Letter from Mara

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While December is synonymous with holiday cheer and a well deserved holiday break, it also marks the end of a semester, which means one thing - finals! With that in mind, this month’s blog posts are dedicated to study strategies and project planning, two big ideas that are front and center in just about all of our middle school and high school tutoring sessions at the moment. Central to both is the question of what it means to learn.

For many students, the ability to recite definitions for a given set of terms is synonymous with being prepared for an assessment. However, if that same student has to identify a synonym for a vocabulary word, explain why a single event is important within a revolution, or illustrate the importance of a specific organelle to a cell, he is often at a loss. That is because there is a difference between memorizing and understanding, and effective learning is arguably a hybrid of both. If a student works to truly understands the material he is working with, he will also be able to remember important terms, names, and dates without explicitly focusing on memorizing those isolated details. I would argue that any good assessment will challenge a student to demonstrate their understanding of the material through a variety of different exercises, which is why it is so important for students to take a thoughtful and active approach to studying for assessments.

With this in mind, this month’s posts include a discussion of how to develop an effective study plan, strategies for effective project management, and suggestions for how to avoid cramming by engaging in meaningful learning throughout the semester, rather than in the weeks before finals. Hopefully these articles will help you help your child navigate the stresses of summative assessments this semester, and if you need additional support, our team of excellent tutors is always just a phone call away.

Happy holidays and good luck!

The Finals Stretch


Depending on the specifics of your child’s school schedule, December regularly brings with it the promise of impending holidays and a much needed break, along with the specter of final exams. This last hurdle before the break requires a final sprint of concentration right at the moment in the fall semester when students are increasingly ready to leave the classroom behind for a time. Of course, though, that is why it is so important to help your student clamber over this obstacle successfully and finish the term on a high note. With that in mind, we wanted to be sure to go over Smarten Up’s smart studying tips. 

The first step of any strong study plan is figuring out exactly what knowledge will be tested on the exam, and in what format. Cumulative final exams can feel overwhelming, since they might cover 3-4 months worth of material — but attempting to learn every fact and detail from every reading or lecture in that period will often be not just stressful, but counterproductive, depending on the specific requirements of a given teacher. Encourage your student to communicate with their teacher proactively to ask for any guidance on what areas to focus on, and in what way they will be tested: will the test feature multiple choice, short answer, or essay questions? Smart studying is targeted to the content and format that students will actually encounter on test day.

Smart studying is also active, rather than passive. Many students will put in time ‘studying’ by reading through their old notes, or skimming through textbook pages, and then find themselves at a loss on test day when the information they’ve been looking over has vanished from their memory. Instead, students should create opportunities for active engagement with past material every time they sit down to study. If they are looking through textbook pages, they should always use the comprehension questions that are often found at the end of a chapter to test their understanding, or write out a set of questions they can ask themselves about the reading the next day to make sure they’ve remembered the main idea and key details. If they’re expecting to write an essay — or even if they aren’t — writing an outline with bullet-pointed evidence will require students to actively process the information they’re committing to memory and slot it into an argument or narrative that will be easier to retain than a collection of unrelated facts. Rather than memorizing a list of words for a foreign language test, students should write out example sentences, create flashcards, and devise creative connections between similar words. 

One way to activate the study process is to find a partner. Studies have shown that teaching material is the best way to gain full mastery of it, and if two or more students can divide and conquer on a particularly lengthy study guide, they can make efficient use of studying time to quiz one another and probe for weak spots in their comprehension. A reliable study partner is a very valuable resource, but be sure that he or she does not become an excuse for waiting to start work individually! The best way to feel confident on test day is to study smart by engaging with the material over time and maintaining an active approach to learning.

The Future Project

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Another common feature of December in the classroom is the long-term project, the culmination of a semester of work that sometimes replaces a written final. This project may take many forms, from a research paper to a creative portfolio or analytical essay. Each of these different tasks has its own challenges and opportunities for learning, but common to any type of long-term project is the importance of effective planning. 

