EP 126: Fidget Spinners: Learning Tools or Distractions?

If you have a child of any age, you no doubt have seen, touched, or experienced a “Fidget Spinner.” A fidget spinner is nothing more than a handheld wheel with a central axis point. They are sold in a multitude of shapes and designs, but the core commonality that binds them is their ability to be held and spun indefinitely. Lubrication between the joints enables them to go particularly fast, in some cases spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute. These quirky yet simple devices have actually been around since the 1990s, but have only recently exploded in popularity. Even I have had the opportunity to play with them, and I must say, they are oddly captivating.

But I don’t think it’s the look or feel of these devices that have catapulted them across headline news. The reason why these products seem to be so interesting and controversial is because of their categorization as a tool to ease the symptoms of attention related ailments that make it difficult for young students to focus in class. Makers of the spinning gadgets purport that these devices are "perfect for ADD, ADHD, anxiety and autism."

When students have trouble focusing in class, a potential solution is to offer them something that they can touch during class so that they feel a sense of calm. This in turn enables them to silence the parts of their brain that could lead them astray, thereby allowing them to pay attention and absorb information more efficiently.

In theory, fidget spinners sound like an excellent fit for such a solution. They feel nice when they are spinning, are very simple to operate, and reasonably priced. The problem, however, lies in how they are actually used. Fidget spinners are extremely fun to play with, and that’s why I believe that they are dangerous in classrooms. I have seen many of my students use them, both in class and during tutoring sessions, and what I notice is that the devices are mesmerizing. Students aren’t able to simply touch them while paying attention to a lecture; instead, they want to watch them, move them around, and balance them on their fingers and noses. In short, fidget spinners end up becoming a larger distraction than help. "The spinner toys, in my opinion, and that of teachers I've spoken to, are just that – toys," according to occupational therapist Stephen Poss. "Spinner toys are visually distracting, and I think that's their major drawback."

So where do I stand on the controversy surrounding these products? As long as my students are responsible with them, they are allowed to have them at school, but I definitely do not consider them to be helpful with respect to staying focused. I ask that they are put away during class so that students are not distracted. If you are being told that fidget spinners will actually improve your child’s attention or focus, I believe that you are being misled.

Here are links to the articles referenced in the podcast:





EP 125: The Correlation Between Music and Math

I can say this with almost 100% certainty (perhaps 99.9%): if you are a person living on this planet, you enjoy listening to music. You may prefer the dark melodies and heavy guitar riffs of punk rock, or you might gravitate towards the light and upbeat sounds of electro pop. Whatever particular concoction of rhythms and sounds you prefer, rest assured that there is something that tickles your fancy.

There is something else you should know. While most folks readily profess a stalwart love for music, they simultaneously describe a deep hatred for mathematics. When thinking about classroom mathematics and modern music, it is natural to initially presume that the two are diametrically opposed, but this line of thinking is incorrect. The two are in fact inextricably connected (to hear more about the connection between math and music, check out my video on the applications of math). Music is simply an auditory extension of mathematics. Making good music mandates that composers adhere to numerical laws of rhythm, timing, and melody. Scales are literally mathematical rules applied to vibrational frequencies that seem be universal across the planet. Many famous composers like Iannis Xenakis openly use mathematical theories to create musical works of art.

But there is another connection to take notice of that is highly relevant to our young math students today. According to an article from Brain Balance, “using specific music and sounds may help to stimulate one hemisphere more than the other and possibly create more balance in the brain. As such, listening to music could improve a student’s cognition and ability to learn math skills. As recently as 2012, one study showed that listening to music during a math test could improve performance by 40 percent.” Translation: music can help you learn math! Moreover, the article purports that upbeat music and major tones in particular can bolster left hemisphere activities, which is directly relevant to logic based tasks like science and math reasoning.
I have known about the harmonious relationship between mathematics and music for some time now. Recognizing the interplay between the two was the impetus for me to begin the creation of a series of math music videos. I try to bridge the gap between music and math by literally singing about math related concepts. Moreover, I use the choruses as a sort of musical mnemonic device to give students the best opportunity possible to memorize tricky formulas and perform well on tests. To check out my latest math music video on special right triangles, click here.

