Going to School with PTSD: Online Education and Anxiety

By James Hinton

I was an older student with an anxiety issue. After spending time in the Army, including several combat tours, I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Being around large numbers of strangers worried me. Noisy settings where I was not completely in control gave me the need to run for it. I would even feel a touch agoraphobic if I was not close to something I could bunker up within.

When I made the decision to obtain a college degree after getting out, these all presented me with significant problems. While some of the university classes I participated in had relatively small class sizes that enabled me to learn faces fairly quickly and find a certain degree of comfort with, large classes were a daily struggle. I would have to position myself close to doors so I could bolt outside for relief if needed. More boisterous classes could result in frequent, embarrassing episodes where I just plain had to get out.

Eventually I made it through and obtained my Bachelors, but it was not a particularly easy or enjoyable process. My struggles had frequently led to my considering quitting, which had only caused the depression that comes with PTSD to get worse. Preparing for class had been an anxiety inducing process that involved my wondering whether I’d make it through to the end, or have to make a dash for the door yet again.

I still wonder sometimes how I made it to graduation.

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How to Develop Good Reading Skills in the Internet Age

By Samantha Levine. 

It’s no laughing matter how dependent our society is on the use of technology and the Internet. The great thing about it is that we are exposed to so much information, but this can also be very overwhelming. As we learn to read from screen to screen (laptop, cell phone, tablet), we have readjusted the way we receive information, which is causing our attention span to be much shorter.

When skimming through an article, you may not realize how much information you can actually miss. A great tip to increase retention is to read the headlines of a topic and ask questions about what you think it will be about. While reading, see if you are able to answer your own questions, and then make note of it. This helps you to read quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

man on iphone

Can you read on this tiny little screen?

I’ve noticed that the faster I receive information from the web, the faster I move on to read something else; and more often than not, I’m distracted by an ad to the right and left of the story I’m reading. However, thanks to my very awesome grade school teachers who taught me to love reading, I learned a few tips that can keep you on track:

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Can a Learning Disability Make You a Better Student?

In his new book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that having a learning disability can actually be beneficial.  I couldn’t agree more!  I wanted to share an article I wrote a while back about how my struggles with learning helped me become a top student. 

I was never officially diagnosed with a learning disability, but I often suspect I have one.  I struggled with listening comprehension throughout my academic career.  More often than not, I walked out of class having no idea what the teacher was talking about.  In science labs, I would stare blankly at the equipment in front of me because I couldn’t process verbal instructions.  In Spanish class, my ability to read the language far exceeded my listening skills.  Sometimes I hated going to school because I felt like I learned nothing there.  And yet, I managed to become valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School, one of the most competitive public schools in the country, and graduate first in my class from Columbia University.

How did I do this?  By using techniques familiar to many learning disabled students: hard work, perseverance, and playing to my strengths.  Ironically, my learning weakness may have contributed to my academic success.

I learned at an early age that my reading ability was far better than my listening comprehension.  Since I didn’t absorb much during class, I took extremely detailed notes so I could review them at my own pace.  I became a speed-writer by using my own brand of shorthand to record every tidbit of information, while most of my classmates were satisfied with a skimpy outline.  I think this really worked to my advantage.  According to a 1968 study by John McLeish, students remember only 42% of the information in a lecture by the time it ends, and only 20% a week later.  My classmates may have understood the lesson while it was being given, but when test-time rolled around, most of that understanding had evaporated.  I, on the other hand, knew the lecture better than ever because I had reviewed it several times.

I also relied on textbooks and other written material to explain what I had failed to grasp in class.  Books were my primary teachers, especially in high school.  I read complex passages over and over again until they were permanently etched in my brain.  I also took extensive notes on reading assignments to reinforce what I read.  These notes became invaluable for things like participating in class discussions and writing papers.  Whenever I wanted to support an argument, I could quickly look at my notes instead of desperately flipping through books to find some half-remembered fact or quotation.  All of this reading and note-taking was time-consuming, of course, but it forced me to develop a strong work ethic.

I also turned down offers to join study groups, since I knew I wouldn’t absorb information in such an environment.  I believe that this made me a more independent learner.  While many of my classmates asked one another for explanations and clarifications (and were often given faulty information), I would examine my books and go to the teacher’s office hours for help.  In college, I often took courses that complemented my learning ability.  For example, I took Latin classes to fulfill my language requirement because they focused on reading instead of oral comprehension; and I majored in history in part because it emphasized the analysis of written texts.

I believe that by compensating for a weakness, I became a stronger student overall.  I sincerely doubt I would have been at the top of my class if my listening comprehension had been better.  There are two things I hope you take away from this: (1) everyone’s needs are different, and you must find the method of learning that works best for you; and (2) learning disability comes in all shapes and sizes, and may be found in those you least expect.

Stefanie Weisman is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College.

