Here’s a story problem from a practice SAT that’s designed to overwhelm your working memory:
Jake has identical drinking glasses each in the shape of a right circular cylinder with internal diameter of 2.5 inches. He pours orange juice from a gallon jug into each glass until it is full. If the height of juice in each glass is about 5 inches, what is the largest number of full glasses that he can pour from one gallon of juice? (Note: There are 231 cubic inches in 1 gallon.)
If you approach this problem without a “busy pencil,” you’re almost certainly going to be confused. Having a busy pencil means attacking the problem with circling, underlining, and annotating as you read. It means pausing to take notes on the problem as you go. It means drawing diagrams, writing equations, and noting questions you have. If you do those things, you stand a pretty good chance of solving the problem. But if you don’t use your pencil to manage cognitive load, you’ll probably be unable to solve it.
In most sports, there is a “ready position” you adopt in order to be as well set-up as possible to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Typically, this means having your weight on the balls of your feet with knees bent and your hands up. Trying to solve a difficult story problem without a pencil already in hand and ready to write is like being a basketball player standing on the court with their weight on their heels, their knees locked, and their hands in their pockets – you’re not in the ready position.
The idea of approaching problems with a busy pencil applies to much more than story problems. It makes you a more powerful reader, it sets you up to take good notes during a lecture or a video, and it’s critical for all sections of all standardized tests. Many students say they don’t need to underline parts of the question, take notes as they read, or do process of elimination on paper because they can do it all in their head. And they’re right. It is possible to do it all in your head, just as it is possible to ride a mountain bike down a bumpy trail with no hands. It’s just risky. And if you don’t like the outcome of not writing, then the solution is clear. If you’re confused by anything complicated, and your pencil isn’t busy, start there.
Furthermore, if you’re studying without a busy pencil, you’re probably not studying effectively. Remember: looking isn’t studying. Writing convinces your brain to care precisely because you don’t like writing. So if you want to remember what you’re trying to learn, use your busy pencil to make written product.
Lastly, in this strange time of remote learning, it might seem like, since everything is online, pencils are obsolete. But they’re not. In fact, having a busy pencil might be more important than ever because remote learning is more challenging than in-person learning. If we’re going to make it work, we’ll need all of our best tools – the high-tech as well as the low-tech.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.