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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2003 / 22 Adar I, 5763

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Professor shares secrets for top grades


By Lou Marano

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com (UPI) | Students arrive at colleges and universities with hardly any idea of what's expected of them and are shocked to find that they lack the writing and study skills to get top grades, a Canadian professor said.

"There's a crisis in high schools, colleges and universities," said Bernie Gaidosch, who teaches English at George Brown College in Toronto. "Students are literally blindsided by what they don't know. The results are frustration, fear, panic and cheating."

Gaidosch documents stories of real-life student suffering in the first chapter of his new book, "The Professor's Secrets: How to Get Top Marks on Tests and Exams." He also is author of "How to Write Essays and Term Papers."

One third-year history major broke down in tears when asked to describe in her own words what her essay was about. Another student started swearing at Gaidosch in front of the class when his midterm exam was returned with the grade of F. He said he had never been taught to study and couldn't be blamed for something he didn't know.

I left college teaching in 1984 partly because the students were unprepared for higher learning, and I was tired of remedial instruction. Therefore, Gaidosch's efforts to help students bring themselves up to speed struck a chord.

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"To make things worse," he said in a phone interview, "parents either don't know where to turn for help or are unaware of their kids' problems in the first place. Some are boomer parents who are so busy they don't have time to be surrogate tutors for their kids in the evening. Others feel intimidated or embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of the current curriculum. Still others just can't afford to send their kids to private schools or to pay hundreds of dollars a month to a tutoring center."

The educational fallout of the high-tech stock market bust also disturbs Gaidosch. Students who studied finance a few years ago in the hopes of "hitting it big" are now scrambling in other programs to catch up on the basic skills they previously shunned.

And he is troubled by a knowledge gap that's growing between families that can pass writing and study skills to succeeding generations and the families that don't have that benefit. "Education can be like a game or a secret society. If you know the recipe for success, you're in," he told United Press International.

Gaidosch said students could acquire academic skills from his manuals in two weeks. Those who lack the skills may graduate, but will be hindered in their professional lives.

The professor said "real world" employers are looking for generic skills: "Give us a student who can read, write and think at a sophisticated level, and we'll do the rest," they tell him.

Gaidosch had suggestions for both parents and high school students.

Parents must break the silence, he said, and not accept "fine" as the inevitable answer to the question, "How was school today?" They must ask about assignments, content, and determine whether test-taking and essay-writing skills are being taught.

If the student's shortcomings are the result of faulty instruction, parents should make an appointment with the teacher to discuss the situation. Because curricula were watered down in the 1970s and 1980s, when many teachers were in school, some don't know the two basic skills themselves.

"You're the taxpayer. You have the right to ask questions," he said. In the absence of a favorable outcome, the parent should see the principal, then the school trustees, and on up the chain.

If all this fails, Gaidosch recommends that parents put their children into tutoring centers, which are burgeoning like fast food franchises. "The statistics I'm getting are 50 percent growth since 1997," he said. "It's going to cost you a couple hundred dollars a month, but it's valuable."

Gaidosch also suggests calling the local university and making an appointment with the chairman of the department, or a professor, in a field the student is likely to enter. One should say: "I'm a worried parent. Could you spare 20 minutes or half an hour for an interview?"

In the meeting say: "This is what I think my kid is learning; this is what he's not learning." Bring a list of such basic questions as: "What are the assignments my kid is going to have to do in your course?" This gives parents an awareness from which they can generate a strategy to correct deficiencies.

A last resort, Gaidosch recommends a private school, despite their expense, because test-taking skills and essay writing are almost always taught there. "Private schools know what awaits students in post-secondary education," he said.

Gaidosch sketched out a few of the study tips he learned during his long career as a student and a professor.

Have a box of index cards for each course, he said. After every lecture, take notes from your notes. Extract the highlights, write them on a card, date it, and file it in the box. At test time, you will have created an outline for the course that can guide your study.

Recycle your efforts, he said. Don't discard tests but put them in a file. At exam time, review what you did well and go over the right answers to the questions you missed.

Use a study group, and make it fun. Use a game show approach and give prizes of fruit or nuts. This way you learn from your colleagues.

Put your watch in front of you. Give the same amount of time to each question if they are of equal weight.

Go for quality over quantity. "I've seen students fill four or five test booklets and get a C minus," Gaidosch said. "I've seen students write half a booklet, and it's well-planned and focused, and they get an A." Don't get suckered in by the furious scribbling of the people next to you.

Stay away from friends who want to suck your energy dry with entreaties to go to a movie, a club, or shopping. Rather, practice reverse procrastination. Post these activities above your desk and reward yourself after you do your work.

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