Let’s start with why.

Although this is not really a book review, I did recently read this book. I found it entertaining, at times repetitive – Apple is the primary, exemplary case – and both inspiring and instructional. The final chapter touched my emotions in a way a management book rarely does. So why, then, would I blog about this here, for students aiming to improve their academic performance. The answer to that question is very simple.

Why are you in university? Let’s start with why. I am very confident in stating that if you examine the question: what am I doing day-to-day in my university life, you will quickly discover your why. Are you here it to learn new things? Are you here it to make new friends, meet new people? Are you here to plan your next vacation? Are you here to party?

Looking and your what you do gives great hints to why you have chosen to be in university. Now ask yourself another question: is your why aligned with the idea you have of yourself, four years from now?

If you take Simon’s concept (it goes too far for me to call it a theory, sorry Simon) and use the simple model he provides to organize your motivation, you may find that you see your actions, your behaviors and your decisions reflected in the mirror of WHY?

And there is nothing wrong with that – if the why is something that you can get behind. The interesting thing about balancing your life in university today with the purpose of university, which is preparing your to think and act in the future, is that a variety of why’s can apply. Your mission – if you choose to accept it – is to create that magnificent why that makes what you eventually do incredibly easy for you to stand by. Whether others agree or not.

(Hint: when you feel unsettled by your own explanation, its probably because you know you’re lying to yourself…)

Intuitively, you understand the purpose of university, yet in the clutter of temptations (sorry, opportunities to express yourself, meet new people, develop your skills) you may loose sight of why you do what you do. In my direct experience, students who excel have a very clear explanation of why they do what they do – also when it comes partying hard. It is when someone cannot explain why there are more parties than lectures in a week, that I get worried.

Watch the video and this weekend, start with why. It’ll make coming monday very interesting indeed!

Seven Facts about Studying: The A-B-C of your Brain

The recordings in your brain

It is magical; that moment when a memory is created. To cut straight to the chase – when you study to remember something, the moment the word on paper is transferred into your nervous system, the concept of that word is ripped to shreds and when you attempt to recall this piece of information it is reconstructed from fragments of information scattered throughout different parts of your brain. This is how your brain processes information. This is how you learn. This explains why remembering what you study for a test is hard.

As I now have your attention, let me bust a myth. You do not remember a list in order; you may reproduce it in order, like the alphabet, but your brain does not have a filing cabinet within where you open a random drawer to retrieve a specific memory. This, and other, oversimplified models of “memory” are doing you more harm than good. In fact, you probably have little idea how your brain commits information to memory – and therefore you cannot use optimal strategies to commit information to memory.

What is the letter in the alphabet preceding P? My guess is that your brain jumped somewhere to l, m, n, O! -p. If the theory that your brain had a filing cabinet in which the alphabet was stored, in order, than you should have gone to the filing cabinet, starting with A and progressed through the information to O. Rather, your brain jumped from P and leaped back to another memory, in this case L, to then fill in the gap till you got to O. And all this in less than a second.

The same rule holds when you memorize information for a test. Trust that your brain will reason its way to the right answer by connecting the dots. Understand that all that information is not stored in one place in your brain – it really, physically is not. Rather, information is scattered acros your cortex, much like the stars are scattered across the universe.

Making the connections

Luckily, your brain can rapidly access this vast quantity of information. In fact, you can train your brain to better access information stored within it. As you train your brain, the physical structure of your brain changes. Your brain literally changes shape as you use it. Fascinating! The neuro-scientific fact is that as you study, your brain adapts. There is seemingly an infinite amount of information that can be stored in your brain.

By repeating material over and over again you strengthen something called trace-strength. In fact, when asked to recall the letter preceding P, perhaps your mind jumped straight to O. Maybe because you recited the alphabet earlier today and the recent activation of the trace made it more accesible when the electrical current racing through your nervous system fired to active the memory. Perhaps you practiced the alphabet so fervently as a child that these traces are so strong and easy to access.

Can you recite the alphabet backwards? It is hard. It is easier to recite it from A to Z. Why? Likely because that is how you learnt it in the first place. That memory has been repeated over and over again, shaping and strengthening those specific traces from A to B, all the way to Z.

Your brain adapts

As you challenge your brain, it grows stronger. Likely it is harder when you first learn about something (like neuroscience, in my case) because you do not have the memory structure within which to frame the new knowledge. In fact, you need to build that basic framework. That is the hard part. At an undefinable point, the scales tip and you easily place new information into the existing networks. In fact, it becomes easier because you can relate the new to the existing.

