Excellence in Rural education: Vidya Vanam needs your help

Vidya Vanam is a school for tribal and underprivileged children in Anaikatti near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. In the second term of each year, the entire school centres all learning around a particular theme – for example, Natural Disasters, Rivers, Rice, Forests among others. The driving mission of the school is to equip students with the knowledge and skills to understand and grow within their local and natural environment with excellence. The school needs your help in reaching the peak of this learning experience, the Project Day, where students from the youngest classes to the oldest put up projects on themes explored.

Some vignettes from past Project Days and other performances: Debate by students on genetically modified crops:

The courage, critical thinking and creativity of Vidya Vanam has brought personalities such as Aruna Roy, Gopal Krishna Gandhi and P Sainath to the school as guests of honour. A tall claim to fame for any Indian school! I learnt so much about education from being a part of the school’s many performances, and to keep it going will need all our support.

We hope you can join them in reaching the crowdfunding goal for the Project Day by contributing to this fundraiser, and spreading the word about it.



GRE Prep (June 2017)

I wrote this post to document my preparation for the GRE General Test and share it with friends who are appearing for the GRE soon. As if there isn’t enough of this out there 🙂

Part I has general preparation gyaan that helped me focus. Skip to Part II for GRE specific stuff.

Part I: General advice on prepping for a competitive exam

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Cal Newport argues in this book that deep work is a skill with massive payoffs and surprising rarity. What is deep work, as he defines it? the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It sounds so obvious that you wonder why this needs to be proven or argued for at all. The first part of the book, The Idea of Deep Work uses examples of deep work from practitioners in widely different domains. The second part presents four rules to get better at deep work. I find myself going back to his most provocative chapter, “Quit Social Media” every time I feel that deluge of resentment at having wasted 58 minutes on Facebook & Instagram on a weekday night. But that keeda needs to removed from the jadd.

Watch his TEDx talk on quitting social media here.

Why is this relevant? Like a ton of people my age, I find it awfully hard to sit with a single task and complete it at one go, let alone to do it well. This incompetence, especially when it comes to academics, is cloaked under the oft heard “I’m only good when I study at the last minute”. BS. I think the relief at completing a task last minute dwarfs the regret at pushing things to the end, and we continue this self-deception as long as we can. Eventually you find that you really want to get good at something, and this isn’t the best way to do things.

That the GRE test itself requires deep focus (~4 hours). And since it tests a skill — not familiarity with material you can cram for with an all-nighter as was the case with most college/school exams — mastering the skill requires consistent, focused effort. A lot of arguments made in Deep Work helped me avoid the rationalisation of haphazard effort. I also tweaked & used some of his methods to structure my study period of 25 days.

Speaking of scheduling study periods, some more obvious but oft disregarded advice from an actuarial coaching site:

Scheduling your day around your study sessions is far more effective than scheduling studying around your day.”  

Replacing ‘I don’t have enough time’ with ‘This isn’t a priority on my calendar.’ is a good way to call yourself out for not making the time. Why you didn’t make the time is irrelevant: the function of this is to avoid the self-deception of whether one did or did not study for that day with some vague “I tried”, “I did a little bit” etc.

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More from that article: “If it rains and a baseball team is unable to practice, they go indoors and practice what they can. Similarly, if you’re pressed for time or energy over the course of the day, studying for your exam may be difficult. However, if you let yourself take a day off today, it will be even easier to take a day off the next time that studying is inconvenient. Maintain your rhythm and practice what you can. Don’t let yourself get off track, even if you promise to do twice the work tomorrow. Those promises are difficult to keep with this level of material.” 

Magoosh & a whole bunch of other websites have study plans for different lengths of time, depending on your situation. I had blocked off a month and kept nothing on my agenda except for GRE prep and think that was an ideal scenario. 

Part II: GRE-specific prep

Before getting into resources & tips for different sections, I want to talk about my process. Building your GRE error log was probably the most useful advice I found. I cannot recommend it enough.

