Intelligentsia in the NY Times

Exciting News: SchoolBook, The NY Times’ collaboration with WNYC about all things education in New York City, just published an opinion piece written by Intelligentsia director Matt Seidman. It’s a retrospective of a year’s worth of press about truly atrocious tutoring practices and a plan for a better way forward. Please read the article and share your comments and critiques with us.


Here’s a link to the article: “Teaching or Cheating? Tales from the Tutoring Front Lines.”

Mastering the Sciences

We’ve gotten through the tough job of mastering History and English prep. The techniques that we listed aren’t just great for Finals prep, they’re really helpful to tackle as new units come up. With each new primary source and each new novel, preparing ahead of time with detailed notes on themes will help you avoid monster cramming. Now, let’s move onto the sciences and maths, shall we?




In math, you can of course sit and do all the problems you’ve already done over the semester, but it lulls you into complacency. Many students think that they can practice their review sheet and be ready for finals…here’s a more comprehensive and sure approach to doing well.


Step 1. Use the review sheet as a diagnostic test. Go through the whole sheet without seeking help from your textbook or class notes. Make note of which questions you guessed on, highlight anytime you made a careless mistake. When you’ve practiced enough to master the material, you’ll be able to see those inclinations for careless errors from a mile away.


E.g. In trig: if you’re asked to give a coordinate point based on a radiant angle…you know you better check and double check all of your negatives for sine and cosine, based on the quadrant, because it’s the last thing you add and it’s frequently forgotten. Competence is getting through the problem, getting to the end, and remembering that it’s a negative at the last step. Mastery is reading the question and saying right away “Hey! This one’s trying to trick me with the negative, but I don’t fall for it!”.



Step 2. Use the questions you scored poorly on to lead you in reviewing those sections in the text book. Do the problems from those homework assignments; use the review of that unit as a second diagnostic. Again, be wary of careless mistakes.


Step 3Think like a teacher: Try to come up with your own hardest questions;  What would you use to trip up your fellow students? How can you combine questions? Look for themes in types of questions assigned; in what sections do teachers give most difficult problems? Can you think of problems that you’ve been given that tested the entire focus of a section in a single question?


Step 4. Create a roadmap for the challenging problems: Write out your steps to answering the question. If you can’t figure out where to start, work backwards.







Science is a tricky beast to master; it’s a humanities and a math at the same time. The theme and idea have to be well understood to approach the problem with the right mathematical reasoning. You have to master the theory behind the problem and apply mathematics to practice of getting answers.

Therefore, it’s helpful to separate out the theory from the math, and study them separately. We recommend starting the the ‘humanities’ of science.


Step 1. As in math, create a roadmap for your problems; e.g. I know that I need to find the normal force in order to find the coefficient of friction, in order to then find the acceleration, in order to then find the mass. You need to be able to say it in words before you do it in numbers.


Step 2. Spot where your strengths and weakness lie. Usually, students focus on the math aspects of Chemistry and Physic. But for finals, many teachers are concerned about the understanding of concepts. They want to make sure you’ve understood the why of the science as well as the how.


Step 3. A great way to practice your conceptual understanding is to use a dummy; your parents, your brother, your neighbor (no offence, family and friends).


If you’re studying Chemistry, you need to be able to explain what a mole is (and why it’s useful) to somebody that doesn’t know what it is (besides a hairless animal.)


For Physics: Can you explain to your parents why a falling object reaches terminal velocity?


In Biology, can you trace the path of a neurological impulse through both peripheral and central nervous system…and back?


Step 4. Once you feel like you can explain the major themes and ideas in laymen terms to your ‘dummies’, make sure you have the necessary terminology to answer conceptual questions on your test. Many times, I see students miss points on a question, because while they have explained the concept correctly and have shown their understanding, they don’t use the appropriate terminology. For example, no matter how well you explain natural selection on your Bio final, if you don’t hit the words fitness and speciation, you’ll only get partial credit. Make yourself vocabulary flashcards, pair the words together by concept.



Step 5. Once you have the humanities aspect of your science work done, it’s time to work on the math portion of the subject. Read the steps above for math prep, rinse and repeat.


