the ART of studying (part 3): Tips to tackle technical written examinations

While my friends are chasing ‘A’s, I proudly proclaimed that I am chasing after perfection. It is not because I am a memorising king of the class. Quite the opposite, I sat through my A level Mathematics paper with only one single formula in my head; I derived everything else on the spot.

So imagine, doing well without much memorisation. Isn’t that a dream? I think it is possible and what I hope to do today is to summarised this personal studying technique that I adopt into a few palatable points.

By the way, if you have any personal routines that works for you, I hope to learn from you too so please share them in the comments below.

Practice Question Focused

Through years of taking examinations and now, being an educator myself, I understood what I was doing that worked. My method is practice question focused and works best with science, technology, engineering and mathematics related topics.

Collecting Past Year Papers

I collect as many past year papers as my time allows myself to go through. If there are answers than all the better. Mock papers are used if I am unable to locate actual past year papers.

I divide them into three piles:

  • Collection 1. Somewhat new past year paper except for the latest (about four papers)
  • Collection 2. Older past year papers (over 3 to 5 years old)
  • Collection 3. The two newest past year paper

Studying Phase

Open the first two papers from Collection 1 and start doing! Open book. No time limit.

The idea is to find a way to go through your notes. Practice keeps the studying process active and a great way to help your brain remember things.

The other main point is to keep the studying process stress free. There is no need to impose a time limit and don’t be too hard on yourself for not being able to do the question. It is your first attempt anyway.

If you cannot answer a question with an open book, ask for help.

This means that we are facing a knowledge gap. There is something we do not understand. Ask your friends or your prof for help.

Practice Phase

Use the next two papers from Collection 1 and rely less on your notes. Also, spot for “patterns” in the question and find out the method to answer the question.

Relying less on notes means that you will only refer to it if there is a need to. This is to test your memory. The hope is that when you have repeated the same type of questions for a couple of time, you already remember the facts so that there is no need to memorise it.

Spotting for “patterns” is also an important process too because these are your “giveaway” questions that you can score. Your professor probably think you should be able to answer those questions anyway. If there is a pattern, there is usually a standard method to solve those questions. This help you to increase the speed in solving those questions.

Mock Exam 1

With the second newest past year paper from Collection 3, find a quiet place where you cannot be disturb and sit for your first mock exam. This is a closed book and timed exam.

Time management is also an important part of the examination. If you did not finish the paper in time, note how many questions are left blank. Proceed to complete the exam to identify speed gap, memory gap and knowledge gap that you might have.

If you can complete the question without your notes, you have a speed gap. You need to find a method that allow you to complete the question faster.

If you need your notes to complete the question, you have a memory gap. Memorisation at this stage will help.

If you can’t answer it with an open book, you have a knowledge gap. You need to ask for help.

Further Practice Phase

Do papers from Collection 2.

Do this if you still have time to spare before the big day. Keep your brain active and do not let it rest. Keep getting in touch with your study material through this method.

If there are questions that you can’t do, it may not matter as much because some of the content tested may be outdated.

Mock Exam 2

Do the newest past year paper from Collection 3 one to two days before your examination. This is a close book and timed exam.

All that applies to Mock Exam 1 applies to Mock Exam 2 too. At this stage, you will know how well you are going to do for the examination and it will give you some certainty over your grades.

One difference. If you have a memory gap, write down the facts on a piece of paper. Bring this paper along to the entrance of the examination hall.

Night Routine: Relax, Eat well, Sleep Well

Do not attempt to study the night before. The focus is getting yourself cared for so that you are in your best mental state to attempt the examination. Stay away from coffee and spicy food, any detractors that will upset your stomach or keep you awake at night. Do ordinary things that you do to relax.

Sleep and your brain will help you do the memoriastion sub-conscientiously. This is where memorisation take place.

Last Minute Rush

Open up the piece of note you have written for yourself after Mock Exam 2. Read through it and hope for the best.

Tell yourself that you have done all that you can.

Concluding Remarks

The examination study technique is a practice question focused method which keeps the learning process active. Part of which would also require me to address the following gaps that I may have:

Speed Gap: Caused by working too slowly on a problem. To increase speed, find a standard method that allows you to solve the problem quickly.

Memory Gap: Things you can’t remember for nuts. Do more questions that uses that part of the content and get in touch with it as often as you can. Relax, eat well and sleep well and let your brain help you do the memorisation for you.

Knowledge Gap: Questions that cannot be solved even with an open book. Ask for help from your friends or your professors!

I hope this has been helpful for you and once again, if you have any personal routines that works for you, I hope to learn from you too so please share them in the comments below.


the ART of studying (part 2): Effective Studying Techniques

I pushed myself to take up a Specialist Diploma in Teaching and Learning offered by my institution recently. It came with a thick reading list spanning three textbooks.

