Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Testing Intuition and Intuiting the Test

Hey everyone,

So Day 3 of studying for the MAT next Tuesday continues.  I received a surprise gift from someone to help me prepare for the Miller Analogies Test, a 100-page synopsis of the topics most commonly tested on the MAT.  This study guide has helped me cut down my study time tremendously, and gave me an opportunity to play-around, so to speak.  

Today I decided to take another MAT practice test, but this time if I was uncertain about an answer to a question, I'd go with my very first instinct, the answer that "popped out" at me, my intuition.  Now, the "I" word means different things to different people, so I'll clarify that I'm talking about the kind of intuition that can be described as nonlinear intelligence capable of making flashes insights without consciously thinking about the data.  I'm not talking about psychic intuition, per se--that's a topic for later down the road.  I'm talking about times when the brain puts the disjointed pieces of information together faster than your logical step-by-step mind can. 

In any event, of the 100 problems on my practice test, I had to resort to intuition on 22 of them.  Of those 22 intuitive or gut-reaction replies, 17 were right and 5 were wrong.  That makes my intuitive ability--at least for general knowledge presented in a multiple-choice format of four options--a little over 77% accurate.  That's pretty interesting to me.  I take it to mean that the recesses of my mind (and by extension, human minds in general) have an awareness of much more information than the conscious part does.  If I was just totally guessing, then I should have only gotten 25% of those questions right (you have four options, you have to pick one, ergo 1/4=25%), but my intuition was over 3 times better than guessing, and I'm sure yours is as well, if not better.

I have to be honest, I didn't figure I'd be turning the MAT into a game of intuition, but that is exactly what it was for me.  At least the problems that I didn't know the answer to were.  I look forward to testing my intuition again, and seeing if I can make it even more accurate.  I can tell you that of the 22 intuitive guesses, there were a couple where I second-guessed, and both were costly mistakes.

Intuition is rarely offered as a test-taking cool, but I think it is a wonderful adjunct to the more formal test-taking strategies.  Sometimes it's worth guessing, but if my personal experience is any indication, the "guess" may be a little less wild ass than we think. 

I certainly wouldn't use my intuition as the primary test-taking strategy for the MAT or similar tests.  Afterall, while my intuitive guessing was 17/22 (77%), my accessible knowledge and know-how was 67/78 (86%). So in my case, formally acquired knowledge trumps intuition when going head-to-head.

Of course there are times when my conscious mind will truly lack the knowledge to solve the given-problem.  In those cases, I think it's great to have a well-honed backup brain-skill.

That's about all for me today.

Until next time,

Nathan (Nth)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Memory Training and the MAT Part 2--GW Bush at Bat.

Good evening, Everyone.

So memorizing a large amount of information in a small amount of time is what I found myself doing today, and I will likely continue doing this until the 12th or 13th of this month, depending on my mood.  I'm of course doing this to prepare for my Miller Analogies Test, and figured I could use the exercise to cover some of the basics of how to memorize voluminous information.

Today was all about the US Presidents and world leaders,  Shakespearean characters, philosophy/philosophers, film/filmmakers, and vehicles. I chose these five topics after taking an MAT practice test that can be found here on page 77, and having to guess on problems involving these topics (whether I got them right or wrong is another topic for tomorrow).

So, I'm embarrassed to say I am like many Americans and couldn't name half of the U.S. presidents, much less even a minor fraction of famous world leaders. Until today.  Here's how I remedied that, and if you ever need to memorize a list (in order or as a free set) a way you could do it too.

Mnemonists have developed a variety of mnemonic techniques, sort of like how a wizard may have a variety of potions at his or her disposal. Different ones for different occasions in the case of both the memorizer and the thaumaturge.  A great mnemonic technique for remembering a list when order is important is the peg system.   A brief description of the peg system would be assigning items to be remembered to images that represent numbers.  It does take a bit of prearrangement to form an image for a number that is significant to you.  One person may think an image of a ladybug should represent the number 6 (six legs), while another thinks a gambling die would be better (six sides).  Whatever works for you. 

In my case, the number images I use are mainly the ones Andi Bell mentions in his highly recommended book about mnemonics. I changed some of them to fit me, and did so many years ago, so they're second-nature for me. For numbers 44-40 they are as follows:

44--India Arie (long story...)
43--Baseball bat ( "6-4-3" baseball card)
42--Streetlight (42nd Street)
41--Mozart (Symphony #41)
40--Champagne (something you may drink on your 40th birthday)

I started with #44, because the USA is currently on its 44th POTUS and it's easier for me to start from Obama to Washington rather than the other way around.

So as I previously mentioned, the peg system works by associating the desired thing to remember to the numerical symbols that you know by heart.  The thing is, if you want to remember them for a relatively long time, you have to make the association outrageous, surprising, exotic...even illogical.   It's the best way to ensure the information will "stick" in the minds of us who are not blessed with a natural eidetic memory.

If I want to remember Obama is the 44th President, I don't envision him shaking hands with India Arie (she's #44 for me, remember).  That's too easy to eventually forget.  No, I picture him getting busted in a hotel room (Room #44, of course) in India with India Arie by the TV show Cheaters.  That's an image I'm not going to forget! 

The same goes for our 43rd President, George W. Bush.  It's tempting to just unimaginatively see him swing a bat at the World Series. But it's even more memorable to see him swinging a bat at the shoes this guy "pitches" to him:

I did this type of memorizing for all 44 Presidents (43, if you don't count Grover Cleveland twice).  Along the way, I went here and made the Presidents more "human" by reading a variety of facts about them.  Because I had their names anchored in my head thanks to the peg system, it was easier to devote time to remembering the trivia in a casual and leisurely way.  I figure what sticks will stick, and I'll likely remember more of the tangential information than I think I would.  I'll discuss why tomorrow when I talk about test-taking and intuition. 