EP 124: 6 Reasons Why You Should Study for a Math Placement Test

To date, I have worked as a private math tutor, test preparation specialist, 6th grade math teacher, and online video course creator. Part of my duties in these various positions have led me to counsel students who are transitioning to new middle schools, high schools, and colleges. The question that I have received over and over from students and parents is this: should one prepare for a math placement test? It is an interesting question since most folks naturally assume that everyone should study before an exam. So why the confusion? Because most schools tell new students not to prepare for placement tests. The rationale is that placement tests are merely meant to gauge current math skills, and preparation for these tests might muddy the waters. Moreover, there is no passing or failing; these tests will simply be used to determine what level of math a student will enter when school begins. For example, a new 7th grader may either enter pre-algebra, algebra, or geometry based on their placement test results. So, as it stands, most teachers and counselors seem to be advising students to go into these tests without preparation. Do I agree? Of course not, and I will explain why in six simple reasons.

Caveat: I only recommend preparing for placement tests when the desire to do so comes intrinsically from the student. Forcing the issue means the student is not mentally or emotionally prepared to work hard, and that can be a problem if placed into a high math group. If, however, the student is pushing for the preparation, there is no need to fear. Their desire to perform well will carry them. I am in support of introducing the idea to a student, but if they do not latch onto the concept, then my recommendation is to let them be.

Reason 1: It’s easy to forget nuances and lose points even when math fluency and comprehension are strong

Who out there remembers the quadratic formula in its entirety? Who recalls precisely how to take the derivative of sin(x)? Who can still solve a system of linear equations? As an adult who is far removed from the study of mathematics, my guess is that you have completely forgotten all of these protocols and procedures. But guess what… even if you’ve only had a month or two away from these concepts, chances are that you’ve forgotten parts of these processes. Perhaps you remember the bulk of the quadratic formula, but you somehow thought the denominator was 2 instead of 2a. Or maybe you confused the derivative of sin(x) with the derivative of cos(x).

My point is this: it is very easy to forget a small component of these formulas and procedures, even when your comprehension at one time was flawless. Is it then fair or accurate for a multiple choice math placement test to penalize a student for a series of minor mishaps? Absolutely not. Aside from being fair, it is inaccurate. Accordingly, brushing up on these concepts is a must. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating a full on multi-week cram session where you embark upon a quest to learn massive amounts of new information. What I do recommend, however, is a thorough review of all the concepts you learned in the previous year. It will not misrepresent your abilities; to the contrary, it will let your true math prowess shine.

Reason 2: Math knowledge can be substantially ramped up in a relatively short period of time

Math is not like reading. Becoming a solid reader takes years of practice and devotion because it is such a highly complex process. While math can be highly complex as well, middle school and high school mathematics is comprised of a series of relatively simple operations. When I say simple, I do not mean math is easy. What I mean is that much of the individual math concepts taught at these levels can be understood and mastered in a relatively short period of time. It’s the reason why students preparing for standardized tests routinely see a much larger jump in math scores than verbal scores after preparing for a few months. As such, engaging in some focused practice and review in a short period of time can have a significant impact on one’s ability on a math placement test. Translation: the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.

Reason 3: It is very unlikely that you can perform beyond your abilities on a placement test (i.e. if you can get it right on the placement test, you most likely GET IT)

So many math education websites state that you should not prepare for placement tests because you want to be in an appropriate math class for your knowledge and ability level. Well, since final exams are meant to gauge a student’s understanding of class material, should students forego preparation for final exams as well? What about standardized tests? Don’t we want students to be placed at a university that is appropriate for their skill level? The point is that preparation is part and parcel of the education process, and how hard a student is willing to prepare is also indicative of their ability to succeed through perseverance. Moreover, if a student understands a concept to the point where they can provide a correct answer on a placement test, they GET IT. I do, however, concede that students should refrain from guessing on placement tests. That would be counterproductive. Educated guesses make sense, but blind guesses would serve no purpose in assessing placement.

Reason 4: You can always move backwards, but you usually can’t move forward

Let’s play out the worst case scenario of acing a math placement test. Assume that a student going into 7th grade crushes the assessment and is moved into geometry, a very advanced math class for 7th grade. Let’s also assume that the student is now experiencing great trepidation about geometry and feels as though algebra would be a better fit. The parents concur. Is it feasible to move the child from geometry backwards to algebra? Of course! Schools are extremely amenable to moving a student backwards if both the parents and student feel that such placement is appropriate. Going the other way, however, is extremely difficult, especially with prestigious college preparatory institutions. Schools in the upper echelon of academia can be rigid with respect to placement results. I’ve seen many students fall victim to these systems only to end up facing boredom all year long. In sum, shoot for the stars so that you have options.