THREE! That’s thousand over pages!

It’s a fearful thought for me. After all, I didn’t manage to successfully continue my Japanese language learning, ever since I tried to restart the effort late 2014, and 2015, and 2016, and… you get the picture.

I figured that I have great problems focusing:

– My attention span shortens.

– My energy dips very quickly. This is especially so during weekday evenings, all tired from work.

– I get bored easily.

I really thought I lost all discipline to be able to learn something new effectively. Whatever happened to that drive I had while I’m in the university?

But I must pull through this. It is after all something that I wanted to do.

I needed a strategy to do this and hence, what it seems like for the first time in my life, I began to study how to study.

This is what I found worked for me to do some serious studying and I would like to share it with you. I like to summarise it using three ‘S’s: Start, Sustain, Study


Start: Beat Procrastination in a Minute

Don’t feel like studying? Just start studying for one minute whether you like it or not. I got inspired by the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, but instead of turning studying into a one-minute activity for that little improvement, I use the one minute to see if I can get into the groove of things, into that focus mode to study. If I can, I’ll continue to study!

But there will also be days which I just don’t. If that’s the case, I’ll cut myself a bit of slack and maybe just do a 15 minute session instead. Just need to make sure that this doesn’t happen too often.

Sustain: Pacing with the Pomodoro

The next part was really about sustainability, how to keep up with study and keeping the energy level up. The Pomodoro technique advocates that we can keep our energy up by working in the following cycle:

  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min (Get up and walk around!)
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 15 min

The best part is, it need not be 25 minutes and 5 minutes. We can tune it according to what our body can take. I find that I work the best using 35-5-30-5-30-10-25-30 cycle. I guess when I start getting even better at focusing, I can study for a longer period.

Study: The Mechanics of Reading a Textbook for Understanding

Reading for me is a very slow process and doesn’t work well for the kinesthetic learner in me. To read a chapter off a textbook more quickly and effectively, why not try the P2R method advocated by Cornell College:

1. Preview the chapter. Read the headings, the introduction paragraph, the concluding paragraph and the practice questions behind if there’s any to get a feel about what this chapter is going to be about. Reading the introductory paragraph to me is important because it can help to interest me to read further rather than stopping after previewing.

2. Read the chapter. Now, read it bit by bit. Make a mental note of the main points and the examples. If a chapter is very long, you may even want to divide the reading task into sub-chapters. Do NOT highlight or make notes at this point. Focus on the reading.

3. Review. Highlight, underline or write notes only at this point. I prefer writing notes because I no longer need to refer to my textbook that much after reviewing. I also have a tendency to draw pictures in my notes to make it fun to read.


I’m glad to say, it worked out well so far! I clock in 6 hours of reading the very first day I hit the books and still managing to focus for a good productive 1 to 4 hours for days to come.

I still haven’t quite figure out how to prevent my energy from dipping in the evening without napping or coffee (these have serious effects: insomnia may kick in!). As for Japanese, it’s really about going through the grammar guidebook which I felt works differently from textbooks. I guess I will need more time to figure out what will work for me better.

If you have any ideas how I can stay awake in the evening, or how I should go about learning a language at an advanced level, please let me know in the comments below!



How I Select and Make New Year Resolutions Sustainable

There was this comprehensive framework which I’ve put together about 4 years back on making New Year Resolutions. It was all encompassing but like any framework or system which aims to be comprehensive, they are often too complicated to be sustainable. I think I didn’t complete a single resolution on one of the years that follow.

In the beginning of this year, I was determined to to get everything to work. I try to simplify the way I look at it and I think it worked! I’m proud that I’ve completed 11.5 out of 13 goals this year. I’ve also added on 3 stretched goals for myself, completing 2 out of 3 of it. It’s a slugfest but I thought it worked out.

As I headed to a hermitage to onder on life again this year, drew from past experiences, drew from new knowledge such as HARD goals, this is now what I think will work and make it sustain.

Sustainable is the key.

(1) Select Goals to Cover All Aspects

I still feel strongly that we should make goals from all of these aspects as they help to fuel each other to help you accomplish all the goals.

We need not categorise the goal though. One single goal can be crafted to cover multiple aspects at the same time.

  • Spiritual: Goals that contributes directly to what you want in life
  • Mental: Always learning something new and keep your mind alive and healthy
  • Social/Emotional: Things that can build up characters such as empathy, service and intrinsic security
  • Physical (and Emotional) Well-being: The essence of life and energy to run your goals
  • Financial: Money is always needed to help ease you through some of the harder to reach goals like it or not

(2) Write Heartfelt Reasons for Each Goal

All goals made must have a strong heartfelt reason written down. It is written down so that we won’t lose sight of why we are after that goal in the first place.

