About the Founder

Background- Dan Himes

I received my Ph.D. in Physics from UVA in 1992, the era of the 40-year-old post-docs. Fortunately, I had discovered a hidden talent.

While I was a graduate student there I was a teaching assistant for the Physics Department and a tutor for Navy ROTC and the Post-Bac programs. In my final years I won the first-ever graduate student teaching award for the department and, in fact, was the only graduate student allowed to fully run a class (that is, assign course grades).

The summer after I graduated I stayed on as a Visiting Assistant Professor.

In the fall I moved to the Washington, D.C. area to join my new bride and started my career at Northern Virginia Community College, where I taught at the Alexandria campus until 2002.

Although the World-Wide Web was not yet ubiquitous, local businesses recognized that computer technology was becoming essential to their futures and they wanted our community college students to come out of our programs comfortable with this technology. They gave the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) a lot of money, and the VCCS built one of the best technology infrastructures anywhere.

It was up to the faculty and staff to figure out what to do with it.

We adopted the Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable model developed by Steve Ehrmann at the AAHE, which focused on developing and discovering best practices for using technology for teaching. I co-founded and co-chaired ours at Alexandria, which became the model for the VCCS.

In 2002, said bride moved me to Boston. I was strong in weaving technological support into my teaching, especially for difficult concepts, so I began working in educational software.

How Study Swami came to be

In my position as a Professor of Physics I had the good fortune to be able to teach small classes of a remarkably diverse student population. Each student was usually with me for two semesters, and the intimate setting enabled me to get to know them quite well. Many of the students were “unconventional” in the sense that they were changing careers, veterans of the armed forces, or returning to school after a long layoff. Some were dealing with changing life circumstances or struggling with emotional adjustments.

Regardless of circumstance, they had things in common. Their ultimate ambition was to take control of their lives. They were very happy when their efforts paid off, and they were very angry when they felt they were being treated unfairly. They were willing to work hard on a task when they saw the value of what they were doing, but if they didn't see that value then they spent their time on something else.

I knew that as I worked to understand how to better teach the courses I had to explore how the students were learning.

I had a few observations:

  • Some students did well on the physics exams by knowing which equation applied to the situation, but didn't know the concept behind the equation. Over the years I tried various forms of "equation sheets," including letting students bring in their own. That ended when some students were scoring well above others simply because they happened to have the correct equation written down, meaning the exam results weren't a true reflection of what they did and did not know.
  • Some students quickly grasped the "big picture" but struggled with the details required to work completely through a problem. Their exams were incoherent.
  • Some students could do well point-by-point through the problems but did not get the overall picture. They struggled to apply ideas in different contexts.
  • And, of course, many, many students fell into the "I do well on the homework but I can't seem to do well on the exams" camp. This may have been the most frustrated group of all.

I was as troubled as my students with the lack of results that some of their efforts produced. I started looking into how they were studying the material.

Now, without exception, every student I talked to thought they had a study method. They studied in a way that made sense to them. In reality, however, some students approached their learning in a very haphazard way while others were methodical and disciplined. Often, the student with the better skills outperformed the student who was able to grasp the ideas more quickly.

I started coaching the students on how to study the course, and building in assignments that encouraged proper learning strategies. I also took away certain crutches. In particular I quit allowing equation sheets on exams. They had to concentrate on the fundamentals of the course and be able to derive the specific cases, rather than just getting lucky by having the correct equation on a page.

As a result, their grades went up. They were actually learning, not just "number jamming." We could talk about, for example, chapter 5 things in chapter 9, because they were actually learning— and that made chapter 9 much easier.

I began working in the field of educational software to reach more students than I could by staying in the classroom. Eventually I founded a company with the mission to try to help students learn how to learn.

As I continued to delve into the research of study skills and methods one thing became inarguable: Technique matters. I hired teachers, and experts with real experience, to help me develop an inventory of study techniques, both general and subject–specific. And I hired people to help me build Study Swami as a vehicle to get it to you.

To the student: It's important to understand that the methods and skills presented in Study Swami are the best we know about today in education research. When things change, we update the site. Where possible, we present several options and allow you to experiment (and track) what works best for you and under which circumstances. For instance, you may do one thing for Calculus and something totally different for Biology or World History.

We do make some assumptions about the users of the site. We assume that you don't mind working as long as it pays off. Therefore, you won't see things like "Five easy ways to boost your memory" or other silly click-bait titles. We also assume that you are willing to become a mature learner, and learn to treat your education and yourself in a somewhat professional manner. Becoming professional is, after all, the very point of spending all of this effort and money on your education.