This spreadsheet has all my logs. The first sheet has me setting my targets each morning in one column, and then info about what I actually ended up doing that day. I think it’s really important to know the very specific gap between what you planned and what you think you did – because it’s easy to say that “I did some Reading comprehension” without mentioning how many questions you did, how many you corrected, and what your initial plan was. After a couple of days I had a good idea of what my capacity to work was like, (and also began freaking out about the test) leading to my next sheet, “Planning backwards”. The difference between the previous sheet and this one is that I was setting targets working backwards, and much more realistically. Still marked “done”/”not done” for each unit. (Red row is test day! The colour scheme was to make sure I was freaking out adequately enough.)

The next two sheets have my error logs for Verbal Reasoning & Reading Comprehension. I set up a loop for every single question I did: marking ones I got wrong, screenshotting & putting them into the sheet, explaining why I picked a certain answer and writing down what I should have looked for if I wanted to get the answer right. Making your reasons explicit for each incorrect answer — for example: rushed reading, unfamiliar with the word, got lost in the “forest” of clauses, etc — gives you very specific skills to work on.

The sheet also also has bits and pieces of tips that organically emerged when I was looking for why I was making certain mistakes. This is where I think guides like Magoosh & Manhattan Prep are super helpful: they have tagged the types of mistakes people make, and then suggested strategies for not making those mistakes. Their most useful advice isn’t along the lines of  “Do RC well by doing X”, but “You will make X mistake. Here’s how to not make it.”

But the most important thing the Error Log did for me is to reduce how often I said the following statements: “How could I get such a dumb question wrong?” “There’s no way I’m getting that 165 in Verbal.” “Don’t want to go to grad school anymore :(“. These useless ego battles & disappointment spirals were replaced by a very detached process of noting down errors, redoing questions, and looking for tips.  

Starting out

Start with thoroughly going through the ETS website about the kinds of questions asked across all the sections. Download the POWERPREP software that gives you two full length free tests. It’s a good idea to do your first mock from this test & get a sense of where you stand, and what the types of questions are. I did this & a couple of free online sections to get a sense of what I really need to focus on.

Quantitative Reasoning

The Quantitative Reasoning pdf on the ETS website is great and reviews all the material you need to know. Mostly 10th Grade math, plus some basic statistics concepts.

I didn’t have a problem with concepts overall but needed to do a ton of practice questions. This book was perfect: 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems (Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides) .  Buying this book also gives you access to Manhattan Prep’s online quizzes with 15-30 questions per chapter. Doing 2-3 concepts a day in timed & exam conditions (say, 25-30 mins a quiz) really got me comfortable with problem solving. After completing all the material, I looked for tougher math questions — extra tricky, or require using a bunch of concepts together — and did those. Even if you get them wrong, your mind gets some good warming up.

I don’t have any notes or links for this section because it was all written in a notebook that I left behind at home. Just one very useful link:
5  helpful tips for Quantitative comparison questions (these I learnt by heart because I hate comparison questions).

Verbal Reasoning

1) Vocab is a big fear – and legitimately so. Before I started learning new words, I looked at methods of learning them. Some principles stood out:

a) Cramming doesn’t work. Knowing the etymology & the usage of the words is key. I read Norman Lewis’ Word Power Made Easy. for the ‘word roots’ approach to learning vocab. He’s witty, kind and you get the impression that he was a widely adored professor. It would have been useless to just read and not do the exercises in the book, so don’t make that mistake! 

After learning a new word, knowing how is is used in context is the only way to crack the Sentence Equivalence & Text completion section. They often have options that on the surface are very similar, but in usage they could be worlds apart.

b) I needed a system for learning, which involved a bunch of processes: finding words, noting them down, sorting them into different groups (ranging from “completely unfamiliar & needs daily revision” to “I sorta know this so looking at them once in 2-3 days should be OK”), quizzing yourself frequently, and liking the thrill of knowing new words.

i) Finding words & noting them

I primed myself to be almost automatic about noting down any word that I couldn’t confidently use in front of a room of well read. Don’t want to be a pretentious jerk! I kept a notebook with me at all times for this. First source of new words was the Word Power Made Easy book. Another source: the options of Sentence Equivalence & Text completion exercises. While doing every question, apart from just solving it, I highlighted every option that I didn’t understand & noted it down. After a couple of questions, as I checked my answers, I would go back to the dictionary & the “use in a sentence” sites to note down the meaning. After noting them down, at the end of each day I would feed these words onto my Quizlet app. (more about this in a bit) Only after a while of making this complete loop automatic did I get to lists of “Top 300 words to know for the GRE”. Lists otherwise can be so overwhelming. There are some good GRE vocab lists on Quizlet itself — but, get to it whenever you are ready with some knowledge of word roots & have a process for noting them down.

