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.

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 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.

The Myth of Procrastination Performers

The Student Achievement Program Learning Education StudyingYou may feel better throughout a study term. You may experience less stress early on in the semester. You may even go to many parties and do lots of fun stuff! And in the end, your performance suffers.

The Myth: “I perform better under pressure”

Perhaps for menial tasks you may claim this is true. Tasks that require complex learning and synergy of knowledge into a report or a modle are a different story all together. By putting of the task, you increase the pressure in a counter-productive way.

A crucial element of learning and performance is feedback. By saving all your effort for the last minute, you deny yourself feedback on your progress while you still have time to adjust your work.

Why would you do this? Perhaps you are in the fixed mindset, and you do not want to hear any negative comments on your work as to you this means you are incompetent. A great way to avoid feeling incompetent is by “ostrich-ing” your way to the deadline.

We know that feedback improves performance; in fact an assignment that is reviewed several times may only benefit and improve in quality. Also in learning, intermediate testing of the acquired knowledge is a sure fire method to improve performance on the final test.

Healthy pressure and mobilizing anxiety are great motivators, but procrastination is a bad habit that you have acquired over the years because your work ethic is off. You would rather be lazy than tired, live in the ideal that you can rather than in the reality that you can learn.

If you want to get results, stop putting things off. Open your mind to feedback on your work – actively seek it out. And when the feedback is not what you expect, you will know you are learning something and growing as a result. And that is a good thing – no matter what you do.

Photo credit: http://www.asim.pk/2012/07/23/ostrich-is-not-a-bird-but-animal/

Always look on the bright side of… your ability

Optimism. After another interesting read today, the old adage that the more you learn, the more questions you have rings true. Optimism is a wonderful thing; in fact, a recent assessment and training  I did on my emotional intelligence showed that I had greater than average level of optimism.

The first thing a dear colleague said to me when we discussed this was: “Be happy, imagine what it would be like when you see the world and its events for what they truly are.” There was, as there always is, truth in his advice. In fact, so much truth that I did not give his remark any more consideration until I read today’s article optimism and student performance.

If you do not want to be disappointed, do not expect anything. That is one way to go through life. A realistic view of life, or a pessimistic one – you decide which is which – will save you a lot of heartaches, discomfort and disappointment. When you expect to fail and you do, you psychologically win; being right is a great way to make yourself feel good.

Yet when you set a different expectation for yourself; one where you may need to perform at a level just beyond your current ability, do you win when you do not live up to your own expectations?

Did you get the question? Do you win when you do not live up to your own expectations? 

It depends on your frame of mind. When you are in the able or not mindset, then you probably think that you let yourself down. You tried, you reached and you failed.

Writing things like this has become a gut wrenching experience for me, because it is so fundamentally untrue it nearly hurts. There is no greater accomplishment in life than to try.

To try and fail makes you a winner, simply for going beyond your comfort zone and acting. To try and win makes you a winner, simply for going beyond your comfort zone and acting. They are both the same. The result is irrelevant; in fact all that matters is trying – because that is where growth is.

An optimist may say; “Hey, I tried, I failed, but at least I did it. Maybe next time I will succeed.” In fact, this optimist is more likely to try again. And again. And if we know anything about accomplishment, we know that trying eventually leads to mastery.

Whoaa there friend! Let me venture a guess at your thoughts. Trying the same thing over and over again wil not get you any different result. Very true. In fact, simply doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result is about as foolhardy as not trying at all. And it gets real tedious – real fast.

Rather, you can use your natural predisposition to learn from experience and alter what you are doing; to take a different approach to accomplish what you set out to do.

Think of it as training to run a ten kilometre run (6.3 miles). The first run you do, you don’t go for eight kilometres and see what happens. You are better of setting up a benchmark for yourself by testing your general condition; can I jog for thirty minutes straight?

This initial step may have no direct relation to the end goal; but it is a good starting point for your training. If the answer is yes, you can start a slightly intensified training. If the answer is no, you want to build your general condition over one or two weeks until you can break into a comfortable jog for thirty minutes before starting your running schedule. Knowing that you can go it for thirty minutes may give you just the kind of confidence you need to stick to your initial training schedule when it gets a bit tough.

In your studies, when you look at those humongous books you are required to plow through in university, you may consider that startin of with one chapter may be a big enough challenge. And seeing that you can master that first chapter, perhaps you will find the confidence to accumulate more knowledge – and make the connections.

When optimism fails you. If you are overtly optimistic, you may actually fall into something called the self-enhancement bias. This simply means that you overestimate your ability. I have found that the times I am so certain of my natural ability to make something work out, it always goes wrong. Yet when my reasoning is complemented with a healthy doubt, I make it work. Do you know the feeling?

