I grew up on a lake outside the town of Longville, Minnesota – not a very suiting name considering the town was only a couple of blocks long and had a population of 180 (No, I didn’t accidentally leave off any zeros). At the time, my house was nearly an hour from the nearest traffic light but only a short walk to the bridge where I would fish for hours a day during the spring, summer and fall months. I maintained a roadside bait stand during these months and sold nightcrawlers and leeches to fishermen. There was also ice fishing in the winter and the occasional hour drive to the movies, and that was about it. And man did it get cold during the winter – the temperature was frequently 10-20 degrees below zero and one night, while I was in high school, it hit 54 below zero!
I was always an exceptional student – straight A’s, valedictorian, won several spelling bees, did well at math and band competitions, was a national finalist in Business Professionals of America and a state speech champion. I was the quiet, nice, nerdy kid with an occasional clever joke or witty response who got along with everyone because they had no reason to dislike me. I tried really hard but it wasn’t obvious to others since I was never the over-zealous, teacher’s pet, suck-up type who sat in the front row and rose their hand with an “OOOOH OOOOH PICK ME PICK ME!!!” desperation. I just sat in the back of the classroom like a dry sponge waiting to soak up whatever information the teacher was willing to spill that day.
My hard work in high school paid dividends both in the form of boosted confidence and enough scholarships to pay for my college tuition. Now I was sure I could hold my own with the smartest people I knew and could figure out just about anything given enough time.
When I got to college I quickly realized that there were a lot of other kids like myself, and I decided I would have to work even harder to be the intellectually fittest of the fit in this new, more challenging environment. This is when I really began reflecting on how I was studying and decided I would try taking different approaches than my classmates in order to separate myself from the pack. I questioned how my time was best spent and would try to observe how quickly I could learn things if I studied in different ways, studied at different times, ate different foods, worked out or not, took naps or not, and the list goes on and on. After about a semester and a half of putting in more time and effort than my classmates (I didn’t drink, do drugs or party at all – in fact, I didn’t have a single drink until I was 22), I was confident that I had again risen to the top of my new, smarter group of peers. Again, I tried to remain inconspicuous and nonchalant about my achievements by not sharing my scores with anyone, but my classmates must have narrowed down who was wrecking the curves, perhaps by catching glimpses of my quiz and exam scores as they were being handed back. They started asking to be in my group for projects and labs and would come to me with homework sets or take-home exams that they needed help with. I helped everyone who asked since I knew it would only help me understand the material better myself.
In college I won awards, additional scholarships, was chapter president of a national biology honor society, inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, on the Dean’s List every semester, scored an internship at 3M, did an independent biochemistry research project on campus that won an additional grant from AAAS, presented my work at research conferences, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. All of this culminated in me getting into Berkeley’s chemistry Ph.D. program, arguably the best chemistry graduate program in the world at the time.
Graduate school was an entirely new level of competition. I then thought to myself that the difference in academic difficulty and competition between high school, college, and graduate school was a lot like the difference between high school, college, and NFL football. Only the biggest, strongest, fastest and most competitive brains can cut it in a Berkeley PhD program. To make a really long story short, I did well in all my classes and was able to hold my own with this group of brilliant students and professors. I passed my advancing to PhD candidacy qualifying exam with flying colors. But then, my lab lost our biggest grant from the NSF and I had no money to continue doing my research, so I took a leave of absence, writing a Master’s thesis before leaving, and started tutoring full-time.
My schedule quickly filled up from referrals, my students loved me and I was getting a ton of positive feedback from them. They were telling me they learned more from me in an hour than they did from the their teacher during an entire week. I knew I had a knack for helping students understand complicated material very quickly so I began trying to break down what it was that I was doing to help them. I then started reading a ton of literature on neuroscience, learning, studying, and teaching methods, began developing methods of my own, starting training employees and built a small tutoring business, East Bay Tutoring, which I run to this day.
I now have about 10 years worth of experience in academic teaching, from tutoring fellow college students, to teaching lab and lectures at Berkeley, to teaching the MCAT for one of the largest test prep companies, to doing thousands of individual and small group tutoring sessions with hundreds of different students. And most importantly, the entire time I was carefully testing different methods and observing which worked the best, constantly pushing myself to help students learn things faster, more efficiently and retain the information for longer periods of time. I now wish to share all of my insights with you, whether a student, teacher, tutor, parent, or just a curious, self-improving individual. For free! So I hope you enjoy my posts, I have worked very hard to make sure my articles are useful, science-based and entertaining at the same time. So please Tweet, Like or forward articles to friends and family who you think will find them valuable.
I wish you the best in your endeavors!
Joe the Tutor