vocab, vocab, everywhere

ii) Sorting them into different groups


Quizlet is so damn good! For learning anything, but especially for improving your vocab. Download it ASAP or open an account on your laptop/PC. Create a list with 5-6 words & do a quiz to get comfortable with the interface.

I had lists of words grouped on the different bases – some according to subject, some according to a common source, and some just relating to how much they frustrated me. Here are two examples:

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The logic to the list names doesn’t matter so much as just letting them emerge organically. As you progress with building your vocab, your brain makes these patterns or baskets anyway — making those baskets explicit helps you remember them in these clusters. Grouping words under ‘scolding/lying’ helped me remember the nuances among different words that sort of mean the same. Magoosh has a bunch of these lists, for example: GRE Word List: The Dreaded “Imp” Vocabulary Words.

First thing in the morning, or during walks/waiting around, I’d keep quizzing on Quizlet, starring what I didn’t get, and sometimes creating a new list of words that I would consistently not remember. 

3) Falling in love — or at least, trying to form a positive association with this activity! I would quiz dad sometimes and see how much he remembered from his GMAT days/if he had read these words somewhere. Or text my callipygian and tyro friends. Never hurts to annoy people with archaic words. 

For Reading Comprehension:

This was the hardest part of my prep. I have never been a slow, voracious or careful reader, and like most humans, critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to me (part of the reason why we run Student Think Tank for India!) Resources I found useful:

  1. ETS Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions 
    Did this end to end. They have 3 practice sections for each type of Verbal Reasoning question, ranging from easy to hard. You’ll likely get a good mix of those. ETS-made questions are the most reliable types of questions to practice with, because, well, they make the GRE.
  2. GRE Reading Comprehension & Essays (Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides)
    Great guide once you get around to making your error log for RC questions.
  3. Some chapters from the book Understanding Arguments that I had from a Coursera course. Not necessary reading for Reading Comprehension, but definitely helped to do the Logic-based RC questions well.

Analytical writing

I started with the examples on the ETS site, and read typical examples of ‘6’ and ‘5’ essays. Magoosh’s article on the writing section was good next step that I followed quite religiously: did the brainstorming for a couple of days, and wrote about 9-10 essays in all. I tried to find 2-3 supporting examples for each of the “buckets” of essay topics from books/articles I had already read and things that I was interested in. In the final exam, I had a solid example for my issue essay because of this. I only looked for specific advice on organisation and clarity in writing, but completely disregarded any tips on “embellishing” your essay (like learning up quotations to use in your introduction! Who writes like that?)

Mock tests & the final exam

These were my scores on 3 mock tests, each taken 3-4 days apart:

160 V, 162 Q
162 V, 163 Q
162 V, 165 Q

Final score on the GRE:
165 V, 165 Q, 5.0 on the Writing section.

It’s a fairly linear curve, with 2-3 points added to my score with every test + 3 days of practice. I suppose this is what indicates the reliability and validity of GRE scoring. And completely does away with any wishful thinking that your poor mock test score is going to suddenly transform into a magical one. 

If you’ve reached this point — I hope you found this useful!



Social change from within classrooms: STTI

Student Think Tank for India started in the year 2014, and was originally envisioned as a network of college students across the world, with the objective of promoting a culture of involved inquiry. The rationale for STTI was that an effective education should include spaces that promote civic engagement and critical thinking – and that if it doesn’t exist, we should create one. The benefits of are wide ranging – be it for personal, professional or civic reasons.
Throughout 2014, as we continued our discussions and research papers, we changed our question to ask: how can we create similar spaces in schools?

