Calculators, Brain Atrophy, and the New SAT


Disclaimer: I am not anti-calculator. Calculators are genuinely useful and they have an important role to play in academics as well as human progress. Furthermore, for various reasons, such as a dyscalculia diagnosis, some students have been granted an accommodation that allows them to always have access to a calculator for schoolwork, tests, and standardized exams. I am not advocating for these students to abandon the accommodation they are entitled to. I am simply making the case that any student will benefit from regularly practicing math without a calculator.

Math classes have changed during the past few decades. Boring, black-and-white textbooks have been replaced with more colorful ones. Rote memorization has been replaced with exploration and intrigue whenever possible. The newer textbooks favor real-world numbers for which the arithmetic is difficult. Calculators have become more complicated and much more prevalent.

All of this is well and good so long as nothing needs to be memorized and so long as calculators are always allowed. Since we now live in a high-tech world, complete with Google, smartphones, and fancy graphing calculators, it’s easy to see why math classes have shifted in this direction.

But in the spring of 2016, the College Board launched the newest version of the SAT. For over one third of the math questions on the new SAT, no calculators are allowed. Given the direction math classes have gone in recent years, it should come as no surprise that the #1 thing we hear from our students about the new SAT is that the no-calculator section is very hard.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely about calculators. Both of the new SAT’s math sections cover higher-level content than the old SAT did. Students are expected to know nearly everything from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in addition to the fundamentals from the lower levels of math’s inverted pyramid. In terms of math content, the bar has been raised. The new SAT, in short, is harder.

But it’s especially harder for students who don’t have their math facts memorized. If you have to struggle with arithmetic, the no-calculator section is brutal. After all, the exam isn’t testing arithmetic; it’s testing higher-level math skills and problem-solving. If you have to spend a great deal of mental energy crunching the numbers, you won’t have enough brainpower or time leftover to solve the test’s harder problems. You’ll be slower and less agile because you’re weighed down by excess cognitive load.

You might be surprised how common it is for a student to be doing well in high school math classes but to be simultaneously lacking knowledge of fraction operations, how to set up proportion problems, or how to decode a word problem. To a certain extent, the SAT has always punished students for forgetting these skills. Now it also punishes students for struggling with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Many students have chosen not to memorize their math facts, and now they’re paying for it. Others once had their math facts memorized, but have since forgotten them through lack of practice, in a classic case of use it or lose it.

Because the brain is like a bunch of muscles, any skill we don’t use regularly weakens. If we never use the skill, it atrophies. If you always wear a brace on your wrist, your wrist will become weaker. If you always ride your bike with training wheels, you’ll never develop balance. If you always use a calculator, you’ll forget how to do math without one.

Students who wish to do well on the new SAT will have to go back to basics and put in some time working on the fundamentals. The prospect of devoting time to working on old math is particularly hard to stomach during the schoolyear because there is so much new content to learn, which makes summer the ideal time to work on this goal.

It is possible, however, to make significant progress on the basics while you’re learning higher-level content. You simply have to find opportunities to practice the basics while you’re doing your homework. Essentially, this means choosing to do problems the hard way. Not necessarily every time, but whenever you could do a problem without a calculator, that’s an opportunity to practice the basics. It will make your math homework take slightly longer, but you’ll be killing two birds with one stone. Do it the hard way.

The SAT isn’t likely to change again for many years, and it will take a long time for the school system to shift in such a way that helps students tackle the new exam. So that leaves you. You’ll have to change. You’ll have to choose to help yourself.

Exam Week

exam week title

At various times throughout their academic careers, students face particularly challenging weeks: midterms and finals. Typically, these are weeks that combine due dates for major papers and projects with comprehensive exams in most classes. The work load is large and the pressure is high. Let’s quickly look at some of the ways students can help themselves do their best during exam week.

There’s more to exam success than just knowing the content. Students need to know the content, of course, but they also need to take good care of themselves and get all of their ducks in a row.