A book review that warmed an author’s heart

Every once in a while, someone says something about my book that makes all the hard work I put into it worthwhile, and makes me feel like I truly accomplished something. I received such a review today, from someone called Stew Mulligan. I was so excited about it, I had to reprint it on my blog. The original review can be found here. Thank you Stew Mulligan, wherever you are!

The author and her book

The author and her book

“The Secrets of Top Students, by Stefanie Weisman, is a great book!

As a Stuyvesant High School alumnus, I know what it means to be that school’s valedictorian. Stuyvesant is not just any high school. It is a school that if you become a doctor you are considered an underachiever. They expect you to at least become head of a department in a major hospital or medical school. Stuyvesant graduate David Axelrod, is ONLY an advisor to the President; Stuyvesantian Eric Holder, is US Attorney General: not bad, but not a Supreme Court Justice. It’s where if you get 800 on your math SAT nobody lifts an eye. But in all seriousness, this is a school of really, really smart kids and, as such, I am awed by Stefanie’s academic accomplishments — not only the Stuyvesant valedictorian but she also graduated with the highest GPA from Columbia College. That’s like being the baseball Rookie of the Year and then following up by winning the MVP and Triple Crown. Stefanie knows how to hit academia’s fast ball, curve and knuckleball, and all for homeruns.

As a rule, if you want to learn something well, it is a good idea to learn from the best, and Stefanie Weisman’s Secrets of Top Students is now THE SOURCE on how to maneuver through the obstacle course of higher education. I guarantee that this book will not disappoint.

If school, in general, and tests, term papers and the like, in particular, give you anxiety attacks, then this book is definitely the relaxant. By all rights, Stefanie should never have become valedictorian. In fact, she probably should have been mediocre at best, since she has a certain learning disability. But by putting excuses aside, she learned how to use her strengths to overcome her weaknesses, by developing a relatively simple system of studying. In Secrets of Top Students she conveys her system, no longer secrets, in a clear and concise manner. And, I might add, with a particularly droll and somewhat self-effacing sense of humor. In other words, she explains how to walk the walk, how to traverse through the killing fields of the classrooms with the least possible pain and suffering. She explains how to avoid being an academic casualty or also-ran and to get through it all, knowing you did the best you can, while actualizing your potential.

This is not a textbook. But it tells how to penetrate the textbooks. This is not a lecture, but it tells how to absorb and retain what the lecturer is “trying” to expound. Being smart is not enough. You have to know how to learn. This book shows how to do it in an efficient and intelligent manner. Stefanie’s prose is concise and easy to follow and the book develops in a logical manner. (It ends with a chapter on “How to Take a Test”, by the way, since test taking is where the rubber meets the road.) The use of well placed bullet points and bold font help to highlight the most important concepts. At the same time, the book makes clear that there are individual differences, and that students have to make adjustments in their own studying methods that work best for them. Nevertheless, these basic concepts are still applicable, to different degrees and with different emphasis, to all types of learners.

Nor does the book sugar-coat the reality. It tells it like it is, which is to say that the most important thing in becoming a good, or a great student, is commitment and a willingness to work hard, damn hard. There is no easy way. There is only a EASIER WAY, a SMARTER WAY. This book is the roadmap.

I guess my only complaint, after reading this book, is that it was published 40 odd years too late. If only there had been a Stefanie Weisman to write such a book for us baby boomers, to help us get through the morass known as education, like a machete in a rain forest, who knows what grades I would have gotten. But today, 2013, if you are a young person wanting to maximize your potential in school, or if you are a parent of a student and would like to see your child rise to the top, take my advice and go out and purchase this book ASAP.”

Education News: Recommended Articles

From college rankings to kids sticking themselves with IVs to study longer, here are some education stories you might enjoy:

NPR story about How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. I love his name, by the way – very appropriate. This book sounds great and it speaks to all the things I’ve been saying recently. Academic achievement (and achievement in life) depends on hard work and perseverance, not talent and luck.

The College Rankings Racket, by Joe Nocera. Are college rankings really a racket? I think that’s going a little too far. Mr. Nocera’s article links to U.S. News‘s description of how they rank schools, and it sounds pretty legit to me. Sure, some kids place too much pressure on themselves to go to certain schools, but that doesn’t mean the rankings are pointless. What do you think?

Chinese students use IV amino acids to study for high-stakes tests, by Valerie Strauss. Apparently some high school students in China receive IV drips of amino acids so they can better prepare for the high-stakes college entrance exams. I feel sorry for these kids.

7 Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Major. This is a great article for all you college students out there. The last question may be the most important: Is this what I want or what someone else wants?

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

The LD Advantage

Check out my article posted by the Rise Scholarship Foundation. Did I become valedictorian in spite of or because of a learning disability?

2/2/12 Update:
My LD article has been retweeted by Scorebusters!
Scorebusters Twitter page

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!