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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Innovations to Prepare for Test Taking

Apr 19 2015

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done? 

“Mixing one’s wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably. ”
                                                      Bertolt Brecht

I’ve used expecting the unexpected more than once in these posts, with different inferences in different contexts.  One would suppose that every person on campus is familiar with the phrase.  It might make an interesting project to ascertain how many know how the rest of this seminal expression goes: 

“Expect the unexpected, or you will never find it, for it is hard to know and difficult.”

Baseball season just began.  The greatest players in the world spent a few months honing their skills again to prepare for it.  Maybe you too should be.  Maybe that’s the real test: whether you’re guiled into waiting for tests to prepare for them.  I’m not talking about diligent study habits throughout the year, but examining Test Taking as a separate subject well worth your full consideration. 
You’ve been taking tests your whole life, even before you began school and outside its walls, without realizing it.  Putting puzzles together, playing games of all kinds, racing each other, having catches, and just being liked are tests of a kind.  You still are: understanding friends, companions, siblings, parents, and perhaps children test your knowledge and abilities.  They test your patience, courage, and fortitude, as well: in short, your mettle.  When my children thanked me for being the father I am, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to point out unexpectedly that they made me the father I became.  Pretty much every event is likewise an opportunity to practice Test Taking skills.  The more you recognize that, the better you will fare when it comes time to take them here and everywhere else.  Life on the outside doesn’t revolve around mid-terms and finals.  There are projects with deadlines, but the majority of tests in the workplace are ad hoc—under fire, as they say—coming at you any time every day.

The very essence of tests is to challenge your knowledge and skill with unexpected questions about information you have learned.  I mentioned a study in “Mind Over Matter,” which proved that people, who are attuned to the narrative structures I delineate (and utilize) throughout the posts, perform even better than others who already know what is on tests.
The element of surprise, like most variables in life, can be either disadvantageous, or turned to one’s advantage.  There are Good Games and bad games, Good Skills and bad skills, Good Surprises and bad surprises.  We witness surprise put to use all the time in the arts and athletics.  Its presence in advertising is largely how we experience the business world.  The much-anticipated Apple watch commercials are as surprising for the way they seem to have put common uses of the internet into a plain old kaleidoscope like we’ve used since childhood, as what the watch does, itself.
I also mentioned in “Mind Over Matter,” training your eyes to separate the structural components of reading passages—characters, actions, settings, and time frames, for instance—the way a reaper separates the wheat from the chaff, so you don’t waste time reviewing the same information, but can examine it in greater depth, and don’t have to keep re-reading test passages for every answer; the wheat is highlighted in the silo; the stalks and leaves—connective words—burned or buried. 
You can likewise start separating the test component of everything going on around and inside you.  Former Indiana U. basketball coach and ESPN analyst, Bobby Knight, once commented about one of the hardest things for athletes to learn is not doing what they can't, by which he meant exceeding the point at which they can exert themselves while remaining relaxed.  Training is about extending that line as far as someone's natural abilities will go.  It's implicit in every practice session.  Making it explicit enables someone to focus on that in everything you do, not just waiting for your tests and trying to follow the old adage, “Stay relaxed,” then.  People who thrive under pressure have become comfortable with pressure.
Way back in “Putting 2 and 2 Together to the Nth Power,” I suggested that our mind should be as beholden to Boyle's 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as surely as Pressure, Volume, and Temperature are interrelated when you freeze an ice cube or blow up a balloon: anecdotes and analogies expand the Volume of the matter at hand, enabling someone to literally remain Cool under Pressure.  You use neither judiciously unless you keep in practice. 

Why would I have called the previous post about memory and the fact that, while the clock may tick away the same hour for everyone, you have the capability of expanding the time within that hour and slowing it down, for all intents and purposes, “Those Innovation Blu-ue-ue / uesss”? .          

                        “I was alright … for a while,
                         I could smiiile fooor a while,
                         But I saw you last night,
                         You held my hand so tight
                         As you stopped … to say hellooo …”
                                        “Crying,” by Roy Orbison

Her momentary squeeze of his hand not only lingered in his mind long afterward, but anyone reading about it, let alone hearing his plaintive voice singing it, can tell that the squeeze lingered in his hand even at the time.  The blues, by definition, expand the moment at hand and focus on its many nuances. 
“As you stopped …” is as heart-rending an objective correlative as any for which James Joyce is justly renowned.  They existed, of course, long before he brought the term to prominence.  The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, discussed in “Beware the Ides of March,” is one.  Do yourselves a Big Favor by reading just one of Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners—and a short one, at that—called “Eveline,” the climax of which is filled with them, but the main reason I recommend the story here is for its value exemplifying some of the Test Taking skills being examined.  The first paragraphs put her reality together—characters, actions, settings, and time frames, divulging their magnitude, depth, intensity, and clarity, in the foreground, middle ground, and background of her life— through descriptions of her sensory perceptions, the way you fold a flat piece of grooved cardboard into a box.  Time passes very differently in different places throughout the story.  Perfect practice makes perfect.
If it jazzes you—and what’s jazz without manipulating time?—Joyce also uses a hand stopping as an objective correlative in a story called “Counterparts.”
Get more in touch with your emotions, the way Joyce puts you in touch with Eveline’s, so you’re in command of them during tests, embracing them rather than tuning them out.  You need them to be engaged, in order to process information. 

You hear a lot of talk in business about focusing.  “Focus on one thing at a time,” is a common platitude, for example, but rarely if ever is the act of being focused, and how to go about improving that skill, discussed.  One of the first things you learn in an art class is that putting objects—call it information—in perspective requires two focal points.  When someone loses sight in one eye, they cannot judge depth of field; in other words, the ability to focus on where information is.  I’ve noted twice in different contexts, in “Innovating Your Way Around in the Misinformation Age” and “Every Man A King,” that a point is meaningless without one.  If you aren’t practicing drawing analogies between one component or another of what I’ve been calling The Uniform Structure of Information all the time, in conversation as well as in everything you write, you aren’t preparing for finals.  Even when you aren’t providing an essay answer to a question, it will enable you to recognize how what you don’t fully understand is similar to oodles of other information you already know, so you are less apt to be caught ... by surprise.

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