People are notoriously bad at projecting ourselves into the future, consistently choosing to privilege short-term benefits over long-term goals in a phenomenon known by economists as temporal discounting. In the context of the long-term project, this means that we must consciously work to devise a clear plan with real incentives for gradual progress and disincentives for procrastination. We’ve all been in a situation where — even knowing how much better our work would be if we afforded ourselves a proper drafting process, with various rounds of revision — a months-long project floats along in the background until a few days before the deadline, when work must be crammed into the available hours and then submitted in a rush. School projects are a chance to build good habits for this type of project from a young age. 

In some cases, helpfully, a teacher will provide a set of intermediate deadlines for the project, so that in the final few days before the project is due, all that remains to be done is to stitch together the different components that have already been completed and revise them together. If these intermediate deadlines are mandatory, all the better — if they are merely ‘suggested,’ they should be treated as mandatory whenever possible, with some flexibility if an exam or major project in another class is pulling focus. If there are no intermediate deadlines, students should absolutely create their own. This can be accomplished by reflecting frankly on similar assignments they have completed in the past to accurately estimate how long each component — brainstorming a question, initial reading and research, the annotated bibliography, outline, first draft, second draft, etc — will take them, and then creating a project planning document with the deadlines written out together (and entering each into the general academic planner). If students have someone — a parent, a friend, a tutor — who they can ask to help hold them accountable to these independently chosen deadlines, all the better. 

Of course, the day-to-day work of sticking to this schedule contains its own executive functioning challenges. Students might benefit from using a timer to work in twenty-minute distraction-free chunks without their phones, and they’ll need to balance the long-term needs of the project against short-term work and tests in other subjects. This is all the more reason to break the larger project down into manageable pieces, so that progress can be made in 20-30 minute chunks over the course of a week. Planning for the future is inherently difficult, but doing so in a pragmatic, proactive way gives students a chance to take more control over their schedule, reducing stress and improving the final result.

Taking (some of) the Stress out of Testing

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While testing and finals are always stressful, and the Finals Stretch Article covers helpful study strategies to prepare for the big day, it is also valuable to discuss the importance of developing a more proactive approach to long term learning. If a student really engages with and understands material as it is presented, she won’t need to stress (or at least not stress as much) before finals as she will already have a firm grasp of important concepts and their related details. While we are all guilty of cramming at one point or another in our academic careers, the short term gains of memorization for a big test cannot compare with the confidence and knowledge earned from steady, active engagement. With that in mind, here are a few small learning habits that will lead to big learning gains. 

Note taking

Both in class or at home, taking well organized notes offers endless benefits. Whether a student chooses to create an outline, take two-column or Cornell notes, or create a graphical representation of big ideas and their related details, the key to a useful set of notes is structure. They must clearly represent the hierarchy of details for a given topic - big ideas and their related details, key words or figures and their meaning and importance. In addition, notes shouldn’t be overly wordy; students should learn to use symbols and abbreviations, and write in phrases as opposed to complete sentences. Not only will this help students engage more deeply with the material as they are listening and reading, a good set of notes will also serve as an excellent study guide as well. They should be reviewed regularly and utilized as a central part of the test preparation process. 


Active reading was the theme of last month’s posts for a reason! Just like note taking, annotations promote multi-sensory engagement and help students create a road map of sorts to navigate a text and their thoughts about it more easily.  A test on an unmarked book can feel impossible to prepare for, and finding information to add to a study guide from a noteless textbook often requires extensive rereading; however, a well annotated text solves both of those problems, plus the material it contains will be better understood thanks to an efficient and effective initial read. 

Mixed review

Most students have to take both formative and summative assessments; while the former are more like quizzes or unit tests, the latter come at the end of a semester or year and assess a student’s mastery of all material covered in the class. It is also worth noting that even formative assessments take on summative characteristics as topics covered in previous units are considered to be learned material and thus fair game to include on a quiz or test. When it comes to knowledge, especially with things like formulas or vocabulary, “use it or lose it” could not ring more true. That is why students either need to either be sure to generalize and apply their knowledge (think: using new vocabulary in writing, actively making connections between learned concepts and new material), or actively review their notes and/or study materials on a regular basis. Consistently finding just a little bit of time to engage with material this way will make a summative exam so much less intimidating. 

