Samantha Towle spent many days daydreaming and doodling in a notebook during her honors calculus class at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. Bored, she often wondered, "What use could I possibly have for this class … aside from a nod of approval from my parents?"
Week after week, her strict teacher's lectures went in one ear and out the other, and pretty soon Towle, a senior, had fallen behind in her studies and had no idea what was going on in class.
Towle desperately needed to catch up and find a way to stay mentally engaged during class so she started writing lyrics to her favorite tunes, like the Pokemon theme song and Colors of the Wind, a song from the movie Pocahontas.
And then she sang …
"Constants' derivatives are always zero, graphs have both global and local maximums." Parodying the 90s Disney tune was one technique Towle used to ace honors calculus.
Her high school calculus teacher, Ming Chwan-Chow, said on average he gives out five A's in honors calculus. Towle was one of three students to receive an A in the course.
And now Towle, 18, is a freshman at Ithaca College, where she has been named 'America's Smartest Slacker' by CourseSmart, provider of eTextbooks, and CollegeHumor, a comedy website. This follows a month-long search for students who have mastered the concept of working "smarter, not harder."
From acing Spanish with the help of Sesame Street, to memorizing equations to the beat of fencing-footwork, the America's Smartest Slacker contest garnered over 300 "slacker" stories from students all over the country who wanted to share their quirky, progressive, and sometimes bizarre approaches to learning.
Psychology researchers say alternative learning techniques have a proven track record.
Associate psychology professor at Howard University, Danielle Brown, says making personal connections to course material increases the rate of retention.
"If you're headed to the grocery store and you don't want to forget to pick up ham, linking the ham to your grocery bag may help you remember," explained Brown. "Ham-bag sounds like handbag!"
Although it could be argued that these innovative memorization techniques create more work for students, Brown says, most students who use "normal" study methods, usually do significantly worse on exams than students with innovative methods.
"I find that students like to re-read the chapters that will be on the test -- this is not an effective study method," Brown said.
She said students should adjust their study techniques to the type of test they are taking.
"A multiple choice test requires you to recognize an answer -- not necessarily remember the answer," said Brown. "Using flash cards allows you to recognize the correct answers while you study."
"I have more of a creative and artistic brain," said Towle as she described her struggle grasp tough calculus-related theorems and postulates. "It was hard for me to learn the concepts by using concrete methods like memorization."
Stressed and under pressure, Towle, who is now a cinema and psychology double major, needed to take the edge off. Instead of mindlessly doodling, she began doodling comic strips about equations that she didn't understand.
"If the teacher gave an equation that needed QED at the end, I would draw a quail, an eagle and a dog," explained Towle.