Passing the GRE with…SCIENCE! – Part 2

(Note: I wrote this post after I received my GRE score in November, 2017. However, I forgot to finish it and just now returned to my draft.)

Done and over with. The GRE that is. Back in July I formulated a plan on how I would study for the GRE, a test needed to apply to graduate school. My plan was based on the following ideas:

  1. Spaced repetition of vocabulary learning using Anki and Magoosh math practice, with reminders using Let’s Review.
  2. Retrieval practice through deliberate recall of information (reminded via Let’s Review)
  3. Interleaving – mixing verbal and quantitative practice within study sessions
  4. Exercise to improve general cognitive functioning
  5. Coffee after studying
  6. Adequate sleep to help consolidate what I learn

So, before I reveal how I did, I’d like to comment on how well each of these scientific principles worked out in practice:

Spaced Repitition

I staggered my vocabulary and math practice based on a 1-3-6-10-15-21 rotation, where I would learn a new skill (via Magoosh video or Manhattan GRE books) and do related practice, then repeat it the next day, then the third day, then the sixth, and so on. Eventually, however, study sessions collided and I had to review and repeat five or six different skills in one session, sometimes before learning something new. This sounds great, but it is very time-consuming. Review sessions began getting longer and longer. If I missed a day, the next sessions would be stacked even greater. When Let’s Review began reminding me that I had 8, 10, and even 16 reviews, I just stopped using it. I realized I was reviewing more than I was able to learn new skills.

This turned out to be an advantage and a disadvantage. As an advantage, I was able to apply these heavily practiced skills on other problems and during the GRE. I became quite fluent at them. The disadvantage was that the other skills I focused on after I had stopped spaced repetition were clearly not learned deeply enough. I wasn’t able to recall them during the test, or I wasn’t able to apply them to new problems. If I had altered my spaced repetition schedule to focus less on the heavily reviewed skills and more on the under-reviewed and just-learned skills, I may have done better. However, I had been overwhelmed by reviewing and felt too pressured by the remaining unknown material to continue that type of schedule.  So, I ditched the spaced repetition algorithm and began to review one or two subjects in my free time in the evening, 2-3 times a week, or, more commonly, just begin working on new material.

I still stuck more or less to a spaced repetition schedule with Anki, but I let Anki’s internal algorithm determine what to repeat and when, and I used it whenever I had time, not on a systematic basis. From my practice on Magoosh, verbal was clearly my strong area and I did not worry too much about this.

From this experience, I think spaced repetition is certainly effective, and if I had been reviewing for a test that covered less content (e.g. a typical university exam), I may have been able to handle it better. However, I had to relearn and review a lot of material: fractions, proportions, algebra, geometry, probability, statistics, and combinations. I had to not only learn it but practice it a lot alongside reading and verbal practice. It just became too much.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval is the deliberate recall of information. I found this skill a little bit difficult to execute. I had to create situations in which to do retrieval, and often times I would simply forget to do it. For vocabulary, I would try to use my new words during conversations with my wife and colleagues, slipping in words that were sometimes to big or clunky to fit the situation, but were sure fun to confuse people with! I felt this was a good way to recall and apply what I was learning – the very same technique I ask my students to do. And, for me, it seemed to work.

For math, I would at random times recall triangle properties, formula for area or cubic volume, probability equations, etc. Walking down the street, before I went to sleep, in the shower. Unlike the vocab retrieval, it was not very fun nor was it systematic. Therefore, I did not apply this technique as often as I maybe should have.


At first, I would make sure to mix the practice not only for the learning benefits but also to take a break from math. However, a few weeks in and it was clear most of my energy had to be spent on math, so I did not follow through on interleaving.


I more or less stuck to my regular kickboxing regimen but did not consciously connect this to studying except that I often studied an hour after exercising because my children would go to sleep once I returned and an hour later I was usually free.


I drank it in the morning and not after studying.


Yeah, right.

The Verdict

So, how did I do? Better and worse than expected.

I did much better than expected in my verbal reasoning, which is where I spent about 50% of my time at the beginning of preparing for the GRE and 20% at the end. I did way worse than I expected in my quantitative reasoning, which began at 50% of my time and ended with 80% of it. I was surprised at not only how difficult the questions were but how much I had suddenly forgotten about when the questions appeared. I knew very well the things that I had repeatedly practiced, but I stopped doing repeated practices of new information (spaced repetition), meaning a lot of the new skills never fully cemented. I think I performed decently on statistics questions because I actually use that in my daily life, and possibly geometry because I sincerely enjoyed learning it; but probability and combinations, which I probably spent only a week or so on, were quite difficult. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I did remarkably well on writing, something that I never prepped for deliberately other than reading about the types of tasks included.


Trying to find an organized plan of study was important, and while I think mine was based on sound principles of learning, I was a bit overambitious in the beginning and that led to being overwhelmed by material to the point where I had to abandon most of my plan. Nevertheless, I feel like these strategies worked well and would have worked better had I retooled my plan and been more consistent with applying them.