Reason 5: If you have a tutor, you will be more than equipped to iron out any difficulties that may arise in a challenging math class

For students lucky enough to have access to outside help, there is nothing to fear. Whether it’s a private tutor, parent, or teacher who volunteers after school, having access to extra help should alleviate any stress about being placed in an advanced math class. Any concepts that are troubling can be cleared up in a very short period of time when personalized help is available.

Reason 6: It is better to busy than be bored

Counselors constantly warn students of the dangers of being placed in a higher than appropriate math class. They admonish parents and students alike of how high level math classes can leave unprepared students feeling overwhelmed or anxious. But what about the alternative? What about the dangers of being bored? Boredom can destroy a child’s love for mathematics. Stagnation is a recipe for indifference. Moreover, the likelihood that a child will be completely overwhelmed with no ability to catch up is very small if the child possesses intrinsic motivation. Again, this entire article is premised on the fact that a child is preparing for a placement test because of his own desire. If a student indeed wants to prepare, they will likely embrace whatever challenge may come their way. So, it is with no hesitation or second thought that I leave you with this final recommendation: if a student wishes to prepare for a math placement test, by all means, let him do so.


EP 123: Review of the NCTM Annual, one of the largest math education conferences

On April 5th, 2017, I landed in San Antonio, Texas, for the very first time. Sure, I enjoy Tex-Mex, and yes, I was excited to roam the River Walk with the looming possibility of meeting Tony Parker, one of my favorite NBA guards of all time. But that’s not why I came to the home of the Alamo. I had embarked on this southwestern journey with a specific purpose in mind: to learn as much as possible about the vast field of math education. I had come, unequivocally, to milk the most talked about math education conference in the United States: the National Council of Teachers of Math’s Annual Conference!

The NCTM is the world’s largest mathematics education organization, boasting a membership of over 60,000 individuals. Each year, the NCTM hosts a massive annual conference that attracts nearly 9,000 math educators from across the globe to share their insights, strategies, and experiences to improve the entire education process for teachers and professors everywhere. Naturally, I had to be there.

I was beyond excited when I arrived in San Antonio. I imagine it’s the same feeling a budding musician experiences when attending the Grammy’s for the first time. The city’s conference center was filled with math wunderkinds and education superstars. I was elbow to elbow with esteemed research professors and secondary school math zealots that had so much to offer. As soon as I set foot in the main hallway, I immediately downloaded the NCTM conference app and began planning my tour of lectures. And let me say, this conference had an insane amount of lectures to choose from. At the end of each lecture, I perused dozens of lecture titles and descriptions before making a selection for my next stop. Of the many lectures I attended during the conference, there were three that stood above the rest. And by the way, this in no way means that the other lectures were not on the same level; this is simply a collection of three lectures that were particularly impactful for me given my ongoing efforts to use technology and games in concert with math education.

The first all-star lecture was given by Tinashe Blanchet, proud owner of a math education blog: http://mrsblanchet.net/.  Mrs. Blanchet is a teacher brimming with passion and enthusiasm for math. But why, precisely, did I find her presentation so powerful? Yes, she is a charismatic and dynamic speaker, but what really intrigued me was her topic: math music videos. Mrs. Blanchet, like me, infuses math with music to maximize student engagement. She posts her math music videos on YouTube and has so far received great praise from students, parents, and teachers alike. Her presentation went through her process and many of her great works in this arena. It was amazing to hear her inspirational story, and I was able to glean a great deal about her methods when creating math music ensembles. Finally, it was especially nice to hear her reaffirm a hunch of mine: math focused audiovisual productions are extremely effective learning vehicles when executed correctly.

The next highly memorable experience was attending a lecture by Mary Kemper, another blogger who runs the website https://agreaterimpact.wordpress.com/. Mrs. Kemper gave a powerful presentation about integrating animation into math education. She made an excellent case for the use of quality video animations to augment comprehension of key concepts. She explained how using basic programs like Keynote and iMotion can provide potent opportunities to develop compelling animations that can drastically improve understanding and retention of all sorts of math concepts.

Finally, the most interesting and interactive of the presentations was given by Ralph Pantozzi, math teacher extraordinaire and recipient of the 2014 Rosenthal Prize for Innovation and Inspiration in Math Teaching. Mr. Pantozzi led a compelling and thought provoking exercise on the probability of flipping of coins in succession. The in-depth explanation of the entire presentation can be found in the podcast episode, but in short, it was an amazing classroom activity that not only engages a class but develops a deep and concrete understanding of probability and how it changes based on action. It was a great deal of fun to say the least, but the best part of the experience is that it gave me some amazing ideas to put into action as my class begins its study of probability.