Taking good care of yourself means prioritizing brain health during exam week. Ideally, this should be a priority all the time because a healthy brain has an easier time with school in general,1 but brain health is especially important in the week leading up to a high-stakes exam. For instance, you’ll probably have a very difficult time maintaining focus during a lengthy exam if your stomach is grumbling because you didn’t eat a healthy breakfast. You’ll also struggle to demonstrate what you know if you’re exhausted from lack of sleep.2 In short, if you take good care of yourself, you’ll be much more likely to do your best.

Getting all of your ducks in a row means taking care of all the boring, mechanical things that prevent needless frustration. For example, you don’t want to discover that your calculator’s batteries are dead on the first problem of a high-level math test. It’s also pretty upsetting to discover that your pencil’s eraser has hardened to the point of uselessness when you try to change an answer on a bubble sheet. If you take care of all these things beforehand, you’ll have an easier time.

What follows is a series of four lists outlining the simple things you can do to give your best performance on an important exam or week of exams.

The Week Before the Test

  • Study or do practice problems because it’s your last chance!
    • Remember, “studying” = writing.2
    • Push yourself to put in extra time this week. Make yourself proud.
    • Reduce or eliminate time-draining activities such as:
      • Television.
      • Video games.
      • Social media.
  • Prioritize sleep because you won’t be able to make up for sleep-deprivation in one night.1
  • Exercise because it increases your brainpower and mental endurance.3 *
  • Stay hydrated, eat healthy food, and try to avoid sugar because your brain needs premium fuel.*

The Night Before the Test

  • Test yourself on major topics and areas of weakness.2
  • Plan your morning so tomorrow goes smoothly.
    • Know what you’re required, allowed, and not allowed to bring to the test.
      • This varies by exam, so know the rules for your specific test.
      • If you get notes for the test, make sure you’ve got a complete, easy-to-read set of notes.
    • If you’ll be using a calculator, put fresh batteries in your calculator and check to make sure they actually work.
    • Prepare four #2 (yellow, wooden) pencils, sharpened with good erasers.
    • If pens are required, make sure you have working, relatively new ones.
    • Pack your materials to save time in the morning.
  • Relax and go to bed early. *

The Morning of the Test

  • Get up early enough to be fully awake.
  • Get a small amount of exercise because it helps wake you up, improves your cognitive function,3 increases your mental endurance,3 and helps you handle upcoming stress.*
  • Eat a large, hearty breakfast because your brain will require extra fuel for the exam.*
    • Try to avoid sugar because it hinders cognitive performance.6
    • Remember that foods high in protein, fat, and fiber give you lasting energy.1
  • Don’t deviate from whatever your normal caffeine/medication routine is.
  • Briefly enjoy whatever sets you in a good mood – music, nature, comedy, etc. – because it helps you do your best.*
  • Consider doing a few problems or taking a quick look at the content as a way of warming up your brain.
  • Take your materials.
    • Double check to make sure you have what you need.

During the Test

  • If it is a closed-note test, begin by jotting down critical notes or reminders to yourself.
    • It might be a formula, like the Pythagorean Theorem, that you’re worried about forgetting.
    • Or it might be a reminder, like “Simplify your fractions!”
    • Do this before reading any part of the test.
  • Don’t allow yourself to get stuck on a question you don’t know. Keep moving.
    • Be aware of the time.
    • Consider wearing a watch.
  • Remember that stress is normal during exams.
    • Actually, stress is there to help you rise to the occasion.8
    • If you find yourself panicking or spacing out, take 30 seconds to pause your test effort and reboot with a microbreak. *
  • Take deep breaths because the brain likes oxygen. Deep breathing also helps you stay calm and focused.
  • Use good posture because it helps you perform better.
    • Sit up straight, feet planted on the floor.
    • Good posture activates core muscles, thereby getting your blood flowing, thereby helping you feel awake.
    • Alert posture also helps you feel more alert because of self-perception.
    • Confident body language increases both confidence and performance.9
  • Remember that you’ve learned lots of awesome techniques that can make you a powerful test-taker.
    • 99% of those techniques involve writing.
    • Putting things down on paper enhances your brainpower.2 Do it.

Between Tests

  • Use any breaks you get during the day wisely.
    • Eat well, hydrate, and move your body.*
    • Avoid energy-draining electronic media.
    • Embrace moments of boredom; those moments are real breaks that facilitate recovery.4

* Everyone is different. Know yourself. Choose patterns of behavior, exercise, and food that work best for you and align with what your doctor has recommended.

