Mental Mastery: Finals Preparation

Part 1: Breaking the ‘Mind Barrier’


Often, just doing more work isn’t the answer. One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their son or daughter continues to receive average-to-low marks despite completing all assignments and studying for tests. When I meet with them for the first time, these students swear that they spent so much time studying that they knew the material by heart…only to return home with a disappointing B, or lower. Frustrated, they claim they could’ve gotten the same grade with minimal preparation. Certainly, they feel their study time was wasted.


I don’t agree. I tell them they need to work smarter, not harder. In many New York Independent Schools, the curriculum requires an evolution in understanding: knowing the material is necessary but not sufficient. In accelerated courses, the last 20% of studying accounts for the difference between average and excellent grades; it is this 20% window that allows a student to go beyond mere competence to mastery.


The experience of mastering material serves students not only on the test at hand but also in their broader intellectual life. If a student can learn how intellectual mastery feels in his brain and body; if he can feel the intellectual pathways transform from pain to pleasure to pride; if she can condition herself to attempt the most diffiicult answers and delight in the whirring of their inner workings; if she envision the entire problem in three-dimensionality, visually dissect it, replacing parts and exchanging equations…..then hurrah and hallelujah. No test may bind thee, though many beset thee.
The process requires a learning curve, and is not always smooth sailing; understanding material at the level of mastery is not something many students have viscerally experienced–and it does need to be felt to be understood. To get the point across, I sometimes use as an analogy the physics of breaking the sound barrier. It’s a fairly lo-fi production: with hand gestures and explosive sound effects, I explain the physical experience involved in approaching the speed of sound. As you (and the plane you’re in) near the barrier, sound waves bounce back at you at an ever increasing rate, as described by the Doppler Effect. The noise, the intensity, is torturous, almost unbearable, as if you will be shaken to shreds, then a sonic boom…and serenity. As soon as you break the sound barrier, your sound waves begin to propel you forward in space…all is quiet, smooth, sublime:


F18 breaking the sound barrier (photo by John Gay)

In an image, this is the moment of mastery, and an inspiration for what lies ahead, once the shaking ceases: ease in test-taking, confidence in the, and a smooth, quiet ride to straight A’s propelled by superior understanding.


In the next few posts, we’ll focus on specific subjects and finals preparation. In the meantime, listen to an example of unmatchable mastery on RadioLab…one of our favorite episodes:

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