Good night, guys. 

--Nathan (Nth)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Memory Training and the Miller Analogies Test Part 1

Hey Everyone,

The NaNoWriMo project was a blast (well, not an actual blast. "Fun," I mean).  A huge relief to actually write the novel by that deadline.  Granted, editing the novel will take a while, but the steepest hill has been climbed!

And with precious little time to appreciate that accomplishment, I'm already working on my next topic, mnemonics.  I guess it's strange that I have yet to write a post specifically about memory training, as I'm more of a mnemonist than any other type of mentathlete.  I can't think of a better time to remedy that than now.

You can find a nice free online resource entitled "How to Remember Anything" here. It's a great introduction to mnemonics.  I'm presently putting some of these techniques into action in the real-world.  You see, I've signed up to take a graduate school admissions exam called the Miller Analogies Test. I take it on the 14th of this month.

The MAT is a rather difficult test to do very well on. By "very well," I mean getting at least 90% of the questions right.  The maximum score you can attain on the MAT is 600/600, but of the 60,000 students who take it annually, perhaps the highest scores in any given year are in the 520's, and I understand it's only two or so who accomplish even that.  I don't believe anyone has ever scored perfect on the new version of the test.   If I do well enough, then in addition to my GPA and other accomplishments, I will hopefully earn enough financial aid to pay for my enrollment into this Texas A & M statistics online program.   I like statistics and I'm good at it, so why not make a career of it?  I confess to being a bit of a scanner, so I'll likely always be doing a number of things, but you (2nd person) do sorta need some stable way to support yourself and your other "hobbies."  I think a career as an applied mathematician or data analyst is the "security job" for me. 

So how exactly is mnemonics going to help me with preparing for the MAT?  Well, even though the test is primarily an exercise of your reasoning abilities, the more general knowledge you have, the more likely you can do your personal best on the MAT.  Sadly, there is a lot of information for me to re-learn or learn in the first place. How much? According to the test's own description, analogies on the MAT cover terminology, references, and concepts from life experience, pop culture, work, comparative religion, ethics, history, literature, modern & classical languages...algebra, arithmetic, finance...geography, anthropology, civics...public health, and sociology." They mentioned 41 different subjects in all.  That's quite a bit of information to touch upon in such a short amount of time, and they can cover some rather obscure items within these topics. If you don't believe me, here are a few examples of the harder questions:

1. MEATUS : (a. body  b. river  c. impetuous  d. contumelious) :: STRAIT : WATER
2. FABACEOUS : (a. plant  b.seed  c. shrub  d. bean) :: AQUILINE : EAGLE
3. TIFFANY : GLASS :: CHRISTO JAVACHEF : (a. islands  b. sculpture  c. found objects  d. paining)
4. TIZANO VECELLIO : TITIAN :: DOMENIKOS THEOTOKOPOULAS : (a. Domenik  b. El Greco  c. Theo  d. Poulous)
5. ASSOCIATIONS : (a. celestial sphere  b. cosmic rays  c. binary stars  d. cardinal points) :: SCATTERED : BOUND
6. OEDIPUS : (Clymaenestra  b. Jocasta  c. Antigone  d. Cassandra) : CLAUDIUS : GERTRUDE
7. NORSE : JUDEO-CHRISTIAN :: (a. Bragi  b. Balder  c. Buri  d. Ask) : ADAM
8. TONI MORRISON : BELOVED :: (a. Jane Smiley  b. John Updike  c. Norman Mailer  d. Alice Walker)  : RABBIT AT REST
9. STEVENSON : EISENHOWER :: (a. Wilke  b. Dewey  c. Landon  d. Davis)  : COOLIDGE

Yeah... I don't know about your childhood, but my family definitely did not discuss the consequences of a fabaceous diet, and John Updike's *Rabbit at Rest* around the dinner table.

I know completely what they're talking about in those particular analogies in perhaps 4 of the 9.  I know the words, but not what they're getting at in 1. There are 2 that I honestly never heard of half the words, but can figure out what they probably mean. But that's still 22% of the analogies that are totally gibberish to me.  A lack of a broad enough knowledge-set is evidently a challenge--to varying degrees-- for everyone who takes this test.  People may have prior knowledge of on the average 1/3 of the questions (not necessarily the same third), but are totally in the dark about the rest.   Suffice to say I have a lot of subjects to learn at least the basics about.
It's tempting to complain about the test's obvious cultural bias, but that's hardly proactive. A good mental athlete can adopt a winning attitude when he or she has to, so that's what I'll do here.  Besides, there's evidence that cultural bias or no, the MAT is actually a better predictor of graduate school success than is the GRE and that analogies are excellent ways to assess a person's powers of abstract reasoning.  Furthermore, analogies are all about finding patterns and relationships, which is also what statistics is supposed to be about--though in a different way.  So if I'd like to think I'd make for a stellar statistician, then this test should be a cakewalk!  Hey, the attitude adjustment is already working!

So here's the plan:  There are about 36 of the 41 subjects the MAT covers that I really am totally ignorant about that I need to memorize at least the basics.  I have eight days (I'm not including the 14th, as I've learned it's a mistake to study the day of a test. Instead I meditate and stay in a relaxed state the morning of the exam) to cover these subjects.  That's about 4-5 subjects per day.

I think what I'm going to do is post which 4 or five subjects I memorize each day, and then post which websites I found the most useful.  Perhaps I can help someone in the future who has to take the MAT.  This ought to be interesting.  Wish me luck!

Alrighty then,

-Nathan (Nth)

P.S.  Here is a pretty cool mnemonic device for remembering the countries of the world