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.

Who is in charge of your education?

You are.

How often do you take charge of your education? Not often enough.

Think about it. How many times in the past week have you taken charge of your education. No, not by dutifully completing homework assignments – but by looking critically at where you stand and how you want to develop as you receive and education. Every day? Every two days? Not even once? Do you know what it means to take charge of your education?

Besides completing the required coursework and doing well on test taking activities (specific words chosen for a reason…), which nowadays seems to be a clear cut way to receiving a diploma, your education – your development and growth as a active, thinking person –  also very much shapes where you stand, how you perceive and what you think about the world. It is likely shaped and changed daily.

When you do not think about and act upon your education as if it is something important to you as a person, who will?

The government? Look at the state of your education system. Can you point me to a government in the western world who does cut into education budgets in a recession? The merits of education are widely accepted, yet the execution is not a direct priority it seems. A trend even in times of economic prosperity, it seems. Your electorate does not seem to care much, even though they conveniently brand you as the hope for the future.

The institutions? If it is dependent on a government budget, well you know where the focus is now. If it happens to be a private institution, the your diploma is what they’re selling. And if you don’t get a diploma, what are you paying for?

The professors? Aren’t they hired researcher who teach on the side? It is not that they do not care, but likely they are experts in their fields rather than educators.

The responsibility falls upon you to think of how you want to develop, and take charge of the movement into the future.

In the end, it is not what you know that signifies you as a person, it is who you become in the course of your life. You decide whether your education is best left to people who do not have your best interest at heart, or not. That is the first step.

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 predictive power of marshmallows

The Student Achievement Program Learning Education StudyingHave you ever read about the marshmallow test? In recent years I have found it quoted or recited in several books and articles on memory, behavior and personal leadership. The main idea? That children, who at a young age are able to refrain from eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes knowing that there is a reward of an additional marshmallow at the end of their wait, are more successful by a variety of measures later on in life.

Having spent the better part of a decade observing successful students, I am convinced that in the academic domain, your ability to control impulsive behavior, such as eating the marshmallow, and focussing on the long term horizon rather then the pleasures of the here-and-now, is a key factor in performance improvement.

Successful students do not show this impulse control constantly (phew, you are human!), you show it more frequently than less successful students and, probably, you show it in moments of decision which influence events such as exams.

Yes, like the decision to go out for a beer or spend the evening preparing for a class the next day. Going out for the beer is the first marshmallow.

You know, as steady reader of this blog, that in my mind students are not so different in their intellectual ability. Given the exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, on average students who make it to university or college have the intellectual ability to be successful in their studies.

Yet it seems that the behavior of foregoing cups of coffee, shopping sprees, heat of the moment escapades and parties is crucial to the performance of who we consider to be top students. Actually, you are simply better at staying focused. At setting priorities. At delaying gratification. At controlling your impulses.

Yes, I just implicitly referred to at least a dozen articles and books discussing the same thing in different words. I think these are all elements related to impulse control.

Why is this so fascinating? Well, your ability to managing the trade off between feeling good in the moment or doing well in the long run is seemingly influences your future in an order of magnitude you do not (want to) comprehend.

Rationally you know what is best for you. Yet something clouds your judgement. Probably your emotions. When you observe the language you use for certain things, you may catch yourself confirming what I just said. You feel a need to do something. You know it is the right thing to do. Your language implies which part of the brain are in conflict here. The bad news? Your emotions are relentlessly swift and overwhelmingly powerful influencers. The good news? Your reason is very capable of learning to reign in your emotions.

In fact, you can learn to do better at the marshmallow test. But think carefully.  If you  think that by not eating the marshmallow within fifteen minutes, you suddenly have impulse control, you are mistaken. In that moment perhaps, but what about when it comes to something truly important to you, such as  deciding to putt in that extra hour at the end of the day for a course or going for a drink with some friends. For two weeks straight? Exactly – your irrational mind is already making up excuses why you should be able to go out with friends. Nobody is saying you should not go out with your friends. Somebody is saying that you do not have to go out with your friends tonight. 

You know that no matter how well you do at the marshmallow test, a hard task awaits you in turning around your academic performance.

The trick to improving your academic performance is simple. In fact, you have had so many opportunities to show to yourself that you are very capable of performing well. You may be smart enough, but are you behaving smart enough?

Marshmallows have no predictive power. You do. Every morning you can predict whether you will perform today or not. And every morning you have a chance to prove yourself wrong. Or right.

It really does not matter how long you leave the marshmallow on the table. What matters is that every day you do what has to get done. If you think that is partying – you might as well have that marshmallow now.

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. 

Book review (4): They call me Coach – John Wooden

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingWho can ask more of a man than giving all within his span? Giving all, it seems to me, is not so far from victory. – George Moriarty

This is the quote accompanying the first chapter is this wonderfully inspiring book about the life and time of late John Wooden, a man whose coaching career in university basketball is an awesome story – pure and simple.

What is more, the quote simply summarizes a basic philosophy of success which is a solid basis for any endeavor you may undertake in life.

In an honest, conversational tone this book discusses events and people from John Wooden’s career. His candidness lets his words travel to your heart and give you a glimpse of the great passion he had for the sport of basketball.

If you keep to busy learning the tricks of the trade, you may never learn the trade.

A simple phrase, yet very true. Also in learning and educating yourself – there comes a time when learning the tricks to learning is over and you need to get down to it. No matter how much training in using your brain efficiently you receive, you will only graduate from university when you apply that training to your curriculum.

The great thing about this book is the metaphor of coaching basketball which can be applied to many aspects of life. In sharing his experience, with that his wisdom, with you, John Wooden shows you a possible direction you can steer your mind in which enables you to grow and be successful in a way which is fulfilling for you.

To me, the most inspiring aspect of this story, and I am cherry picking from many possibilities, is the chapter in which John Wooden discusses his definition of success.

To me it rings very true and requires a strong command of yourself to live up to. In the end, he says, only you can judge whether or not you were successful. Perhaps you may fool others, but deep inside you will always wonder wether you could have done more, done something different and perhaps changed the turn of events in your life. Only you will know.

The phrase at the start of this chapter summarizes it best, and it is a thought I want to leave you with.

Succes is peace of mind, which is a direct result of Self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the Best you are capable of becoming. 

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.

Is this the question that comes first?

My mac ran out of battery, so I am sharing this scribble with you from my notepad and mobile…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, I got home and finally could charge my battery. What, you may wonder, brought about the scribble you see above? 

In a sense, it’s all there. I am sure as a student you know that if you work hard enough you will get the results you want. Really, you do.

You have the ability to read and take notes, an agenda and the ability to review your notes and plan study sessions. You do not really need anyone to explain this to you.

Perhaps in the field of techniques such as mind mapping and SQ3R, you can get some training; yet basic comprehensive reading strategies you develop through reading and effort.

As all these thoughts collided in my mind, the thought occurred to me that students who have followed their interest, their passion, are engaged in their studies most of the time. They plan, read, write – relishing in what they learn and, even in tough subjects, seemingly have the drive to make it happen.

Why would you want to do well in university? Probably because you care. Because you care about what you are studying. And this means that what you choose to study influences, perhaps, your desire to do well.

If you are at a loss for this answer, perhaps you want to reflect on your choice and rethink what you want to learn more about.

If the reason to perform is clear to you, probably the performance follows naturally.