Year in year out, I hear students say that they’ll be fine. They know what they are doing and they are going to be just fine. They did not get the results they wanted last term, but the courses were just so hard. And the professors lectures, to which they stopped going of course, were boring and uninformative. (If this sounds familiar to you – keep reading) But this term, the courses are completely up their alley; in fact, they used to be really good at similar courses in high school.

Usually, this conversation takes place after one (if he is lucky) or two terms in which the student has failed to manage himself appropriately, and failed miserably he has. But rather than look to himself for answers, he looks at the courses, the teachers and the system. Or, even more detrimental, he convinces himself he is not able. Yet his bright outlook on life colors his judgement to the extent that it impedes an appropriate response to this dire situation.

Optimism is perhaps one of life’s great paradoxes. It makes life easier and helps you overcome hardships without loosing yourself on the one hand. Yet on the other hand, it may cloud your judgement and keep you from actualizing your potential in the time you have.

A healthy balance between optimism about and reflection on facts will help you reach decisions. And as you look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Am I seeing myself as more than I am right now?” and your nose starts growing, dare to be brave and call yourself on your self deceit.

As for your ability to learn and grow, keep a rather optimistic view of that. It is in fact, truer than you realize.

Driving east, looking for a sunset…

the student achievement program

On Target

It works. Let’s start there. Goal setting helps you focus your actions to accomplish that goal. Fact is that goals increase your performance, especially when you are setting yourself tasks. If goal setting is a part of your daily life when you are studying, you accomplish two things:

  1. Every day you will know what to do
  2. Every day you can measure your progress

We all understand why this helps your performance. When you start the day knowing what you want to get done, you don’t need to spend any time figuring out what needs to get done, you can immediately focus on how you are going to complete the task. That saves you a lot of time and decision making effort.

In other words, you become more efficient, in both your time and your activities.

You also know the starting point at the beginning of the day; what tasks did I set myself today? Looking back at this starting point gives you direct feedback on your performance, another key element in both motivation and learning.

Just do it. If a simple tool like this can save you so much time and effort, are you doing it every day? At least on the days that you study, right?

But just doing it seems to be the hard part. That is where personal leadership, your ability to coach and move yourself towards your goals, becomes important.

Goals setting is an easy skill to acquire. Rather than turning your life into a set of to do’s or tasks, think about your long term vision, the bigger picture, for example:

“In three years I want to graduate from my bachelors degree.”

This goal is clear enough for a long term goal: three years, graduate, bachelors degree, and gives you enough direction to focus your activities per term:

“My bachelor consists of 9 terms; in order to graduate in three years, I need to pass all courses in every term, starting today.”

The breakdown of the long vision into actions you can take today and in the near future are crucial steps in goal setting; graduation is far away, term 1 is now.

You can now connect your long term vision, through your understanding of what you need to do, to a short term vision:

“I will pass the three courses in term 1, and I am aiming for a score of 75/100 on average over the three course.”

The next question you ask yourself is: what do I need to do to pass the three courses in term one? Per course, you can break down these tasks into weekly and daily actions; making your progress in learning measurable for yourself.

Certainly if you do this every day during a term, consciously or unconsciously, you will finish your courses and pass your exams easily.

That makes sense. It sure does! Certainly you understand it, but do you know it? To me, to know means that I do not only get the concept but apply it to my daily life; not in everything mind you (balance people, balance!) but when I need to get things done, and done properly, goal setting is a great tool.

It ties into your motivation psychology, and the link is very simple. If I say, Let’s run a marathon in two months, you might say: Are you crazy! But if I say, lets go for a 30 minute jog, 3 times a week, you might say: sure, I can do that.

Once you start jogging for thirty minutes, something changes. After 4 or 5 jogs, you can jog for 45 minutes, maybe even break into a run for a bit. After three weeks of jogging, you notice you are going faster and your general fitness seems to improve.

If then I say, lets practice to run a10K run, you might say: sure, I can actually train to do that. And so the virtuous cycle moves you forward.

Drawing the bigger picture, like running a marathon, is helpful, because it gives you a sense of direction: That is why I am putting effort into this. But breaking down the big picture into smaller steps and realizing that taking these steps brings you closer to the big picture, that is what will keep you going until you get there! Or at least get close to where you wanted to be.

Going course, by course, term by term, is like going kilometer by kilometer in a run. Every step, every chapter, brings you closer to the finish line.

Some people are driving east looking for a sunset. Setting a top three of things that you want to get done every day is easy. Following through on them is something you can learn to do. Connect the three things you get done every day  to what you want to accomplish in life, and you will find a lot of energy, every day again, to keep going at it – even when things get tough.

Goal setting makes sense to me for a number of reasons. When was the last time you looked at your to do’s for today in terms of the bigger picture for your student life?

P.S. Obviously the sun sets in the west…