For anyone studying for the GRE, I would recommend spaced repetition as a very effective tool, with the intervals more spaced out and the inclusion of short 5-minute review sessions, if possible, rather than longer reviews. I think, had I reconfigured my studying of math to review less often but more consistently, my quantitative reasoning score would have been higher. Perhaps if I had stuck with interleaving the material, or worked on interleaving quantitative skills more carefully, my score also would have been better.

Professional Development: From Online to Real World

(This post was written as part of the TDSIG Web Carnival  #tdsigcarnival)

If you have read my blog or Twitter feed, you probably know that I am quite involved in CPD – continuous professional development. My professional development consists of reading and writing about research (ELT Research Bites), blogging here, sharing ideas via Twitter, and when possible, attending or presenting at face-to-face conferences. Most of my PD operates within an online space, often among an echo-chamber of like-minded English language teachers who all share similar aspirations, and even hostilities (those darn coursebooks!

In an attempt to pull my passion for PD offline and into the real world, I have, for the last year or so, been in charge of organizing professional development opportunities at my institute. I was given this informal role because it was recognized that I was serious about professional development and had access to a lot of ideas and information.

Brown Bags

My main task as a PD coordinator thus far has been to organize what we call “Brown Bags” – weekly professional development sessions held during lunchtime. These are typically between 30-50 minutes, take place in our conference room or a classroom if there are many attendees, and are held no more than once a week.

At the beginning of each term, I put out a call to our faculty about leading a brown bag session. I ask not just for presentations but also simply topics and issues for discussion, ideas to share, interesting readings, etc. The purpose of the brown bags is to be bottom-up, faculty-led opportunities to share ideas in a relaxed and informal setting. I also think about possible guest speakers from the university that could potentially come. I typically lead a few myself.

We typically have about 5 or 6 brown bag sessions per term (every two months). Attendance varies from 2 to 10, depending on topic, weather, mood, publicity, etc. Some of the brown bag sessions we have held over the past few terms include:

  • Faculty-led presentations on a topic of interest
    • Recruiting in Mali
    • Teaching and travelling in China
    • Using grammar logs in the classroom
    • Takeaways from SETESOL
    • Integrating reading and writing with Newsela
    • Quick and dirty online video quizzes
    • Mining texts with online vocabulary tools
    • Myths and controversies in ELT
    • Using Canvas in the classroom
  • Watch parties
    • IATEFL webinars followed by discussions
    • EnglishUSA or other related webinars
  • Reading circles
  • Guest speakers
    • Discussing Trump’s travel ban with
    • Universal Design for learning and ELT


While I would like to claim this initiative as “successful”, I am hesitant. This current term has only had a few brown bags, and during the past few terms attendance to these has been low. It’s likely I need to get more involvement from the faculty in leading sessions rather than me developing topics or leading them myself. We all have interesting ideas to share, but we may not be motivated to share them.

In addition, while we have certainly had interesting topics and presentations, I haven’t seen any radical transformation in the faculty (or myself). But, I suppose radical transformation is not the point of brown bags.

Instead of claiming brown bags as a success, I will call them hopeful. This format of informal, bottom-up PD has great potential. They are a method to share ideas, build faculty relations, and, most importantly, carve out a place for PD during our busy work week.


Reverse Reading 2.0

A while ago, a Nicola Prentis wrote about an interesting conversation activity called Reverse Reading. It enjoyed some popularity and even prompted her to write a short book of lesson-plans based on Reverse Reading. The idea is quite simple: turn a reading lesson into a conversation lesson by writing questions that use target vocabulary in the reading as well as asking questions about the concepts in the reading. This has a few benefits, first, according to Nicola, it avoids situations in which a text is used as a prompt for discussion but the class becomes more of a reading lesson than a conversation one. Instead of “tacking” on conversation questions, foreground them and then work backwards to language analysis and reading. Other benefits include exposure to new vocabulary, phrases, and grammatical forms. You could either pre-teach the vocabulary, making the Reverse Reading the second exposure (and the actually reading, if done, the third) or students could discuss vocabulary while discussing the questions. One other benefit is that these questions force students to consider their background knowledge (or lack thereof), a very important step in the learning process.

I really liked this idea and used it on several occasions with success. It is easy to design and serves as a great way to preview language and ideas. Recently, however, I have been using it a bit differently. For certain texts, I start with the Reverse Reading. I draft questions using target vocabulary, with all questions pertaining to ideas in the text. Students either preview the vocab before the conversation or while discussing the questions. They discuss the questions with the emphasis on their own ideas and opinions. They jot down brief answers as they discuss the questions. Then, students read the text and complete any other comprehension activities I may create. Finally, students use the Reverse Reading questions again, but this time, they must answer from the perspective of the text, referring to specific paragraphs or lines to support their answer.