Remembering that A is the first letter and Z is the last letter of the alphabet is easy. What is hard is getting the other twenty-four letters in, in order. Yet with practice, you managed to do so just fine.

A matter of training

When you study something and you claim you do not remember, you are lying to yourself. Likely, you did not study at all. Reading something once and highlighting is not studying.

Reading, actively taking notes, reflecting on the information and trying to frame it in a bigger context is studying. Asking yourself questions about what you have read, discussing the material and paraphrasing it in your own words is studying. Every element described above is a part of deep processing, an element of committing information to memory. And if you are not doing these things while you study, you are selling yourself short.

What you are not taught in university

Learning is learnable. It is the fine line between behavior and cognition that determines performance – where behavior influences your ability to learn. In fact, your ability to use your brain’s tremendous capacity to store and reproduce is very trainable.

That is what the following six chapters are about. You now understand that your brain is very capable of learning, and that by studying, you literally grow your brain. What you need to learn is how to study in a way that optimizes your brains natural ability to perform these elementary cognitive tasks better. This will lead to great jumps in your study performance.

What’s the catch? Very quickly you will see that it is not your brain’s ability to learn, but rather what you do on a daily basis, that influences your performance. The catch is finding the balance between what you are capable of intellectually and what you are willing to do to utilize your intellectual potential.

This booklet is merely a guide to show you the way to that moment where a memory is created. It is up to you to make the magic happen.

Change is constant

One observation of mine, after reading the first two chapters of a book which provides an overview of neuroscience, is that change is constant. Of the nine models of the nervous system described early on in the book, it is quite likely that the physical structures within your brain are constantly in flux.

For you that is good news. When you know your brain is an adaptable, ever learning, ever growing part of your body, you know that what you are capable of today is in no way a measure of what you were capable of in the past, and more importantly, what you will be capable of in the future.

I will be digging a bit deeper every day, so there is more to come. Yet when somebody tells you you cannot, you are not smart or able enough, now you know all you have to say to them is: “..yet.

 

Performance as a dynamic measure

Case-in-point. Your course material encompasses A, B, C and D. These are the four elements which you must master to have understood the course.

You are tested for elements A, B and C. That is 75% of what you were originally had to master. You are able to recall perfectly elements A and B. That is 66,666% of what you were tested on. This is 50% of what you were originally required to master according the the course material covered in the course.

Because you have “completed” the course, you need not master C and D. There now exists a gap in your knowledge that you have no incentive to fill. Does this make any sense to you?

The question

Sadly enough, this how most education systems in the Netherlands (where I live) function. Perhaps it is the same elsewhere in the world – I believe it is – but my experience with education systems in other countries is limited, for obvious reasons.

The question is not whether the failure of the systems is the status quo or whether it can be changed. Rather, the question is: given this inadequate system, what can I do to get the most out of my education?

Inadequate system

Why is the system inadequate? In the case-in-point, one of three things go awry in your education. First, the course requirements could be unrealistic, meaning that quantity is prioritized over quality. This is beyond your control, as the teachers is responsible for this. Then the testing is inadequate, as you are not receiving the opportunity to demonstrate your mastery of the entire body of knowledge you are required to learn. Also this is beyond your control, as the teacher is responsible for the fairness of your testing.

Finally, regardless of your obvious lack of knowledge, the system allows you to move to the next level – leading you to believe you are prepared for what is to come, and effectively setting you up for failure further down the line. This, as a final check and balance, is also beyond your control, as the system rewards the discrepancy between your behavior and the results it produces. Or is this final point beyond your control?

A system which fosters learning

We know (for a fact) that positive reinforcement of behavior is a key driver in developing habits. This means that positively rewarding behavior which leads to substandard academic performance, in the long run leads to impoverished academic development. And this is exactly what is happening to most students today. It is not that you lack intelligence in any way. Rather the system that should stimulate the development of your intelligence is failing. It is broken, fundamentally dysfunctional and the victim of this system is you.

The sad truth of the matter is that there is a vast body of knowledge available, from both research science and practical experience, which provides solid building blocks for a system which prioritizes learning and development.

Performance as a dynamic measure

What would happen if the result you got from the test you took was taken as a starting point for further learning and development? It is a concept which is so foreign to the education system you are a part of today, because the current system is a one shot game (perhaps with a re-sit). You either pass or fail. And if you fail, perhaps you can try again later.

Stop. Rather, you say to yourself: I have mastered elements A and B (see case in point), I am struggling with element C and I have no idea where I stand on element D. What can I do to master all these elements which my teacher, from his experience, has stated are elements of knowledge on this topic so I can build on this.