Over the last year, we have partnered with schools to set up clubs for students from class 9 to 12.  It’s an open space where we’re learning to raise and answer important questions abour social, economic, political and environmental problems.These clubs are led and organised by Moderators, usually college students or young adults. Our model is built on student initiative: participation is voluntary, and we choose topics that students want to talk about (See our sessions on topics ranging from gender to food systems to engineering education). As Moderators, all of us passed out from school not too long ago, and we’ve made a conscious effort to not turn this into a lecture series.


Our discussions and activities are very interactive – using Project Based Learning, Service Learning and Thinking routines – so that students really think about the issues and form their own interesting questions and opinions. Basically, it’s a lot of fun. 🙂 Apart from regular sessions, we often invite eminent guests who conduct workshops, and take part in field trips to observe and understand the world up close.

(See our annual update of 2015: http://studentthinktankforindia.com/2016/02/29/2015-annual-update/)

What Do We Have Going For Us?

  • Global network: One of the most prominent STTI chapters is based in Purdue University. Besides this we have active members from UPenn and Cornell University. STTI is supported by professors and students from some of the best universities within the country and internationally.
  • Fast Paced Growth: We started with 2 school clubs in Hyderabad in 2015. Within a year, the enthusiastic response has led us to start 5 clubs in Hyderabad, and new chapters in Delhi, Bangalore and Coimbatore.
  • Recognition from Ashoka India’s first Youth Venture programme, which makes us part of a network of some of the world’s most pathbreaking social innovators.

How Can You Get Involved?

Currently, we’re looking for Moderators in all 4 cities. As a Moderator, you are required to dedicate 2 hours a week for a minimum period of 3 months. You can be from any stream of study, but the only real requirement is that you bring curiosity, and fulfil your responsibility as an educators: the last thing we want to do is pass on wrong/ incomplete information, or conduct boring and ineffective activiites. There will be a short period of training before entering schools, so that Moderators are able to better understand STTI’s vision, and the process of facilitating a school club.

What Is In It For You?


You will get to work with people across the country in the process of bringing about a change in a system that is so critical to the growth of our society. Along with the chance to impact the learning experience of many students and their schools, working with STTI is a frame to explore various professionally valued qualities: research, mentorship, networking, and entrepreneurship.
This opportunity is guaranteed to be a growth experience, and is structured as an unpaid internship with a letter of recommendation at completion. 

What’s the end goal?

No matter which career students choose to enter, they do it as engaged and critical thinkers. As citizens with a basic working knowledge of all the issues that the country faces, so they can channel their energy – in big or small ways – to solving them. All of us at STTI are involved in it because we are convinced that the value of real education lies in fueling this inherent passion of students .If you share this vision, we would love to hear from you!


Write to us at studentthinktankforindia@gmail.com, and explore our past work at www.studentthinktankforindia.com. If you’re interested in applying to be a moderator, visit this page: http://studentthinktankforindia.com/moderators/

(Note: Credits to Isha Malik for putting together this great post!)

Youth, Venturing and Ashoka: baby steps in Social Entrepreneurship

Our initiative Student Think Tank for India was selected to be part of the first cohort in Ashoka India’s Youth Venture programme. It was the first time I formally pitched our venture (after crashing someone’s laptop moments before it had to project my slides), and an opportunity for thorough thinking-through of our vision, goals and strategies.


In early February, Ashoka hosted us at a three day induction programme in Delhi. The purpose of the induction was to orient all the finalists to thebig hairy questions and processes of social entrepreneurship.I’m skeptical of this trending privilege  – training in entrepreneurship before getting yourself out there, learning and testing on the ground. But my experience at the YV induction was different: the workshops were organised by people who are in the business of getting their hands dirty, and therefore it came with no sugar coating, or background tunes of ‘you are going to change the world, child’. It also came at a good stage in STTI’s journey, where we’ve piloted our model, tested basic assumptions, and are looking to scale up in the coming months.

The run up to the event was extremely well organised, and not just regarding the logistics. There was one mail from Silindile from the organising team: “What topics and ideas would you like to be addressed at the programme? Remember this induction is for you and we want to ensure that you will fully benefit from this experience.” That was an extremely reassuring signal from Ashoka for me: they might be big and established, but they don’t take the liberty of assuming that they know everything that we might want from the programme. Many of our suggestions were taken and given place in the three day agenda.The spirit of ownership that comes from this co-creation is the difference for me between being a recipient of a programme, and being a participant in it. 