Not sure about you but sometimes I will lose sight of why I am after something working on it for too long. This helps me stay focus.

(3) Select a Way to Sustain until the Goal is Accomplished

I believe there are two basic ways we can engage a goal:

  • Habit-based: Work the goal into a routine that we can do daily or weekly. Once it is a habit, it becomes easy to sustain. Reinvent the habit if it gets too monotonous.
  • Project-based: Spend solid hours preferably no longer than two to three months working on the project. If it is, break it into smaller bits. Once we are done, we can relax and do something else.

And then we can mix and match! For my physical well being goal for 2018, as a project, I intend to craft a workout. Once I have that, I can set the workout as a habit and do it as a routine. I will also intersperse with mini projects such as completing a half-marathon and let’s see if I can get Gold for my final (hopefully) Individual Proficiency Physical Fitness test.

(4) Do it with Someone if Possible

From a famous African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. if you want to go far, go together.” Is there someone who you can share and accomplish the goal together with?

I also welcome the opportunity to form stronger bonds with my friends.

(5) It is OK to Refine and Redefine – Enjoy the Journey!

The perfectionist in me is really hard-up on completing my goals. It is like collecting stars for my report card. Really, I also learnt that it is ok to cut myself some slack. It is OK to refine my plans and redefine my goals if needed.

I’ve learned to look at the journey as an accomplishment too. This means I still need to see progress in me. Sometimes, circumstances change, a goal no longer seem that heartfelt, and it is time to wave goodbye to the goal for now.

And really, resolutions need not be set at the New Year. It can be done anytime. The magic of the New Year Resolution is that it gives me the chance to look at my life holistically at a regular interval.

My New Year Resolutions for 2018 are still not done up even though there’s only 10 hours to go but I have a good idea what I would like to do. Just need to pen it down to make sure my thoughts are crystal clear.

Wishing everyone a Happy 2018 in advanced and may you have a productive and fulfilling year ahead.


Advanced Presentation Techniques for My Final Year Project Students (Part 2: Make the Final Slide a Powerful Conclusion)

Advanced Technique 2: Make the Final Slide a Powerful Conclusion

I always advocate that the final slide should not be called “Thank You” or “Question and Answer”. In fact, these two slides should not appear in the presentation as they do not present any information about the presentation that you are delivering.

If you want to thank the listeners, you can thank them verbally and sincerely.

If you want to invite the audience to ask questions, just say so.

Leave the final slide as a conclusion to leave a lasting impression of what you want to tell them.

~Flex Tio~

If that is the case, what sort of impression will I leave for the assessors if I were a student you might be asking? I will do this:

  1. Reiterate my contributions (aka summarise)
  2. Relate how my contributions impact my project objectives (aka synthesise)
  3. Resist my urge to provide new information (aka sans as in the Latin word “sans” which means without)

1 and 2 helps remind your assessors to give you marks. Help the assessors recall why you deserve that A, or B. It also helps to influence guide them in asking questions that are relevant to your contributions.

That’s one way to prepare for a Question and Answer session.

3 does exactly the opposite. It encourages the assessors not to ask further questions. This is especially so when you seem to have delivered the perfect presentation so far, only to be thwarted by a new piece of (usually controversial) information delivered at the end that does not gel with the rest of your presentation.

In short, we are trying to create a lasting impression that the assessors can remember well long after the assessment is over. We would like them to say “That student is very capable isn’t it? He/She can do this, this, this and that!”


Advanced Presentation Techniques for My Final Year Project Students (Part 1: Purposeful Chunking)

You can be the most intelligent person in the world. If you can’t communicate what’s in your mind, that wisdom is lost. ~Flex Tio~

This is an advice that I gave to my very first final year project student under me, a brilliant programmer, a hater of presentation.

You know what else is true? Great presentation skills can shift you up by a grade. Terrible presentation skills shifts you down by one. Not all chatty people are great at presentation and not all quiet people are bad at it.

Everyone has it in them to turn their presentation into a great one. These techniques which I’m sharing are not the conventional ones that tells you that you need to organise your presentation into an intro, body and conclusion, focus on eye contact, open up your body language and practice. These are techniques based on how an assessor perceives the quality of your work through your presentation. These are actual techniques you can use for work too.

The One Prerequisite

For these techniques to work, there is only one prerequisite. We need to have produced sufficient work in the first place. No amount of presentation techniques can hide a person’s lack of contribution or lack of know how. However, with some, then there’s something to talk about.

