There's nothing magical about better grades, expert says

Originally published by The Hay River Hub - September 5th, 2007

Even though he uses magic in his presentations, Terry Small swears there is nothing magical about achieving better grades in school.

Small, regarded as Canada's leading expert on brain research and learning, brought his message to Hay River from Aug. 29-30 after receiving an invitation from the South Slave Divisional Education Council to attend their annual in-service training.

After chatting with 200 South Slave educators for two days, Small sat down for an intimate gathering with 27 parents and teachers the night of Aug. 30.

During his one-and-a-half hour talk, Small discussed a number of steps to getting better marks in school. You have the capability in you to use your brain to its full potential - you just have to learn how to unlock it.

"The truth is there are a lot of dumb geniuses walking around out there," Small told the 27 people in attendance. "Intelligence is a potential."

Small said that intelligence is like the gas in your car - it does nothing unless you ignite it. You just need that key to unlock it.

"The students that get the best grades aren't the most intelligent - but they're smarter because they have three keys," Small told the crowd. "They've got the right strategy, the right habits and the right attitude."

That attitude is key to unlocking your potential, Small explained. Telling yourself you are a genius is the first step.

"If you don't get this right, the rest don't matter," he said. "Your brain can only follow the picture you have of yourself."

Write it down, Small said, and place it somewhere you will see it often to remind yourself.

The second step is to be "green and growing," which will allow you to be open to new ideas. For instance, studying while standing up will increase your retention by 10 per cent, Small told the astonished crowd. When you stand up, your brain receives 10 per cent more blood, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen your brain is receiving.

Small's third smart secret is to get on your feet whenever you can.

A study strategy is the fourth key, while setting goals comes in at number five.

"These are the two bookends of genius," Small said. "You need a study strategy, but honestly if you don't have number five, it's like one bookend and the books fall over."

Set up a "future report card" before the year, with the realistic goals you would like to achieve in each course.

"I want you to make four or five copies of this," Small suggested to the crowd. "Put a copy on your bedroom wall, put a copy on the bathroom mirror, put a copy in your locker, put a copy at the front of each binder and every time you see your future report card, your marks will go up like magic.

Keeping your brain sharp is key to your future success, Small said, so it is important to exercise it.

"A lot of stuff slips into this brain of yours when you're not paying attention so when you hang your future report card around, what you're really doing is advertising to your brain," he said.

"Well, on those nights where it seems like your brain is stuck, there's a reason - it's stuck," Small said to a smattering of laughter. "In fact, you don't have a brain - you have two brains - a left brain and a right brain."

The left side of your brain controls the mathematical, language, spelling and science side of things while your right brain is in charge of the artistic and intuitive side of you. The two sides take turns working, and switch every 90 minutes from a state of rest to one of activity.

"Now if your left brain is down for a rest and you have to do some math, you've got a problem because that's where the math centres of the brain are located," he explained.

But there is a trick to beating the system, Small said. Since your left brain controls all your right body parts and your right brain controls your left side, a series of exercises called "cross lateral movements" will awaken the resting side of your brain. An added bonus is it will double your brain capacity for about 20 minutes. To accomplish this, start with your right hand touching your left shoulder and grab your nose with your left hand. You will reawaken the dormant side of your brain by quickly switching the positions of your right and left hands.

Small's seventh key is to write your own study notes. People either learn by seeing something, hearing something, or touching something. Twenty per cent of people learn by hearing, 70 per cent by seeing, and only 10 per cent by touching.

His eighth step is called multi-tracking, which involves studying in a way that you can feel, see and touch something at the same time.

"When you do that, it's like three people filling in a ditch with shovels as opposed to one," Small said. This process is called "multi-tracking," and is one of the biggest study secrets out there.

Study tip number nine is Small's version of Cornell Notes. Organize your notebook with your notes on the right pages only. Afterwards, go back and write in a series of questions on the left pages corresponding to the answers on the right. Be sure to also write your name, the date, and that day's topic on both pages. Be sure to look for possible test questions throughout the day - something your teacher is always looking for.

Small's tenth key to good grades is to always study your notes in a question and answer format. Your mind has a mind of its own, Small said, and by asking questions, you force it to focus on the work at hand.

The eleventh key is to always think like a teacher. While sitting in class, be aware of topics that will make good test questions. Write them down and go back to them often.

Keys number 12 and 13 are directly related to one another, and using colours in your notes.

"When you add one extra colour to your notes, retention goes up 13 per cent right on the spot - instantly," Small explained. "Add a third and a fourth colour and it goes up yet again."

Small's thirteenth step is to always have a four-colour pen handy. The pen, which Small refers to as the "genius pen," will help you to better organize your notes.

The fourteenth step is to have a cover card handy when studying. Go back to your notes and cover up the answers with a card and focus on answering the questions.

Key number 15 is to have an active study habit, free from any audio or visual distractions - which is Small's sixteenth key - turn down the music and turn off the TV.

Small's sixteenth and final key is, if you have to listen to music, make it Baroque.

"If it's not Baroque - fix it!" he exclaimed, saying that Baroque music will always put the brain into an alpha wave state - the best for studying.

Throughout the presentation, Small used a series of magic tricks and stories to relate his keys to the audience. These small interruptions are planned and timed, Small said, so that the audience can get the maximum amount of information from the presentation.

Small is constantly fighting the fact the brain works on a 15-minute cycle of switching between an internal and external pattern of thinking.

"You can't fight it so you have to go with it," he said. "So every 15 minutes I have to interrupt what's going on and do a preemptive strike before the brain goes into an internal cycle."

Student Abby Webster had her own favorite part of the night.

"(I liked) when he did the magic tricks because they were sort of funny," she said, as her mom looked on.

Kelly, Abby's mom, was hopeful her daughters would take some keys away from the presentation - including how to develop better study habits.

"I think it would be best if they could develop them now," she said. "When they get to be teenagers, sometimes if they're not developed it's a bit harder to ingrain them at that time. So if you start now, hopefully it will work out... I think they did learn something and probably don't realize it."