All in all, it was one of the most useful and enjoyable conferences I have ever attended. I can’t wait until the next one, and I only hope that I too will earn an opportunity to share some of my insights and experiences with the math educators in attendance.

EP 122: Reflection on my Implementation of Self-Paced Learning

Every teacher must face a tough decision: “do I teach my class at a steady but slow rate to allow for everyone to keep up, or do I plow through the material in order to satisfy the advanced pocket of students while employing a ‘sink or swim’ classroom policy?” Moving slowly might keep the entire class on pace, but doing so risks losing some of the students to boredom. Conversely, while moving rapidly might pacify those eager to learn, it may simultaneously disenfranchise students who need more time and repetition to properly digest new material.

Nowhere in education is this dilemma more pronounced than in mathematics. Some students learn math concepts seamlessly with very little practice needed. Others, while fully capable of deep and thorough comprehension, need a substantial amount of review and repetition before mastery is achieved. While working as both a classroom teacher as well as a private math tutor, I have seen these distinctions amongst students time and again. As a private tutor, I have the luxury of modifying my instruction on an individual basis so that it meshes with each child’s learning style and speed. Teaching a classroom, however, poses a different challenge.

This episode dives into my quest to solve this quandary by way of implementing a self-paced pre-algebra curriculum for my 6th grade class. I discuss the creation and employment of a custom-made online pre-algebra course used in tandem with on-demand individual instruction. In short, the results have been amazing. Not only have my students enjoyed this self-guided journey through pre-algebra, but it has provided freedom and flexibility that has allowed for unforeseen flourishings. Students that have historically experienced struggles in mathematics have suddenly come to life and surpassed many of their classmates. Other highly motivated students have pushed immensely hard and managed to match the progress of the advanced math group. Using this new format has been challenging at times, but the overall benefits for the students have been innumerable.

This episode also discusses the work of Natalie McCutchen, a teacher and self-pacing pioneer who runs a self-paced pre-algebra course at her elementary school in Franklin, Kentucky. Her classroom setup also relies on a confluence of video tutorials and on-demand individualized instruction. One important part of her class is that she reminds her students that working individually is a privilege, and those who use their time inefficiently will be placed into a standard classroom setting to ensure steady progress. To hear all the details, check out the full podcast episode!

The Flow State: A Means to Excel at Anything

The wind smashes against your face and the salt stings your eyes. As you move your arms through the water, carrying the weight your board and yourself with you, the sun slams its light onto your back. Your attention is unwavering, directed instead on the glistening mountains of blue in front of you. The right wave seems to be approaching from beyond, humming a low tune as it picks up speed. You time it just right, pivoting to the left and paddling to catch it. As you lift yourself onto the board, the wave pushes you forward with resilience. There’s no bailing now. Cool droplets of water race past your skin, and your gaze is stuck on the curling tunnel you’re about to conquer. You can barely make out the cries of gulls above, or the gazes of friends on the beach. You forget that you’ve been doing this for 4 hours straight, or that your knees have been torn from run-ins with coral. You just know that you’re floating on the tide again.

That feeling is called "Flow," and it doesn’t just apply to surfing.

It is a state of peak physical and mental performance in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Colloquially, it is known as being in the zone.

So how is this at all applicable to you, or to learning math for that matter? How can surfing, writing, playing soccer, or meditating have anything to do with you studying for a test?

The common thread, and the key to optimizing your results, is Flow. The reason it applies to you is that you’ve probably felt it at some point in your life. Even if you’re young, you can probably remember those moments when you were so engaged in something that time just melted away. You felt absorbed and at your best. You were in Flow, but maybe just didn’t know it at the time.

But you should know about it now, because it’s something that you can learn to harness to improve your skill-sets and perhaps draw more out of life. And yes, it could improve your SAT score too.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher at the University of Chicago, popularized the term "Flow" after publishing his seminal worked in 1990 called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Though research on the topic had been done before, he conducted extensive research after surveying many of the world’s top masters in a variety of fields. He described it as: being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

Curious to learn more? Let’s dive into the background behind Flow, and how you may be able to implement it to improve your test-taking and overall experiences.

Background of Flow

Though the term was made famous by Csikszentmihalyi, Flow had not been scientifically analyzed to the degree it is now. Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, both interested in researching the topic, founded the Flow Genome Project to map the “sequencing” of Flow in the brain. Kotler has even written a book entitled The Rise of Superman that discusses the neurobiology of this state of optimal performance.

