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.


The brain is marvelous

The Student Achievement ProgramBecause your experiences make you who you are. That is why we are individuals. The way your brain records events in your life form you, and the plasticity of your brain explains in some way the difference between you and the person beside you.

The great thing is that your brain is expansive. It grows. Apparently we have no clue what most of our brian is for, but with the little we do know, it becomes clear that you can learn more, both behavior and information, than you think.

Your brain functions as a bridge between the “objective” and “subjective” realities which exist in real time in your experience. Isn’t that marvelously confusing and interesting at the same time? It is to me.

If anything, perhaps this quest into neuroscience will bring us both answers to how you learn and how to optimize the kind of learning you want to do in university.



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.

The more you know…

The more questions you have… Over the past months I have formed the opinion that it is easy to get lost in the myriad of theories available to you concerning your ability to learn. It will serve you better to pick a course of action; define a strategy and actions for studying any textbook and stick with it for a period of three weeks. Then evaluate and decide what needs to be changed. My guess? Simply putting in the effort will increase your ability to remember what you have been studying.

This blog was started as an exercise in writing, and I still intend to write. Besides the bootleg publication, which is very likely to become a simple how to guide to improve your study habits, it will give me great pleasure to create a book which effectively argues, based on psychology and neuroscience, that learning in the sense of memorizing and applying information is dependent on motivation, skills and habits – each trainable to improve your performance in both memorization and application.

There is no one size fits all solution to learning; in fact, the way in which motivation, skills and habits for effective and efficient studying are trained is very much dependent on you as an individual. Yet by compiling the general concepts, you should be able to figure it out for yourself – with or without a coach, trainer or teacher to support you.

What I will be looking for, for the time being is research to support help build my case. Then the time consuming work of leafing through the material and organizing the research so that I can structure the argument begins. And finally, you will read the result of this effort in a coherent, well thought through, convincing paper which helps you realize your learning potential.

For now, I am going to delve into neuroscience a bit more, and I hope that what I find will provide enough food for thought to continue drafting blogs on an almost daily basis.

As far as I have come over the past months, I realize that for every answer I find, two new questions occur to me. Intellectually, there will always be something new to discover, but in  this life it is the ability to choose where the searching ends and the experiencing begins that makes all the difference. 

Where is intelligence in your brain?

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingThe jury is out on that one. Not a real clue, all though there are some inclinations towards the prefrontal cortex. Where ever intelligence resides in the brain, and it might not be in one spot, interestingly enough it seems to be a rather complex aspect of the processes in our brain. Then again, nearly everything in neuroscience seems complex to the layman, right?

The fascinating thing about the leaps in neuroscience in the area of intelligence, at least to me, is that we might finally collect some hardcore scientific, well researched data which shows that you can learn. Your brain may have some more aptitude (a physiological difference between individuals) perhaps for some things rather than another, yet given the right system and approach, learning and applying complex cognitive skills may be a very possible accomplishment.

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingGoing out on a limb here, but if your brain functions are trainable to a certain extent, then you can learn to read, understand, think and comprehend at ever increasing levels. Oh wait,… you already knew that; that’s how you learned to read and consciously think in the first place!

So, perhaps Malcolm Gladwell was onto something in his awesome read called Outliers, when he iterates that 10.000 hours is what it takes to become an expert. Perhaps becoming an expert learner is simply a result or adequate training and coaching.

Woah woah, wait a minute! You might think at this moment; I have spent most of my life in school – at least 10 years of my entire life I’ve been in classrooms from morning till afternoon. And doing homework besides. That means I am an expert learner by this standard.

Well, maybe you are an expert class sitter, or summarizer. But have you consciously trained your brain to learn? To take in the new, connect to the known and to create the novel? Exactly.

Where learning is easy when we are young, when it becomes challenges sometimes we tune out. It has nothing to do with cognitive ability (which, I remind you is perhaps malleable), but rather with your ability to manage yourself, your attention, your focus, your emotions.

So, even though IQ tests of all sorts may be indicative of some processes in your brain, don’t be fooled by their determinations. As soon as anything or anyone tries to categorize you, a healthy thing to say is I don’t believe that for one second.

We are just discovering the wonders of the brain and all its capacity, and one of the things I am curious to find out is how long we will stubbornly believe that intelligence is, rather than made.

Brainiac… what a trip…

The Student Achievement ProgramTime flies… Ok, so I got up around 6.30 a.m. this morning with the intention to read, and consequently write about conscientiousness. Since I had covered this topic in my master’s thesis, I thought a quick refresher would be a good basis for a nice, quick and readable blog. As it is now 10:55 a.m. I thought wrong. Not only did I get a quick introduction to the wonders of neuroscience; I also see that scientists are making great strides in understanding how our brain works. It is truly amazing; and perhaps worth digging into for future blogs. But to go out on a limb on such a precarious topic after having read two or three articles and a book on how the brain works, I think is a bit too brave. I’ll spend some time mastering this stuff, so the reading can be profound and interesting, not merely entertaining.

Conscientiousness pays. It is true, proven without a doubt. And interestingly enough, one of the two articles I read this morning gave an interesting perspective on GPA. Indeed maintaining a high GPA over an extended period of time is a tough task; it requires dedication and the ability to deal with a complex and rapidly changing environment, whilst experiencing undeniable changes to yourself.

True, if you look at GPA in this light, I can only agree that looking at the behavior, perhaps GPA is indicative of some level of conscientiousness. However, just as conscientiousness scores can be inflated on a test, so the validity of GPA can be cast into doubt as students with high GPA might obtain these results through not-so-valid-means… perhaps more often than educators think. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Back to conscientiousness. If you can describe yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined (Do you recognize in yourself a person with such ideal working ethics!?), then you are already halfway there. Don’t kid yourself; the research shows that you are able to inflate your score on this personality trait given a self-test. And obviously you want to see yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined… But are you really?

The Student Achievement ProgramIn coaching and training students for achievement, what counts is behavior. Not what you say you will do, but what you do. And just as important, how you do what you do.

And that is where conscientiousness kicks in. All though studies say as a personality trait it is constant during a lifetime, I am convinced by my own experience that conscientious behavior can be learned – and that you can apply it with success to achieve your goals and increase your performance.

In fact, if you were to self rate your conscientiousness level “low” before a training and intervention on this behavior and three months later, having changed your behaviors and routines to optimize your effectiveness, would you not rate yourself as more conscientious?

So perhaps, as a trait, it is stable (who am I to argue with scientific research, right?), but as far as the behavior goes – it is learnable.

Back to the brain. Interesting in this light was the note from the authors of an article that your prefrontal lobes are related to regulating social behavior and initiating and regulating goal directed actions. Does that sound like an abstraction of conscientiousness to you? It sure does to me…

You can train your brain and learn behaviors that will either obstruct your goal achievement or bring you closer to accomplishing your objectives. In a sense, you can train yourself to behave more conscientiously. It may take some effort, but in the end you are what you consistently do.

So what is my point? Even though snap shot tests like past GPA or self-rated conscientiousness may be in some way predictive of your ability to perform in the future, whether or not you perform is a different story all together. Understanding your level of conscientiousness is a tool, just like comprehensive reading or time management, and knowing where you stand is a good starting point to move to where you want to be.

Nothing in life is set in stone, in fact, high GPA is also proven to be a very poor predictor for real world performance, i.e. life… So don’t get stuck in the conscientiousness-influences-GPA-influences-my-future rut; there is more to life than getting good grades in university, but practicing your conscientiousness in university and getting good grades as a result will give you strong behavioral and psychological foundations for many of life’s wonderful challenges.