Works Cited

1 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

5 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

6 Reynolds, Susan, and Teresa Aubele. “Why a Sugar High Leads to a Brain Low.Psychology Today. October 18, 2011.

7 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

8 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013.

9 Cuddy, Amy. “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Global 2012.

Image Credit

Title Image: arielaot. “fifteen / 365: finals are killing me slowly.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

Studying for Finals

finals title image

Studying for finals is a daunting task for most students, so I’d like to offer some simple strategies to help.

Obviously, what you study and the techniques you use will vary class by class. There are, however, some strategies that transcend individual subjects. I recently posted a list of the do’s and don’ts of effective studying, and these, of course, apply here as well.

One simple rule to keep in mind is …

Study Early and Often

Cramming is never recommended, but you can survive little quizzes and even some tests with frantic, last-minute studying. Comprehensive finals and AP exams are much less forgiving. Cramming won’t work. In order to succeed, you have to start early and study often.

You have to study early and often for two reasons. One is simply that there’s so much information to cover. It takes a great deal of time and effort to review an entire year’s worth of content. The other reason is that studying early and often is the best way to tap into the power of spaced repetition. This is true for all types of quizzes and test, but it’s especially true for finals.

That means you need to find out as soon as possible if there is a final and what will be on it. Is it comprehensive for the whole year? Or this semester? Or is it just a unit test? The sooner you know, the sooner you can get to work.

So ask your teachers about finals early. Now would be a good time. Seriously. Email your teachers right now. Or make a note to yourself to ask in school tomorrow. Do it.

That said, you don’t have to wait until your teacher tells you about the test to start studying. It’s safest to assume that there is a comprehensive final and begin studying right away. If finals prove to be unpleasantly challenging this year, you might decide to add a program of consistent review into your study routine next year, starting in the fall. There’s no such thing as too early. Imagine how much less stressful finals would be if you did small reviews all year long.

Using the Study Guide

If there’s a study guide, make a photocopy of it, so you can use it later as a practice test. Then complete one copy of it as thoroughly as possible, as soon as possible. Check your answers and correct your mistakes.

Use resources – notes, your textbook, the internet, your classmates, etc. – to figure out what you don’t know. Mark the topics that you don’t understand, write down the questions you have, and go see the teacher to get help.

The sooner you start, the more time you’ll have to get help.

Make it a Ritual

If you can automate your review through a daily ritual, you’ll make steady progress. This can mean putting in 10 minutes per day whether you feel like it or not.

I recommend doing this before you do homework because homework will drain your willpower muscle. Also, since it’s due tomorrow and comes with an immediate consequence if you don’t complete it, you’re likely to get the homework done anyway, so study first. Do your “shoulds” before your “have-tos.”

Building a ritual of this kind is difficult, so I’ll offer one quick strategy: Track your effort with a calendar chain.

Print off a calendar that shows all the days until school is out and start X-ing off the days you study. A calendar chain should be specific to a single goal for a single class, and a specific minimum daily dose should be written on the top. You can always do more than the minimum, but you’ll be more likely to engage it consistently if the bar is set low.

Every time you put an X on the calendar, you’re giving yourself a little pat on the back for putting in the effort. If you miss a day, that’s fine. You are human, after all. Just get back to work the next day.

Here’s an example of a study calendar, in progress in early May, being used to prep for a comprehensive math final:

study calendar chain

The Whole Year?

Going back through the content for an entire year is a gigantic task, so let’s strategize about how to approach it.

Regardless of which resources you use to review the content, the most important idea is that your review should not be passively reading. Instead, it should be actively writing. Typically, the more paper you use while studying, the better you do on the exam.

If you’re operating out of a textbook, then you may have the luxury of going through chapter summaries. Start at the beginning and take notes on the big ideas. If there is a set of vocabulary for each chapter, build a set of flashcards. For a math or science class, there will most likely be practice problems you can work through to solidify your understanding.

If you’ve got a collection of old handouts or your own notes, go through and re-write them. Condense your old handouts and notes into a smaller set of notes on the most important ideas.