Why is this so important? In an earlier blog I eluded to the fact that the new is born from the old. Any gap in your knowledge which is maintained for no other reason than a lacking education system therefore impedes your ability to make the connection and move from the old to the new.

Learning is truly a continuous process

When your performance is taken as a dynamic measure of your ability, suddenly tests are not a cut off point. Tests become opportunities to advance your learning and development. Rather than being at the end of the learning curve, they are now a part of your learning curve. Thus these tests become starting points for growth and stimulate behavior which takes you from a performance model to a development model of education in which intelligence is not given, but developed. In which you have the opportunity to reach your potential.

What’s the catch?

The argument above has a major weakness. It assumes that the system, not you, provides the test-as-a-starting-point mentality. This is not true.

In fact, you can take your test results as starting point for learning and development. If you think about it, you have all the tools you need to this. You can reflect on your performance and see what you can change in your behavior, preparation, skills and habits, to produce a different result.

The question then becomes why you would attempt to do this in a system where the behavior which led to a result which you can improve is seen as a victory rather than a learning opportunity.

I cannot imagine what the incentive is in the system, but I can see the tremendous benefit in this approach for you.

Test anxiety

It is quite simple. Too much test anxiety inhibits your ability to exercise your intelligence. The good news is it is very malleable, hence you can decrease your test anxiety, thus increasing your ability to perform cognitive tasks – committing new information to memory and answering questions about what you have learnt.

Already primed to think in this direction whilst reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, it seems that your emotional brain (the pre-historic part of your brain) is extremely powerful and exerts a tremendous amount of influence over your ability to use your intelligence. Left unchecked, your emotional brain reigns supreme, thus inhibiting your cognitive performance. Not what you want when you are trying to do well in your studies.

Here is the good news. Your rational brain has the capacity to regulate your emotional responses; in fact, you can train this ability. Mastering (finally, I managed to slip that word in to a blog again!) your emotions can lead to improved control over impulses, which helps you develop the habits you need to cultivate to improve your study results.

One does not simply… excel in academia. It requires dedication and devotion; perhaps emotional mastery is the first step. And it is not even a university course.

Test anxiety is an emotion; fear. A very powerful emotion which primes your body for many things, but not for excellent cognitive performance. It is not that you are not intelligent, you are not letting your intelligence flourish when you let fear take command of your brain.

Study. Practice. Talk to your peers. Take a course in test taking. If you put some conscious effort into training, your test anxiety decreases and, yes, your test performance will increase.

 

The Basics

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingHave you ever heard about the paradox of failure? I sure had not until I read today’s article; then again it seems so common-sense; it is good that we have some academic proof.

Before you and I go into the details of this obvious paradox, together we shall look at one specific element in the psychology of motivation: the belief that your effort influences your performance.

This phenomenon may be granted any name, such as self-efficacy or academic control, and all though both and other, terms imply this element of the psychology of motivation, this simple wording is, I believe, at the core of it.

For example

In fact, this belief is one of the basics of motivation. When you believe something is possible for you to do, perhaps carrying a cup filled with water to the table without spilling any water, you, without a spare thought, act. You know, be it from experience, example or confidence that you are capable of performing this astonishing feat of agility, balance and control, and therefore you perform.

Yet, when the same glass is filled to the brim, your brisk walk quickly adapts to a careful trot. It is not that your confidence in your ability to complete the task is diminished, the factors influences the potential successful accomplishment of the task have simply changed. Yet your belief that with the appropriate effort (precautions) you can complete the task, does not hinder your performance, in fact, that very belief makes it possible.

The paradox

What, then, is this paradox of failure? I would carefully paraphrase it as the (proven) concept that in your studies, the belief that your effort produces results, coupled with a healthy dose of preoccupation with failure, leads to improved academic results.

You basically need to have some concept of failure to influence your performance in a positive manner. In fact, if you dismiss failure to easily, you hinder your performance significantly.

But you cannot escape the basics; the belief that you can is your guardian angel as it probably helps you balance your fears and confidence. And when the balance is struck, you are home free.

How do you stretch your ability, bring it to the next level? It begins with your belief that you can actually do. That you, through learning by doing, can improve your ability by stretching yourself a little bit at a time. When the conviction that you can is set firmly in your mind, your behavior follows suit; you keep putting in effort.

The next step is the ability to learn from feedback from your effort, and adapt your approach until you find one that gets you the result you want. Yet you and I will follow some old wisdom here – and take these basics one at a time.

