List of Websites to Make You Smarter

I just found Jenna Goudreau’s list of “25 Websites that Will Make You Smarter” at Business Insider. The article, updated from an original by Maggie Zhang, lists some great finds. You’re sure to appreciate at least a few of them.

Coursera and edX are on there, and so is Khan Academy. All are leading sites for free online courses.

I’m also intrigued by duolingo. Learning languages is a huge challenge, and anything that can make it feel like a “fun, addictive game” is worth checking out.

Try a visit also to Fast Company’s 30-Second MBA. I’m always trying to pack new ideas into my mind, and sometimes there’s just time for a bite-sized morsel. A quick video with one great idea can give you something to ponder and build upon as you seize your day.

Take a look and see what else you find!

Building Skill in Asking Questions

Being able to ask relevant questions is one of the most important academic skills. It helps you understand topics more deeply, allows you to demonstrate your critical thinking skills, and usually leads to improved participation marks.

With a little practice, you can learn to ask good questions about anything.

When the professor asks if the class has any questions, you’ll make a good impression if you often have a question prepared. As long as you’re listening carefully and thinking critically and creatively, you can come up with questions for almost anything.

Certainly you should be able to ask questions after reading any journal article or listening to a presentation or discussion. Once you’ve built your skills, you’ll discover you can ask meaningful questions about even the simplest things.

Here’s an example:

I ate eggs for breakfast this morning.

Now ask some questions…

Did you enjoy the eggs?

How were they prepared?

Do you like the yolk runny or firm?

Do you often eat eggs for breakfast?

Have you ever tried eggs benedict?

Did you eat at home or at a restaurant?

What else did you eat with the eggs?

Do you put salt on your eggs?

Do you ever have eggs for dinner?

What is your favourite egg dish?

That’s ten questions (and that’s just a start) about one seven-word sentence. Sure, it’s easier to ask questions about something you’re familiar with, like eating eggs, but if you can ask ten or more questions about such a simple statement, then you must be able to ask at least two or three questions about an article or presentation.

One of the best ways to build skills in asking questions is simply to practice. Whenever you read an article or watch a program or presentation, practice asking questions. Here are three question-asking strategies to get you started: probe for more detail, clear up ambiguity and inquire about important missing information.

And don’t forget who, what, when, where, why and how!

Academic Interview Questions–Describe One of Your Weaknesses

University applicants are often asked during admissions interviews to describe one of their weaknesses. As in all questions of the academic interview, the interviewer is evaluating your response at two different levels. First, she is assessing the content of your answer, meaning simply the details of your explanation and how clearly and engagingly you express them. Second, she is evaluating what your answer reveals about your creativity, critical thinking and level of preparedness for the interview.

Describing a weakness is a challenging task. You want to avoid highlighting an important weakness that actually threatens your ability to excel in the program you are applying to. The admissions committee will determine those kinds of weaknesses for themselves based on your application package. So stay away from something like, “I know that engineering requires excellent math skills, but I find math very confusing.” You’ll receive high points for honesty, but you won’t improve your chance of admission with that answer.

I encourage students to respond with a weakness that they are currently working to turn into a strength. You might say, for example, something like this:

During my undergraduate studies I found that although I wrote good papers, it took me a long time to complete them, and this made it difficult sometimes to meet all my study responsibilities. That’s why I’m currently completing a university writing course to continue developing my writing skills and make my writing time more productive.

What a great answer! It highlights a genuine weakness, but also demonstrates that you are good at reflecting upon your skills and identifying weaknesses. It also shows that you’re the sort of student who actively seeks solutions to obstacles standing in the way of your success.

Conciseness

The best academic writing provides the most information with the fewest words. This is called being “concise.”

Think of being concise as eliminating unnecessary words.

Sometimes you do this naturally. You’d almost certainly never say this: “The sweater of Brenda is red.” [6 words]

Instead, you’d express the same idea more concisely: “Brenda’s sweater is red.” [4 words]

Although we all speak concisely at times, most writers could trim many words from their writing while preserving the meaning. Concise writing feels much sleeker and effective to readers.

But keep in mind that writing concisely means eliminating UNNECESSARY words. Writing concisely does not mean every sentence must be as short as possible. Sometimes extra words are useful. Here’s a great example. The most famous writing manual written in English is called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.¬† In Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, Pinker quotes White, a student of Strunk’s, talking about Strunk’s lecture style. According to White, Strunk once, with great pomp and ceremony, iterated his perspective on conciseness:

“Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

It’s funny at first, because nothing seems less concise than saying the exact same thing three times. But I wouldn’t suggest leaving out a single syllable. None of those words are unnecessary, because they make his utterance, through their sheer humorous irony, unforgettable.

Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security¬†[while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.

New Year’s Resolutions

Maria Popova has compiled one of the cleverest lists of New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen, using ideas from some of history’s great thinkers.

You may not agree with all fifteen resolutions, but you’ll definitely find some of them intriguing. Four of my favourites are:

1] Make your life wide rather than long

2] Cultivate a growth mindset

3] Think rather than know

4] Master critical thinking

Pay special attention to “Cultivating a growth mindset.” It’s an example of what I wrote about in my previous post–how thinking the right things can be just as important as doing the right things.