One of primary theories of Flow is that a part of the brain has to shut down, not light up, to make it possible. The scientific term for this is Transient Hypofrontality, which means that for a short time (transient), reduced activity (hypo-) occurs in the prefrontal cortex in the brain (-frontality). This part of the brain dictates a person’s sense of self and acts as like a CEO to process decisions. However, it can act as a filter during demanding activities and prevent a person from truly losing themselves. This is a huge barrier to overcome, because when a person is in Flow, he or she shouldn’t be second-guessing themselves. They should just perform, almost as if possessed.

According to Kotler, Flow causes the release of 5 hormones that improve output:

  1. Dopamine, which increases momentary pleasure.
  2. Norepinephrine, which gives you energy by increasing heart-rate and breathing.
  3. Anandamide, which reduces stress.
  4. Endorphins, which reduce physical pain.
  5. Serotonin, which increases the feeling of reward and keeps you wanting more.

In the process of his research on Flow, Kotler has cited some fascinating studies that add evidence to his claims. During a 10-year McKinsey study, high-level executives said that they performed 5 times better when in Flow.

DARPA scientists artificially induced Flow through transcranial stimulation to find that snipers improved their skills by 230%. Australian researchers used the same method to discover that 40% of participants could complete a brain-teasing puzzle when in Flow, whereas none of them could do so before.

As scientific attention on Flow increases, we may see even more compelling evidence and implications for this state of mind. For now though, let’s discuss how you can access this superpower yourself.

How to get into Flow

As you’ve seen in the research, one way to achieve flow is with transcranial magnetic stimulation. I don’t recommend this. Not only is it used more for medical purposes, but you’re not going bring an expensive machine with you when skiing down a mountain slope or sitting for an exam. Plus, you probably want to know how to induce the state naturally, so you can sustain it long-term.


The following are some basic criteria to achieving Flow on your own, taken from summaries of Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi’s works:

  1. Choose the right challenges for your skill level. As you can see in the figure above, you want to hit a sweet-spot in the battle between challenges and your skill-level. With math, this could mean doing more advanced algebraic equations once you’ve mastered the basics, or solving progressively harder word problems after getting a few down.
  2. Focus your entire self on the task at hand. This point has been well-established by your parents and teachers. If there’s no other reason to listen to them, at least trust that it will help you achieve this mystical Flow state.
  3. Give yourself enough time. Stay with a task for at least 15 to 20 minutes or longer before you can expect peak performance. It takes a while to get your mind in the right place. Long-term, this means sticking with a skill until it virtually becomes muscle-memory, then doing step 1 again.
  4. Take some deep breaths before you begin a task, or during the activity. This will help relax you and is a common practice in meditation, which is famous for inducing Flow.

As you can tell, getting into Flow is more a matter of calming yourself down than it is building your energy up. And it doesn’t have to just be with math. Take what you find in some of your most engaging activities and apply that to others. Certain tasks that you thought were boring might appear deeply engaging after some practice (maybe even Calculus).

As a piece of general advice, Flow is not only a state for maximal performance in a single activity, but possibly the best way to spend your time. Even your leisure hobbies can be turned into methods of self-improvement instead of repetitiveness or boredom. It will help you see work as an end in itself, rather than a means to one. As Csikszentmihalyi said:

...It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”


Should You Go To College? The Pros and Cons

Going to college is viewed as a natural step for most aspiring young adults. It has almost become a cultural norm for the middle and upper classes, shielded from harsh questioning by its promise of better career opportunities, higher salaries, and more respect.

Yet with access to rapidly increasing resources for online learning and discussion, a lot of high-schoolers may be skeptical of the true value of attending college. This is definitely warranted, given the investment of time and money required for an undergraduate degree. And if anything, the questioning should be encouraged by parents, friends, and teachers. Four years of a young person’s life should not be approached lightly.

In this article, I hope to spark more thought regarding college attendance, present the advantages and disadvantages of attendance, and offer advice on how to approach the decision. It is directed to an audience of students approaching the college-decision process, but contains valuable information for younger students, current college-goers, teachers, and parents.

Whether you decide to attend college or not, you will have to make decisions about your future that will feel forced at such a young age. Just don’t let it cloud your judgment. This process will be one of many that mature you.

And even if you can’t map a confident course for your future career (whether that entails college or not), you should at least decide what skill-sets to explore and their viability in the long-term. By strengthening your instinct with research, you’ll soon develop a rudimentary plan for the next few years of your life. Just keep in mind that a bad plan is better than no plan, because having no plan can is a recipe for stagnation. 