Training, practice & competition

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingDuring the past weeks I have been reading They call me coach by John Wooden, a marvelous story of his life and philosophy. While reading his thoughts on working with the potential talent, ambition and drive for excellence and performance, I realized that in learning perhaps we can use the metaphor of training, practice and competition to better understand how you can positively influence our academic performance.

Training

The basics are what it all comes down to. Learn the techniques and apply them to your studies. This is what you do in training. Your trainer, more experienced or expert in techniques, shows you the basics and shows you the way to the more refined techniques. As the techniques become second nature to you, you use training to hone your them to the finest detail.

Practice

Techniques are only useful when put into practice. In basketball this is playing games with team members and friends, in learning this means picking up a book or following a lecture to engage in active learning. During practice you do not only see how your the basic technique works in a real life situation, but you also get to fine tune it to match the specific requirements; you get to make it your own.

Competition

Finally, you get to play competitions. We will call them exams. Here is where all your training of techniques and practice in the field come to play. You prepare, increase your commitment and drive yourself to perform. When you have prepared well, you will perform at the best of your ability. And since you can only learn in education, you will always come out a winner.

In university

When you look at the way you study, perhaps you spend some time in practice, perhaps none. And exams occur on a regular basis during your terms.

I sincerely doubt you spend a lot of time training your ability to learn. Yet this is where the largest gains are found when you want to increase your performance. Certainly your ability to learn is there, otherwise you wouldn’t be in university. Rather it is the techniques you apply to learning and the time you spend refining them while reading your books or following classes, which make all the difference in your performance at university.

Train and practice the fundamentals; there is a reason training is the starting point of excellence.

Image credit: http://basketball-junkie.tumblr.com/

Mirrorneuronically

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingHave you ever wondered why talented athletes and top athletes – there is a difference – are brought together in training camps and competitions? Or why the national football competition in England, Spain or Brazil fosters good players?

In one of our favorite types of story, the protagonist must stretch herself beyond what she thinks she is capable of to defeat her ultimate match, the villain. In tennis, for example, you see a match between two players turn into a spectacle when with every decisive actions, the opponent rises to the challenge; creating an upward spiral where both players need to play at their best and a bit more to keep the edge.

Friends with benefits…

Besides your innate abilities and the opportunities you create to develop these, the places you go and people you surround yourself with determine, in part, how far you may go. That is why there are academies where top athletes can interact with people who think and work at the same level, with similar ambitions. This is an environment in which they thrive.

Is it the same where you study? Are you surrounded by students who share your ambition? If that is the case, you are lucky – the group’s momentum will carry you forward. When you are one of few with an ambition to study well, take care not to trade that ambition for the attitude the group has towards studying.

Being accepted is one thing, being accepted for who you are is another thing entirely.

Learning through modeling

One aspect of learning is that we can model behavior we see in others. In fact, much of your behavior is learned through imitation, of your parents, your friends, your teachers, your idols.

To change your level of performance in studying, model the behavior of students who are getting results you would care to emulate. This is why involving yourself with a peer group which shares your ambitions is helpful.

There is no right or wrong

This is not a matter of choosing friends because of their merits; you must make yourself aware of the fact that in your social life, you go where your friends go.

Finding a peer group who are dedicated to their studies at the same level or more than you are, gives you an insight into the choices they are making and helps you establish the ground rules for your academic accomplishments.

 

Image Credit: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/the-olympics/images/31733883/title/epke-zonderland-ned-gold-medalist-horizontal-bar-photo

The bootleg publication!

This week I decided to bootleg a guide for students based on all the writing I have done so far (about thirty blogs and maybe twelve drafts of book chapters). The basic design is in; thanks to Oliver! And it looks sweet! Rather than make this bootleg production of ours a compilation, as all my blogs are first drafts (see my first post ever for an explanation), I am going through the material and crystalizing the material into some sort of logical order. If you have any thoughts on what I am writing, please let me know; I would greatly appreciate your help. Here is the first version of the introduction to this bootleg publication. Enjoy!

(The bootleg publication will be syndicated through a shared file when done!)

The greatest lesson your university education has for you

Is the added value of your university experience truly the information written in books? This is available to you anywhere, in any library or on the internet. Perhaps it is the lectures which make all the difference? Then again you will find many interesting lectures on similar topics online or in archives.

The information upon which your education is based is, in fact, available to you anywhere, anytime. So what, then, makes a university education such an important experience?

Reproduction is not Education

You hold in your hands advice. Good advice resulting from seven years of focus on high achievement students’ abilities to perform well in university. Yet if you expect to read a quick and easy guide to passing exams, this is not that. Rather, what is written here helps you to learn and do well in university by creating the most valuable university experience you could have. You do only get to really be a first year student once in your life.