Reading for all Ages



Reading is such a fundamental part of our everyday existence, we often take for granted what a complicated task it can be. We read emails and work communications to do our jobs; we read the news and articles of interest to stay abreast of what is happening in the world; we read directions and agreements to make decisions; many of us read academic texts for work; and when we have time, we read for pleasure. Each of these tasks requires us to read differently, but because of practice and experience, our brains understand how to adapt the way we read to get the most out of the task at hand - for example, looking for important details and taking notes when reading for work, versus skimming the news or getting lost in the story of a book without worrying about remembering every detail. These are subconscious choices we make as experienced readers that come to us as second nature, which is why it can be so hard to understand why kids have difficulty with reading comprehension.

For children, mid-to-late elementary school marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. At this stage, we expect students to be fluent decoders capable of investing their mental energy into making meaning of what they read. We want kids to learn to make connections to the text based on their knowledge of the world, their personal experiences, and other books or articles they’ve read. While this is the expectation, though, it is important that we help students along as they learn to think more deeply as readers. With that in mind, Talking to Kids About Books includes a great list of questions you can use to guide more meaningful conversations with your child about what they are reading, and Reading to Learn offers a list of helpful strategies to support comprehension.

For more advanced students, 7th and 8th grade is when kids must learn how to analyze a text. Knowledge of reading must go hand-in-hand with ideas about how an author used subject, form, and diction in order to create a more compelling story. Learning to read closely in this way can require a lot of guidance and practice, and that is why it is so important that students understand how to go about this process strategically. A 7th grader isn’t likely to pick up on themes of isolation or male companionship when reading Of Mice and Men, just as so many high schoolers (and, at times, adults!) struggle with Shakespeare.However, understanding how to utilize online resources to preview themes, or watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet before unpacking the text, can make a world of difference by assisting students to read and annotate with purpose. Next Level Annotation provides useful ideas for helping kids develop these more advanced reading skills.

Talking to Kids about Books

Independent reading time is a standard part of the late elementary and early middle school homework routine. Beginning around 2nd grade, students begin to keep reading logs to keep track of the names of their books, and how many pages they read or how long they read for. And while many of these texts are quite simple to start, the early reading habits that students build with books like Frog and Toad, Ramona and Beezus, and Mercy Watson, are the habits that will enable them to become immersed in the world of Harry Potter, enthralled by the battles of Percy Jackson and Catniss Everdeen, and moved by the emotional turmoil of Holden Caulfield and Ponyboy Curtis. That is why it is so important to talk to your children about books and ask questions that encourage kids to actively make connections as they read - to events in their life, to things they know about the world, to other books that they’ve read, to other characters they’ve met - because it is this sort of reflection that brings books to life and creates a love of reading. Below we’ve included a list of guiding questions to get you started!

Before your child begins a new book, ask:

  • Why did you choose this book?

  • What makes you think this book is going to be interesting?

  • What do you think the book is going to be about?

  • Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve already read or seen?

  • What kind of characters do you think will be in the book?

  • What do you think is going to happen?

While he or she is reading a book, try asking:

  • Will you catch me up on the story? What’s happened so far?

  • What do you think will happen next?

  • If you were that character, what would you have done differently in that situation?

  • If the book was a TV show, which actors would you cast in it?

  • Where is the book set?

  • If the main character in that story lived next door, would you be friends?

  • What does the place look like in your head as you read? Would you want to visit there?

  • Did you learn any new words or facts so far?

After your child has finished the book, ask questions like:

  • What was your favorite part of the book? Why?

  • Who was your favorite character? Why?

  • What was the most interesting thing you learned from the book?

  • Why do you think the author wrote this book?

  • Would you have ended the book differently? Did it end the way you thought it would?

  • Did the problem of the book’s plot get solved?

  • If you could change one thing in the book, what would it be?