Yashveer Singh

On Day 1, after being introduced to our fellow Venturers and our mind blowing international team (s/o to Rohit, Håkon and Lindy) we had Yashveer introducing Ashoka and the Youth Venture programme to us. He spoke with a very strong connect to the why of #socent, which comes from participation in the field long before it became a hashtag. Not surprising, then, to see him on Forbes’ 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs!  




We heard Mandar Tulankar, who unabashedly admitted how, after 5 years of B plan competitions, funding and fighting with parents, he’s still building his ambitious product. You feel like laughing at his audacity, but then you realise that it’s likely he’ll have the last laugh.

We had Piyush Tewari from SAVE Life Foundation whose story I had first read on Youth Ki Awaaz. He traced the origin of this foundation to one critical incident – the avoidable death of his nephew, who was injured in a road accident and died by the inability of witnesses to help him.Both, the driver who hit him, and the passersby who watched him drag himself to the side of the road, were convinced that they would get into trouble for helping this injured person. That they were better off NOT helping. An active discouragement to save life.

That spurred the setting up of SLF, and as of yesterday: 

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I learnt three things from Piyush’s session. The first was that the barrier to problem solving isn’t apathy. People don’t WANT to not help. I know this because every time we travel and see an ambulance or an accident, the first response is an expression of empathy. Some of us pray. Some of us wince. Sometimes we stop the car and go look at what’s happening, and contact people who can help. But that first impulse is often taken over by a practical assessment of “What might happen if I help?” SAVE Life worked for the Good Samaritan law so that we don’t have to ask ourselves that question.

The second thing was the systems-wide approach to solving this massive problem of dangerous roads. Responding to a question by a fellow participant, Piyush outlined the complexity of the problem by tracing its relevant authorities, actors, beneficiaries and victims. It’s pretty insane – seven Govt departments are required to address the problem of traffic accidents, legislation has to go through at both Centre and State levels, and implementation takes its own sweet time.

The third thing I am learnt was the multilayered structure of the organisation. From what I gather – there are full time employees, a network of partners, and various levels of volunteers for each of their programmes. The rationale for full-time employees in an NGO is obvious, but what he said was still enlightening – “when volunteers leave, they take the knowledge with them. You need to control the net outflow of knowledge in your organisation.” STTI is early in its organisation development, but there’s a visible loss when even one person leaves, and we need a system to check for that.

Piyush’s vision for SAVE Life Foundation is that it shuts down. “That we stop existing, because the problem of road safety has been solved.” I am inspired by that commitment.

We then had a session with Shalabh Mittal, who’s leading the setup of The School for Social Entrepreneurs, a UK based organisation, in India. 

He used only images – cartoons and graphics – to throw up questions about what it takes to be a social entrepreneur. Listing the traits out here would be trite, so I hope to later post those images with Shalabh’s permission. At this moment I was feeling the potency of an MBA education – spineless if you haven’t an experience or a context to apply it to, but super useful to reflect on and assess an existing initiative.

This was followed an intense series of sessions with Amit Tuteja from Connecting Dreams. Whatever his website tells you or doesn’t, I can tell you one thing about him. He is a stickler for process. He has a very well designed structure (that’s used at the Intel Innovation Centre), and he will grill you till you follow it. We went through eight hours of sessions, in developing a social venture from a case study.

Reading the case study
The case we were to work on could be the story of any village in India: predominantly agricultural, rife with insufficiency, and steeped in tradition. I had a minute of hesitation at that point, and to explain it I’m going to ask you to stop reading this post and read another one: The Reductive Seduction of other people’s problems.  

Reminding myself that it was just an exercise, we went ahead, and chose one of six areas/sectors to work on, and extrapolated the sub-problems faced in that sector.

• Selecting and Visualising the user
Amit asked us to select one user that was facing these sub-problems. This process should be obvious, but isn’t. We talk in terms of “I am working in this sector” or “I want to change the problems that this city faces” – without figuring out WHO we want at the centre of our problem solving. Energy diffused is energy wasted. By selecting a user and visualising them – what their needs, interests, desires and back-stories might be – we bring in focus. And Ghajini was a great example!