One way to go back through the whole year in a casual and automated way is to watch Crash Course videos. Crash Course is a nonprofit YouTube channel that has entertaining educational videos on many high school subjects including World History, US History, US Government, Economics, Biology, and Chemistry. You could make it a ritual to watch one or two of their videos each day while you’re eating breakfast.

Now, watching Crash Course isn’t true studying. But watching Crash Course is better than not studying at all, and it makes an excellent supplement to true studying because it provides visual and verbal reminders of the content you’ve looked at more deeply in class or in your textbook. Plus, if you’re trading out television for Crash Course, or if you’re adding it to your breakfast routine – when you would otherwise not be studying – then it’s not taking away any time that would have been used for true studying.

Also, you can choose to engage with Crash Course in a manner that’s closer to actual studying by having pencil and paper at the ready. Bear in mind that the pace of the videos is very fast, so you’ll have to pause them frequently to take notes.

There are more serious academic resources on YouTube, such as Adam Norris’ AP US History videos. These walk you through the content in a very dry and straightforward manner. If you’re taking notes as you watch, and if you follow up on a session of watching with a practice test, then you’re actually studying.

Focus on Filling Your Knowledge Gaps

Over the course of a year, everyone misses at least some of the content that was covered. While a good finals review ought to include all of the content, it’s important to focus on the major gaps in your knowledge. One quick way to see where your gaps are is to review your online grades and simply look for low test grades. The tests you did poorly on are surely good areas to focus on.

If your teacher was kind enough to hand back your exams – and if you were wise enough to hold on to them – you can go back through your old tests and quizzes and focus your efforts on the specific questions you got wrong. Merely looking over the material isn’t enough; it’s important to use pencil and paper to write about the material or re-do the problems you missed.

For nearly any math subject, Khan Academy is an excellent resource to use for filling in a gap in your knowledge. Search for the concept you need help with, watch the videos, take notes, and then try the practice problems. For most types of math problems available on Khan Academy, you’ll want to work them out on paper rather than attempting to do them in your head or using the “scratchpad” tool. Khan Academy also has videos on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

For an online resource to review Spanish grammar and vocabulary, I recommend, which has both lessons and quizzes. The “basic quiz” for each lesson is free and will pop up in the left-hand column of the screen.


The quickest way to find out if you’re prepared is to take a practice test. It’s also the fastest way to discover gaps in your knowledge.

It’s better to fail a practice test at home and find that you need to study than to fail the real test at school and wish you had studied.

Practice tests and worksheets that can serve as practice tests abound online. If you can’t find one, ask your teacher for one. If your teacher can’t provide one, make one yourself.

A very popular tool for self-testing is Quizlet, a website that lets you make electronic flashcards and test yourself in a variety of ways. Quizlet has many nice features, and it does help with studying, but students should keep in mind that hand-written notes, hand-made flashcards, and pencil-and-paper self-tests are far more effective than any electronic study tools.1 If you are going to use Quizlet, consider at least incorporating the following tactic: Have a pencil and paper at the ready to write out anything you get wrong. The same rule applies to quizzes on

Use Downtime Wisely

When you’re trying to internalize a great deal of information, it’s critical to make the most of your downtime. The gaps between study sessions are when your subconscious brain does the important work of solidifying your memories and piecing together the academic puzzles you’ve been wrestling with.1

But you can’t access this innate superpower if you’re filling your downtime with screen-time. Television, games, and social media are so powerfully engaging that they prevent your brain from processing whatever you’ve been working on learning.

So you’ll have to resist the urge to fill your downtime with technology and, instead, take real breaks. This means practicing the art of taking microbreaks and embracing moments of boredom. It means going for walks, taking naps, and meditating rather than watching shows, using twitter, and texting.

Everything Counts

Preparedness for an exam is not a black-and-white thing; preparedness is on a spectrum. Any studying is better than no studying. Do the best you can with the time you have. Everything counts.

Just Start

And lastly, you’ll never feel like studying, so whether or not you want to study has nothing to do with it. Just start. Your future self will thank you for it.

1 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

Image Credit

Title Image: gutermuth, anna. “5/365.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.