Reading to Learn


Academic reading is an active process. Students should be proactively visualizing a narrative, thinking of historical events in context, imagining real life examples and applications of scientific concepts, and most importantly, annotating and taking notes as they read. It is this sort of engagement that results in comprehension and understanding.

All too often, though, we see students take a far more passive approach to the reading they have to do for school. They sit down with their novels or textbooks in distracting environments or at the end of the night in bed, they don’t have a pencil or highlighter in hand, and worst of all, they read without stopping to think about what they are reading. Fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour later, they close their book and declare their reading “done,” yet they likely cannot tell you most of what they “read.”

This divide between active and passive reading is a crucial one to bridge. If a child can learn to read more effectively, she will become a better student, seeing gains in every subject - it’s that simple. Below you’ll find suggestions for proven reading comprehension strategies, but no matter which approach they use, kids should be sure to stop and summarize often! With so many ideas, challenging words, etc., it is easy and completely normal for students to sometimes lose track of what the author is saying. Good readers, adults, teens, and children alike, consistently monitor their understanding and often have to re-read and look back to make sense of a text. Although this will result in slower reading, and it may feel like extra work, it will end up saving students time in the end as they won’t have to endlessly reread to find the information they need to do their work!

  • Underline or highlight with purpose! A simple guiding rule is that a student should almost never highlight more than a quarter of the words on the page; given that the goal of highlighting is to help a reader pick out the most important information in a reading, a sea of color will only serve to mask the importance of those details.

  • On a related note, using different colors for different themes, or picking a separate color for important dates, vocabulary terms, or names will help to prioritize and categorize key details.

  • It is also helpful to keep in mind that a good nonfiction paragraph always includes a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence. This often makes the task of highlighting “the important stuff” a bit more explicit.

  • While highlighting is great, annotation is even better! When students takes notes in their own words, it ensures that the brain continuously processes and synthesizes important ideas and details. This rephrasing will help them to check in on whether they actually understand what they are reading, and it will solidify the information in their memory. Plus, jots will create an easy-to-navigate map of the text whenever students need to return to it to study for an exam or find quotes for a paper, just like those color coded references.

  • Lastly, there is good old note taking. Whether students create a chart of character traits and relationships, a timeline to organize dates, or a diagram to map out the steps of a scientific process, well organized notes are an amazing tool to support processing and retention, plus they serve as a study guide for the inevitable test or quiz as well.

Next Level Annotations

As students grow older, the demands of their classwork evolve; rather than merely summarizing plot or retaining historical dates, students are challenged to think critically, as they take their base of skills and knowledge and use these tools to forge original analysis. In parallel with this evolution in their education must come an evolution in the way they read, and in the way they annotate. With luck, students will have been building up simple annotation habits for some time by this point — but now, the purpose of annotation shifts, from a tactic for staying engaged with the reading, to an active commentary that records insight and evidence with a grander end goal in mind: the analytical essay.

When students read with the aim of collecting evidence to use in an essay, they do so under a variety of different circumstances. Some teachers might provide a framework or prompt before reading begins — others will wait until after the class has finished reading a text before distributing the essay assignment. In either case the goal of annotation is the same: to activate the mind as students read, and start them down the path of critical analysis. The key here is reading with a clear purpose. If the prompts are distributed ahead of time, students should come up with a key — by numbering them for example — and mark the text with the appropriate number whenever they find a quote that could be of use in responding to that prompt. For visually-oriented learners, pens or post-it notes in different colors for different themes can enhance the process. Even if they don’t have the list of possible prompts before they begin reading, students should use a site like LitCharts to preview the text, searching for important themes that they can annotate in a similar way, as these are likely to be helpful for the eventual essay. It’s best to focus on two or three themes at a time — and remember that one piece of evidence might be helpful for more than one theme, and should be marked with more than one number or color. 

