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I’m a relatively sociable person. I’m good at getting things done on my own, but I actually do best when I’m in some kind of collaborative environment. I spent a good amount of time in college studying with other people present: in dorm rooms, in my friends’ houses, in the common space of my own home. Studying that way was a near-requirement since there were so many people around, but it was also a way of feeling less lonely and buried under a private pile of work to do. It became another way of hanging out.

Then, in my senior year thesis writing craze, I discovered a deliberate communal studying technique that, refined over the next couple of years, changed my whole relationship with getting things done. It’s my personal grail of the “study hacks” techniques. It works better than any other productivity tip I have ever encountered.

  1. Get a friend, maybe two, who has a similarly crushing amount of work to do.
  2. Get settled in a comfortable place with everything you need within your reach.
  3. Set a timer. I find that somewhere between 42:37 and 57:12 works the best. The timer should be loud.
  4. Each of you tells the other what they’re going to get done in that time.
  5. When you hit “go,” nothing happens except for work. You don’t check facebook, you don’t answer a quick email. For that chunk of time, your study session is full-on, no distractions. You may stop for water, and you may ask how much time is left. But you’re both just racing that clock.
  6. When the timer goes off, you then have 5-10 minutes for a snack, to walk around, and to chat with each other, ideally about the work you just got done. Then you agree on the time of the next session, settle back down, and then you’re off again.

I was able to write massive portions of my thesis this way. I got more done in less time than with any other study or writing trick. There’s an element of collaboration which is helpful, and also the social pressure to actually get work done, since your friend is there and also working away. When working with a friend I am more inspired and more creative, less grumpy or put-upon, and more willing to just put my head down and work away, since I know a break was coming.

The inspiration for this study technique actually came from being part of creative writing groups. I have, over the years, been part of multiple groups that get together and respond to prompts in group writing sessions. It works basically the same way: you gather and get comfortable, you pick a prompt and set the time limit, and for that amount of time you only write. And then at the end you read back what you have written (if you feel comfortable doing so). I have written some of my favorite creative pieces in these groups, and developed a real bond with the other writers I work with. Writing is a lonely process, or can be, anyway. But for me, the inspiration and camaraderie of writing in a room of other writers is so much more satisfying, and more productive.

So I hesitantly went to Google and plunged in. My first experience into the world of homework help sites left me bewildered and frustrated. How to choose among them? The Discovery Channel offers, while AOL has Then there is along with Ask for Kids ( Also,,, and

By now, I needed

“There’s a lot of players getting into the mix, but it’s a young industry and there’s not a lot of clearinghouses or evaluations,” said Don Knezek, chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit organization.

This is what I did sort out: there are two main differences in online help sites — those that allow a student to interact with a tutor through instant messaging and those that provide resources and techniques to help a student figure out answers to questions. and are two of the major sites that give students online access to tutors; they have been around for about eight years and work primarily through libraries and schools.

For example, is available in 1,500 libraries in 40 states as well as some schools and boys and girls clubs. It’s free to children — libraries pay for the service.

Outside a library, a student uses a library card as a password to log onto a computer. The student then goes to the Web page, selects the grade and subject that he or she needs help with, and connects with instant-messaging-type software to a tutor — usually a retired or current teacher, graduate student or other professional —to ask a specific question.

The tutor uses an online classroom that includes a whiteboard to diagram and draw problems.

“The idea is to help figure it out, not give the answer,” said George Cigale, chief executive and founder of About 50 percent of the questions, he said, involve math.

Maureen Nimmo, director for the Lawrence Public Library in Massachusetts, brought in this spring with money from the library and the local school department.

“It’s been a very good resource for our community,” she said. “It’s gotten thousands of hits.” The library is in a district that is 70 percent Hispanic, she said, and it’s an “uphill battle trying to get enough mentoring.”

The program is available in Spanish and English for math and science, and the usual session is about 20 minutes, but students can go on as often as they want, she said. also offers online tutor help, primarily to schools through the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. If a school has failed to make adequate progress under the law for two or more years, the school can choose from a state-approved tutoring company, with Brainfuse among them, said Francesco Lecciso, director for the company.

Brainfuse now has contracts with school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other smaller districts, as well the Queens public library system.

“There’s clearly times students need a face-to-face tutor, but sometimes he needs anonymity,” Mr. Lecciso said. “Online, a student might be more willing to ask the same question eight times in a row, or to admit he doesn’t know how to do long division even though he’s in 7th grade.”

This autumn, both and will also sell their services to individuals. Both will offer a free trial. As of Sept. 13, will offer services at $30 an hour, while has not yet decided what it will charge for an hourly and unlimited plan, Mr. Lecciso said.

Tutoring sites have also been outsourced: for example,, which charges about $25 an hour, hires tutors from India.

A more low-tech approach has been around for the last 25 years: Dial-A-Teacher (1-888-986-2345) has fielded millions of calls nationally and even internationally. The phone line is financed by the Rochester Teachers Association and open September to May, from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Last year, it answered 15,000 calls.

“We’re the 11th-poorest district in the country and we’re the kids’ connection to learning,” Mark Powers, the director of the program, said. “They have no reference books, no computers. We have every resource book here you can imagine.”

Other homework sites help students find answers and ways of solving problems through searches. For example, AOL started its last month. It’s a free homework site for grades K-12 — with content broken down by grade — and available to all Internet users.

StudyBuddy is different from other homework sites, said June Herold, vice president and general manager at AOL’s Education and Consumer Services, because it searches only for “homework-approved Web sites” — that is, sites that will be accepted by teachers, Ms. Herold said.

“Teachers said students have to learn what a credible source is,” she said. “For example, they can’t use Wikipedia.”

As part of StudyBuddy, AOL also offers the Writing Wizard, in which a child can enter an essay, and within 20 seconds, receive a critique like, “you’re not supporting this thesis, or your organization is off,” Ms. Herold said.

There are many I’ve left out and some I would never stumble across on my own. For example, Daniel McVeigh, a graduate student in computing education and cognitive science at Teachers College at Columbia University, has checked out numerous sites that help teach math.

The best one he’s found is the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, part of Utah State University (

“It’s extremely effective, particularly in helping students in all grades understand fractions,” he said. “It was developed by math teachers for math students.”

With such an array of sites, how can any parent or student possibly assess what is most effective?

Some say the online homework-help sites are not solving a problem but contributing to one.

Sara Bennett, co-author of “The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It” (Crown, 2006), argues that there is serious doubt about whether homework has any real benefit.

“These Web sites are simply enabling a homework system without looking at what’s not working.” Ms. Bennett said. “In a way, I feel like we’re setting our kids up for an awful lot of cheating.”

Mr. Knezek said that with such a new industry, the best thing for parents was to keep their ears and eyes open.

“Use other parents as consultants,’’ he said. “Talk to teachers. Always participate with your children.’’ Don’t sign them onto a Web site and then disappear.

“You wouldn’t do that with a baby sitter or a coach or a music teacher,’’ he said. “Keep spot-checking.”

And while I know I sometimes have more difficulty navigating the Web than my children, he said that shouldn’t deter parents.

“My approach is, ‘show me,’ ” Mr. Knezek said. “Sit in while your child is using the site. In any new industry, there’s going to be people who overpromise. I’d be aware of that.”

I have to admit, the hours I spent searching the homework sites resulted in a bit of shouting and a few expletives of my own. Of course, that’s because my children kept interrupting. Isn’t it time they went back to school already?

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