Why You Might Not Want To Go

This section is in place to verbalize what you are likely thinking when you doubt the value of a college education. It may help clarify your own opinions as well as set the stage for topics we’ll explore later in the article.

One reason dominates the conversation: saving money. The total tuition cost can range from $30-200k or more after four years. And the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which increases each year. No matter how much you may value a college degree, those costs speak for themselves. You might be able to find ways around the cost, such as financial aid, scholarships, or attending an in-state school, but it can be a difficult barrier to overcome.

You might have another reason: you already know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t require a degree. This is rare, but can be the case for surefooted prospective entrepreneurs, particular laborers, artists, software developers with extensive coding experience, or folks inheriting a family business. If you fall into one of these categories and aren’t currently making money in that endeavor, try to ascertain an idea of your projected income and weigh that opportunity cost against tuition and the knowledge you'll gain while at university.

Finally, you might be in the camp that doesn’t know exactly what you want to do, but just feel that college isn’t the right move. This is a more dangerous opinion than the last one, because it can lead to an irrational or hasty decision, but it is still an understandable one.

In all these cases and ones I may have missed, you should research, think, and discuss with others as much as possible in order to make a good decision. You’re doing that now by stumbling upon this article, and you should form that level of analysis into a habit. This process of meticulous decision-making will serve you well for any future crossroads.

Possible Advantages of Not Attending College

An advantage of abstaining from college that’s often overlooked is that many high-paying jobs don’t require a college degree. This can include transportation-related jobs, supervisor positions, mechanics, and even nuclear-power-reactor operators. Business Insider has a useful ranking of these positions here. The median annual income for these jobs hovers between $50k-80k, which is pretty solid in comparison to the median U.S. household income of close to $56k in 2016.

The downside to these positions is that they have a higher potential of career-stagnation, meaning that there’s not much room for you to advance. This is because upper-level management positions tend to recruit from a pool of college-educated candidates, sometimes outside of the company itself. Moreover, a lot of these roles require non-transferable skills, or ones that may soon become obsolete (which is a topic discussed later). These positions may also require college degrees in the near future, simply because of the trend towards degrees as a new minimum standard for employment.

Another option to learn and grow for folks deciding to either pass on college or simply delay the journey is to live at home while self-educating. Self-education is something worth engaging in even while in college, but it can also be a route to bypass school entirely. Resources such as Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy can help you gain useful skills or knowledge in your spare time that are directly related to building a business or launching a new career path.

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Contrary to popular belief, it is definitely possible for people to develop general intelligence independently so long as you possess the requisite motivation and work ethic. It can be difficult at a young age to push yourself individually, but certain personalities might benefit from such an approach. The following quote offers great perspective on universities and how students spend a great deal of time while in school: 

Arum, whose book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills. Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

This leads to the last advantage, which is that a portfolio of projects can be more valuable in attaining a job than just a degree. In the fields of graphic design, web design, and art, a portfolio is the most important, and arguably the only tangible thing you need, to get hired. I’ll refer you to two articles (here and here) that better explain the relationship between portfolios and jobs.

The beauty of developing a portfolio early-on, whether you attend college or not, is that you’ll gain valuable skills in that field and learn if you want to explore it further. Even if you make an art portfolio, but decide instead to go into art related consulting, then at the very least you will develop a creative acumen and impress employers with your initiative. 

Possible Disadvantages of Not Attending College

I already hinted towards one disadvantage, which is that your options for career paths may be limited. This might be harder to understand in the present, especially if you haven’t worked in the industry yet, but can make sense when observing future job-availability projections. For example, a study done by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute showed that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, and 35% of the job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree. The lack of a degree may not be as concrete a barrier as people make it out to be, but could be restrictive. In fields such as medicine and law especially, it’s almost impossible to attain a position without one.

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Another study done by the Pew Research Center concluded the following: among 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree, the jobless rate as of March 2013 was 3.8 percent. At 8.1 percent, the rate was more than twice as high for those with a two-year degree or some college, and it was more than three times as high for those with only a high school diploma at 12.2 percent.

This does not mean that you will be unemployed without a degree, but again hints toward the general benefits of having a degree for the population at large.

And as mentioned, even you get a stable position at a company without a degree, you might find it difficult to shift to another industry or move up in the company without a degree. Just keep in mind that college could be an investment you’ll make for a return that’s four years or more down the road, even if you would otherwise be fine without it now.