I added this last step as I wanted students to pay more attention to details while also accepting, rejecting, or revising their previous ideas based on the information on the text. This second round of questions also requires them to use textual evidence, using phrases like “According to” or “___ states”, giving them practice in oral referencing, a very useful academic skill.

Here is an example based on the reading “The Workforce of the Twenty-First Century” from Making Connections 2. This was for a B1~2 reading course:

Reverse Reading Questions (target vocabulary in bold)

  1. What is the difference between a developed and a developing country?
  2. How is today’s workforce different from the workforce of the past?
  3. Do you think there is a greater demand for skilled or low-skilled workers? Why?
  4. What are some advantages of outsourcing?
  5. Why do some people criticize outsourcing?
  6. When manufacturing jobs disappear, who should be blamed?
  7. What is commonly manufactured by skilled workers?
  8. What do you think prevents people from working in another country?
  9. What attracts people to work in another country?
  10. Do you think foreign workers keep their salaries or send it back to their home country? Why?

For this particular example, the questions require a lot of information finding as opposed to critical thinking. However, you can certainly build that into the questions you make.

I have also used this idea in conjunction with jigsaw reading. First, students answer the questions together. Then, they read their respective articles. Then, they come back together and answer the questions based on the articles, teaching the main concepts of their article to their partner(s).

Here is an example based on readings of Jefferson’s Notes on Slavery from Newsela and Frederick Douglass’ speech “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”, also on Newsela. This was for a pre-university listening and speaking class that focuses on US History.

Reading Questions (Question 1-4 refer to reading 1; 5-9 are for reading 2)

  1. Why do you think many whites had objections to including blacks in America after the slaves were free?
  2. Do you think the differences between races are due to differences of nature, differences of education, or something else?
  3. Do you think children learn through imitation (copying their parents and friends)? If so, what do you think slave-owners’ children learned from their parents?
  4. Do you think that sadness and suffering inspire poetry and songs? If so, what effect do you think this had on slave and African-American music?
  5. Why would an ex-slave find hypocrisy in being asked to celebrate the Fourth of July?
  6. What do you think is a better method to persuade someone: discussion or criticism? Why?
  7. Do you think slave-holders thought slavery was wrong? Why or why not?
  8. Do you think the laws recognized slaves as people, property, or animals?
  9. What different justifications do you think upheld slavery?

Students had already learned about slavery from other readings and lectures, so they had to draw on their new background knowledge to answer these questions for the first round of reverse reading, and that knowledge was reinforced while reading and especially during the second round.

I have not done this yet, but a third idea for reverse reading would be to use it with listening texts, with students referring to notes during the second round of questions.

In summary, drafting questions using target vocabulary, grammar, and ideas, and then using these questions before AND after a text helps build exposure to vocabulary, activates background knowledge, helps to assimilate new information with old information, requires close reading, referencing, and critical thinking. That seems like quite a powerful reading activity!

Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing

Based on Politics and the English Language

  1. Just like one should never throw the baby out with the bathwater, one should never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which they are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use excessively lengthy vocabulary in situations in which a rather abbreviated term would do.
  3. If it is possible to remove a word, always.
  4. The passive should never be used when the active can be employed.
  5. Never use foreign phrases, academic argot, or discipline-specific parlance when an everyday English word is the mot juste.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than being a grammatical pedant.



Silence is Golden

Anyone who has experience with East Asian students has probably noticed their inclination towards being reticent. Not all, mind you. We have heard or perhaps thought to ourselves about how their silence can negatively impact their language learning or study abroad experience; that their silence is a sign of shyness, inability, or lack of critical thinking. If you read my recent blog post on introversion, you would know that quietness should never be taken as a negative sign – some people, for issues that range from temperament, culture, or genetics, don’t speak as often. Painting with a broad brush, it is safe to assume that East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) appears higher on the introverted spectrum on average. However, this really should not be a problem. Continue reading

Adventures in Close Reading

I have written several times about close reading, and I have played with it in class here and there, but it hasn’t been until this most recent term that I have used it consistently and as a central part of a course. I am teaching reading to a small, low-level group of students and close reading was employed as a solution to some of their reading problems. Continue reading

Is it time to SLAy PPP?

A recent discussion on Geoff Jordan’s blog, “Why PPP makes no sense at all,” has gotten me thinking more about the role of SLA research in language instruction. Most teachers, in their quest to be pedagogically principled, have taken a more evidence-based approach to their teaching. SLA research is one of the sciences that should underlie how we go about teaching. One of Jordan’s key arguments is that PPP as most conceive it flies in the face of sound SLA research. PPP is often seen as a rigid, linear methodology that assumes learners will learn what is taught, practiced, and produced. Jordan’s oft-repeated response is:

Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.

In quoting Ortega (2009), Jordan continues later:

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.

Geoff’s first argument should not be doubted by anyone. PPP as most think of it is not evidence based. SLA research makes it clear there is a developmental order of language learning. However, leaving PPP aside for the moment, I’d like to focus on the second of his arguments. Continue reading