If they’re writing a research paper, and using sources that they find independently, many students will find that the challenge is sifting through the text to find relevant evidence. Here, too, there is a shift in the approach to reading; rather than starting from the beginning and reading a stack of library books through the end, students should begin with a focused question and use strategic searches to isolate the evidence they need. This means using the table of contents, learning to navigate an index, focusing on headings, and searching intelligently through online databases. As students encounter the information they will need, they should be compiling quotes into a central location, making sure to include source information and page numbers as they read and record to smooth the process of creating a bibliography later on. Online tools such as easybib.com, citationmachine.net, and the reference materials at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab make creating citations easier than ever, but most students will need an introduction to the process — both in order to understand the required formatting and its intention, and to avoid unintentional plagiarism. 

The right kind of annotation will make the process of writing a critical essay or research paper ten times simpler, and much more effective at the same time. Not only can annotation provide the kind of record that students can easily transfer into a brainstorm and outline, it will activate their way of thinking about the text as they read, setting them up for success as writers.

Teaching Technology


Letter from Mara

While it is hard to imagine a world without iPhones, iPads, laptops, and immediate access to information, in the not so distant past, personal computers and internet connected devices were specialty items. I vividly remember learning to type with a Mario video game on our boxy family computer, the sound of the dial up internet tone connecting to AOL, and getting my first laptop - a turquoise iMac that seemed like the coolest thing in the world. I also remember computer classes in school that were geared towards helping us learn how to use new technology to develop computer literacy. 

Nowadays, we see toddlers on iPhones, children who can navigate just about any app or program you put in front of them without a moment's hesitation, and teenagers who can't be away from their devices for more than a few minutes. Any child in school today has certainly earned the title of "digital native," yet we often assume they are more digitally literate than they actually are. With that in mind, this month's posts are all about helpful tips to teach students digital literacy - learning to touch type, how to do internet research, how to identify credible sources, and how to organize digital materials. It is never too late to develop these skills, and they are all central to being an efficient and effective student!

Students of the Digital Age

In a world of supposed ‘digital natives,’ we’ve forgotten that certain computer literacy skills still need to be taught. Although it’s true that kids growing up in a world of omnipresent gadgetry have a natural ease with certain aspects of the digital world that might escape their parents, this does not translate into automatic mastery of the essentials, such as organizing materials, evaluating the reliability of sources, safeguarding privacy, and even typing. Guiding students toward best practices in these areas is a vital part of teaching them to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

For a certain generation of students--those raised on instant messaging in a world of desktop computers--typing practice was a natural part of growing up, and a bit of guidance toward proper technique made all the difference. Nowadays, since most students learn to type in their free time on phones and iPads, touch-typing on a more traditional keyboard is a much neglected skill. As students enter middle and high school, a growing proportion of their work is typed, rather than handwritten -- but for many, this is a laborious process, one that hampers the transmission of thought from mind to page. A few daily minutes of practice with free online resources, including the appropriately named www.typing.com, can quickly improve a student’s approach, saving hours of time in the long run.

Anyone who uses a computer regularly -- which is to say, nearly everyone -- knows the importance of keeping an organized desktop, file system, and inbox. Computers serve as a portal to increasingly vast realms of information, and an important repository for personal data. Without some level of structure, this mix can quickly become chaotic. Parents and teachers can help by explicitly guiding students through the process of building nested folders by school year and subject, on the desktop and in cloud-based systems such as Google Drive. A long term research project might deserve a folder of its own, where source material, drafts, and notes can be stored together. 

Digital time management tools can also be of help to many students; iCal and Google Keep provide electronic alternatives to supplement traditional paper planners and to-do lists, with programmable reminders, color-coding, and the ability to share appointments and tasks. Many schools now have their own version of an online portal for students and parents, where teachers post assignments, grades, and course materials. This should be a resource for students that is checked daily and then processed and recorded in their own planners. 

Finally, students benefit from a clear explanation of the guidelines for evaluating the reliability of different sources online, and for keeping their own information safe from potential hackers or other unwanted eyes. In an online world without clear editorial standards, students need to understand how biases function and be guided toward reputable sources, learning to be wary of taking what they read at face value. Parents should also have a plan for discussing how to choose and manage passwords around the internet, what information to share and what to keep private, and how to deal with the dangers of operating in the public forum of the internet, while feeling like you’re in private.