhancement tools in particular that I adapted to my students' tutoring programs while earning my B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech:

Speed Reading

As a curriculum developer, I have learned that most textbook writers make assumptions about your reading speed. If you are a slower reader, you are simply spending more time to finish reading assignments than others in your peer group.

One of my favorite authors, Tim Ferriss, has a 20 minute speed reading drill that more than tripled my reading speed. Two years later, as an upperclassman, I could complete a reading assignment and then watch an episode of “House of Cards” in the same amount of time it would have taken to complete that same assignment alone. You can find the speed reading drill here on Tim Ferriss’ blog.

Refine Your Automatic Thinking

Why would you catch a ball thrown to you, but dodge a rock of the same size and weight?

Our brains implement automatic thinking so that we can act in a quicker manner than the time it takes to logically deduce what to do.

When taking tests, our brains are also implementing automatic thinking, and we cannot control it. IT’S AUTOMATIC. This is what can cause those careless errors we routinely make on every test. Even though we can never control our current automatic thinking, there are tools that can alter how our automatic thinking will operate on future tests.

One particular example is to break your homework problems into groups and then to make a list of the careless errors you tend to make most frequently for each group of problems. This increases your cognizance of the types of mistakes you tend to make. Your first thought during any test question then becomes "Okay, I need to make sure I don't do X!"

Now, you are dodging the rock first instead of dodging it while solving the problem.

These tools also work well for standardized test situations, since problem types are recycled from one test to the next. The predictability enables us to precondition responses we know will be helpful in the future. Since every test you take is standardized to a given degree, it’s important to learn your professors, and how they present problem types, so that you can break any test into its predictable components.

By maximizing my reading speed, sharpening my automatic thinking, and breaking tests down into predictable components, I was able to keep good grades, get more sleep, and live a balanced lifestyle while attending Georgia Tech.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.