Step 6. Especially in Physics and Chemistry, finals will ask you to do a reverse of the problems you’ve been practicing in homework and quizzes. So if most of your work has concentrated on figuring out the chemical composition to find out the number of moles of the substance… then you know on the test you should be able to do it in reverse, even if your homework problems have not covered that. Go back through your problems and see how the answer could be turned into a question…and how you’d solve it from the other side.


Mastering The Humanities

Every day brings finals a little closer, and though it’s certainly hard to think of sitting down and sorting through those mountainous piles of primary source documents, we’re ready to outline the best way to tackle a year’s worth of work in the humanities.  In the last post, we addressed the benefits of studying well, and soaring through finals with confidence and ease. Read on to learn the step-by-steps of owning the Humanities.


History Prep:


Step 1. Read and review all primary and secondary sources and all of your notes on them (hopefully you have created Doc IDs to summarize these sources… see if you can refine your original IDs).

Where many students will think this is sufficient review, we’ll take our work still further.


Step 2. Once you have all the sources, create a timeline that has all of the sources stuck into it, as well as all of the events you’ve discussed. Color code them separately.

By doing this, you can see the entire expanse of time that you will be responsible for knowing. Having a single chronological understanding will show you how events are related in cause and effect, which teachers will not necessarily discuss in class but are bound to test for on Finals. The organization and precision of this work will help you review the year’s work, and will give you a visual aid when recalling how events related to each other.


Step 3. Group all your sources by events and theme. Ask yourself what major themes were discussed across the year, and which events fit into these themes.


Step 4. Be the teacher. Looking over all your materials, ask yourself what questions you’d ask about this material. What would be the best question to test my classmates’ understanding of topics? What theme could tie in multiple units for a rich essay topic? You should come up with three essay questions that cover at least half the year.


Step 5. Now’s the time to start pairing and grouping ideas in two ways. Group your sources under the themes you’ve identified. Conversely, find all the themes within each source.

e.g.: You’ve covered world events during the Cold War, so one of your themes might be Cold War Containment: you should be able to think of these events under the theme: Khrushchev’s talk, JFK inaugural address, Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, Cuban missile crisis,  Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine.

But then, within the source Military Industrial Complex, you should be able to find these other themes besides containment: nuclear deterrents, diplomacy, expansion.


If you’ve ever tagged things you liked on the internet, this is a great place to use those skills. Each source is tagged by themes, and each theme contains all the tagged sources that fit.


Step 6. Extra Credit. The last thing to do, if you really need to get an A, is go ahead and write the essay before the test. If you did well at guessing your themes, you’ll be pretty close to the actual in-class essay topic.

If nothing more, at least write your introduction. This is usually the part of the essay where kids get stuck and take up the most time, and it’s is the least significant aspect of your grade. On in-class essays, your argument and it’s support will be more important than your meticulous wording. If you get yourself prepped for at least this part, you’ll be well on your way to connecting the themes and sources you’ve analyzed so well.



Literature Prep:


The main difference here from History prep is that instead of sources to compile, you have the different pieces that you’ve read.


Step 1. Explode each work of literature: break down the book event by event, scene by scene (not necessarily chapter by chapter).


Step 2. For each narrative episode within the book, list

1. What Happens.

2. What It Shows.

3. Choice Quotes (related to what the actions show)

4. IDs (any details that might symbolize a bigger idea, or recur to make a specific point throughout the book)


Step 3. Themestorm: Come up with 4-6 possible themes that could be addressed in essay. List several episodes that come to mind to back-up these themes.


Step 4Themesearch! For each theme, come up with 2-4 instances that enlighten the themes. For each instance, write the Context/Content/Significance of that episode (these will form your paragraphs in the essay.


Step 5. Themses! After gathering evidence, decide the thesis that could use your research.


Step 6. Now try to compare these themes to another book you’ve read, are there similarities and differences that might make for a fitting essay topic?



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:

Intelligentsia, an Introduction

Welcome to Intelligentsia’s Blog. With over a decade of experience assisting families and students, we’ve formed more than a few observations and opinions. We’ll offer insider’s tips on everything from mastering finals preparation to making the college process more successful and less stressful, as well as updates on the Ethical Tutoring Consortium, our coalition with private school administrators, teachers and liked-minded educational companies. Feel free to forward your feedback, post tips, or request topics.