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We’ve since used this exercise at STTI, and coupled it with reflections on our high school experience. So there’s a solid answer to the question of whose problems we are trying to solve.

• Coming up with the problem statement
It’s hilarious how long it took us to come up with a statement whose syntax was provided loud and clear.

How can we help ______ user to solve ________ problem?

  • We used a statement instead of a question.
  • The user was not specific. (“You need to visualise a real person at the end of it.”)
  • The solution was too specific. (“You’ve already decided the way you’re going to problem?”)

• Solutions for the problem statement
We were just about ready to wrap up Day 1 when Amit assigned homework: “Imagine 300 solutions for your problem statement.”

I won’t say we slaved through all 300, but the first few were hard. I’m still reflecting on why that was difficult, (and to find a better explanation than “Our schools don’t teach it!” – because don’t we all love hating on schools, haha) but that’s for another post. Through the night we found about 150. We come back, Amit says, Giving you 15 minutes. Find 50 more solutions. Then 5 minutes, find another 50. One minute, do 10. This pressure was beautiful, and the rate at which ideas were coming out increased. At the ideation stage, just to get a grasp on the infinity of possible solutions, I thought this was a really good exercise.

We did a couple of iterations of this exercise:
– Think like a famous person – what solutions would you then come up with?
– If your job was to make sure that the problem would NOT be solved, EVER, what would you do? (Loved this one. Drawing on the villainous sides of ourselves.)
– de Bono’s six thinking hats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZ8vF8HRWE4

I liked this suite of de Bono’s thinking techniques designed for school kidsHe makes an interesting point about how arguments, pervasive as they are, may not be the only, or the best tools for thinking.

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We then went on to choose one solution and developed a plan to launch the enterprise. This stage is understood as the B-plan we see in all these competitions, so I won’t elaborate here. I particularly found value in the time we spent connecting with the Why of a venture (by which I’m referring to the problem statement), and by the call for creativity and innovation in the process of coming with solutions. Definitely carrying that forward.

We had a short interaction with Rishab Gulati, who spoke about the Global Youth and the Indo Australia Youth Summit. He used a hard-hitting anecdote – a mentor once told him, “Be very scared of the day that the majority of the people realise that you have something they don’t”.  He’s also senior editor at NewsX, and of course his appearance made sense. 🙂

On Day 3, I missed the field trip to Goonj, and the opportunity of a guided tour by Anshu Gupta. Hearing him speak, just like reading Harsh Mander or Sainath, is a pressing reminder to keep moving, and never get complacent, because that’s how big the problems are. I got to hear him at the Ashoka Changemaker Week in Bangalore earlier this year, and just look at his humility!

After 60 years of Independence, I get a Magsaysay Award for a piece of cloth. I am ashamed.

The last part of our induction was a meeting with four Ashoka Fellows. The Youth Venture programme is the product of an insight from Ashoka’s Fellowship programme, that one of the most effective ways to improve the lives of youth is to empower them to realize their own ability to make positive social change.

We had Ashoka Fellows Tarique from Koshish, Ved Arya from SrijanSatyan Mishra from Drishtee and Ishita Chaudhry from The YP Foundation, along with the newest batch of elected Ashoka. Being elected an Ashoka Fellow is pretty big, and it’s always included in people’s email signatures and one line introductions. I was curious about what it all really meant (there had to be some catch, right?) And there was. The fellowship wasn’t an empty or a completely rosy experience for everyone: taxing selection processes, disagreements, waxing and waning of interest. I loved the honesty with which everyone spoke, especially Ishita (who I’m a fan of!). 

The Youth Venture programme from here on is going to include intensive mentoring and an invitation to leverage the Ashoka network with all of its Fellows and programmes. I look forward to it, and to making sure that Student Think Tank for India keeps up the high standard of work that this network is recognised for!

How do students study?

I know that exams aren’t your favourite time of the year, but hey, you’re almost done! We’ve been through it ourselves, and a bunch of us are trying to understand HOW school students study – during the school year, and before the exams. More specifically – what tools and methods you use, and who you study with.

Click on the image below to start the survey.

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