Another disadvantage is that you may miss out on the exploration and growth that’s possible in college. Certain experiences are definitely available without attending college, but there are several unknown variables to consider. For example, colleges can provide access to other intelligent people in your class, contact with alumni, school prestige, new courses of study you would otherwise not have pursued, clubs, team projects, a certain type of social life, a good transition to living on your own, job fairs, and potential mentors.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating potential disadvantage of skipping college, is the supposed health difference between college grads and non-college grads. The National Bureau of Economic Research had the following to say about it: The magnitude of the relationship between education and health varies across conditions, but is generally large...Four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting oneself in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points and reduces lost days of work to sickness by 2.3 each year. Although the effects of gender and race are not shown, the magnitude of four years of schooling is roughly comparable in size to being female or being African American. These are not trivial effects.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation in any of the cases mentioned, but the data presented is worth thinking about and investigating further.

What you should do now

So what happens if you’ve thought hard about your decision and know that you want to attend college? You should prepare yourself by choosing the right school, then committing completely to the program. It may sound contradictory, but if you set that aim in your mind and later decide that college isn’t right for you, then at least you’ll have made the most of your experiences up to that point.

And what happens if you’ve decided not to go? Just continue to do what you’ve been doing and research your current options. Just be confident in your choice, because you will likely have to begin making an income or figuring out a specific path sooner than college-bound peers.

After having read this article, you may still feel confused about your decision (or maybe more confused than you were before). That’s okay, because there was and will continue to be a lot of information on this topic. There is no single yes/no answer I can give you. However, a good framework to follow is that you should aim to gain marketable skills in an area that peaks your interest. Even if you attend college, you’ll find that developing yourself outside of school is essential, as is having a vision for how to apply that education. The following website may provide some help, as it has well-researched information on various career paths and their impacts on the world.

Also, be mindful of the automation of jobs, and which ones will be eliminated in a 5 to 10-year time frame. Technological development accelerates, and has predictably accelerated for decades, so the world could be noticeably different when you graduate. This article has a cool interface to learn about the probability of different jobs becoming automated, and this one explains the topic in more general depth. Be mindful that you don’t have to pursue the careers least likely to be automated only, but rather have an understanding of the skill-sets involved so that you don’t find yourself becoming obsolete.

So here’s a quick summary:

  • Possible Advantages: saving money, self-educating at a faster pace than a degree program, developing a project portfolio on your own
  • Possible Disadvantages: large number of projected jobs that will require degree, higher chance of unemployment, difficulties in career advancement, not having the social and developmental benefits of college atmosphere

6 Factors to Help Choose the Right University

The passage to college is a sacred tradition passed down through generations of young adults, and maybe one that you’ll soon witness first-hand. It’s marked by curiosity, freedom, and inevitably, a dose of angst. If you’ve decided to pursue college, then you’ll want to prepare yourself by choosing the right school for you. Don’t choose the right school for your friends or parents, but rather for yourself. Your future self will thank you.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of the most important factors to consider when picking out a university. You might get overwhelmed with that pile of university brochures sitting on your desk, but with some deep thought and research, you’ll soon be able to find that diamond-in-the-rough that will shape your next four years and the rest of your life.

As you’ll begin to see, each factor is deeply intertwined with all the others.  A shift in one can change the whole picture, so don’t analyze any of these factors in isolation.  


More so than any other consideration, tuition costs can be a quantifiable barrier to attending a school. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was about $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. That marks a wide range, with Ivy league and other expensive schools topping over $50-60k. After four years, the total tuition difference between schools could be as much as $150k or more.

To put that into a long-term perspective, the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which is up 6% from last year. And the tuition that you’ll be paying is likely higher, because the average per-year increase hovers between 2-4%.

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These high costs may deter you from entering college completely, but they do offer new experiences, connections, and other aspects discussed later. In any case, you should at least speak with your parents to determine your financial options. If you qualify, you may be able to receive need-based or merit-based scholarships.


A school’s ranking, especially on US News & World Report, is an indicator of the strength of the faculty, student retention rate, undergraduate academic reputation, and other variables that are applied to a comparison calculation. These rankings are by no means definitive, and don’t always provide an accurate judgment of the school’s education. However, they are useful as a basic reference, and the specific school rankings (such as the School of Engineering or Medicine) can be a better estimator of the education quality than overall ranking.