Advanced Technique 1: Purposeful Chunking

Consider the following example:

Before Purposeful Chunking

I’ve done four things for my Final Year Project:

  • Designed a T-Shirt for the Library Community event
  • Designed three posters for the Open House
  • Trained students to use Photoshop to edit pictures for visitors to the Open House
  • Produced a 3D animation video for XYZ Company

After Purposeful Chunking

My contributions for my Final Year Project are:

1. Produced Publicity Material and Delivered a Technical Training to Students for Outreach Effort of the Diploma. This includes the following:

  • Designed a T-Shirt for the Library Community event
  • Designed three posters for the Open House
  • Trained students to use Photoshop to edit pictures for visitors to the Open House

2. Produced a 3D animation video for XYZ Company

Essentially, both content are the same. An additional statement is added to the top of the latter to “purposefully chunk” three different tasks together into one single big task. It should clearly explain your work and link to the objectives of your project.

I used the term “purposeful” to describe the chunking because the main aim in the chunking process is to try to relate all the things you are doing to a central theme, thereby adding more meaning to the small contributions.

Limit your presentation to about 2 to 3 chunks. People seldom remember beyond three points in a presentation and your assessors are human after all. It’s a good way to reduce the number of points you have in a presentation without losing any content too.

In summary, use purposeful chunking when you have many different small and seemingly insignificant things that are unrelated to showcase. The benefits are that:

  1. It makes small separate contributions look and sound big.
  2. It makes the contribution look more meaningful and impactful.
  3. It’s easier for the assessors to remember “that major contribution” and helps you to make a better impression.

Caution: Careful not to oversell such that the group of tasks is not able to match up to the expectation of your chunk.



The PROPER Way to Receive Payment from the Customer in FOUR SIMPLE STEPS

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre by Aapo Haapanen
‘Maxwell Road Hawker Centre’ photograph by Aapo Haapanen. It is a different hawker center from the one mentioned in today’s post.

While having lunch at Teck Ghee Hawker Center today, I had an unpleasant experience of dealing with a mistake that a seller made. I was absolutely sure that I paid the seller with a ten-dollar note but he insisted that he received a five-dollar note from me. It was only when my friend stepped in to clarify the situation, did he grudgingly gave me the rest of my change, without even uttering an apology of any sorts.

I was furious! But no point arguing further with that uncle. I’m there to enjoy lunch with my friend, not to pick a fight.

This is not the first time I met with such a situation. I attribute this to the seller not “being present” when receiving payments from a customer. This could be avoided if they can just take a bit of time to follow these four simple steps, inspired by my parents (they worked as Hawker sellers since I was a baby) and the Japanese customer service I received:

  1. Upon receiving money from the customer, count it first and repeat the amount received to the customer for verification.
  2. When giving change, tell the customer the amount of change you will be giving him.
  3. Present the notes first, tell him the amount of notes you are giving him and ask him to keep the notes first.
  4. Present the coins and tell him the amount of coins you are giving him.

When you do that, you do not have to worry about coins dropping all over the place as you hand the change over to the customer too.

BONUS TIP: If steps 2 to 4 seems a hassle, use a Japanese cash tray to hand the change over to the customer. It is also more hygienic to do so.


Do Your Research First: online retail price tag with a pinch of salt

IMPORTANT NOTE (Read Me First!!!): This is an article that recommends for us to do our own research if we intend to look for a real bargain. This is NOT an article trying to expose some dishonest seller (there is none here in my opinion). I have my reasons to believe that this is not the case. Read on carefully to find out more.


Below is a screen grab made on 14 June 2015 from a seller at Qoo10 at this web address:

Notice that the original retail price stated for the Logitech K480 keyboard was stated at S$79.90.

Qoo10 retailBelow is a screen grab made on 14 June 2015 from the Logitech Singapore website, at

Notice that the retail price for that very same keyboard stated at S$59.00. That is more than 25% cheaper than the original retail price stated above.

Qoo10 retail2Finally, below is a screen grab made on 14 June 2015 from my Facebook on how it’s advertised on Facebook.

Qoo10 retail3

No doubt, the discounted price offered by the seller on Qoo10 was indeed cheaper than what was offered straight from Logitech could offer. It is still a pretty good offer. However, how was that a 50% discount? Does it still sound worth it to you to want to buy it?

Anyway, before anyone starts doubting the integrity of the seller, I want to give the situation a benefit of a doubt:

  • The seller could have really gotten his goods from a source that sells it at $79.90 originally.
  • The person doing the marketing on behalf of Qoo10 or the seller decided that it was a real good idea to quote it as a 50% discount.

I do not think there is anything wrong with the seller, the marketing, the pricing and the advertisement. It just happens to be what it is.

Morale of the story: Do your research first.