Easily you can trick yourself into believing that doing well in university is solely related to your grades; that your ability to reproduce what you learn without adding any novel thought or personal experience to the knowledge you will acquire, is what will bring you success in university. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the advice here is written to show you an view of education and learning which focuses on your ability to learn and grow by not only seeking intellectual stimulation through studying, but also through experiences and adventures in life. The world is not ink on pages, rather you want to venture forth and relate these words to life as you experience it. That is where the value of your education truly lies.

Learning comes natural to you

You were born with the innate ability to learn. And your ability to learn improves through practice. In fact, nearly everything you are capable of doing to day that helps you learn – reading, writing, speaking – is the result of practice and learning.

Your brain is naturally geared for learning that you may are not always consciously aware you are. Learning is a symphony of emotions, information and stimulation that constantly takes place in your brain. And building on that ability, the advice in this book will show you how you can manage your time, your emotions and your brain to use your natural ability to learn and create a marvellous university experience.

Whether you can learn is not the question; rather, how you will learn, is.

Four tenets of learning

About student performance in university much research exists. From my experience and in my understanding four tenets are of importance when you want to focus on learning and accomplishment:

  • Your mindset about learning
  • Your emotions during learning
  • Your effort in learning
  • Your habits of learning

The advice in this book is related to those four tenets, from your mindset to the skills and behaviours accomplished students develop over the course of their studies.

The greatest lesson your university education has for you?

You learn how to manage your ambition, through distraction, challenges, temptation, setbacks and accomplishment. In the end it is not your academic accomplishments, but the accomplishment of your character during your student life, which holds the greatest lesson for you.

On the following pages you find advice on how to shape that experience in such a way that you grow and develop your potential, which is greater than you may think.

The reading myth – busted

The Student Achievement ProgramYou are not a filing cabinet! An interesting, brief article today. Even though the results were somewhat surprising, when I connect it to everything else I think I know about learning, here is what I think:

Depending on how you are tested, the way you study influences the test result, making learning a different matter entirely from academic performance.

If you are interested in learning and understanding, then spending time organizing and connecting information in your brain is the most effective strategy you can follow.

Your brain simply is not a library in which you can shelf books in order, to retrieve them in alphabetical order. Rather, it is a vast network of content like the internet and you can access most of this information by linking from one piece to another.

If you want to learn, to remember, and to apply what you have learned, putting information into a context you create matters. Relating new knowledge to which you already know is key, but you can only do this upon reflection (whether you reflect while you read or (right) after you finish reading, depends on your personal style).

We have already talked about deep processing and on using your brain’s strengths; in a way these are organization strategies. I think we have been drilled to think that organization  is synonymous to hierarchy. It isn’t.

The Student Achievement ProgramTrunks and leafs. If you were to sum up the parts of a tree, would you start at the bottom and work your way up; hierarchically from roots to crown? Or does an image of a tree come to mind from which you can associate the different parts you know (squirrel nests included!)? I bet its the second; because that is the easiest way for us to think. Why mind mapping is such a great tool to use when you study? It’s a summary in a language your mind understands.

Organization means putting things into your mind in such a way that you access the information and put it to good use. Regurgitating the the names and years of rule of Roman Emperors is not a useful feat of memory in every day life. But if you are trying to understand how the debauchery of Roman Emperors, or people in power in general, is related to the demise of an empire, perhaps being able to associate your way to a name such as Caligula, and examples of his excesses, can aid you in illustrating your case.

(We’ll talk more about metaphors and why they are so useful in learning at another time…)

To save time tomorrow, you have to spend some time today. Put your mind to work; learning is not like watching t.v., ok?! You don’t laugh when cued and switch to the next channel when you get bored. Be involved and take some time to work with your brain and pick any, but at least 2, of the following things to do when learning:

  • paraphrase what you read in your own words
  • ask yourself: What do I know about this topic already?
  • answer questions about the material after reading it
  • make mini mind maps of key terms and their descriptors
  • aggregate those mini maps into a large map outlining the main topics
  • build your framework of understanding, connecting what you know about the topic

Just remember: learning is not reading. Reading is a first step in learning. And now that you know what the other person thinks about something, find out what you think about it. 

Afterthought. As I changed the title to the blog to: Reading Myth – Busted, a thought crossed my mind, and I really want to share it.

We have all met someone who seemingly did not read all the material thoroughly, yet simply could reason her way to an answer. Could it be that this person had actually mastered the organisation of new information in such a way that she could quickly associate what she read to what she knew and therefore seemed to spend less time learning, when in fact, the learning was almost automatic? Just a thought….