If you’re a competitive high-schooler, then choosing a school based on its prestige is likely on your mind. This pertains especially to Ivy League institutions, which are well-known for their extensive history and successful graduate pool. Prestige is by no means a bad factor to consider, but it may cloud your judgment. For example, if you are sure about studying engineering and want a world-class education, Ivy Leagues may not be the best option. They specialize far more in the pure sciences and humanities, and don’t offer as many project-team or engineering-workshop opportunities. We’ll dive more into choosing schools for specific majors in the next section.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 80% of college students change their major at least once. This isn’t surprising, since you are only 18 or so when entering, and don’t know a lot about yourself or the scope of the career options available to you at that age. The reason that a major is important when choosing a school is because, as mentioned, certain schools have specialties that outweigh their lacking in rank. But the trade-off is that the school may not offer other options of study if you reconsider. Consequently, it’s in your best interest to have an idea of the top 3 majors or subject-matters that appeal to you, and proceed from there.

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When contemplating a major, keep in mind that you do know some of your academic inclinations from your childhood and high school years, which can point you in the right direction. Most importantly, consider the job opportunities for that major, or related ones, that would be available when graduating. For example, a biology degree is valuable when on a pre-medical route, but less versatile than a computer science or business degree in case you change career plans.

Choosing a major, and even a career, can be discussed at length for hours. So I won’t get into it here. But I will say this: a college major does not pigeonhole you into a specific career path. It’s merely your general focus of study for a small period of your life. You’re always free to change it, and can always teach yourself new skills through extracurriculars or on your own.


A school’s location will affect your ability to stay close to familiar people, tuition costs, climate, and social life. For example, a school that’s closer to home might speak to your desire to be close to family and high school friends, as well as save on tuition. One that’s farther away could mean that you just want a 180-degree shift in environment.

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Whatever the case, you might find it difficult to move away from home, and even more so to make a decision about where you’re going to stay for four years. Just keep in mind that the move is temporary; you’ll likely be able to visit home periodically, and you’ll mature from the experience either way.

Social Life & Extracurriculars

Even if you’re not into the partying lifestyle, a school’s social life will impact the people you meet and how you spend your free time. It will probably play just as much of a role in your development and enjoyment of college as your major. So it’s worth thinking about. To get an idea of a school’s social life, you can usually do a quick Google search, or consult websites like this one: https://colleges.niche.com/rankings/best-student-life/. Niche rank schools across the globe based on student life and other factors. Another way to research this topic is to consider the location of the school, which we’ll also get into later. For instance, a rural or suburban location changes the students’ interactions with each other and might lead to a more cohesive student body than a city location.

Extracurriculars are key when expanding your skill-set beyond your major, and can be valuable in generating a portfolio of projects. A strong project background is becoming increasingly more important for career recruiting, and can even be more important than the GPA you achieve. This is especially true for engineering and computer science majors. By researching the school’s team project opportunities, hospitals nearby for research, or local connections with businesses, you can get a better idea of what to explore outside of school.

Admissions Criteria

While searching for schools and converging upon your top choices, you should keep in mind the school’s selectiveness and the required application materials.

The school’s selectiveness plays a role in determining if you can make the cut or not. Getting rejected from a school isn’t as big of a deal as many of your peers may make it out to be, but it is a big deal when you don’t have other options. As a result, having a back-up school that you would be happy attending is useful for maintaining your sanity during the decision process.  

All schools accept both the ACT and SAT, but some might require Subject Tests as well. You should research the scores you need for certain schools, or the test dates that you can take them. The website you’re on now provides ample knowledge and resources on these tests, so I won’t get into it in this article.

For your easy perusal, the following is a quick summary of each aforementioned factor:

  • Cost: Be aware of your current financial situation and the predicted payoff of a certain major
  • Ranking: While national rankings definitely matter, don’t get overly caught up in small differences in positions; also look for rankings of specific programs within universities if possible
  • Major: No matter what, do two things: QUESTION YOURSELF & RESEARCH; research the opportunities available for that field, and then select a major for both subject-matter interest and realistic career opportunities
  • Location: Be mindful of a location's strong impact on a school's social environment
  • Social Life & Extracurriculars: This will play just as much of a role in your development as the education
  • Admissions: Know what tests are required, and the likelihood of getting into the school; have backup options


EP121: Student roundtable 10 - 6th grade

In this week's roundtable, Huzefa interviews three students from the class to give their take on the Yosemite trip, talk about the upcoming holidays, and chat about the ISEE exams.

EP120: Student roundtable 9 - 6th grade

In this week's student roundtable, Huzefa interviews four students to discuss the recent class trip to Yosemite! Listen in on this ripe conversation about the life altering trip that took place over five days in one of the most beautiful places on the planet!